Reschooling the Thoroughbred

Chapter 5: feet don't fail him now

The good news was that the x-rays showed nothing significantly wrong with Xcel's feet, and that my farrier, Derek Poupard, was able to look at the x-rays with my vet. The bad news was how soft and thin Xcel's soles were. Derek was able to take his thumbs and easily make an indentation in Xcel's sole. Xcel was very sore! Derek knew exactly what to do. It wasn't easy, but he was able to glue some shoes on Xcel's front feet using Equilox® mixed with fiberglass.

Derek also applied some of this mixture to the bottom of Xcel's hooves to protect them. We have had a drought in Virginia this summer and the ground has been very hard. I put Xcel on bute for another few days but continued to turn him out with his little mule buddies. Though he was clearly uncomfortable, he often ignored his pain and galloped around bucking and playing with Buttercup and Merlin. Of course this made me cringe! I did not leave him on bute very long. I was afraid it was making him feel too good!

Obviously I could not do any regular training with Xcel--enter the beauty of TTEAM and TTouch. With these as my tools, there were many things I could do to further my young horse's training. Of course, I continued to use mouth TTouches and they significantly lessened Xcel's mouthiness. I also used TTouches on his body. And these are helping Xcel learn to relax, something he really needs. His habitual tension causes him to walk in circles in his stall a lot, though luckily, not constantly. It also causes him to over react, sometimes dangerously to anything that is mildly exciting. Though he is very smart, it is difficult for him to learn when he is tense.

But calmness is not necessarily in Xcel's repertoire. He does not know how to be still when he is with a human. Many people would punish a horse like Xcel, for moving around all the time or for being mouthy. Some people may slap the horse or yell at him to be still. Others may make the horse "move his feet," using negative reinforcement by making the horse walk in a couple of circles every time he moves his feet out of place. This type of negative reinforcement may work with some horses but I don't believe it creates a very positive relationship between horse and human. In addition, if you punish a tense horse by slapping or yelling, you are likely to create more tension than relaxation. I just do not find this to be useful.

The horse may be able to hold still for a short time but he will have a tendency to hold his breath and hold tension in his body. I want a horse to be able to hold still because he is relaxed, not because he is afraid of what will happen if he doesn't hold still. Also, using negative reinforcement does not teach the horse's nervous system how to calm itself down, and this is what Xcel needs most right now. Racehorses are usually managed in a way that causes them to be highly energized most of the time. Many of them just don't know how to relax when they are with a human. In Xcel's case, I am quite sure that as a racehorse he was never expected to be relaxed. So it has not been in the ability of his nervous system to do so. Of course, TTouch will help change that.

To use TTouches or to groom a horse as fidgety as Xcel, I would not necessarily cross-tie him. I teach all of my horses to stand still with the lead rope laid over their necks while I am grooming them. I cross-tie them only for convenience. I have been trying to groom Xcel this way and while I am holding onto the lead. The first thing I insisted on was that he keep his head low. I would like it to be just above the level of his withers or lower.

Then I told him to, "stand still," while clearly picturing him in my mind standing still. If he moved out of place, I moved him back and told him to stand still. Then I praised him when he was still for a few seconds. To help create the relaxation that would help him stand still on his own, I used a TTEAM wand to stroke his body. I stroked down the underside of his neck all the way to the floor. Then I stroked along his back, hindquarters and down his hind legs to the floor. And I stroked down each leg individually. I also used the button end of the wand to tap his hooves. This helps bring his attention to his feet which encourages him to stay "grounded." Other Ttouches that I used include "Zig Zags," "Clouded Leopard" and "Tarantulas pulling a plow"

In the beginning, it was very difficult for Xcel to stand still and for me to keep him still while I was holding the lead rope, so I used the TTEAM half cross tie, which we call "Taming the Tiger." To do this, I attached a chain shank to Xcel's halter by running the chain through the lower side ring, crossing it over the nose band, running it out the off side ring and clipping it to the top side ring.

Then I tied a 12-foot piece of climbing rope (which we TTEAM practitioners use for many things) to the off side lower halter ring. I then ran the rope from the halter through a screw eye on the wall of the grooming stall back to the halter, and slid it through the bottom ring of the halter to my hand. I could then hold both lines in one hand separated by my finger. By shortening the lead shank and lengthening the rope, I could bring Xcel's head toward me. Or, by shortening the rope and lengthening the lead, I could move his head away from me. It is important to do this in an area where you have a wall or other barrier behind the horse to prevent him from backing up too far.

If my horse does step backward, I let the lines slide just a bit then use the wand to tap him on the hindquarters and to encourage him to step forward. It is especially important, before doing this, to make sure that the horse already understands how to "give" or lower his head to pressure on his halter.

And of course, I make sure I do everything in a calm, supportive way. Also, I am always careful to use this half cross-tie or use any kind of tie or cross-tie in a safe area on a safe, non-slippery surface. This is the reason I rarely groom my horses in the aisle way of my current barn. The unbrushed concrete is very slippery and the aisle way is very narrow.

"Taming the Tiger " was very helpful for Xcel. It encouraged him to stand still while allowing me to groom him and to do TTouches with him. I usually used several different TTouches and incorporated them into the grooming. From my experience with TTouch, I know switching from one TTouch to another can really help a horse focus and relax. And because there are so many different TTouches, I have a large tool box from which to work.

Instead of having any particular plan or time table with Xcel during these grooming and TTouch sessions I do whatever he seems to need most at the time. I sometimes may have a plan in mind when I begin but will quickly abandon it if it does not seem appropriate. As my long time eventing coach, Jimmy Wofford says, "Don't ride yesterday's horse." He means that horses are different from day to day and what might have been appropriate to do one day, is not necessarily appropriate the next and you need to tailor their training program to reflect this difference.

This is why I find TTEAM and TTouch so useful. Its focus on bodywork and ground exercises gives me a wonderful opportunity to get to know my horse very well. It also clues me in to the subtle nuances of my horse's character. The interesting thing is, it also clues my horse into my subtle nuances too. And that is what builds the trust between us.