Thoroughbred Logic: Making Better Horse People

“[T]his is a mindset of being flexible and creative — of listening to the horse and trying to figure out solutions … is recognizing that so much of owning or even leasing horses is about constant learning and spending time with them …”

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, come along for the ride as Aubrey offers her logic on how Thoroughbreds often encourage growth in the people who love them.

Thoroughbreds can be tough. Hell, all horses can be — of course they can. But I have found that this breed, perhaps more than others, will encourage folks to mosey into one of two camps: “horse people” or “people with horses.” And if you see a fit, happy, good-footed Thoroughbred, sure, some of it might be luck. But somewhere in its lineup of caretakers and humans, that horse probably has a “horse person” in its corner.

Alanah Giltmier walks Uno (Hold Em Paul) out to cross country at his first show. This overgrown pony has lots of good folks in his corner. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

And that means that the horse gets priority. They come first. First in front of ones’ ideas of how that ride is going to go; first in front of how one was going to spend their money that month; first in front of showing, training, or lessoning goals. We as riders and always aspiring-to-be-better horsemen are on our horse’s timeline, no matter how hard we try to stick to ours.

Let me caveat this by saying that there is a significant difference between being a horse person and coddling. This isn’t an “oh pretty baby has a boo boo, you’re right, let’s not ride. Here, have all the cookies.” Hang on, horse people are not, by definition, anti-cookie. And being sweet to the horse and being a horseman are not mutually exclusive. Rather, this is a mindset of being flexible and creative — of listening to the horse and trying to figure out solutions (and knowing where cookies come into the picture). And it is recognizing that so much of owning or even leasing horses is about constant learning and spending time with them, not just about time in the saddle in the arena or at a show.

Forrest (Don’t Noc It) would like you to know that whether it is cookie or beer, he disagrees and thinks horsemanship should be about feeding him all the things. Photo by author.

Being or becoming horse people is about weathering heartbreak and getting good at disappointment. Equally, it is about silver linings, constant learning, and being able to get creative. Sometimes, being/becoming a horse person means learning how to be simultaneously flexible in our expectations and an advocate for the horse. And it is about loving the process and recognizing and celebrating the small victories. And with Thoroughbreds, especially those transitioning off the track, they can often be particularly challenging in regards to our timelines, goals and expectations.

Rhodie (Western Ridge) is finally running around Training with his (and my) eyes on the upper levels. This has been a slow, one step forward two steps back process for the past three years. But it has all been worth it. Photo by Cora Williamson.

When every other equine in the boarding barn can stay fat off the midrange hay and grain, but the Thoroughbred is dropping weight, it means not only recognizing the issue, but also getting creative and potentially offering to pay extra for more and better feed or hay. It might mean getting a nutritional analysis done, or talking to experts. It also might simply dash one’s hopes of inexpensive board. It might mean doing it all yourself.

Then there are the feet — some Thoroughbreds are blessed with good feet that hold good shoes. We have a handful of them here. We also have those who are tricky to shoe properly, or those with shelly, delicate feet. And when any of those horses loses their first or third shoe in the month, it certainly means an investment duct tape, diapers, and magic cushion. (As an aside, can I tell you, as a 39 year old woman without kids, how odd it is to stand in the diaper aisle at the supermarket and think, “Which baby bottom is the same size as a size 1 hoof?” Pretty sure onlookers are just as puzzled as I am. But for another aside, the answer is a size 2 diaper fits most TB feet).

Birdie Bob looking slightly sheepish after stepping out of his second shoe this month…this time in his stall. Photo by author.

Lost front shoes also mean no riding. Tender feet mean potential stall rest until my awesome-sauce farriers can make the hour trip back to the farm to tack one on. A naked foot can often mean missed opportunities — lessons, shows, clinics, or trail rides with friends. Then add that a lost shoe may have set the horse up for abscesses and bruises and you get to learn all the fun skills of not only soak feet, but also, in some case, how to properly pull shoes off and tack the simple, unbent ones back on. This is all part of the process.

Due to sensitive skin, you’ll learn the best “recipes” to treat rain-rot. Due to common, playful injuries you’ll maybe even learn how to manage significant wound care or read radiographs and ultrasounds over the vet’s shoulder. Either way, you’ll likely get a feel for when it is time to call the vet and when it is OK to self treat. Spend enough time around Thoroughbreds coming off the track, and you’ll learn how to help them through the transition into their second career — identify the challenges of their letdown period and support them with omeprazole, more (high quality) feed, foot care, body work, and potential strengthening exercises or if needed, maintenance.

Kat Dortenzo of Yellow Horse Performance is a key part of the team, providing body work that makes even the most keyed up of horses, zen out. CJ’s Empire featured here, clearly enjoying the work. Photo by author.

Finally (at least for this article), being/becoming horse people is about listening to what you horse wants to do and is good at. Everyone does it a little differently, and that’s cool. I train most horses here to event because it provides them experience and versatility. Some will love the entire thing, and others will take the opportunity to make it clear that they enjoy some parts more than others… or none of it at all. But from that base, they each could go on into careers in Eventing (obviously), but also Hunters, Jumpers, Trail, Dressage, Equitation, Fox Hunting, or being someone’s well loved pet without too much of a stretch. And sometimes, our big dreams for that 17h, level-headed horse (who should be an eventing machine) get dashed by old injuries and the fact that simply, they find the Stadium phase to be quite stressful (ahem, Boomer). But — a change of career might be just what they need.

Levee (Bayou Gem) living his best life in Colorado. The plans are still for him to event, but in the meantime, he is learning the ropes of being a solidly awesome ranch horse. Photo by Melissa McLain.

We can try to put a square peg in a round hole. Some horses will tolerate it for a while. But your sensitive, quick-witted Thoroughbred will often remind you that perhaps the square peg would prefer — or perhaps needs — a square hole. And all of this comes down to the fact that the horse must come first regardless of expectations, aspirations or the amount of time we want to spend in the saddle or in the arena in our particular discipline.

Ellie (Lady Allyn) showing off not only her eventing potential, but her really lovely demeanor now that she is fit and (still) happy. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

And while the article may seem like a reason to “not buy the Thoroughbred,” that’s not at all my point. Rather, it is a recognition that these horses will deepen your horsemanship. If that’s not a direct or incidental goal, ok, maybe this is a “don’t buy a Thoroughbred” article. But rather, the point is that these creatures will provide opportunities for learning and inspire a greater passion and compassion for understanding the process. And in all of that, they craft a community of outstanding folks — perhaps all completely certifiable — who not only have their horses’ back, but have each others’ six as well. And that folks, that is pretty damn cool.

So go groom, soak, treat, wrap, ground train, ride or simply love on your horse. The options and the effort are all worthwhile.