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The Re-education of Thoroughbred Race Horses

Susan Hopf

Basa’s first few new months.

Once I was able to catch her in the pasture without a treat in one hand and the whip in the other Basa’s progress was really quite remarkable. Her breakfast and dinner were once again safe from a thousand deaths by gnashing jaws prior to ingestion. With the exception of touching, brushing or cutting the mats out of her mane grooming her no longer gave me heart palpitations. She stopped trying to bite me during her farrier appointments and she learned to love a good soaking from the hose. Along the way we both learned many lessons some age-old know-how handed down over the centuries, some new style “natural horsemanship” and some innovation all played a part in once again centering this lovely horse. 

As I’ve said I have no idea what specifically happened to change things, and would give up at least a finger to know, but what I did know for sure was that the horse seemed to hate all of mankind and thought it best to take all of her rage out on me, the person who showed her only patience and kindness but, by actions innocent in my mind obviously deranged in hers, managed to betray her more deeply than anyone from the track or any other part of her past. The fact that I was once again able to renew her trust and that she was finally looking forward to coming in and working with me again can only be explained by fortune, faith in the generous nature of horses and complete and utter stupidly saunch stubbornness on my part. 

The “at liberty” exercises were continued. Sitting in the middle of the arena and letting her explore and come to me at will began all of our schooling days. It was our time to take stock of each other. Some days she was reluctant and those days the lesson was come, eat an apple and then go out and play with the other horses. The days when she was eager to entertain me or sidle over for a good scratch we worked on expanding her vocabulary as well as her re-acceptance of the usual day-to-day necessities. Grooming, picking her feet, touching her where she would rather you did not, work in-hand and on the longe.

The progress was not steady. There were ups and downs and sometimes the bad days went on for weeks with biting and kicking and tortured and hateful expressions that tore through my soul. The bucking on the longe line was worse than ever during these bad times striking more fear in my heart than I have ever experienced before. My back is not in great shape 30 years of bone crushing work in the horse business will do that to you and I was forced to accept the loss of my youth at this point more than I really cared to. Knowing I could never place this mare in the hands of another but also coming to terms with my newly realized age-related limitations I struggled with many negative thoughts. Many times I thought it the end of the road for this pretty mare with the narrow but striking white blaze and snip in the middle of her chocolate colored face. Since I am no longer the spry spring chicken I once was the thought of putting myself is anticipated harm’s way everyday seemed more than foolish at these times. I made one appointment after the other with the vet to bring her (and my) tormented life to an end. But for good or bad something always made me change my mind.

As time progressed there were more good days than bad. She eagerly came to me as I approached in the pasture. I no longer felt the need of our “at liberty” warm ups and instead used this technique for occasional rewards at the end of our schooling sessions.

And then the miracle of miracles I was able to brush her mane!!!! This had not been allowed since the breakdown. Even during the first round of re-schooling, when she first arrived, her mane was a touchy subject. She did, however, at that time tolerate those daily ministrations. But for whatever reason, the sun was in the right house, the moon was rising, Scorpio was aligned with the Twins, whatever, the glorious day arrived and we no longer headed out to school with a tangle of mats, burdocks, and hay snarled in her very substantial locks. A grand day indeed.

And this is where we have stayed for the last five months. Throughout this last incarnation, of the TB mare Basa, the one thing I held onto tightly was that her re-education, this time, needed to be so different from anything that happened in the past that she had no reason to doubt the sincerity of my efforts to reclaim her mind and trust. Much of my approach was as if she were a weanling; moving forward with each new step as if she had never been trained before. This was, for the most part, successful except when we touched upon her more sensitive concerns her mane and her back. The mane issue has been resolved but there are still times when she eyeballs me with doubt as I approach with the brush. Slowing my approach at these times has thus far not induced her to over react again.

I have already decided to go with a bitless bridle but have not yet approached her with this. The longe work has so far been done with a flat leather halter. My next big question is how to make readying her for yet another “first” ride a completely different and comforting experience. Bareback is out of the question for several reasons. Without the buffer of a saddle a rider’s seat bones tend to dig into the back of the horse. Since her back was so badly strained in the past I want nothing to make her uncomfortable. And then there is the other concern - my ability to fly has not improved with age so being launched into the rafters is not an appealing thought. Approaching her with the saddle last time is when all went to (h-e- double hockey sticks) in a basket so swinging a saddle up onto her may not be the best way to go. Her back is healed but her mind may not be convinced of such. Oh so much to still sort out.

Well this is where I leave you for this installment. The next will be in a month or so. By then I hope to have the answers to the above questions.

Thanks for checking in with Basa’s progress and see ya ‘round the barnyard.