Reschooling the Thoroughbred

Chapter 3: Xcel, the party animal

I am not sure every rider can understand the thrill I had one morning when I went out to bring Xcel in from his paddock. His liver enzymes had returned to normal and he finally (after a very long month!) had his catheter removed. I was turning him out in a larger paddock. This paddock had the added feature of having a low spot in front of the gate, which meant that every time it rained, a puddle formed there.

So one morning after a thunderstorm, I had the wonderful sight of my new eventing prospect waiting at the gate standing ankle deep in the puddle! My other horses will certainly walk through the puddle, but I had never seen any of them just stand in the middle of it. This was definitely a good sign for Xcel's future as an event horse!

Another good sign is that Xcel seems to be a very happy horse, although he seems to think that almost every situation is an occasion for a party which needs to be celebrated by leaping in the air. He certainly does this when he is turned out but has also done it when I have been leading him. This, of course, is not good, or is it safe for his handler! It is a bit hard to blame him; it is certainly not unusual behavior in a racehorse. When Xcel is not leaping in the air, he is usually gleefully chewing on, or tugging on the lead rope. He is very playful!

While I am glad that he is happy, Xcel obviously needs to learn some self-control, so I began doing some TTEAM leading exercises with him. I started with one called the "Elegant Elephant." To do this, I attached a chain shank to his halter by crossing it over the noseband. I then picked up my TTEAM wand which is a 4-foot white, dressage whip. I had already introduced the wand to Xcel by stroking him with it all over his body so he would not be frightened of it.

When I began the leading exercise I first made sure his head was low, his poll just a little above the height of his withers. He has a habit of carrying his head high. A horse who carries his head in this manner will always have a tendency to be tense and nervous. Think about it. What is the first thing a horse does when it is scared? It throws its head up. This puts the horse very close to his internal "panic button." By lowering the horse's head, he will become much less reactive and able to think better.

I encourage all the horses I work with to keep their heads low so they are able to think about what they are doing rather than just react. So using the wand and chain shank, I asked Xcel to walk and halt using the chain to give soft precise signals and the wand to invite him forward and to stop him. I kept my shoulders even with his nose or slightly in front of it. These aids do several things; they define Xcel's own space and limit him from coming into mine. They teach him to listen to my aids by controlling himself, thereby eliminating constant tugging on the lead by the handler in order to "control" him.

This method of leading is quite different than the traditional way which usually has the handler at the horse's shoulder. It was definitely a new concept for Xcel. Despite his overly enthusiastic tendencies, Xcel is quite eager to learn and picked up this exercise quickly. I did about three sessions of the leading work over a few days and he did well. I unfortunately made the mistake of not treating every leading session (i.e. leading him to and from the paddock) as a learning session like I should have. It seemed like a bit of a bother to always use a wand and chain when I was leading him, and of course, it did not take Xcel long to revert back to his racing habits on his trips out to his paddock and back.

I was leading him in one morning when another horse cantered across a nearby paddock. Xcel, the party animal, went immediately airborne with glee, kicking out wildly in mid-air. This was much too dangerous an action to ignore. With just an ordinary halter and lead, I didn't have the most useful equipment, but I still needed to impress upon my energetic young horse that this was not appropriate behavior. So I gave a couple good yanks on the lead as I turned to face him and moved toward him very quickly. Then with a great deal of energy, I said in a stern voice, "Keep your feet on the ground! We don't do that here! Walk quietly!"

Well Xcel was very impressed by this, taking several steps backward with his head high and a very startled look on his face. This is exactly what I wanted. But since his head was high now, and that would not be conducive to him remaining calm, I approached him very quietly and asked him to lower his head. When he did, I stroked him calmly for a few moments and praised him. He breathed a sigh of relief. I also said to him, "Now, walk quietly with your head down." He put his head down and walked quietly. We got a good thirty feet or so when he sprang forward with his head high. I repeated the procedure with a similar, but this time a more lasting, result.

Inside, I was laughing. I could almost see the gears in Xcel's head turning as he considered this important development to being led. I made sure that after getting in his face about his behavior, I then stroked him calmly and reassured him that I was still his friend. This, I think is very important. I do not want him to be afraid of me. I just want him to listen. I also want him to keep his head down and have some self control no matter what is going on. It is clear to me that he really wants to be good, but I am going to have to do more leading work with him.

I am a big fan of talking to my horses, telling them whatever I think they need to hear. I make it a point to tell them how wonderful they are every day. This has always worked well for me. Eventing takes a very brave horse, it takes a confident horse, one with a big ego, so I think it is important to tell my horses all the time how wonderful they are. Xcel is not only very smart, he is also very sensitive. I have a feeling he will be like my horse, Harry, who understands just about everything I say to him. I am not sure if my horses actually understand my language, the emotion behind it or the pictures in my head, but I have always found that the more I talk to my horses, the more they seem to understand and the easier they are to work with. Not everyone may agree with this, but it works well for me.

As it turns out, Xcel happens to be very well bred. I looked up his pedigree on the Internet. He is by Miners Mark out of Sly Stylist. Miners Mark is by Mr. Prospector, a good racehorse who turned out to be an even better sire. Miners Mark won almost a million dollars. He is out of a mare called Personal Ensign, who won every race she ran and won 1.6 million dollars. I recently found a book about her at a local book store. Sly Stylist goes back to Northern Dancer and Bold Ruler, both notable racehorses and sires. I have not looked up Xcel's race record yet, but I do know that he won a couple races at Delaware Park, one as a two-year-old and one as a three-year-old.

Through a friend of mine, Gloria Glossbrenner, a racehorse trainer, I did get ahold of the videotape of Xcel's last race which was at Charlestown, West Virginia. Unfortunately it is very, very funny. Xcel was in post position one. You see him at the start of the race, then you see all of the other horses during the race. At the wire, you see the first few horses finish, then there is a gap, then the next few horses finish, then in a moment, two more finish, then finally, all by himself is Xcel-dead last! It is very hard not to laugh. But of course, he was not in any kind of shape to run a race, considering his liver problem and lack of muscling. He is well on his way to recovery now though. At least it looks that way. At this point he has put on some weight even though he does not always eat his grain. Though he eats better than he did in the beginning. For some reason he started turning his nose up at the high fiber sweet feed I was giving him so I have switched to one with more fat that is made for horses in hard work. Most of the time he eats most of it. Eventually I would like to wean him off of sweet feed altogether. At the moment though, he won't even touch plain oats.

After he had his catheter removed, I tried turning Xcel out with Harry, my older horse. Harry is usually a good choice to turn anyone out with. He will always be dominant but usually doesn't hurt anyone. After two times though I could tell Harry was not happy with the arrangement. At 18, I think he is not in the mood to put up with a very energetic young horse-at least at the moment. But Xcel seemed to be lonely by himself, so I tried turning him out with my two mini-mules, Buttercup and Merlin. I was a little worried that he might bully the little mules but instead, they got along exceptionally well! It is very cute to watch them. The mules are each about 10 hands tall and when they get running and playing, they are very fun to watch! Xcel seems to particularly like Buttercup.

In his enthusiasm playing with his new friends, Xcel came in one morning lame, after losing his right front shoe. This happened on a weekend when my farrier was out of town. So I wrapped several layers of duct tape around the foot before turning him out again. But the next morning, not only was he still lame, his left front shoe was very loose. I pulled the shoe and taped that foot up as well. By the time my farrier came on Monday, Xcel was quite lame in both front feet.