“The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience”
This is possibly one of the truest sentences when working with horses, and more so, with thoroughbreds! It can seem that the more you plan, train, try, the more your thoroughbred is determined to find the random nail on the floor, stab themselves with a part of their rug you never knew would be possible, catch a cold in the middle of summer, or manage to drop every inch of weight on their body for no entire reason whatsoever! And this is just for one, try having a yard full of them, with all of their varying backgrounds, histories, diva tendencies, rehab requirements and you have met my wonderful bunch of ex racehorses re training into the glamorous world of dressage.
We normally have around 10 ex racehorses on the yard at any given time, ranging from; fresh out of racing, rehabilitation horses, all the way through to our current highest competing ex racehorse, Quadrille, who is competing at PSG/Inter I with the hopes (aims and dreams) of doing an Inter II by the end of the year. We compete from local, to regional and national level all on board the ex-racehorses, competing amongst the best. Sometimes we hold our own, sometimes we win, sometimes we just need to say it wasn’t meant to be (we learn more from those days and the positive days are a result of many years of hard work, grit and determination all coming together for four minutes!) Quad is 12 years old and has been a member of Team TB dressage since he was five. He retired from racing due to injury, was trained by Richard Hannon and ran on the flat over 6-8 furlongs. He only ran 7 times, but won 4 of his races and was second by a nose at Royal Ascot as a three year old. Quad comes from a rather prestigious home, along with Princes Trust aka Phillip (7 years old by Invincible Spirit, trained by William Haggas, flat racer who retired due to injury) they are both owned by HM The Queen. Phillip is ‘next in line’ to become an advanced dressage horse and will be coming out at PSG early 2020. He will be the fourth one that I have trained to that level. Quad and Phillip are both firecrackers and have more energy and bounce than you will see in the duracell bunny. They have both partaken in ‘Royal duties’ by being part of the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and HM the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations in 2016 (all rather surreal, yet beyond awesome!)
One of our most exciting up and coming horses is Saint Gregoire aka Greg (£100k winnings on the flat, 9 years old) who has come from Goldophin Rehoming. He joined us in March 2019 and is a rather tall chappy. (currently around the 17.1/2 marker) He is everything you look for in a dressage horse; long limbs, elegant movement, very trainable, great work ethic and just has that presence about him when he goes. Greg is currently competing at prelim level (it’s like steering the Titanic with a Ferrari engine) will be aimed at Novice Winter regionals for both the straight class and the music classes. Greg is a bit of the class clown at home, his favourite trick is to use his water bucket as a paddling pool and play ‘who will re fill my bucket the most for me?’ With Greg’s training it is really important that he is given the time to find his balance and confidence in his work, especially considering the length of his racing career.
And then there is the wonderful Mission impossible aka Silver. Our ‘war horse’ of the racing world, having raced 67 times on the flat and not retiring until he was eleven years old. Silver has the nickname of; Super Silver, as he turns his hoof to everything that is asked of him. He has done demonstrations at Blenheim Horse Trials and will be attending again this September. Silver is like a big labrador, who has the movement of a warmblood. He has competed at BD Novice regional and Petplan Elementary level. He is currently competing medium level, but, as with the same with Greg, spends a lot of time sitting on the sidelines due to injury. Between the two of them they have amassed; scrapped knee caps, frozen shoulder, broken pedal bone, chipped elbows, capped hocks and a suspensory issue. If we refer to the opening sentence; the joy of these horses is that once you have taught them something, if they have an enforced break, then, fitness aside, they're usually better for the break and will pick up relatively from where you left off.
I always say that life is never boring with us. Alongside the racehorses we have three Para horses, ridden by Grade three GBR rider Amanda Shirtcliffe who is part of the World Class programme. We also have ‘proper’ dressage horses, a couple of event horses and a few horses that do a bit of everything. Alongside the riding horses we also have a few stables dedicated to rehabilitation of horses post injury, surgery, or some that need strengthening and developing. I have a wonderful home team that consist of some of the best; saddlers, farriers, nutritionists, physios (human and equine) personal trainers and a wonderful family to help support us along the way.
