From the baroque breeds of the classical dressage schools to the Thoroughbreds ridden by the great German dressage masters (Dr. Reiner Klimke with Scipio xx and Willi Schultheis with Chronist xx), dressage has certainly been built on the backs of diverse breeds. As a result, traditional dressage training methods were practiced and refined on horses less designed for the sport than the custom-bred warmbloods of today, and that is one of the reasons that correct dressage work improves all horses.
The simple fact is that horses like the off-the-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) are often cheaper than a warmblood prospect for a rider interested in owning a dressage horse. With warmblood breeding establishing an image of what a dressage horse's conformation and movement should look like, it is not impossible, but definitely more difficult, for traditional breeds like the Thoroughbred to be competitive in the sport. However, as a trainer I have found great success with retraining OTTBs for dressage. With classic exercises and a knowledge of how the OTTB might differ from a warmblood, I have had no problem producing happy athletes.
In this two-part series, I discuss my approach to dressage training that anyone can practice with her horse, regardless of breed. For Thoroughbred riders, I have included breed-specific tips and tricks that I have learned and applied on those horses I have trained in my career, including Quadrille, a 2007 OTTB bred and owned by HM Queen Elizabeth II.
Start with Relaxation
Dressage training transforms all breeds, including the greyhound of horses, into four-legged ballerinas. Though Thoroughbreds freshly off the track need to be managed with finesse and seem to tolerate less than many of the warmbloods I have worked with, all horses should be handled with sensitivity and feel. Always give your horse time to settle. Once he is on your side, he will try harder for you in his work.
Develop Relaxation: A point of mental tension may come when your horse starts dressage work alone. Whether he were raised in a herd or run in a group, he will experience a big transition when it comes time to work alone. Additionally, working for the long periods that are common in dressage is also new to the horse green to this type of training. Respect that these two elements can make your horse nervous in the beginning. Above all, make mental relaxation a priority in your training.
OTTB Tip: Thoroughbreds tend to reach a higher level of anxiety and stress than warmbloods do. In training, usually their highest level of anxiety and stress comes when they do not understand what is being asked/required of them or they lose balance and are put in a position of not feeling confident. I call all this the "red zone." They can keep going for hours because they run off adrenaline and do not appear to tire. So we, as trainers, need to establish a place where our horse is happy, calm and relaxed.
If a moment of stress, anxiety or misunderstanding arises then we can put our horse, regardless of breed, someplace where he is happy and relaxed. Horses can take in information and learn only when they are relaxed and calm. This means there is no point battling because you will lose. This means you have to find a way to bring your horse out of the red zone.
Whenever signs of tension or anxiety are detected, here are four tips to try:
1. Allow a longer walk break.
2. Place the horse in a stretched, long-and-low frame.
3. Go for a canter to reduce the stress and initiate the forward motion again.
4. Talk to your horse in a quiet, reassuring manner.
Whatever breaks the cycle of stress helps you ultimately achieve the goal you are aiming for. In no way are you allowed to rush something or put pressure on your horse. Mental relaxation is the first and foremost goal to build the rest of your training on, even though I find it often means certain things take double the time with an OTTB.
Balance, Connection and Straightness
Develop Balance: In principle, a big challenge in dressage is rebalancing your horse so he is lighter on the forehand and more engaged behind.
What we are trying to achieve in this rebalancing is to bring the horse's hind legs underneath him and get him to use his energy to push up and move through into contact. This creates the proper lift in the shoulder and wither, rather than incorrectly lowering the wither and extending outward from the shoulder.
For the horse to learn to step underneath himself, he has to accept the rider's leg aid and understand that it means "step under." The goal is for his rib cage to be lifted up, which then brings his back up and allows him to work across and through it. This allows his back end to connect with his front end.
OTTB Tip: This rebalancing through acceptance of the aids is a hurdle for all green horses, but is particularly difficult for the common OTTB. Horses that have been raced have learned that leg aids mean "go as fast as possible." Moreover, the leg position of a jockey is very different from the one of a dressage rider, resting much higher on the horse's rib cage. These horses are taught that the finish of their work means no leg pressure. The OTTB must be retaught the meaning of the leg aid and at a new, lower area of the rib cage (in some case, beneath the rib cage).
Develop Connection: To achieve an acceptance of the bit through acceptance of the aids, a horse has to accept the leg to allow connection from the hind leg into the contact and not run through or off the leg, as we discussed earlier. As a horse learns to accept the leg aid, he will have enough energy to move into the contact. You have to check that your horse has learned to accept the contact and work in it, thereby continually remaining in a constant rhythm and independent balance.
OTTB Tip: The complication with this stage in dressage training for an OTTB is that he was trained in a completely different head position and contact for racing. Most Thoroughbreds have been bred to accelerate, which means they are built to speed up quickly and push along the ground. This creates the ability to extend the frame and move in the flattest-possible manner, so this type of horse often has a deep-set neck and a very straight topline, almost the exact conformational opposite of what a dressage rider is looking for.
This conformation makes it a real challenge to achieve and work them in the round, elevated topline that dressage asks for. Many Thoroughbreds also have very steep shoulders that hinder free front-leg action. This weak spot is even more obvious before a horse has gained enough strength in his dressage training to enable him to carry weight behind instead of just push forward. This means that acceptance of the bridle may take a bit longer to teach with an OTTB.
Develop Straightness: Be aware that as you are working a horse green to dressage, he will be one-sided. Pay attention to the fact that a horse may have a weaker side and adjust your training accordingly.
OTTB Tip: Every horse has a strong lead, especially an OTTB who has been raced repeatedly in the same direction.
Next month, we will review exercises that help achieve this relaxation, balance, connection and straightness in every breed.
The Use of a Neck Strap
When I school my off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTB), I always use a neck strap made of flat leather, but you can also make one of rope, nylon or a simple broad leather belt. The important thing is that it lies comfortably in your hands. I use the neck strap to help me stay with and follow the movement of the horse. Because OTTBs are so sensitive, the rider can easily find herself behind the motion and end up pulling on the mouth. This disrupts the trust you are trying to build with these horses. The neck strap allows you to stay with the horse. If he is jumping around, you do not end pulling back, but allow a forward movement. There will be no mixed signals from your legs clamping and the reins being tight.
Having the neck strap not only helps the horse, but also makes you feel safer as a rider if the horse is unbalanced or fresh for the ride, which can easily happen with horses of this breed.
The neck strap shouldn't be too long and should be adjustable. You hold the neck strap in your outside hand with the rein. This allows you to steer with your inside hand. With this hand to turn, imagine you are opening a door and your forearm swings from the elbow joint. This ensures that the hand does not come back toward your body. If you find your free hand on your knee or thigh, you are actually pulling backward. Also, pay attention that your outside rein does not become shorter than the one in the free (inside) hand, which means restricting the horse on one side.
Louise Robson, 26, learned to love Thoroughbreds when the leggy chestnut Mister Glum, then owned by HM Queen Elizabeth II, came into Louise's hands. After completing a university degree in architecture, she and her royal Thoroughbred trained with multiple Olympic champion Monica Theodorescu in Germany. After returning home, Louise founded a stable dedicated to the retraining of racehorses, called Thoroughbred Dressage. From 2010 to 2012 she also worked as Monica's travelling groom at the biggest European shows. After successfully competing at the Prix St. Georges level, Mr. Glum was retired at age 18 in 2012. Quadrille, a petite English Thoroughbred, bred and owned by HM Queen Elizabeth II, joined her stable in February 2012 after having successfully raced at Ascot. "Quad" recently won his first dressage competition at novice level (thoroughbreddressage.com).
This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Dressage Today.