Racehorses are in pretty bad shape right off the track and my thoroughbred Sunny, who I found at the Lost and Found Rescue in York, Pa. was no exception. He came to Bittersweet Farm in Unionville, Pa. in the late summer of 2004 where I introduced him to a small herd. He lived out for the following year. Micro tears of soft tissue and bones healed. He added weight. His muscle distribution began to normalize with constant movement in a pasture with hills. Dr. Patti Blakeslee, his chiropractor worked on Sunny about every 4 months for the first year.
I introduced clicker training as we began the basics: cross ties, leading, out of my space. And of course I began some tricks, with Sunny outside the heated tack room and me inside on a stool! I found dentist Krystin Dennis a year later and she gave him a balanced mouth. It took several visits to get his mouth just right but with his TMJ correct, his entire spine and way of going improved.
Using Clicker Training as taught by Alex Kurland I did a lot of desensitizing because I wanted a calm and reliable trail companion. I began having him “target” (touch) easy objects like cones and brushes. Then we moved on to being touched by pool noodles, or allowing the long end of the lunge whip to encircle his barrel, crossing wooden (noisy) bridges and climbing on large mounting blocks. When confronted by a monster on the trail, my horse touches it when I ask him to “target”, click and treat.
In this more advanced request I ask How Many Things Can You Do with a … Barrel? Each new behavior gets a click (To mark the behavior wanted) and a treat (Think of it as his salary).
And over time, much to the shock of vets and farriers alike, Sunny’s racehorse feet turned into gorgeous thoroughbred feet. The outer wall or horn quality is exquisite due to diet and movement. Although he may get some laminitic rings in the spring and even lose a bit of wall-to-coffin bone connection, he doesn’t go lame. (That has been my experience with most horses. With the natural trim, they get through the spring without a bad step.) I just tweak the trim so that the “rotated wall” does not injure any more laminae. The ‘tweak’ is a stronger angle on the mustang roll.
Turnout, a correct diet, a Balance International Saddle and hacking out on hilly terrain got us quite far in Sunny’s rehab but I knew his body could get better. I just didn’t know how to do it. Then I found Jill Wilcox of Tory Hill Farm in Glen Mills, Pa. Sunny moved to her 100 acre horse farm in May, 2010. For the first month I wasn’t entirely clear what we were doing nor why but I had faith in her method and just kept at it. It took a while for the parts to fall into place. Every morning from 10:30-1, we began with body work, then in-hand, basically just walking with him trying to understand his movement, ground driving, again to understand how the hind was driving the horse. Finally I learned to ride the hind and get off the front end!
Jill said, “Become a Centaur, like the painting in the arena (she had done). Ride like her. Sunny’s hind end is yours.” And for the month of May we walked, in-hand and mounted, riding off a noseband, later adding a neck ring, on pads or saddle without stirrups. “When you ask him to yield, crossing his hindleg under the body and engage, imagine his body is a ball. Think of asking the ball to lift to your seat,” Jill said as she sat on an exercise ball for demonstration. One part of the “Ring of Muscles” for self carriage as described by Dr. Deb Bennett in her series on Conformational Analysis, is contracted abdominals that lift the relaxed back to my soft seat.
Initially my plan was to stay at Tory Hill for the summer, then the fall but as winter approached I asked if I could continue working with Jill. Sunny’s entire body has muscled up so nicely and it seems like every day or so, I get another insight into creating the ideal partnership. My riding improved with Jill’s suggestion to “float” the trot when I am out on the trails. I intend to publish more details on her training.
As I write the ground is a nasty combination of slush and ice but normally I hack out after lessons or in lieu of. And there are days we go to the arena in the afternoon and revisit all his early “tricks” like fetching, dunking his basketball, playing soccer with Jill’s huge exercise ball. Mixing it up is fun for both of us. This past Christmas, Santa treated us to a used truck and stock trailer. When the weather clears we will visit our favorite trails in the Woodlawn Preserve on a weekly basis, trotting hills, enjoying a hand gallop around the hay fields and soaking up the beauty of the Brandywine River Valley.