My Ex Racehorse Won't Settle Down

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on
January 25, 2018

q: We were given a thoroughbred former racehorse who is quiet and gentle on the ground, to lead and work on a lunge. But he is a horror to ride - gets extremely wound up and scuttles around sideways, throws his head around, gets into a foaming sweat... all this just trying to walk him around the farm or an arena. He's just on pasture/hay so it's not oats etc winding him up. In your experience, is it worth perservering with him? He's very attractive and would make a nice show horse. But it's almost like he hates being ridden. He's not sore anywhere that we can tell. We believe he was sacked from racing for throwing himself on the ground. We've had him for six months now and little improvement.
From Christine

Hi Christine

It sounds as though your horse has been very badly stressed in his earlier life. Some race horses are never taught the basics. Many thoroughbreds are hardly taught to walk, trot and canter, let alone taught to relax.

Many racehorse trainers think that so long as they can leg a jockey up and the horse will gallop around the track, it doesn’t matter what else he does. Many trainers don’t care if a horse is nervous and worried. I’m sure they don’t realise the improvement in performance that could be achieved by teaching every horse to be confident and relaxed.

When a slow racehorse gallops his hardest and tries his best, he’s often still hit with a whip to “get more out of him”. This is extremely stressful for the horse. Doing this even once is enough for some horses. They never forget it. Forever after, the horse becomes very worked up every time he’s ridden, because he expects the same stressful experience.

Unfortunately, you can’t erase any horse’s memory. When you ride your horse, you can’t tell him that you’re not going to the races. You can’t tell him that he’s not going to be galloped and whipped and stressed.

I’ve started hundreds of young thoroughbreds for the racetrack. There were plenty of beautiful horses among them that would have made great dressage horses, show jumpers or campdrafters.

However, every young horse must be started correctly. If they’re not, it can be extremely difficult to overcome the bad experiences they’ve been through. Even when a young horse is started correctly, any frightening and stressful experiences he has later in his life will be burned into his mind forever.

When a horse “throws himself on the ground”, it’s a sign that he’s extremely confused and stressed. The horse is at the end of his tether and has no idea how to relieve the pressure and stress that he’s subjected to. 

I’ve seen many horses like this. You can put a lot of work into them and you can improve every horse, but under pressure or when things go wrong, these horses will always remember the bad experiences that they’ve been through. They’ll stop thinking and revert to their old behaviour of being upset, nervous and worried.

No matter what you do, it’s very unlikely that your horse will end up as a reliable horse to ride. Unfortunately, there are many attractive horses like yours who are nervous wrecks through no fault of their own.

In my opinion, it’s always better to start with a horse that hasn’t had bad experiences, than to try and overcome the problems of an older horse that’s extremely nervous and worried.

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