Lead Pony 101 Presented By Nupafeed: Re-Schooling The Off-Track Thoroughbred

A large number of the lead ponies working to escort Thoroughbreds on the racetrack are actually ex-racehorses themselves. Off-track Thoroughbreds, specifically gelded males at the end of their racing careers, tend to make the transition to ponying fairly easily because they are already accustomed to the sights and sounds of the track.

Over the course of the next several weeks, the Paulick Report will follow that transition from racehorse to lead pony courtesy of a bay gelding named “Trajan.” The 4-year-old by Heart of the Storm (Storm Cat) didn't have an outstanding racing career, winning just once from nine starts, but his owner and trainer recognized that his kind and people-friendly personality would make the gelding an ideal prospect for any number of second careers.

Marilyn Montavon met “Trey” at the Lexington Training Center and immediately liked him. A well-known pony person on the Kentucky circuit, she operates a string of anywhere from five to 12 lead ponies at any given time. Montavon arranged for Trey to be shipped to her farm outside Lexington for some down time and a full veterinary check-up.

Trey needed throat surgery to open his airway; it was constricted to nearly 50 percent capacity via a congenital malformation. Once he recovered, Montavon turned him out with the rest of the rotating herd of ponies at her farm and just let him be a horse for nearly a year.

That down time is vital for a Thoroughbred, in her opinion, because it not only allows his body to completely heal any underlying issues, it also allows the horse's brain to relax and recharge so he can enter re-training with a “clean slate,” so to speak. At the end of May, Montavon reached out to ask me to begin the process of turning Trey into a lead pony.

Transitioning a Thoroughbred from his high-flying racing career to that of a steadier lead pony involves not only re-schooling the horse's responses to the various stimuli of the track, but also includes teaching him to be far more responsive to rein and leg aids, improving what is referred to as his “handle.” It is easier to accomplish the latter in a low-stress environment, away from the racetrack.

The first step I took when Trey arrived at my local riding facility was to work with him on the ground. We discussed how to lead properly (i.e., not dragging me or running me over), standing tied, and moving away from pressure on different parts of his body. He was a star student that afternoon (once he realized he needed to respect my space), so I decided to try outfitting him in a western saddle.

Racehorses are usually exercised in small, very lightweight saddles that conform to their bodies. A horned western saddle is far heavier and generally has any number of leather straps or other equipment hanging from it, especially when in use on a lead pony. It is important that Trey learn to carry the extra weight and not react to pieces of equipment touching his sides and flanks.

After I led him around under the saddle — trotting in hand, backing up, turning both directions—with no negative response, I hopped up on his back to see what he remembered. Trey liked to wiggle when I mounted and dismounted, but he would easily turn in both directions, following a direct rein (pulling in the direction the horse is supposed to go), and responded to leg pressure by trotting off sensibly.

What impressed me most was that the young Thoroughbred was able to maintain his composure in totally new surroundings, walking calmly around the farm and not acting the least bit nervous. In my experience, a horse can be taught to relax in new surroundings via long hours of practice, but it is far easier when the horse behaves that way naturally.

On the second ride, I began to teach Trey one of the most important things he would need to know as a lead pony: how to neck rein. As stated above, racehorses are steered via a direct rein, meaning that the rider pulls on the right rein when he or she wants to go right, and vice versa. A lead pony needs to be able to be ridden one-handed, because his rider's other hand is needed to control the racehorse, so the neck rein is employed. The horse should move away from the rein when it is laid against the side of his neck—for example, to turn to the right the rider moves his or her hand (holding both reins) to the right, touching the left side of the horse's neck with the left rein.

Obviously, to respond to a neck rein is nearly entirely backward of anything Trey had been taught to that point. The easiest way to teach the neck rein is through simple association: when asking the horse to turn right, pull on the right rein while touching his neck with the left rein, adding some left leg for encouragement. Eventually I will be able to decrease the pressure on my right rein when turning right as he learns to associate one cue with the other.

Trey is a quick learner, so I began teaching him to “turn.” Similar to the way a reining horse spins, a lead pony needs to know how to turn his front end around his back end. I teach this beginning at the halt, asking for a right turn with the neck rein and adding my left leg. Probably, the horse will step forward, which I will correct by asking him to halt again.

It is important to note there is a delicate balance required when teaching the horse to turn. This is a forward motion, and backward steps are not to be encouraged. The horse should cross the leg on the outside of the turn over the inside leg, not vice versa, because it is the most efficient and safe way to turn at speed.

Any time Trey takes a single correct turning step, he is instantly rewarded with voice and a pat on the neck, and asked to step forward to maintain the idea that the turn is a forward motion. For now, one leg-crossing step at a time in either direction is plenty to ask for.

During ride number three, I kept encouraging the neck rein skill and began asking Trey to keep a steady, balanced pace at all three gaits. We also worked on standing still at the halt, which it turns out would take a bit more convincing. At the end of the ride, I had my old pony horse Uno brought out on a halter and lead rope, then took hold of him from the saddle on Trey's right side to observe the youngster's reaction.

Trey first tried to turn his head and neck around to look at the other horse, which I discouraged. I allowed him to look at Uno (who is such an endlessly patient assistant), but not to reach around and sniff noses. When Trey took a deep breath and began licking and chewing on the bit, demonstrating relaxation, the three of us took off for a walk around the farm.

One thing I really did not want to see was any negative reaction toward the other horse, like kicking out at him. Trey showed no such inclination, though he was a bit hesitant to move toward Uno. Again, I waited for him to relax, then began asking him to turn at the walk in both directions. To the left was easy, away from the other horse, but to the right seemed to intimidate Trey.

By moving Uno away from Trey slightly by pushing his halter, I was able to show Trey how walking toward the other horse would result in being able to turn that direction. After several tries, Trey got the idea and began leaning up against Uno to get him to move over so we could go to the right.

When he starts ponying on the track, that will be an important skill for Trey to have as most racehorses are not nearly so polite as old man Uno. Not only will they regularly bump into Trey, some will literally try to push him over, and he needs to learn to that his job is to stand his ground.

Just like with any other equine sport, re-schooling an OTTB is a process. Starting with solid basics like neck reining, turning and being next to another horse, Trey is well on his way to learning the trade. Next week, he will take a trip up the road to the training center to practice keeping the same composure on the racetrack, and perhaps even to jog alongside actual racehorses as they complete their morning exercises.

The post Lead Pony 101 Presented By Nupafeed: Re-Schooling The Off-Track Thoroughbred appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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