Exercises for an Ex-Racehorse with Victoria Bax
Are you looking for some exercises for an ex-racehorse you are trying to bring on or retrain? Then this article may well help you out.
Courtesy of Aloeride, the natural, organic aloe vera supplement for horses, we spoke to Victoria Bax, a professional event rider who specialises in producing ex-racehorses for eventing to ask Victoria which exercises she recommends.
First Things First
After buying an ex-racer, I tend to turn them away and give them a period of time off work in order to relax and be a horse. I do this because many have skipped that crucial period due to their training starting early on in their careers. I also give them an MOT; getting their teeth and backs checked before I start any work. I also get them started on Aloeride. It’s a taste-free aloe vera supplement that is the sprinkle of magic in their feed every day. Aloeride not only improves their coats and skin, but it’s great for digestion and supporting healthy hooves. The results are fantastic.
If you follow me on social media or train with me, you’ll know that I am a huge fan of long-reining. Long-reining is hugely valuable in both the starting and maintenance of an ex-racehorse, so I really feel it is worth a mention before jumping straight on to ride them. An ex-racer horse will generally be lean, fit and lack muscle along its back and top line, so may not even be capable of carrying a conventional saddle and rider comfortably.
Because of this lack of strength, following their time off I will start to long rein them rather than just lunging them with one rein. I find this much more beneficial as you are not restricted to a circle, and you can move around the arena, changing the rein as required. Long reining helps the horse to accept the contact on both reins, introduces steering aids and invites them to work freely and more correctly without any rider constrictions. Think of how uncomfortable it is to run along with a rucksack on your back, without doing any strengthening work first. This is how a horse must feel if you start to work them too quickly with weight on their backs, without prior strength training.
Once the horse has accepted the long reins and is working forward happily, I introduce the EquiAmi, which invites the horse to work in a more correct way of going by educating and encouraging them to think and work things out for themselves. Working the horse in this way is educating and encourages them to work it out for themselves and find the correct and comfortable way of going rather than forcing the issue. The idea is that the horse accepts this way of going as the “norm”. After all, horses do not know what it right or what is wrong. All they know is that they are always asked to do something in that way, so it becomes the way they do it.
Ensure that every transition that you do, whether up or down is always proactive and the horse doesn’t dawdle; meaning the very first step they take should be the same as the 10th or the 50th step.
Similar to ridden work, when the horse takes the rein forward, allow more rein. Don’t be restrictive as the more forward and down the horses’ neck, the more he will open up over his back and the more significant step he will be able to take.
Once I have established the walk, trot and canter on the long reins, I introduce pole work to make things more interesting and encourage the horse to think a bit more about where he is putting his hooves.
I start with one pole and gradually build up the number of poles on a circle. This is much harder than poles in a straight line. I place them about 9ft apart, so as not to make it too complicated for the first few times, as too many poles placed too tightly together can be somewhat daunting for the horse, so allowing some space makes it look more inviting.
Next, I move the poles and create a “train line” for the horse to work along, it is not always just straight, but can have curves in it too. The key is to play around and be creative with poles, so the horse continually has to think for itself. I also use these poles to weave in and out of to test out my steering.
Another example of pole work is to place four poles in a square box in the middle of the arena. I start by long reining the horse straight through the middle of the box, straight onto the poles. I work through figures of eight, circles and changes of rein all aimed through the box. I then ask the horse to walk into the box over the centre of one pole, at an angle, then out of the box over the centre of another pole at an angle.
I use the coloured section of the poles to aim for different parts of the poles as I move closer towards the corners, until I ask the horse to step straight over one corner of the box; this requires a high degree of accuracy as it is very very easy for the horse to step out to the side of the corner, therefore, missing the poles completely.
I use the box to make the full transitions within also, so it gives me a specific spot to aim for, therefore making the transition sharper.
The next stage would be to introduce a conventional saddle and long rein with that onboard. Once I have worked on these exercises in the long reins with the saddle, I move onto the ridden exercises.
You can never be too supple, so you can never do too many suppling exercises. Being supple throughout the body of both horse and rider is essential for both to work correctly, economically and to the best of their ability. Ex-racehorses are notorious for being stiff, so these types of exercises are hugely important. Also, being able to isolate which parts of the body you are suppling, yet the rest of the body remains stable will help while training, especially during the more technical movements.
