Building a partnership with a difficult horse

This is a story about my journey with Letterman and our one year journey to form a partnership.

When I bought my farm, I realized that I was going to have to seriously evaluate my budget and think about how I was going to afford it all. I knew that I was going to have to work really hard (in addition to my regular job :)) to bring in income. I have been successful at doing that. I have a bunch of wonderful clients who sent horses for training, awesome people who come to buy horses from me and a steady stream of local students who bring their horses for lessons or ride my horses in lessons.

My goals had changed in terms of what I needed in a horse. I didn’t intend on doing a lot of competing and most of my time was spent working with other people’s horses and the CANTER horses. I wanted a horse that I could get on and hit the trails without any additional stress. It could be green but it had to be safe and fun to ride. I didn’t want a boring horse. We all know that I like a bit of a challenge. I really wanted something that would take me on a journey. A horse that would challenge my skills as a rider in pushing me to be a better rider.

I remember picking Letterman up on Owner’s Day at Delaware Park in September of 2010. He looked like this:

We really were full on donations and I remember Allie making a remark along the lines that he was probably a cripple. I immediately was annoyed with him because he was kicking under the divider at the other horse and I actually had to stop and give him some Ace to calm him down. He was already a pain in the butt.

Letterman had been at the lay up farm for 8 months mainly because we had a bunch of other horses at that time and he needed a break. He was remarkably sound after running 58 races but he didn’t care much for people. He went the winter without a blanket because he wouldn’t be caught and I don’t think I had ever been able to catch him. We happened to have the trailer at the layup farm one day when we had a volunteer outing. With a bunch of carrots we managed to get a halter on the feral beast. We were lunging all the horses to evalute them to see who was ready to go into retraining. I had planned on taking two horses home with me so once the halter was on he became one of those horses. I decided to lunge him and wouldn’t you know out of all the horses he was the one horse who ripped the lunge line out of my hands and went running around the huge field. He came back to the crowd and we caught him. I remember thinking that I was not at all excited to start working with him. Ah, what fun he was going to be. He was anti-social and managed to piss me off pretty much right away by kicking the crap out of my really nice trailer. He threw the biggest fit in the whole world but he was in there and I wasn’t letting him out 🙂

This was the day we brought him home

Letterman was not a fun horse to ride early in his training. He was angry, his body hurt and he simply wanted nothing to do with being worked. You often had to work hard to catch him in the field. He had quirks a mile long (kicked the heck out of a trailer, couldn’t catch him, didn’t tie in the barn, hard to get a halter on, spooky, scared of everything in the barn, aggressive with other horses and the list went on) and generally wasn’t an easy horse to get a long with. I really didn’t care much for him but I had a lot of respect for him. I would watch him on the lunge line (lunging to help him develop his muscles) and I would think that he had all the right parts to be a nice horse. Why couldn’t he just enjoy life a bit more? Riding him in the ring was a real chore. There was nothing fun about it. On the trails, he was a totally different horse. Forward, happy, relaxed and comfortable. He could barely canter in the ring but on the trails he would pick up the canter and I would just grin from ear to ear. I could canter him all day long and he was just so balanced and smooth. Never pulled and just held the most beautiful canter rhythm that you could ask out of a horse. I loved his uphill way of going which made him easy for me to ride. His trot was weak and he went with his head up in the air but you could feel he had quite a bit of power. While he was a bit spooky he was also very sensible. He didn’t care about being out alone, being in groups, being galloped up on, being left, other horses crowding him and all the other important things that go into making a fun mount outside of the ring.

Early rides on Letterman-

I am very much a person who wants a horse that does correct flatwork. It makes everything better and I just can’t ride a horse that doesn’t know how to soften its topline, work across the back, bend its body, move off the leg, etc. It seriously is a really big deal to me. I try to install proper basics on every horse that I work with for this reason. I was conflicted about this horse who gave me amazing rides out of the ring but was so darn difficult to ride in the ring. He belonged to CANTER at that time and I just didn’t know how I would sell him. It was taking a long time for him to sort out his body soreness. If I told people his list of quirks they would probably run the other way. Most people want to see a horse ridden in the ring first and if you saw him in the ring you wouldn’t have even given him a chance. He really hated jumping at that point and wasn’t very honest. He lacked a forward button and it was all you could do to move him forward in the ring. He was just a plain bay who was only 15.3 1/2 h 9yr who had raced a bunch. He has some osselets but they xrayed clean but still it was almost hard to believe he was sound. I wouldn’t say there was anything that would really attract buyers unless I lied and that is not something that I do 🙂

