So you just brought a Thoroughbred into your life—but can he do what you think he can?
The Thoroughbred is a very versatile breed, and when I say this, I mean that the personality, the "blood," the energy, the movement varies greatly from horse to horse. This versatility is evident in the fact that you can find them in show jumping, eventing, foxhunting, racing, polo, barrel racing, trail/pleasure riding, driving, show hunters, endurance riding, dressage—virtually any activity a four-legged creature can perform.
As a trainer, it is my job to read a horse. What is he built for, what is he designed for (in terms of conformation), what has he already done in his career, and most importantly, what can he do now and does he want to do it? In my time training these horses, I have learned one very valuable thing: It all starts with understanding. Basic understanding of the mind, the body, the expectation, the conditioning, the feeding programs and the stress a horse has endured can help ensure that he is well-placed in "retirement."
What I feel that society does today is merely "save" Thoroughbreds from bad situations. A lot of times, however, their situations can go from bad to worse. There seems to be a real gap in the processes of retraining. A gap of miscommunication and misunderstanding between horses and the owners/trainers pointing them towards new careers can lead to frustration, quick fixes and watching the breed drop further from the top levels of competition outside of racing. The horses' "track-like" actions are misunderstood. All too often, they are underfed—though they were once high-running, supercharged athletes, sometimes little thought is put into coming down from that metabolic state. Many times they are not handled properly on the ground, either. They aren’t puppies; they are giant athletic creatures leaving you feeling like you are flying a kite at the end of your lead rope if you’re not careful! They are, more often than not, misunderstood through no fault of their own.
I believe that to help this breed grow and develop, we need trainers out there who can start to recognize the different directions in which Thoroughbreds of different personality types should go: hot ones, lazy ones, quiet ones, good minds, quick minds, I-don’t-care-about-anything minds. They come in all styles, and if you start them right, giving them time and understanding, you’ll learn to develop a bit of an eye for what you need and you’ll learn to place them right almost every time. All too often, horses are brought into our lives with OUR needs as riders in mind and WE plan ways to retrain these horses to what WE want.
You may not always make a Thoroughbred into exactly what you want, but you can find exactly what you want in a Thoroughbred, I guarantee that.
Ask yourself this: How often do you see human athletes competing at the very top of their sports, quitting abruptly one day and going on to something totally different and new (Michael Phelps-turned gymnast idea here)? New techniques, new training, new rules, new people? Not too often. Here we are presented with a breed so resilient, so versatile, so athletic and already proven the world's best in years past, whether they had brilliant or failed racing careers. WE as trainers over the last few generations have somehow missed the process of training the Thoroughbred and somehow forgotten a bit of what we need and love from this breed.
George Morris once told me, “Training is training. It doesn’t matter what their breeding; there is only one way to train a horse.” His words have stuck with me and I still feel very strongly about them. If you listen to what he said, it's pretty basic—but do we really take the time to train these horses, or do we skirt by on their natural athleticism? Until they get to upper levels, the Thoroughbred squeaks by on his raw talent in all disciplines, but as a whole, there is a lack of essential grassroots training. You can also take from what George says and add a bit of my own philosophy, which is that you train a horse with the bare basics of knowledge and see where it takes him, but always start with understanding. There is no trick bit, no special saddle, no special feed; nothing but time, patience and UNDERSTANDING.
Although the Thoroughbred adapts and learns quickly, no top Thoroughbreds have been developed over the last few decades because we have largely replaced training with excuses. "My horse is too hot," or "He doesn’t like to do this," or "He was abused," or ... fill in the blank. Years ago (prior to about 1985), the Thoroughbred was the only horse we had. There were no others, so we had to train them, and we trained them well. Years ago, there were only goals in our minds, not timelines. Today the widespread availability of warmblood types in this country andaround the world is not really any different than that of the Thoroughbred racehorse. They are started in a similar fashion in Europe, as young horses. Their training includes free jumping, and by a certain age, they demonstrate physical abilities/disabilities equal to those of our racing Thoroughbreds. What is it that leaves the Thoroughbred selling for pennies and getting the label as washed-up and "retired," while the warmbloods sell for far more, with the expectation that their careers will extend into the teen years? Is it really the quiet, laid-back nature, the athleticism, the movement, the jump of the warmblood? Or is it the fact that they were really trained using the basics that we take for granted: forward movement with rhythm, relaxation, straightness, suppleness, collection?
