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.
Before we journey to Kentucky for the Thoroughbred Makeover, Flynn and I need to travel to as many places as possible. Then by the time I ship her halfway across the country, she will be used to traveling to different places. With this in mind, I took Flynn to her first horse show last month. We traveled a few hundred miles to Temecula, California to Galway Downs for the Thoroughbred Classic Horse Show. I take horses to this show every year and it is a great way to support charity for OTTBs and to get experience for horses of all levels in a low-stress environment. Three weeks later, Flynn and I went to Copper Meadows in Ramona, California for a cross country clinic and schooling show. The progression for Flynn over the last three months has been ground work, first ride, walk trot class in her first show, and elementary cross country schooling.
At the TB Classic, I took the opportunity to get there a day early so we could school at Kings Way Farm and give Flynn an opportunity to settle into her new surroundings. I chose to just send her over obstacles on the ground instead of trying to ride her over obstacles. I am a firm believer in introducing one thing at a time to horses so they do not get overwhelmed with too many tasks to learn. I would rather not create problems that have to be fixed later. In other words, I want to wait until the horse is comfortable enough to start jumping instead of trying to force the horse into a situation she is not ready for. That would only create problems like run outs and refusals. A little bit of extra time in the beginning always saves you time on the back end.
The first day I sent Flynn over a few logs and the up and down bank. I also worked her next to the water from the ground. I spent about an hour riding her around the grounds of Galway Downs the next day. On the last day, I rode her around the grounds again while soccer games, horse racing, and horse shows were all in full swing. After all of that, the walk trot class was easy for her. She trotted when I asked and walked when I asked. For her first show, I was pleased with how well she handled everything. Even on the trailer ride home, I could tell she was more mature than when we left.
The next month we ventured to Copper Meadows in Ramona, CA. I approached this experience with a similar mindset – to get Flynn exposed to new places without fear. Before the clinic, I took her out and worked her from the ground an hour before our session started. I used this opportunity to send her over and around every available obstacle from the ground first. Then I got on and rode all over the grounds. This included riding over obstacles, logs, and puddles.
By the time we got to the clinic, Flynn was relaxed and willing to try anything. She jumped everything that day without any stops and even walked right into the water. The next day I repeated the same thing by starting with ground work first and then riding her over the elementary/beginner novice course. Once again she trotted some fences and cantered some fences but she never stopped, not even at the ditch.
At both shows, multiple people commented on how calm and well-behaved she was. People basically kept telling me how good a horse she was – as if to say she was born to go over every obstacle and be respectful of humans. I can assure you that is not the case. I find it funny that people are always looking for a horse with “a good mind,” when most horses have good minds and just need a human with good horsemanship. So while I appreciated the compliments I also had to laugh. If they only knew the amount of time and preparation I had put into her they would not believe me!
I am sure people are wondering how I went from walk trot to jumping cross country in less than a month. And the answer is simple: foundation. I established a sound relationship with her by starting with ground work and teaching her a way to communicate with me. Then I moved on to riding and started with one rein stops to teach her how to steer and stop. Then I focused on getting her broke to ride which meant her going forward, backward, left and right. I also worked in a ground work session before every ride where I sent her over barrels, poles, and jumps.
No matter what, I always made sure to only teach her one new thing at a time. This way she could feel like she was always winning and would not get frustrated. Since a lot of this work is tedious in the beginning it can cause people to want to rush, but this is the very stage where you have to take your time and make sure everything is solid. That way you don’t have to waste time later going back to fill in holes.
I have spent the last three months working on foundation and exposure. I trail ride her and give her long rides and concentrated training. Through all of that, I always make sure to reward the slightest try. Now that Flynn has a gas pedal, brake, and steering wheel I can begin to work on her softness which will eventually lead to collection.
Asking for collection before a horse is ready can have dire consequences such as rearing, bucking, bolting, kissing spine, and hollow backs. A lot of times, as humans, we are unaware that we are causing these reactions in horses and we write the horse off as bad minded. To avoid these holes I always start with lateral flexion and release the pressure with the slightest try. That way the horse learns to give to pressure without resistance. I work into it slowly so the horse can understand the lesson without hurting herself.
When Flynn first came to me she had a two beat canter. Her front legs moved together and her back legs moved like one leg in the middle of a spaz attack. Because of this, I had to soften her body so she could develop a true three beat canter. I did two things to cure this. One: I put down four poles together to get her to separate her legs while cantering on the ground. Two: I softened her neck and rib cage through flexing and bending circles on progressive gaits starting at the walk.
It took hours and hours of repetition but now Flynn is able to canter a pretty decent circle and somewhat come through her back without being hollow. Of course, in the beginning, it looks like a complete disaster and I felt like I was not getting anywhere. But little by little I started to see improvement and forged on. The important thing I always try to remember is to not try to make everything perfect right away. Basically, don’t expect her to be good at algebra until she can add and subtract.
This is not easy for us type A personalities. We have to resist the urge to drill and drill the horse until they hate life. George Morris says to be like water on a stone. Clinton Anderson calls it the power of tinkering. I call it don’t be a jerk. In order to have a good working relationship with any creature you have to build trust. So you have to trust that the horse will be your partner and learn right along with you.