Riding walk/trot/canter down the long side of the arena, flexing the horse’s head and neck to the inside and also outside gently while ensuring the main trunk of the body stays straight is a good exercise if done with care and within the horse’s capability.
The rider must maintain a balanced body position, ensuring that they look forward in the direction of travel, not down at the horse’s head and keep an even feel along both reins once flexed and in position.
When flexed to the inside, the outside rein will need to act as a support to help prevent the horse from falling to the inside, while following the direction of the bend. Moving your inside leg forward slightly towards the shoulder will also help prevent the horse from falling in through the shoulder.
When flexed to the outside, the inside rein becomes the supporting rein, and the outside leg can be moved slightly forward to help prevent the horse from falling to the outside while following the direction of the bend.
Another exercise I use is as you turn the corner coming off the short side of the arena, change the bend and flex the head and neck to the outside, then using your outside leg, just slightly behind the girth, push the main trunk of the horse towards the inside. Support with the other leg (as you only want the horse to move a few steps on the inside) before positioning the horse straight using the inside rein. Then, change the bend completely (returning to an inside flexion) use your inside leg just slightly behind the girth to return the horse to the outside track and finishing the movement by putting the horse straight again and riding the corner correctly.
Ensure you look in the direction of travel but that the horse looks slightly away from the direction of travel.
Working on transitions between halt, walk, trot and canter can be hugely beneficial to all horses during training, especially ex-racehorses. Ex-racehorses are generally built very downhill naturally as they have an extremely long hind leg; which is all the better for galloping with, but can hinder your efforts to transforming him or her into a riding horse! By repeatedly asking the horse to step under from behind and take more of its weight on the hind leg, this lightens the forehand and after time (a long period of time, Rome wasn’t built in a day!) you will start to see a change of action from the horse, who will become more balanced and less on its forehand. Transitions also encourage the horse to become more obedient and sharp so, can be used very effectively on a horse which has a tendency to drop behind the leg.
The rider must think of their position too and stay off the horse’s forehand by ensuring that they are strong through their core and staying very vertical in their position.
Having the ability to be flexible in all paces is not only required throughout dressage tests but at all levels, especially in the canter when it comes to jumping, both show-jumping and cross country.
Collection And Medium Exercises
Working on collecting the paces encourages the horse to accept more of its body weight over its hind legs, therefore strengthening its frame and lightening the forehand, which is something every rider works towards.
In the same way that working on increasing the stride length is required, working on collection encourages the horse to lighten its forehand and continue to step through with a bigger stride and carry its weight on its hind end at the same time.
Using a 20m circle, again in walk/trot/canter, move both legs forward a little to encourage a bigger step from the horse, creating the building blocks towards working on medium paces.
You need to maintain your body position, which means strong core strength to ensure that you don’t tip forward while asking for bigger steps.
Hold the bigger steps for a few strides then return your leg position to normal position, before moving both legs slightly back, fractionally behind the girth and sitting taller pushing weight down into stirrups (not the saddle) and use small half-halts (squeezes in rein) to bring the horse back to the smaller steps again.
Jumping An Ex-Racehorse
Ex-racehorses tend to be fast and flat when it comes to jumping, mainly due to their confirmation and especially Ex-National Hunt horses, as they have been taught to jump at speed to be time-efficient rather than being technically correct. Therefore, a firm favourite of mine for training ex-racehorses is a series of small bounce fences (3-5) with an oxer, 1 or maybe 2 strides after.
The bounces will encourage the ex-racehorse to slow down and use themselves to produce a more technically correct shape, rather than the flat dangly leg pose they are used to doing. Keep the bounces small as it’s not about the height at this stage; it’s more about teaching the ex-racehorse to be more aware of its own body and legs and to sharpen their technique. The final Oxer fence should start as an ascending fence so that it is inviting. The bounce fences will be challenging for any horse, least, not the ex-racehorse (who may find this exercise mind-blowing to start with!) so, the number of fences needs to be built up slowly to give them time to work it out. Once the ex-racehorse is comfortable with the set up and is making a good effort, the Oxer can be made more square, therefore challenging the ex-racehorse further to proceed the desired Bascule that we are ultimately after.
As with any new exercise, start small to begin with and build up. These exercises are not only physical for the horse but also mentally challenging, so introduce them gradually.
Photos by Equuis Photography