The first thing that comes to mind when I’m asked about the pros and cons of adopting a retired racehorse, is for people to remember the Serenity prayer. I say this because in order to truly help, “aid” or be of benefit to the veteran horse, you need to: “have the serenity to accept what we cannot change, the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.
I say this, and use the term “veteran” to refer to the retired racehorse, because the vast majority of retired racehorses are like foster children who were drafted into military service and sent off to war at a very young age. It would be a gross understatement to say that many retired racehorses come with their own personal levels of stress. In fact, many retired racehorses have the equine equivalent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
There may be stress around what the whip means; whether contact in the bridle means run faster; about the notion of standing still for mounting; and/or about riding in a group with other horses. These are just a few of the more common problems that will need to be resolved with the average thoroughbred from the track. It’s sad but true that there will likely be a long list of mental and physical issues that come with the veteran racehorse. As with anything, this is not always true – but in my experience, it is in the majority of cases.
I’m not trying to be negative – just realistic. And unfortunately, all too often, people who adopt a retired racehorse either sincerely mean well and truly want to “rescue” the horse – or are just looking for an inexpensive mount with athletic potential. In either case, the next old cliché is that
Considering and connecting the whole horse
So where to begin with these delicate yet potentially explosive creatures? Well, the journey is lengthy when it comes to training a horse of any age – but most especially the veteran thoroughbred from the racetrack. When developing your program, begin with the fact that the horse is physiologically hard-wired in the biochemistry of his central nervous systems, so that his body, mind and spirit work together as one.
Simply put, the frame of the horse’s body is also the frame of his mind. So the truest definition of training the horse should literally mean that we use our body language to shape or sculpt the horse into a frame of body that corresponds to feeling good in his mind. Or in other words, you connect to the horse’s mind and spirit through his body with the “aid” of your body.
Shaping the horse
Some shapes or “frames” of the horse’s body feel better for them than others. In fact, some shapes feel heavenly because they create endorphins through the central nervous system, while others produce adrenaline and feel awful to the horse. The idea is that a horse is supposed to be “aided” into feeling “better” with endorphins when “in good hands”. Keeping this in mind, a retired racehorse more often than not needs help in getting off his addiction to adrenaline, learning how to “level out” into contact, and enjoy lifting and relaxing his back and stretching his spine in order to release stress and relax.
The bottom line is that the vast majority of both positive and negative behavior and performance from any horse is not merely because of his age or breed, but is a direct reflection of how our body language affects the shape of his body, which in turn affects his biochemistry, which in turn (full circle) affects his behavior. Training a horse of any age requires that you use both your groundwork and riding skills to clearly communicate with your aids, body shapes and gestures, every moment you are with him, so you can sculpt him into the shapes and movements that make him feel better with you than he does on his own! I emphasize the word “skills” because honorable intentions are not enough – these horses require intention and competency.
Getting to the “heart” of the matter
Whether we’re catching our horses in the paddock or stall, or leading, grooming, tacking up and even mounting them, we are always speaking volumes with our body language. Every moment they are with us, our horses need to clearly see that they can actually feel better with us than they do on their own.
When a rider knows how to push the buttons correctly on a horse – and how to read and feel his energy and emotions well enough to do so with just the perfect amount of pressure in just the right place at just the right time – he begins to dance instead of merely obey. The real magic begins when the horse knows you know where the buttons are, and that you know where he is at emotionally and are precisely adjusting your aids to service his emotional and psychological needs.
Racehorses need to learn that we care enough about them to work with and through their bodies, so they feel and experience their riders as shepherds facilitating their well being. When any horse, even a shell-shocked racehorse, realizes that people are not just control freaks who want speed but are looking out for his best interests, then he softens, lets go of his traumatic past, and wants to be with us.
Using your horsemanship skills on the ground and in the saddle to clearly and consistently communicate your empathy and awareness helps your retired racehorse decide it is finally okay to retire.
Chris Irwin is an Internationally renowned horseman, award winning athlete, musician and best selling author. He is at the forefront of the emerging industry of horses being worked with in therapeutic and personal coaching programs. It was while discovering how to train Wild Mustangs into calm and collected U.S. National Champions in riding and driving competitions that first showed Mr. Irwin his greatest insights into learning how to learn. chrisirwin.com