With everybody’s sights set on embracing diversity and new beginnings for retiring racehorses, Pony Club NSW selected a group of talented and keen members to participate with the aim to educate young riders about best to prepare horses for a life after racing.
The demonstrated techniques came from all disciplines – jumping, western riding, and dressage, but this clinic differed from most by focusing on groundwork as the foundation for all the more advanced work. This angle is often very strong at western riding clinics but is rarely the key focus at eventing and jumping clinics. (A shame in my opinion.)
Unfortunately, however, groundwork is often looking for positive changes that are actually (even if they seem simple to look at) hard to fit into a 45-minute clinic lesson. So riders often don’t learn the basics of control and lateral work, which are the absolute basis of groundwork, despite the huge benefit and many issues which can be fixed with that kind of work – especially with a retired racehorse.
Peter Haynes and Scott Brodie joined me on the instruction panel, delivering different riding backgrounds – but with very similar aims for the horses.
Scott was an obvious choice as he has done so much work for the thoroughbred rehabilitation trust including helping to set up a program for inmates and youths to learn about horses and to channel their energies into retraining racehorses. He also trained with Miguel Tavora and has had a lot of experience with classical dressage. Peter Haynes had a very successful eventing career which culminated in winning the Australian 3DE Championships in 1998 aboard Alcheringa. Nowadays he is a sought-after coach in all three phases of eventing.
Before the horses were ridden we started with each horse being worked in hand. Which is quite different to lunging a horse. You will quite often see a hot horse just being lunged into the ground before being ridden. This is great at making them tired but doesn’t teach them very much. Over time the horse gets fit but even more set in its ways.
Rather than just trying to exhaust the horse, ground work – in conjunction with lunging – can be used to very calmly teach the horse new ways to move their body, how to respond to pressure and how to stay out of the handler’s personal space. Groundwork exercises used by the handler can get the horse to back up, come forward and yield the quarters to pressure – just to name a few goals. Groundwork can include lunging but not with the aim of simply getting the horse tired.
Sadly most hobby riders don’t see the need for groundwork until they have a problem. Even when they do have a problem many of them don’t recognise it as being a problem, but they are quick to criticize their horse for being a little above the bit in the dressage or for lacking ability in the jumping phases, without realising that it can be attributed to a lack of groundwork in the beginning.
So much patience is required to retrain horses, and the devil, my friends, is in the detail. Little habits that don’t seem too important at the beginning can create much bigger problems later on. That’s why addressing them at the start of your training program is essential. If you can’t get your horse to stand still while you get on, why should it be expected to remain at the halt when schooling? Why would it do a half-halt in dressage, or check slightly before a jump? And yes – this can all build from being unsettled at the mounting block!
Even the great George Morris had to do a bit of work from the ground to get a horse understanding the lateral work better at a recent clinic in Sydney. At the same clinic, he paid homage to Buck Brannaman who is held in extremely high regard throughout the equestrian world. Buck wears chaps and rides western, but if you don’t know who he is ask google ASAP! He understands the parallels between good outcomes on the ground and under saddle. He helps dressage riders and jumpers, as well as training happy, fluently forward moving horses.
The fact is we can learn from master horse people from every discipline. There are many different ‘methods’ from Andrew Mclean to Pat Parelli and everywhere in between. The information is there. Just check out You Tube if you want to learn what any of the great trainers are doing – and it’s worth checking out trainers that are not in your discipline. Some are better than others but it’s still better to try new methods than to continue doing the same thing day in day out.
In the end it was a terrific clinic with the pony clubbers, and they embraced the diversity of education provided. Their current and future horses will be lucky to have them. I can’t wait to see retired thoroughbreds getting more of a go once they leave the racetrack.
Charlie Brister of Brister Equestrian is an all-round horseman based in western Sydney. His expertise is in re-training problem horses, as well as coaching riders in the art of cross-country, show jumping and dressage.