No matter how many times you plan out your life, your year, your week, or your day, something is always bound to happen that you can't quite predict. Little things that change the timing of your day and big things that change the pattern of several months - they both require that we know how to adapt and how to be flexible. When training and working with horses, this is especially true. We're adding an extra factor, an extra window of opportunity for these plan-changing instances - the horse. We can make plans based on what we initially see. Conformation and temperament, manner of going, amount of focus - these all can help formulate an initial training plan, but we must be careful to adapt the plan to the horse, not the horse to the plan.
Kasa racing last summer, August 2015.
When Kasa and I were accepted into the 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover (created and hosted by the Retired Racehorse Project) on February 15, it set a goal, albeit a far-off one. By October 26, 2016, I wanted him to be ready to compete at the event, an extraordinary opportunity to help increase demand for racehorses in second careers. I knew his conformation, the personality I had seen in our two months together, and his movement, but I didn't know how he would handle retraining mentally. We had yet to delve into the specifics of his personality and the things you only see after building a more in-depth relationship. I didn't know if he could jump, if he would have a fear of poles and new things; I didn't know if he would accept our input in changing his training, or if he would become defensive. I certainly didn't know he would put me in a cast just 5 days later.
Kasa's first post-track conformation shot, February 2016.
Mid-March, we knew a little more about this lanky, long-legged beastie. As I was out of commission, I sat on the sidelines as Allie started working with him. We began with lunging, and like many horses, he was uncomfortable (mentally, not physically) working on his right side. Always lead from the left, mount from the left, LIVE on the left side - this mindset creates asymmetrical horses, horses that are defensive on their right sides, horses that will try to constantly reposition you so you're on their left. We worked through these insecurities both in-hand and on the lunge, and he slowly improved. Around this time, we also decided to free-jump Kasa for the first time - just to gauge his reaction to poles. Some horses don't understand poles, they see them as a foreign object, as something to be scared of. These horses will be uncomfortable splitting their legs over a ground pole. They feel vulnerable. As Allie worked with Kasa over his first ground poles, it became immediately apparent that this would not be a point of insecurity for him. He felt comfortable walking over them without hesitation, splitting his legs, knocking them, stepping on them. They weren't a threat. And so we jumped.
Kasa lunging right side, March 2016 (Allie's view)
Kasa free-jumping, late March 2016 (2nd time)
Towards the end of April, we were a week deep into ulcer treatment, trouble-shooting why Kasa wouldn't gain more weight. He now long-lined proficiently and had been lightly re-started under saddle (plus I finally had my cast off), but we decided to give him a few weeks off to give the ulcer treatment and subsequent weight gain a greater chance of success. Time for him to just be a horse.
The day before my birthday, May 17, we had our first ride back (total ride number 9) and jumped our first cross rail. A week and a few rides later, Kasa left for Minnesota to spend a quality five weeks with Suzy Fitzsimmons while I traveled with family. While at her farm, he saw sheep and cows, learned how to back up and off a trailer, and greatly increased his ability to focus on his handler, especially on the right side. Though he wasn't ridden, she addressed much more important things for him, and he came back on June 26 a more attentive and thoughtful partner.
Jumping our first cross rail, May 2016.
In order to begin building his strength, July became Jump Month (on July 1, he had 15 rides under his belt post-track). The gymnastics, the exercises, and the courses were changed several times a week. For a horse with focus issues, jumping became an excellent focusing tool for him. We set things up to be tackled like puzzles, with little interference from his rider. Ridden on a long rein and mostly in trot, Kasa learned bounces, combinations, skinnies, trot poles, and every which kind of oxer. The rides were short but effective, and his muscling and confidence in his job have both continually improved. If he seemed overfaced, we backed off and changed tactics. We let the horse dictate how much he could handle. We followed his lead, and I am in awe of where he has taken us.
Video stills from July Jump month (above) and Kasa jumping his first course on July 11 (below)
With just under 3 months until the commencement of the 2016 Makeover, we will start looking at improving his flatwork and dressage. Based on what he has shown so far, I'm looking to aim him at the eventing and show jumping divisions, but the deadline to declare our discipline isn't for another six weeks. In the meantime, we will continue to set small goals and let the path there remain fluid, not fixed. And hopefully, he will keep stepping up and hitting it out of the park!