Week one of Gemma’s new sporthorse career is going well! I’m really enjoying having a green horse again… maybe I’m some kind of glutton for punishment or something but I do really enjoy these beginning stages.
I think it’s because everything is so much simpler when they’re at this stage. Expectations are low, tasks are simple, and every little thing is an achievement. They also make very quick progress with all these simpler things, so it’s easy to see the changes from day to day. It’s a “tougher” stage I suppose because they don’t know as much, but I think it’s super rewarding. Like when’s the last time I was mega proud of Henry for standing like a rock in the crossties while I spent a few minutes digging around for something in the tack room? Or being very polite for the farrier? Or actually stopping when I said whoa? He’s far enough into life that those things are just expected of him, but for Gemma they’re new and worth celebrating.
She got her feet done on Monday, which she was really good for. Better than the first time for sure (where she wasn’t totally certain that she had to hold up any of her own feet, and may or may not have attempted to lay on the farrier) although I still chose to hold her rather than put her in the crossties. I think next time we can shoe her in the crossties with me just standing nearby. Since she got her fancy new Nikes I’ve put her on an every other day work schedule. The first time was Tuesday, where I tacked her up, did a little work on the line with voice commands and moving her shoulders/haunches, and some basic desensitization. She’s very sensitive, and if things come at her quickly or unexpectedly she can be a little reactive… not in a panicky way usually but definitely a little bit worried. When she first got here she was particularly jumpy if you came at her face quickly and/or without warning. She’s already gotten better about that, but I do think she could be a little less reactive to things in general. I don’t want to make her dull, but I do want to take that sharpness away that’s caused by nervousness. Thus: desensitizing.
I started with the lunge line, tossing it over her back, neck, haunches, and around her hind legs. She didn’t care much about that. So I decided instead to use the lunge whip, which she was much more leery of. Luckily she isn’t the type to panic and bolt for the hills, she just gets wide eyed and shuffles away. When I first started moving the whip back and forth in front of her she mostly tried to slowly tiptoe backwards, hiding behind me. Cute, but… not quite what we were after. I just kept going and waited for her to stop and relax, then I stopped moving the whip and praised her.
Then I did the same thing on either side of her, which was fairly uneventful. After that I moved on to actually touching her with the lash of the whip… rubbing her neck and haunches, dangling it over to the other side, dragging it across her and lightly tossing it around her legs. At first she couldn’t quite figure out what I wanted, but every time she stood still I patted her and stopped moving the whip for a few seconds before starting again. It didn’t take her long to figure out that the game was to just stand still.
After that I progressed to tossing it back and forth over the top of her head. I figured that would be the thing she was most worried about so I’d saved it for last on purpose, and by this point she didn’t care much. She kept one ear on the whip, just in case, so not as totally relaxed about it as we will eventually aim for, but she didn’t move her feet.
I let her be done with that, and spent a few minutes standing at the mounting block putting my foot in and out of the stirrup, leaning over her, flapping the stirrups around, etc. They don’t use mounting blocks at the track so for that stuff I basically just treat her like an unbroke horse.
Yesterday we did pretty much the same thing again, but with more trotting in the lunge work and the introduction of some very loose side reins, so we can start talking about contact. She remembered the voice command work from the session before, and her “walk”, “whoa”, and “trot” are getting better. Whoa is probably the best at this point… the rest is more hit or miss. Still better from the first time though, so she’s definitely getting it.
We followed that with a little more of the same desensitization work with the whip, and then more lessons at the mounting block. Nothing was perfect of course, but everything was an improvement over the first session, and that’s all I’m after at this point.
I do think that she’s starting to become a bit bonded to me. She’s the type that’s a little more distrustful of strangers, especially men (judging from farrier and vet appointments anyway) but she seems to have figured out that I’m a safe space. She will leave the other horses to come up to the gate if she sees me, and when they come in for dinner every night she stands and waits for me to block Henry so he can’t try to bite her when she goes past. She’s really starting to look to me first for guidance when she gets concerned about something, which I love.
For now I think this is exactly the kind of stuff she needs, and we’ll keep doing groundwork and laying down the base for a little while longer. So far I’m really pleased with her – she’s smart, she learns well, she wants to please, and she’s people-oriented. She’s brave about her surroundings and confident enough in herself not be herdbound or worried about where the other horses are. Those are all traits I can work with, and all the reasons why I love thoroughbreds so much. It’s been a while since I had a young green OTTB… I’d almost forgotten how much I love them.
She does make me wish that I could breed her and embark on her sport career at the same time though, a little Gemmette would be adorable. Too bad embryo transfer is so expensive! Eventually…. just not yet.