I had basically decided to stop riding him in the ring (after a trip to New Bolton to evaluate him b/c he was sore behind and they saw nothing!) because he hated it that much and got more sore with ring work. I just trail rode him and figured that I better start paper chasing him and getting him out and about if I wanted any shot at finding somebody to buy him. The more that I rode him out of the ring, the more that I started to figure out that I really LIKED this horse. I got off with a smile each ride and he was just fun. He fit my style of riding and although he was green, I really liked his brain. We did a bunch of paper chases and about the third paper chase I looked at Kurt and asked if I could buy Letterman. I hadn’t had so much fun riding out of the ring in a long time. Kurt and I enjoy spending our free time trail riding, paper chasing, hunting and more. We only owned one personal horse (Junior) because we were trying to cut down on expenses. I didn’t need Kurt’s approval but it would change our plan to save money if we added another horse (aka shoe bills, vet bills and more). I had been lucky enough to have several client owned horses and CANTER horses to ride but you know that they sell just about the time when they start getting good leaving me back with a really really green horse. I needed something that I could just pull out and go with and Letterman was an ideal choice. He would likely be cheap because he did have some undesirable traits 🙂 Kurt agreed to the change in plans and Letterman was mine. No more stressing about how to sell this moody horse with a list of quirks a mile long.

Still just a plain bay but now very sexy!

I wasn’t really in love with Letterman at this point. While I do love all the CANTER horses and my client’s horses, I don’t get super attached. It’s a good coping mechanism because I know they won’t ever be my horses. There is something that changes when the horse becomes your own horse. I suddenly found myself finding his quirks cute instead of annoying. I could laugh at all of his antics instead of dreading how much of a challenge they were going to be in terms of resale. I began to appreciate him for the things that he did well instead of being frustrated about the things that he wasn’t so great at.

The biggest change was that I suddenly had the luxury of time. Honestly, there is never pressure on me to sell the CANTER horses quickly but I do set personal goals to get horses going nicely in a certain time frame. It gets in your head when you realize the horse has no intentions of playing along with your timeline. You struggle to remain patient and at times it leads to you just not really enjoying the horse as much as you should. I am good at putting that pressure on myself because I always want to do my best. I feel like a failure when my horses don’t go well or aren’t as trained as I think they should be. When I bought Letterman, I let go of any agenda that I had for him.

We spent the late fall (last year) just trail riding, paper chasing and we did a bit of xc schooling. He was not the bravest at the jumps but I just kept everything small so that he could walk over if needed. I worked on forming a relationship with him where I never put him in a bad situation so that he could build trust. We started working on the lunge line in vienna reins and the pessoa rig to develop the necessary muscles to carry his body correctly. It was a real struggle for him so I could only do very short sessions. He was finally starting to soften his topline but boy was he a bit tough in the mouth. I took it as a challenge and just worked on getting him more supple in his body. We mixed in a lot of trail rides for the rest of the winter and things were really coming together.

The horse who had started out hating jumping (scared to jump and wouldn’t go forward) was blasting around the free jumps like a goof. I had to throw a bunch of poles down just to slow him down!

Lunging him to get him forward and stretching over his back really was paying off! See minute 2:30 in the video of why he is tough but talented all in one. He sees zero reason to relax in the canter 🙂

We had a kick ass spring this year where he really seemed to be on the right track. We had done a few xc schoolings and he was brave and taking me to the jumps. He was happy to leave the group or wait while the group went (love this!). Jumping in the ring was still a real struggle for him because of the hole in our flatwork. He had a serious lack of steering. It stemmed from the flatwork because when he gets worried he just grabs the bit, braces in the neck/body and you lose all power steering, brakes and rideability.

Okay, more flatwork needed. Working on getting him to move laterally off the leg. Letterman is a bit of a tough egg about things that are hard. Some horses really allow you to ride them but Letterman tends to say OMG this is so hard so I will fight..fight harder…ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Convincing him to see things your way is an exercise in patience. He swore any kind of contact in the reins was the devil and that he was going to die. While his protests are mild in comparisons to some horses they are relentless. I swear this horse probably just ran fast at the track because he was mad 🙂 I was still working to get him forward so there were many days where I questioned how in the heck he was a stakes winner and was stakes placed because he wanted no part of going forward. I kept mixing that trail riding up with the ring work to keep him going forward and allow the muscles to shape themselves without pissing him off too badly.

