Do you want an athletic, affordable, intelligent dressage partner who has already been exposed to the sights and sounds of a competition environment? Look no further than the off the track Thoroughbred!
While many dressage riders source Warmbloods as equine partners, there are many reasons that a Thoroughbred should be your next dressage horse. Dressage is truly the training of the horse–it doesn’t matter what breed your horse is–Warmblood, Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, Pony, they all have their own strengths and weaknesses both as individuals and as a breed. The thoroughbred is no different.
Like any dressage horse, a good quality, three-beat, uphill canter should be a first priority, followed by a relaxed swinging four-beat walk, and lastly a rhythmical trot. The trot in a Thoroughbred can be easy to overlook or dismiss, as they lack the suspension of some of the other breeds, but do not discount what you can strengthen and train into the trot! The trot is the easiest gait to improve and you can increase suspension and length of stride with training.
Thoroughbreds are intelligent and they love to work, which can work for you and against you. I learned early that riding Thoroughbreds can be very different than other horses–they like consistency but are less tolerant of “drilling”.
Thoroughbreds are intelligent and they love to work, which can work for you and against you.
They worry and tension can play a role in their ability to learn. Thoroughbreds want to please–when there is tension it is almost always because of a misunderstanding, and their desire to please causes these sensitive animals to overreact to aids or display nervous excitement in anticipation of being incorrect.
While some horses you can muscle or punish for a lack of understanding, the Thoroughbred needs you to take your time and break down an exercise or movement into simple pieces to successfully learn. Do your best to keep their trust in you as a rider and do not to lose your temper…resist overreacting to mistakes.
It is in their nature to try hard, and having a consistent program that reassures and rewards behavior, rather than disciplining it will go a long way with a Thoroughbred horse.
Rhythm, relaxation, and contact are important to establish at an early stage in the OTTB.
A large part of my early training with Thoroughbreds is teaching them how to relax, take a breath, walk and trot on a long rein and stretch their neck and back. Rhythm, relaxation, and contact are important to establish at an early stage in the OTTB.
Racehorses are taught to lean into the bridle in order to balance. As dressage riders we need to understand that if these horses are not given a contact, they cannot balance, and falling on the forehand in an unbalanced manner usually results in a faster rhythm. They seek a consistent, quiet contact with your hands.
These horses are generally eager to go forward, which may be intimidating if you are used to a more typical sport horse. It can be tempting to take the leg off of these more sensitive horses but it is exactly the opposite! These horses need your legs wrapped around them like a friendly hug–they need to know that you are there and not be “surprised” by the application of the leg to their side.
These horses need your legs wrapped around them like a friendly hug…
The same goes for teaching these horses to accept a “touch” with a dressage whip. Training on the ground, progressing to training under saddle, can be helpful to teach the Thoroughbred that the whip does not mean go faster! If they are never touched with the whip, it is easy for them to overreact or misunderstand its purpose.
Teach your Thoroughbred to lift and place his foot down from touching his leg. Teach him to move from side to side with a touch of the whip on the side or shoulder. Touch him on the top of the rump to encourage him to sit. They are trained to react a specific way on the racetrack, and it is our job to recondition them that this is just another form of communication, not a punishment or an indication to go faster.
Sometimes Thoroughbreds need their rider and trainer to think outside of the box. For example, a Thoroughbred displaying tension may do very well with the rider in the two point position to allow the back to relax before a training session. Some of them need to canter before they can settle into their trot work.
Sometimes Thoroughbreds need their rider and trainer to think outside of the box.
I have had some Thoroughbreds that are sensitive and display tension in the sitting trot–so I only sit when I absolutely have to. There is no reason you can’t train all the movements in a posting trot–in fact I even had Laura Graves tell me that she schools the passage in posting trot to help keep her horses backs up!
The other difference I see with the Thoroughbred horse is to know when to stop rather than repetitively drilling, which other horse breeds may let you get away with. Reward the horse when the behavior was good then move on and always end on a positive note.
When it comes to Thoroughbreds in dressage, lateral movements are your friends! Thoroughbreds need strengthening and loosening through the lateral movements. Teaching shoulder in, haunches in, and leg yield will dramatically increase the suppleness of the horse and aid in the training.
There is nothing worse than a tense Thoroughbred without a “job”. Give your nervous or tense Thoroughbred something to do. Rhythmical flexing on a circle, leg yields, shoulder in and counter canter can do wonders on a horse that is excited and needs to put their brain and body to work.
There is nothing worse than a tense Thoroughbred without a “job”.
Variety is hugely important to both the mental and physical health of the Thoroughbred dressage horse. Sometimes a trail ride or a canter through the field or a session over cavaletti or jumps makes these horses happy to go back to work in the dressage ring the next day. Strengthening exercises over cavaletti can help with issues with rhythm, suspension and encouraging these horses to shift weight to their hindlegs.
Thoroughbreds generally have smaller mouths than more traditional dressage breeds which can make bit selection tricky. Nervous habits with their tongue, chewing, or teeth grinding can generally be fixed by dental care, proper bit selection, and training/relaxation techniques. Working with a variety of bits, mouthpiece materials, jointed/unjointed/multi jointed, and fixed versus loose rings can help the horse learn to relax his mouth, tongue and jaw.
Nosebands also fit the sensitive Thoroughbred face differently, and experimenting with anatomic nosebands can help aid in the acceptance of the bridle. Bit selection is even more important when it comes to a double bridle. Trial and error, as well as help of a bit fitting professional, can make this process easier. Like any horse, the Thoroughbred needs time to relax in the double bridle, so gradual introduction is helpful in gaining their acceptance of the bit.
Remember when you are sitting on a Thoroughbred in the warmup of a sea of floating warmbloods, good quality test riding with good quality training will always score well. The higher you go in the levels, the more important this becomes and the better your Thoroughbred will score.
These horses are smart and have a huge desire to please. Take the time to have them trust you and teach them ways to outlet their energy to work in your advantage, and you will have a partner in the white box for life.