Editors Note: This series follows the journey of Las Vegas horse trainer Jennifer Osborne as she prepares for the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover in Lexington, Kentucky. Each month, Jennifer will share her progress as she makes her OTTB mare competition ready.
When I picked up Fortunate Cookie, aka Flynn, at the end of January to begin her Thoroughbred Makeover training I had no idea what she would turn into or what the future would hold. With every horse that I retrain, I think I learn more about myself than I do about the horse I’m working with. Horse training is a journey in horsemanship as much as it is an adventure into self-discovery. Now that we are four months into Flynn’s training, I think we know each other pretty well.
Over the past four months, we have been working to turn Flynn into a well broke horse. Now that she is approaching something that looks like “broke” we are refining everything to get ready for the big competition in Kentucky in October. We only have a few short months to turn her into an event horse and a freestyle phenom. That means a boring repetition of endless collection exercises like bending transitions and drive to a stop, plus groundwork exercises like out-and-back and side passing. All of this training helps to build a great foundation for Flynn’s future. That includes doing her second cross country schooling show!
We traveled to Coconino County, Arizona last weekend. Whenever I take a horse to a new place, I begin with groundwork. I think that is the best way to let a green horse get to know the surroundings. Working the horse from the ground gives the horse one thing to focus on at a time. In this case, they can focus on the exercises without having to worry about the stress of a rider. Repetition of these groundwork exercises acts as a stress reliever too. I rest the horse when they relax and in that way, the horse starts to associate relaxation with the trainer as well. It is the so-called circle of life of horse training.
I took Flynn out of her stall and began with backing to get her attention. Then I lunged her all the way down to the cross country field to send her over obstacles. The great thing about a rope halter is that it is a versatile training tool that can be used in many situations without having to change equipment. Using a rope halter I can go from backing to sending her over obstacles without a delay. The more I worked her from the ground on the first day, the more she relaxed and understood what was expected of her.
I took the opportunity to send her through the water, over ditches, down banks, and over tables. I wanted to expose her to anything that would be hard for her to understand at first sight. This way I could avoid the frustrating process of riding a horse that is refusing an obstacle. At every clinic I go to, I see riders struggling to take their horse over an obstacle the horse does not understand. And that is something I will never understand.
It is horse training 101 to give the horse only one thing to think about at a time when they are trying to learn. Horses are simple creatures. When they get overwhelmed, all the bricks come tumbling down and usually, the trainer cannot get much out of them. However, if things are introduced slowly, the horse has the ability to learn at a rapid rate. The horse seems to learn better when they just have to focus on jumping – not jumping and the rider. This seems to ring true no matter what you are training the horse to do.
Once the horse understands what you are trying to teach, the sky is the limit! The easiest way to help a horse understand is to break up the lesson into incremental parts. This is especially true with things like ditches and down banks. Because horses have poor depth perception, these situations can be extra scary. The last thing the horse needs is a predator sitting on top of them terrified to fall. We have to accept that the horse picks up on our thoughts when we ride – no matter how good a rider we are.
Working the horse from the ground gives the horse the opportunity to learn without interference from the human. This allows the horse learn in a low-stress environment and they retain the lesson better than they would in a high-stress environment.
Flynn did well going over all of the obstacles from the ground and then she was more relaxed in her stall on the first day. The next day she rode great for a horse with less than four months of training. We went over all of the intro and beginner novice jumps by starting really easy and then progressing as she became more confident. The next day we put together a few jumps at a time so we could practice doing a course. Flynn and I will be doing the Open Beginner Novice at Coconino in July and we are trying to be as ready as possible. I am sure there will be a lot of things to go wrong but at least once again it will expose holes in my program that I will have to plug before Kentucky.
In many ways, horse training is a metaphor for life. Horsemanship and “humanship” could even be the same thing. The same elements that make someone a good horseman are similar to the same things that make a nice human. In horsemanship you need empathy, timing, and patience, just to name a few. These same characteristics make a good person. At the end of the day, whatever the horse becomes is a reflection of who the trainer is as a person, for better or worse. The more I travel, the more I see people doing amazing and inspiring things with horses. For the next month, I will proceed with training Flynn with the mindset that I want her to be a productive citizen.