I take pride in the set up of the yard that I have. I believe that horses need to be horses and that a vital part of that is turnout and turnout with others. Ours go either in pairs or threes, so they can play and develop social skills. It is especially important for those just leaving racing to have some down times and to also be able to move and let everything relax down. All horses go to the field every day. In the summer they are out at night and in the winter they go out, every day, even if it’s just for 20 minutes to have a jump and buck around.
At home, my horses are always allowed to be covered in mud, have knots in their tails and we just won’t mention the poo stains that permanently live all over Silver. (Quad has gone to nationals with mud behind his ears). Yes of course they wear rugs as and when they need them, but if they really don't require them at any given time, then they become filth monsters. All of the effort goes into making sure they have the right tack, bits, saddles, shoes, rugs etc for them and what each individual needs. I have a fabulous team of people surrounding me. We all work, consult and discuss each horse according to their ‘programme’ and makings are that each horse keeps striving forward in the direction and pace that they can go at.
They all have ad lib forage where it be hay or haylage. I do get asked quite frequently what all of our horses are fed on, and how much as they look well and fit for their jobs. The fundamental plan that I have for them all is; simplicity. A ‘base line’ of Horse & Pony Cubes and chaff/fibre in some sort of description. The Spillers Conditioning Fibre is one of my first ‘go to’s’ for the ones just coming out of racing, or who look poor or struggle mainly through the winter months. The Alfalfa Pro Fibre has been a wonderful addition to the yard and I’ve found with some of the spooky horses (mainly Silver) and some of the more lethargic horses it has really helped them. We have a few that can become quite loose in their droppings and the Alfalfa Pro Fibre has really settled their stomachs. With most of the ex-racers I take the ‘assumption’ that they have, or are prone to ulcers so feed and manage them accordingly. Quadrille is known to get them and also cribs. I have seen a slight reduction in the cribbing since being on the Alfalfa Pro Fibre. With the correct feed, grass and hay all of their coats look amazing, they maintain their weight along with developing new muscle in places as a racehorse they never had, and as a result their feet improve and look better with every shoeing! We do monitor each horse carefully and consult with all members of our team if we feel like they may be struggling, needing more (or less in some of their cases…) and adjust accordingly. All of the feeds are non-heating and are of the lowest starch content, with the highest fibre content that we can achieve (why would you want to give the duracell bunny heating food?!?!?)
We don't really have a ‘season’ with dressage, it’s an all year round discipline, so we are out competing usually 2-3 times (sometimes we can even do 7 days!) a week. With the ex-racer being of a sensitive nature, some struggle to stay calm on the day of the show, and for a few days after. Some don't eat up, some don't drink as much as they should do etc etc. This is mainly seen in the ‘newcomers’ but also some of the older horses depending upon the time of year, how far they have travelled and what they have had to do level wise. The Spillers SPEEDY-Mash Fibre is great for fussy eaters and helps get some water into them. It has been brilliant for when we are travelling and very easy to make up, do and go with reduced risk to colic etc for feeding whilst travelling.
One of the best things about having ex-racehorses is that you never stop learning. For every; bad test, bad journey, lost shoe, tense horse, unwilling horse, lame horse, lack of developing of a horse, etc etc You learn, develop and become better. The ex-racehorses are willing to give you so much, they want to learn and they want to please, but we have to remember that we are asking them (especially in my case) to do something so opposite to their breeding and previous training. I cannot stress enough the amount of time that it takes for these horses not to only physically, but mentally develop into their new careers. As a trainer, you have to think of a 1000 different ways of approaching the same problem/solution, but the rewards of that far outweigh the negative moments where it can sometimes just seem like a losing battle.
So our up and coming plans………We have; regionals, Petplan first and second rounds, RoR championships at Aintree, Nationals, Blenheim Palace Horse Trials, (demo) Gatcombe Horse trials (demo) ‘normal’ shows for qualifications for Winter regionals, horses coming in for periods of training, training of our own, lessons to teach and that takes us to the end of September (like I said, its never dull..) The aims for the next few months and year is to keep on improving, developing and producing happy, sound athletes in their second career. I hope you enjoy the journey with us!