One of the great puzzles about Sheldon has been his reluctance to go forward. I’ve restarted a few OTTBs and one thing they always had was a well established “go” button. Given his long and successful racing career, I knew that Sheldon had to have one too. I suspect that something must have happened to him after he left the track and wonder if his fear of the bit had something to do with it. It’s not out of the question that he was ridden by someone who didn’t feel comfortable with a horse that wants to move out and who used a strong bit (and maybe heavy hands) to discourage that tendency. Friday, I finally felt the “race” horse come through: Sheldon wanted to go forward and showed me that he has a glorious ground eating canter!
Until this past week, conditions for riding had been poor. The ground was hard and lumpy and there wasn’t enough snow on the ground to provide a cushion. It was not the most inviting surface for a horse that’s barefoot. I did take him out a couple of times just to let him walk under saddle and he seemed tentative and ouchy so I didn’t push it. He did, however, impress me with his good temperament. This is a horse you can get on after two weeks off and not fear for your life.
With 27″ of snow on the ground it was time to put both horses back to work. Deep, fluffy snow is a great training aid. Not only does it tire out a horse that’s a bit fresh, but it provides a soft landing in case something goes wrong. Once the blizzard passed we’ve been blessed with beautiful weather — temperatures were in the 40s and 50s — and the skies were sunny. I rode every day last week and enjoyed every moment of it.
Sheldon started out the week as he had been. He would move forward, but reluctantly. Periodically he would stop and refuse to walk forward at all — the only way to restart him was to turn him in a circle so tight that he had to move his feet. And patience. Lots of patience. I tried him again in a bit (this time a nathe snaffle) but it still makes the behavior worse.
Probably the turning point came because I got some help. Through a friend I met a woman in town who was looking for a horse to ride. She has considerable riding experience and a lot of patience. Having someone else ride Sheldon has several benefits. He gets ridden more often, and I can watch him from the ground, study his expression and watch how his body moves. I can give Freedom some much needed exercise. And it means that I can get Sheldon out on the trails by giving him someone to follow.
Not that Sheldon really likes hacking out — at least, not yet. He’s well behaved enough, but he doesn’t enjoy it. He isn’t bothered by loose dogs and the odd cross country skier. With Freedom in the lead he’ll even cross the scary bridge and bush whack around a fallen tree. It’s more just the overwhelming experience of being outside. After about 15 or 20 minutes he starts to flip his head and grind his teeth (even without a bit). He is screaming, “get me back to the safety of the barn”. I suspect that as he gets more exposure to it, he’ll be fine. I don’t know how much exposure he’s gotten in the past to being out in the “wilderness” but it seems pretty far from his comfort zone.
After he’d been ridden several days this week, on Friday I decided to push him a bit out of his comfort zone and get him cantering. The snow has condensed into a mere 7-8″ and we’ve made some good tracks so riding through it is not as difficult as it was right after the storm.
I used a slight incline to urge him into the canter. He’d offered me a few steps before but had always come right back down into the trot on his own. This time, I pushed him on. We started with a right lead canter as he’s more balanced going to the right. His first few strides were a bit tentative but once he was sure that I wanted him to go forward we had a nice, easy, slow canter. The first time down the slight slope he broke into a trot but with some encouragement he went around the field three times, his stride starting to open up. A few times he tried to get his head down and get a bit squirrely, but he never actually bucked. That was when the neck strap came in handy — he can’t pull through me when I’m holding that.
His canter to the left was a bit trickier. Although many people assume racehorses will be stronger to the left, many break from the starting gate on their right lead and then swap coming around the final turn into the home stretch so they associate the canter depart with the right lead. Like many ex-race horses I’ve ridden, Sheldon offers the right lead first and will only pick up the left if you ask him just at the right time. If you’re not careful, he’ll swap back to the right, too. Going to the left he also leans and tilts his head to the outside. That’s also not unusual and isn’t hard to fix.
Since we’re now focused on forward, I’m not too particular about which lead we get. The good news was that the more he cantered, the more he wanted to canter. Even his trot opened up. He didn’t try to stop and his head flipping (which happens when he’s anxious) completely went away!
The best news? When I rode him on Saturday he was even better. He cantered right off when asked and didn’t even root. His left lead canter was stronger and more balanced and his stride was bigger. Suddenly I could feel that this was a horse that had won a lot of races. I don’t know what changed in his mind. It was like a switch got flipped and he decided that he decided that he had five gears, not three or four. I’m just pleased because I think that it’s a breakthrough in his mindset and that he’ll progress quickly from here.