Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by OTTB United: Trust, Patience and a Little Smarts

“Trust and patience help transform the off-track horses that come here into quiet and manageable creatures on the ground, even if some have some pretty sh*t… errr…I mean… pretty “complicated” tendencies when they arrive.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses her logic on getting freshly off-track horses acclimated to the expectations of her farm.

“Jesus, Aubrey, that one is a ticking time bomb,” my farrier commented when I walked the new horse in from the field the other day. Sydster (so new that he is still in need of a barn name) stood quietly but literally shook while taking in the sight of the farrier rigs parked in the aisle. No spook, no bolt, no “oh hell no.” He just took it all in, despite every cell in his body being ready to leap out of his skin, and walked on the still-loose lead rope to his stall.

“You’re going to tell me that we’re shoeing that one today too, aren’t you?” Patrick asked.

“Yep — if you’re willing to try.”

Sydster looking a little skeptical, but not terribly wound-up in turnout. Photo by author.

And they did. The new horse pulled and hopped with his front feet, but with no reactions and slow, patient work from Russell and Patrick and me standing at his head, he settled. No one fussed, got frustrated or jumped to “get the chain” or “go tranq him.” We all just slowly eased him through the shoeing and in the end reflected that it went “definitely a good bit better than some of your other idiots”… Ahem young, post-track versions of Forrest and Juice.

Sydster being good and getting shoes like a champ. Photo by author.

It sounds corny, but I trust them – the Thoroughbreds that is (my farriers? that goes without saying). I trust that they don’t truly want to be “bad” or reactive — often they do want to be playful, but there’s a difference between that and ‘bad’. I trust that a good, quiet, responsive horse can usually be eased out of a shivering four-legged stress ball or honed from of the equine version of a bully. They might take slightly different tactics to get them relaxed, gentle, and respectful (figuring out what is needed is one of the most fun parts), but it is nearly always possible.

Sydster ran in Stakes races (Black Type) and from the perspective of the too-slow-for-the-track kiddos in my barn, he was pretty damn good ($170K earned in 23 starts). His last start was on September 3rd, and he has sat on the backside of the track since. When he arrived here from Louisiana, he was wound-tight, sure, but he was also immediately kind. I was warned that he had shown stall aggression and that he kicked at the hauler on the way down. But my perhaps over the top faith that “you’re going to do just fine here” has shown through the last four days without pinned ears, lifted legs, or the least bit of grump or mean. (We’ll see in the next few months if I’m right…)

From “Sydster with jockey Florent Geroux aboard goes wire to wire to win the 48th running of the Crescent City Derby at Fair Grounds. Photo by Hodges Photography.

Through trust, patience, and a little bit of strategic smarts, most positive (equine) transformations are possible. In Sydster’s case, I simply decided that we weren’t going to treat him like he had a problem — so maybe the problem just never bothers to show up. It’s like, yes, I see your red flags, but until they’re relevant to me, we can just keep tossing them in that pile over there.

That said, I’m also not going to be flippant about letting my farriers get underneath a horse that I have decided to trust will be good. We make a plan and we aim for a well behaved horse. Ignoring the signs of a meltdown or not paying attention to when his “quarter runs out” can be dangerous, whether you’re cleaning his stall or tacking on a shoe. So, I suppose the logic is a bit more of a “I trust you that you can be good and kind and smart, but I’m not going to be dumb.”

OK… when you’re this handsome, you get a ton of photos (but you also need a barn name, and you’re not a Syd). Photo by Ashley Clarkin.

Trust is hard, though. Like really hard. You have to trust that you can get to the other side of whatever the issue is, while also accepting the current state of not perfect as, at very least, tenable for a while. You have to trust that if you’re putting in the work, the progress is there even if you have to squint really hard to see it.

Trust is what gets you to wait through the choppy, racing trot or the romping huge, fast canter to get to the correct rhythm without cramming them into the bridle. Trust is required every time you half halt and give, so that they learn to soften and sit, not get faster. And you’ll have to ‘give’ a bunch with little to no response before that becomes clear. Trust and patience help transform the off-track horses that come here into quiet and manageable creatures on the ground, even if some have some pretty sh*t… errr…I mean… pretty “complicated” tendencies when they arrive.

Pulpituity (Juice) and his track “antics” before he came to mine. Photo by Nikki Sherman.

Part of that trust is the belief that these whip-smart, highly anxious creatures want to get the right answer. The other part is trusting yourself — as in making sure you have the skills to handle the worst case scenario.

On the line, you can be loose and relaxed with a hot horse, assuming you know how to handle what might happen if their power-keg self detonates. In the saddle, a rider has to trust their seat, emergency brakes, and balance to ride through the ‘too forward’ episodes. If you don’t trust that you have the skills to quietly manage the transitional phases from track to show, that’s a great time to get a trainer involved. And if all the skills and trust and patience aren’t amounting to progress, that’s good reason to both reassess the tactics and see if there’s not a clinical (pain?) issue somewhere.

Skyler Scramjet hacks around happily on the buckle. Getting him to this quiet, happy state took about two months of slow and steady work to build his confidence under saddle.  Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Then the rest is the patience to just keep chipping away at the hard stuff, ignoring unnecessary behavior, rewarding good responses, and going forward and through the challenges. I’m excited to see how all of this trust and patience pans out for the new kid. He looks like the type that just might stick around here for a little while long enough for me to test my theory.

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