Putting the pieces together undersaddle

I found myself getting very excited because he was going super well. I was getting ready to sign up for our first event when he suddenly was lame. At first just a little lame and I wasn’t seeing anything but in two days there was a HUGE splint that emerged. Oh no..not a normal splint. This was the Godzilla of all splints. He was very lame and I knew x-rays would be needed. How does a horse who ran almost 60 races manage now end up broken with a splint. He must have whacked the heck out of himself because he had several micro-fractures up high on the splint bone. That earned him three months of stall rest and then a very light work schedule as I built the bone back up.

Isn’t this pretty?

I was told not to jump him at first so when he got out of jail we started up with light flatwork again. I was more determined than ever to make this horse ridable on the flat. Challenge accepted! I started taking some lessons with a local dressage professional who immediately liked Letterman but declared him tough and after riding him she declared him very tough 🙂 Letterman is the master of grabbing the bit in his teeth and locking the jaw. He becomes so tight in his back that you can’t move him laterally to get him to relax. It is not an eay thing to work past. We first addressed his dislike of moving off the right leg. Then we worked on getting him to accept the left rein. Then we worked on being able to move him off both legs into either rein at will without him losing forward energy or grabbing the bit in his teeth and giving the finger. It has been one thing at a time but it is starting to make for a more ridable horse.

The horse who used to hate flatwork is now a pretty darn nice ride on the flat. I have had several people get on him here lately who rode him early on in his training and they can’t believe the difference. He is soft in the bridle, moves off the leg and will accept contact when you ask correctly. He willingly will move laterally now and you can just feel the power that is in there and waiting to come out. He no longer pins his ears straight back all the time and he has stopped grinding his teeth so much (He does this just standing in the barn so it is not necessarily a riding related thing with him (yes I treat for ulcers)). He finds the canter very hard just because it does take a lot of work to step under from behind but I have no doubt that will continue to improve until it becomes easy for him. Here is a recent clip of him during a lesson.

We had a great time out paper chasing this fall where he was braver than he has ever been. While he is still spooky (never going to change!) he trust me enough that he will continue to go past scary things. We also went on his first big group foxhunt where he was awesome. This past weekend he went to a dressage show on a 30 degree day with whipping wind. This was actually his first show and I have to say while he was spooky he was more rideable than he has been. He was terrified of the judge in the horse trailer at C but in the 2nd test he allowed me to ride him up there. He wasn’t forward and he wasn’t allowing me to soften him by moving him laterally but there were glimpses of good work and that is encouraging.

I have started to change my life around a bit and focus more on my own riding instead of riding everything else. This has allowed Letterman and I to progress more in our partnership. I find that I absolutely LOVE riding him on the flat now. The funny thing is how he crept his way right into my heart. I adore him and all his crazy. I look forward to seeing him every morning making his funny faces. While he can still be hard to catch it makes me giggle while I try to outsmart him. Just this week he got left out while everybody got to eat dinner b/c he wouldn’t let me catch him. He lets me think that I am winning the battles but deep down I know he is just playing with me 🙂

There is NO better ride than Letterman out on the trails and I thoroughly enjoy him so much that I smile for days after a good trail ride. Kurt and I spent Thanksgiving racing each other down the trail. I let Letterman open up and man oh man was that just awesome. He flies across the ground so effortless that you don’t even feel like you are moving. Amazing feeling! What is so cool about him is that you can fly down the trail as fast as you dare to go and when you pull him up he will happily walk on a loose rein until you ask him to move on. Love that!

We will spend the winter practicing our dressage and heading off to little dressage schooling shows. Sundays will be reserved for foxhunting with Wicomico Hunt or trail riding with the hubby.

