June 2016 - My Thoroughbred Makeover

“Virtuous cycles” and “losegelassenhiet” are part of the program.

by Emily Flaxman

It’s been another month of painfully little progress. Merlin is sound again but having had so much time off since he finished racing, I’m bringing him back slowly.

Merlin is already a champ out on trail. Photo: Kasey Kreske

He generally works five or six days a week, either trail rides or lunging at the moment. He is still a little soft on his hoof in the arena under saddle but is perfectly sound on the lunge. Because he has so little topline, I like to work him a few times a week without a rider to help those muscles develop.

He’s turned into a professional on the trails though. He plows up and down the hills, doesn’t care if wildlife jumps out and goes through or over everything I ask him to. I love the hills for helping to build the topline and loins, and hopefully seeing life outside of the arena will help us cope with the atmosphere when we get to Kentucky for this year’s Thoroughbred Makeover.

The ulcer medications I gave him last month, plus the probiotics, seemed to have helped him become more comfortable internally and his appetite has definitely increased. The weight gain is another painfully slow thing at the moment. Some days I think I see improvement, then he changes angle and I see every rib!

His hooves are looking interesting now. There is a new, tighter hoof growing in from the coronet band and it’s about halfway down, then there is a dramatic angle change for the old hoof. At first glance it looks like flare but it’s not, and if I tried to rasp it off I could risk making him sore.

So, although it looks a little ugly I’ll just leave it to grow out. I trim him every two or three weeks at the moment, taking a tiny bit each time, so the old weak hoof doesn’t split off or crack.

Louie is still giving me sleepless nights. He was showing miniscule progress every week for a while and then he had to have four days off over last weekend because I was so busy. When I bought him out of the pasture he was on three legs. I hand walked him and he worked out of it and the next day he was sound again. I think he walks from his hay pile to his water bucket and that is it when he is left to his own devices. From now on he is on a strict regime of handwalks twice a day to see if that works.

I’ve been taking him for hikes up Mt. Diablo, so at the very least I’ll get a little bit fitter! Although with seven horses to ride every day, I’m not sure I need the extra exercise. I’m hoping that the walking will start to firm up all his muscles and the extra strength will make him more comfortable and that it will start to become a virtuous cycle.

Body & Mind

Once I can get a baseline of fitness on them both, their arena work will focus on softness and “Losegelassenhiet” -- pronounced “Loose-gelensen-heit.” This doesn’t have a direct translation into English, but it means “looseness,” both of body and mind. The most efficient and economical way for a horse to use its body is in relaxation; tension is both more physically taxing and also tends to cause the horse to use its joints incorrectly, which, over time, could lead to damage.

Horses are more mind-body connected than humans, so in order to relax in their bodies they have to relax mentally and vice versa. It’s another virtuous cycle.

When a horse puts its head up, the physiological response is to release cortisone - a stress hormone, which raises the adrenaline, making the horse more excited. We’ve all experienced this when we’ve been riding and our horse spooks, the head pops up and suddenly you’re riding a fire-breathing dragon.

If you can get the horse to lower its head and work through its back, this has a natural calming effect. It’s often easier said than done though! Using tools such as leverage bits or draw reins won’t help because, although you will get the head in the correct position, the horse will be tense and will feel trapped.

The best way I have found is work on a circle, concentrating on bend to the inside. It’s really tiring for a horse to have its head both up and to the side, so if you can encourage the correct bend (usually) after a while the horse will get tired and start to drop the nose down. If you can be quick with your timing and release and praise at this point, the horse will start to understand what he is meant to do. I like to add inside leg at this point, I squeeze with my inside calf almost with a thought towards leg yield. This helps to encourage the stepping through with the hind leg. You always want to be thinking leg into hand, especially with a Thoroughbred because they don’t understand that contact means “stop,” not “take hold and gallop” – which is what it means on the racetrack.

Once the horse understands this concept at walk in both directions, I’ll move into trot. I’ll hope to keep the frame during the transition but generally they will pop back up and you have to start the concept from the beginning again.

You want an active trot but not so fast that the horse isn’t balanced. I tend to err on the side of too slow at first unless I feel like the horse is evading by being behind the bit. Transitions within the pace also help a lot with teaching the horse how to use its back and push from the hind leg. At first I’ll keep everything super simple, big circles, easy changes of direction and gradual transitions. The focus is more on the consistency, the horse has to stay soft and supple in both his back and the bridle.  I don’t want him at this point to learn bad habits that I’ll have to undo further down the journey!

I’m really excited to get started working in the arena with Merlin. There have been a few times out on trails where he has pumped himself up, lifted in the shoulder and sat down behind. He’s shown me he has talent, unluckily for him!


Columnist Emily Flaxman uses dressage as a foundation for training OTTBs and other breeds from her base in the East Bay Area’s Clayton. She trained Go Wheeler Go to top finishes in her first Thoroughbred Makeover last year (California Riding Magazine, January 2016). Emily is detailing her preparation for this year’s Thoroughbred Makeover, in late October in Kentucky, in our pages. To learn more about Emily, visit www.emilyflaxman.com.
For more on the Thoroughbred Makeover, visit www.retiredracehorseproject.com.