Written by: Lindsay Ward

The value of groundwork in re-training the off track thoroughbred.

Thumbnail for Borders Racing Stable Invests in OTTB Re-Training

Alberta thoroughbred breeder and owner Hazel Bennett of Borders Racing Stables and Tracey Skinner of Meadowlands Stables have partnered to apply the concepts of ground work and natural horsemanship to successfully retrain off track thoroughbreds (OTTB) for new careers.

Bennett and Skinner were first introduced over 17 years ago at Falcon Cliff Farms where Bennett started a 4-H Club. Skinner had spent her early riding career in the hunter jumper ring achieving much success on the circuit with a thoroughbred named Paddington. In the past decade, her interests and focus turned toward training young horses and developing their versatility. Skinner’s goals and training methods were a perfect match for Bennett who is passionately dedicated to providing her racehorses with promising futures in new careers after the track.

Bennett believes that thoroughbred breeders and owners have a responsibility to make sure their horses have options for a successful second career.

“If your breeding program isn’t working, you have to quit that breeding and make sure (the horses) have a good life. I would rather have them trained so I know they’re trained right,” Bennett said.

Skinner discovered the value of natural horsemanship and groundwork when she was searching for techniques to use in the fundamental education of horses. After spending extensive time learning the principles with well-known natural horsemanship trainers such as Jonathan Field, Jim Anderson and Glenn Stewart, Skinner now uses ground work as the central concept in her retraining of young and off track thoroughbreds.

“A thoroughbred will give everything they can and extra if they trust their person,” Skinner said.

She emphasizes that her training philosophy incorporates the release of pressure as a basic concept. Learning is also facilitated through allowing the horse to rest and “giving some time for the lessons to sink in.”

Ground work methods allow ample ‘let down’ time for a horse to gain an understanding of expectations in a positive environment and a “rub is always given as a reward on top.”

The nature of groundwork offers an ideal solution for relaxing and letting down thoroughbreds as these horses go through a stressful transition time at the start of a new career. Individual horses adapt in different ways and groundwork provides a method of allowing the horse to slowly build a relationship with a person with minimal pressure. The timeline may be different with each horse but Skinner stresses that “groundwork is the most important thing you can do with a horse, the longer I spend on the groundwork, the less time I need in the saddle.”

There are four main groundwork exercises Skinner focuses on when first starting to work with an OTTB and she adds that “having these four exercises is a great foundation for a riding horse, as well as liberty work.”

Tracey Skinner’s four fundamental ground work exercises:

The back-up: The goal is to achieve a soft and responsive back up through touch or intent (through my body language). “A trend I’ve found in off-the-track thoroughbreds is that they don’t always have a clear understanding of respecting my space.” A good back up is a very useful tool in helping establish respect and boundaries and is a foundation movement for a good riding horse.”

Hindquarter yield: This exercise disengages the hind end and helps regain control of the horse. It is also used to create suppleness and bend in the horse’s body.

Shoulder yield: This is a hugely important exercise for OTTBs. “I have noticed that when thoroughbreds first come off the track they tend to be pushy with their shoulders, especially the left one.” The shoulder yield also helps to establish the horses respect for the trainers’ space.

Send out on a circle: The goal is for the horse to maintain pace, hold the shape of the circle and stay soft on the line.

Skinner said that groundwork offers a valuable method of developing a horse’s education without the trainer being subject to unnecessary risks.

“I do get on colts, as a big part of my business is starting young horses… I’m just not interested in my first rides being wild ones! If all my groundwork is done well, it’s an easy transition to under saddle,” Skinner said.

She believes that another key to success is making sure that the horse has a leader.

“As a herd animal, horses are happiest when they know who is in charge,” Skinner said.

Groundwork is an excellent tool for retraining the off track thoroughbred and should be incorporated into any program for these horses. It allows the horse and trainer to establish the fundamentals of communication without the pressure of ridden work. There is usually much less confusion once mounted work is begun as the horse has already mastered the proper responses. Ground work allows for a more relaxed and responsive horse which is, after all, the ultimate goal of most training programs.

Borders Racing Stable Thoroughbreds in training  at Meadowlands:

by Crafty Prospector

This gelding was trained up to the starting gate at the track but didn’t have the drive to make a top racehorse. At the age of three, he was brought to Skinner and has developed into a wonderful all around English and Western horse that “so many people can ride, you just can’t get a sweeter horse.”

by Magic Prospect

Bennett laughs as she said, on the track, Danny “won more seconds than any other horse in the world!” Initially, Danny had trouble adapting to his new life as he ‘lost’ his person from the track with whom he was very closely bonded. Bennett and Skinner believe the connections Danny made through extensive groundwork have helped him to manage the transition off the track. Now, in his new career, Danny is finding success as a riding horse and has been to the mountains as well as on hunts.

by Magic Prospect

Bennett moved this filly on to start training for a new career after she showed a propensity for only “running three quarters of the race” with two starts at the track. Skinner has now put about a month of ground work on Galango and notes a huge difference in her confidence in that time “when she’s facing me or looking toward me, there’s that comfort there for her.”