We restart most of the horses that come to Leighton Farm the same way. First, we evaluate them and if they are physically sound, we begin to put in place a regular training session. It happens each day, consecutively if at all possible. In Wally’s case the weather caused breaks in between sessions. This will work too, but it may mean more days before moving on. We keep the sessions short and our requests simple and well within the horse’s capability. We want to be sure that each and every day, the horse is successful. This will build confidence and trust, not only in the handler, but in the process.
The goal of the initial sessions is to create a safe training space, teach the horse to respond consistently to voice commands and develop and expand his ability to focus on the handler. These are fundamentals of a solid foundation of training. Horses at the track spend a lot of time with humans so their vocabulary is usually quite advanced, but we must connect it with new activities. They normally do not have long attention spans because their job is not to focus on the rider or handler, it is to be competitive and reactive which makes a better racehorse. I’ve included several videos in this post to illustrate what we do in these initial training sessions.
I want to mention here that I am not a professional videographer or editor, so forgive me for the lack of polish, but I feel this is information that can really help others, so I’m making the effort to learn to produce videos that can provide examples of what we do here at Leighton Farm.
In the first video, Blane has generously agreed to help as I teach him how to work with new arrivals. We begin by knocking off Wally in his stall. This is done to decrease the amount of time we spend in the actual training session. Wally knows how to stand on a tie chain and be groomed so this is not new to him. We want to keep the entire training session under ten minutes to start because we don’t want to go past what he can handle. After grooming, we move on to introduce cross tying and the walk/halts in hand. Both of these exercises reinforce the word “Ho” which means stand still until I ask you to move. Cross tying is extremely important to teaching the horse to stand quietly whether on or off the ties. The walk/halts also introduce the “Walk” command. We want the horse to respond to the voice commands, not any other cues such as the whip. The whip is used after the voice command is given and after the horse is given enough time to respond.
Normally we do five to six sessions of walk/halts and then segue into lunging at the walk. How relaxed the horse is with the work is the key factor in making the decision to move on to the next step. If Wally is not relaxed, we will stay with the same routine until he is comfortable. We will not try harder or change our routine. We will remain consistent and offer the same commands until Wally is comfortable and maybe even a little bored. Wally will become comfortable and relaxed in his own time, we just have to wait it out.
The second video covers the introduction to lunging. I keep the horse at the walk and continue to work on his response to my voice commands. When his reactions are reliable and he is relaxed, I will begin trot work. I start all retired racehorses with the chain over their nose, because it’s something they are familiar with. I quickly progress to just the cloth lunge over their nose unless I think they may be in an exciting environment, such as their first show or outing. They are after all trained to go from a standstill to 35mph so a bit of extra control may be warranted in some situations.
You can read my complete overview of teaching a horse the walk/halts in my book, “New Track, New Life” available on AmazonSmile.com.