Reschooling the Thoroughbred

Chapter 9: the buck stops here!

By the summer of 2004 Xcel's feet still were a case of "two steps forward and one step back." His soles continued to be thin and soft. His left front was still worse than his right. He had developed a couple of small abscesses since I had bought him but nothing we could pinpoint as being a cause of his troubles. Radiographs showed nothing helpful. We tried plain shoes, glue-on shoes and shoes with pads. Time and dry weather seemed to be the only things that helped toughen his feet. I was unable to do any consistent training with Xcel which he really needed.

During his "down" time I worked to help him become more relaxed about being saddled. He tended to paw, move about and kick out violently with a hind leg if he even thought he was going to be saddled. All were habits from his racing days. To address this problem I first did TTouch on Xcel's body to relax him. Then I put a saddle pad on which usually caused the kicking out to start. In response, I would ask him to lower his head then go back to doing some body work until he settled a bit. Sometimes I only put the saddle pad on and sometimes I added the saddle but not the girth and sometimes I added the girth too. I would intersperse all this with TTouches to relax him.

Some people have a different idea about how to solve this problem of kicking out or fidgeting. Some would punish by hitting or yelling and others by making him "move his feet." It has been obvious to me since the beginning that Xcel had been beaten up quite a lot at the track. Punishment can really scare horses and, especially in a sensitive horse who is as over reactive as Xcel, it would only serve to make him more upset. Making him "move his feet" also is counter productive because it does not show him what TO do. I worked, instead, to change his habitual pattern of tension by using non-habitual TTouches that served to relax him and bring his attention to his body. I wanted him to make the association that just because he was being tacked up didn't mean he needed to be tense or that anything bad or exciting was going to happen to him. I also fed him the occasional treat to help him associate something positive with being saddled and to help relax him. I did many sessions like this scattered over several months.

When he was sound enough, I ponied him. Ponying—leading one horse while riding another—is a great way to take a less experienced horse out and about before you try to ride him out. I always pony young horses prior to riding them. It takes a very good horse to be the "pony" however. Enter my elder, advanced level eventer, Harry Who?

Despite his 17 hands, Harry makes an excellent "pony." He is extremely smart and dominant and is also very responsive under saddle. It is important that the horse you are ponying from be more dominant than the one you are leading, otherwise things can get out of hand. Over the years Harry and I have developed a plan: I take care of the front of the horse I am leading and Harry takes care of the hind end. That means it is my job to prevent the horse we are leading from biting Harry.

Harry will dispense discipline out the back when needed. Yes, though it's a rare occurrence, a well-timed kick from Harry keeps the young horse in line. And Harry has never hurt anyone. The difficulty in ponying an ex-race horse is that they learned to pony at the race track and usually have acquired some bad habits. Plus they associate it with the post parade prior to a race. So it is something one should approach carefully and with experience.

I always use a chain over the nose of the horse I am leading. This is attached to an extra long lead rope. This is important because if the horse you are ponying starts leaping around you literally have a longer way to go before you come to the end of your rope! The first few times I carry a crop as well and usually have another rider with me in case things go south. When I pony, I "bridge" my reins and hold them in one hand. I hold the long lead rope in both hands. This is important! It is too easy for a horse to pull away from you if you only have one hand on the rope.

Having decided it was time to get Xcel out and about, I had my assistant, Amy, ride Rocket. First I had to make it clear to Xcel that he was not to bite Harry. That is what the crop was for. When Xcel reached over to bite Harry, he received a smack on the neck from me. Once Xcel figured out this "rule," we headed up to the ring. I have a large sand ring. And, while it is not completely fenced in, it is in a secluded spot and is a nice place to work. It helps that Harry is very responsive and I can easily guide him with one hand on the reins, my seat and my legs. We began by doing lots of turns and transitions. Xcel was excited and jigged most of the time. He still tried to bite Harry but with no major fireworks I got brave and decided to ride out into the adjacent field.

Xcel became a little more excited. A couple of times he tried to leap into the air. Then he bumped into Harry and Harry double barreled him landing both hind hooves on Xcel's hindquarters. Xcel scooted forward and a little away from Harry, not nearly as chastened as Harry and I had hoped. Xcel was playing tough guy. "I'm Mr. Man. I'm Mr. Man," he seemed to be saying as he jigged along with his head in the air.

A few minutes later Harry nailed him again. Outwardly Xcel didn't settle much but he stopped trying to leap, at least for a few minutes. With no other explosions I got even braver and decided to ride past the barn, into the "hill" field and over near my neighbors. Xcel was still full of himself. Catching sight of my neighbor's horses as we walked down the hill, Xcel launched himself neatly into the air up and away from Harry and I. The rope jerked through my hand and he was loose.

Xcel didn't know if he should cavort or graze. The neighbor's horses ran up to the fence to watch as Xcel bounced around, occasionally stepping on the lead rope and yanking the chain over his nose. Finally he trotted through their back yard and stuck his head over the fence to talk to the horses on the other side. I got off, handed Harry to Amy, and reclaimed "Mr. Man." He seemed suitably chastened this time. When Xcel feels slightly sorry for himself, his ears go a little sideways. This lasted about two minutes then he was back to his jigging "I'm Mr. Man" routine again. I decided I had to do something to really get his attention so I figured a visit to the creek crossing was in order. Xcel had never seen the creek that runs through the back of my farm.

I've never seen a horse's ego deflate so fast. Xcel's ears went from upright and pricked to completely sideways we he saw the water. I doubt he had ever seen a running creek before and he stared at it in astonishment. He had no problems standing in puddles so I knew he wasn't afraid of water.

I let Amy and Rocket walk through and stand on the opposite side. I gave Xcel a minute or two to size up this situation before I asked Harry to step in. Harry looked absolutely smug. Xcel dropped his head and was having a good look at things when Harry lifted a front foot and began pawing the water as he always did. Xcel jumped but after a second or two he stepped in and began pawing too. All of my horses love to play in the water and Xcel was no exception. I let him splash for a minute and then we continued across and rode back and forth a few times. Xcel's ears came back up and he got very happy and pleased with himself. The "I'm Mr. Man" attitude started anew. We took the short way back to the barn.

When I finally was able to ride him, (wow!) once again Xcel was to make his preferences very clear. Thinking I had carefully selected an appropriate saddle and saddle pads for him (he is much smaller and narrower than any of my other horses) Xcel quite clearly told me otherwise.

A few short minutes into his first ride in a very long time Xcel dropped his head and began to buck in sort of a crow-hopping style. Head down, hopping along like a bronc but not kicking out or twisting.

One thing that I have learned over the years is that there are different kinds of bucks. In general, there is the "Yahoo, I feel good" kind of buck and the, "Get the heck off of me" kind of buck. The latter kind usually comes with much more tension and stiffness in the body. This is punctuated by very stiff, close together ears. This is the kind of bucking Xcel was doing. His back was very tight too and I had a feeling I had selected the wrong saddle. So I got off, switched saddles and tried again. No more bucking. This is why I say behavior is language!

I was only able to ride a few times before Xcel became very lame in August. After nearly 10 days of soaking and wrapping his left front foot, he finally blew a big abscess out of his sole exactly where the soft spot had been. Could this have been sitting in there the whole time? Were we finally at the end of his foot troubles?