Calming your OTTB at a Show, with Melissa Rose.
15TH Nov, 2018
I don’t think many of us have gone through life without meeting at least one anxious horse. They may not even be an ex-racehorse, but OTTB’s are renowned for being a little, well… stressed out at times.
20 years ago if you had of asked me how to calm an OTTB I would have said just to hang on and wait it out and even though I have evolved as a rider and a horsewoman I can tell you that frame of mind still rings true at times.
Let’s get to the nuts and bolts of it though… Why are OTTB’s so stressed out?
Imagine your daily life is waking up in a stable, being asked to run, then being put back in a stable all day. You would take your opportunity to exercise when you were out of that stable wouldn’t you?
That’s why they are so excited and anxious, because they have spent so much time cooped up in a small space and horses in the wild graze and roam. It is not a normal situation to them and so they have anxiety and stress from being locked up. Other times they are asked to get on a truck and go to a race track and run, then get back on the truck and head home and be put in the stable. If you look at it this way, the only time they can enjoy themselves or run is when they are under saddle and so this creates a behavioural pattern.
Then their days on the track are over and they find a new home. We want our OTTB to go to Dressage or Eventing and even though we understand what we are asking them to do, they see it as a change in their daily lifestyles and habits. Horses, much like humans are creatures of habit and changes, even small ones, can cause anxiety.
It’s not that OTTB’s are naturally crazy, as I have heard some people say, it’s that they have been taught to behave the way that they do. Once you undo this pattern of behaviour you will have a quiet horse that can perform, but you need to put the time in, and that is my first tip; Time.
You have to bond with your OTTB in order to be able to rely on this connection if you are at a show. Don’t ask too much of your OTTB to begin with, perhaps think of a small show to attend once you have spent 6 months at home working on the basics.
The best way to have a calm OTTB at a show is to build your solid foundations at home. You then put these lessons you have taught them at home into practice in that stressful situation, this creates comfort for your OTTB at the show and you should be able to get their attention.
At the show do exactly the same warm up routine you would at home as this creates consistency and a place of safety in the OTTB’s mind. If you are doing the same routine as at home, then they will relate the show to being at home and will feel a lot calmer.
Next, you have to have some aces up your sleeve at your show just in case things don’t go to plan.
Even though you have the same warm up routine, things can happen that can spook your OTTB. Perhaps your OTTB has never seen an umbrella before or a car parked at the end of a dressage arena? These new items can spook your horse.
Try to see it from their point of view. Imagine if you walked into your house this afternoon and there was a green car in the middle of your dining room, wouldn’t that spook you a little? Would you stop and stare at it or maybe run out of the room? Of course you would. You would be wondering how it got there and why it was there? Always try to see things through the eyes of your OTTB and then reassure them that it will be okay by giving them a pat as they face that demon.
At home you should have practiced your leg aids and some lateral work such as a shoulder in and leg yielding. This will mean at the show you have better control over your horse and you can direct their shoulders and hindquarters towards the direction you wish them to go.
If your OTTB spooks at a show turn them to face the thing they are spooking at. A horse has a natural instinct to freeze, fight or flight (run away) if they sense danger.
If your OTTB chooses to freeze, as long as they are facing the object, allow this for a few minutes while you pat them and they have a big look at it.
If your horse chooses to run away, this is where your leg yielding and shoulder in will come in handy as you can stop them running off by using these aids and redirecting the front of your horse to look at the object they are spooking at.
Now patiently try to walk them towards it, each time they take a step towards the scary object you give them a pat. If they try to run away, start from the beginning and keep getting them to move towards it until they can walk towards it.
I now ask my horse to walk and trot around and toward the object. You will notice after a few times your OTTB will realise that they are not going to be hurt and they will get on with it.
The next trick I have is to get your OTTB’s attention. It’s pretty basic but if I am walking and my OTTB is jogging, I trot. I put them into a good forward working trot and get them to think about working and not think about other things.
Working is a good way to get rid of anxiety too, and eventually you will see those ears flick back at you as you talk to your OTTB. That means you have their attention.
It’s only a few basic exercises but these ones really work for me. I find that if I just remember to be positive, brave and understanding over time things will improve. You need to remember that horses respond to a leadership hierarchy within their own herd so make sure you have established rules and respect before you take them anywhere.
Your OTTB is allowed to be scared and spooked about things but rearing, bucking and bolting should be out of the question by the time you get to a show. Do the work at home and your success at calming them at a show will be so much easier.
Also, never get mad, never get angry and never ever hit your horse. Not only is it unnecessary and bad behaviour, horses do not respond to being hit. They do not understand it and they do not respect a rider that hits them.
Use precise aids and use them firmly if needed, but never hit and yell at your horse. Be a place of comfort for your horse and they will turn to you when they need help to be calm or if they are scared.
Most of all give them time.
Happy Riding & Keep Smiling