As a trainer, I took time to work for a year and half at a local training track. I wanted to get a hands-on, from-the-ground-up look at how these young horses live life, what happens to their development physically and mentally ,and how can I use this knowledge (understanding) to better retrain my "retired" Thoroughbreds. I started my days feeding, scrubbing buckets, setting out tack, folding endless amounts of laundry, grooming, grazing, hot walking, bathing, walking to the track, eventually riding the lead pony, and then on my first real racehorse. Except that she wasn’t, really; she was a 2-year-old filly who didn’t get to train at the track because she had a bad habit of tying up as soon as she left the barn.
So here I am, a show jumping/equitation/hunter rider heading out to the back-grass gallops on a 2-year-old (in a saddle so flat you are basically bareback with stirrups) to jog hills and avoid falling off. I spent a month or more out in the back fields with this filly, and each day I'd come back still on top of her, and she was not tying up. Win for me! (It was a double win eventually when she won her first race, her first time out, by 13 lengths—Getmeoutofhere was her Jockey Club name.) Because of my success riding the filly, I got to ride a few more sets each day, and eventually got to the point, over many more months, that I took first-timers to the track, to the gate, on to breezing, and then on to their very first races!
What I learned in my time at the track was incredible. I learned that not only were these young horses smart, resilient and tough, they were equally vulnerable mentally to the rigors of the lifestyle, and much of it helped me better understand the processes in which I restarted them. These horses were living the lifestyle of a Hollywood celebrity. Everything was just so, the utmost care was given, the best feeds, the best hay, the fluffiest of stalls—but mentally, there wasn’t much that could be done in this environment. You were up at 4 a.m. when the grooms came in, you trained, you were looked after, you were fed lunch, and by 1 p.m. everything was quiet until dinner around 4 p.m.; then you either slept or went to the races. That is, until BAM! You’re done, you’re out, we need your stall, find this one a home.
Horses who suddenly find themselves "homeless" after track life don’t know our schedules, they aren’t pampered the same way, their feed is different, their shoes are different, they now have a field and friends to play with—what?! On average, most racehorses have spent no less than a year at the track. They are 2-year-olds who, if they were lucky, were started by decent trainers at a farm where they could enjoy other yearlings while they were being started under saddle. Then they are shipped off to training centers where assessments of their futures are made based on their gallops and breezes … as babies! In what other breed is there such a quick, fast push on horses that determines their futures?
So here we have a Thoroughbred who not only was pushed, tested, strained and moved along but now has to learn "how to be a horse again" after his first career is over. Do we as trainers really know what it's like to "be a horse"? Do we really remember that they practically went from their dams intotraining in less than a year? Did they really get a chance to develop a sense of self, a sense of confidence, a sense of leadership? Or did they naturally learn all this while in training? Or do we still need to allow room for this growth when we take them back into retraining?
These were all the questions I asked myself as I spent my time working at the track. I would go home and look at my Thoroughbreds and ask myself, "What if this is why this horse acts this way?" And the "what ifs" soon flowed faster than I could get answers.
To undertake the development of the "retired" Thoroughbred takes a certain amount of understanding from the ground up. I believe that the psychology of the Thoroughbred who has raced is the most fascinating of all equine psychologies, and the retraining of such a horse can be the most rewarding.Not only can we make them active members of our society, we can make them truly great again.I sincerely hope that you will follow my journey and find a better understanding as you train, care for, work with and compete the Thoroughbred.
There is a reason the Thoroughbred has been missing from the very top rankings of our sport for years now. I do not believe that breeding is to blame; I believe it has everything to do with understanding and training.
Follow Priscilla along her journey from taking off the track thoroughbreds to show jumping careers in her blog here.
Priscilla Godsoe rode hunters and equitation horses as a junior before moving to the show jumping arena in 2007. Her specialty has been rehabilitating off-the-track racehorses—from those that never got to their first races (LaGrange) to million-dollar earners (Dry Martini)—and transitioning them to the show ring, achieving many USEF and USHJA Horse of the Year Championships. With the help of her mentors and trainers Cian McDermott and Chris Kappler, she has been training Thoroughbreds from The Covert Farm in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, and placing them in new careers.