I had my vet come out to see him just to do a general evaluation to see if he was as sound as I thought he was. I worried that maybe his hocks needed injections after many years of racing. I want to help him feel his best. She flexed him and as I jogged him after each flexion you could see him puffing himself up like he knew what was going on. Almost like he was telling us that he feels great! He strutted all around jigging like he was back at the track. Totally cracked me up! She said he was the soundest horse she had seen with that many starts and he flexed very sound. Keep him on adequan and stop worrying 🙂 She looked at him and said that with his conformation it wasn’t a shock that he held up well to racing. He has good feet, nice bone, is short and compact and light moving across the ground. I can tell you that with the addition of adequan he feels ever better than he had. He wants to kill me for giving him the loading dose every four days but the results are incredible. I was riding him last night under the lights in the freezing cold and I was thinking to myself that I am really lucky that I get to enjoy him.

I truly believe that all horses have something to offer if you find their niche. I think Letterman was a diamond in the rough and I am very thankful that we ended up together. I knew enough to look at the horse that I thought he would become and not the horse that he happened to be at the time that I met him. Maybe it was all meant to be? I am a believer in that sort of thing. Out of all the horses that I have retrained for CANTER, he is the only one that I ever pulled the trigger to buy. Sometimes you just go with your gut and my gut told me he was the one. I am glad I listened!


15 responses to “Building a partnership with a difficult horse

  1. Even though I was totally obsessed with Letterman, I am so glad that you ended up with him. It sounds like you two were meant for each other! And another horse is meant for me. I hope I have the patience to see it through like you did. Good job with the handsome devil!

  2. That was a wonderful story! Except you didn’t mention how handsome he is! He is a very lucky boy to have found you. Best of luck with him.

  3. Me, too – glad you listened.

  4. Elizabeth T Brawner

    Inspiring, gives me hope for my ottb mare, She WILL learn to relax her back and come through…with my patience and love

  5. I see myself and my 5 yr. OTTB in this story. He has many of the same quirks under saddle, although he is a sweetheart to handle on the ground and will practically jump in your pocket when you come to the field to get him. He is definetly a challenge under saddle, not wanting to stretch and round, stiff laterally, and although he is a scopey and brave jumper, he has such a powerful jump that it tends to pop me up out of the saddle, and he likes to give a few little bucks on the landing side while rooting his nose into the ground. Not much fun for me, but we are coming very slowly to making progress. I have been on the fence for awhile about selling him and getting myself something with a little less “octane,” but then we will have one awesome ride and I can see the horse of my dreams in there somewhere, and I just need to spend more time with him to develop this. It is a long hard road, but I know it will be worth it.

  6. Great story Jess. Maybe we’ll see you at the Snowflake Series schooling shows this winter.

  7. really enjoyed this, thanks for sharing!

  8. You obviously have a great relationship with your horse. He sounds much like my OTTB. Two things that have helped him to relax on the flat (too bad that I found them once he was retired from eventing) are the Miklem bridle, and, even better, a mechanical hackamore. He started to come over his back as never before. There must be some discomfort with my horses’s mouth despite having several different vets and dentists work on him over the years.

    • IFG- I really need to try the micklem bridle. Letterman is a horse that is always making faces, messing with his mouth and grinding his teeth even standing there in the stall looking out. I have had him looked at my several dentists and the teeth are in good shape but he does hold some of his tension in his mouth.

  9. Funny, Murphy does all that mouth stuff too. I have him floated regularly, and I have tried different dentists over the years. The Miklem helped lots. The Hackamore was a total game changer. His reaction was unreal. He is softer in that than anything.

  10. I just started riding Trickles in a hack, and man what a difference!

    PS, I love this blog post so much.

  11. Love this blog post, so inspiring! I have an ottb, racing name Tony Lip, I purchased him as my mid-life challenge. He is making me a better rider, ride well or die, ha ha, and a better person as I have found courage and patience through my journey with him. I have so much respect and admiration for him, my favorite times involve just watching him prance thru turnout, he is beautiful and spunky and super talented. I wouldn’t trade my journey with him for all the world. The difficult days just make me appreciate the wonderful days all the more. Letterman reminds me of Tony lip in many a way, the journey hasn’t been easy, but it is so worth it.
    Each day with this animal is a gift.

  12. Pingback: Welcome to the December Blog Carnival of Horses | EQUINE Ink

  13. I wish we could compete bitless – I am positive my OTTB would be happier with no bit, but if I rode in a hackamore (or even halter!) I don’t think he would ever accept a bit again.

    Jess, I remember emailing with you about Letterman and how nice he was going to be and you told me he was just not going to be an easy horse and would have to find the right person. I’m glad he already had!

  14. I’m glad I found this post today, very timely. My 4 year old mare has many of the same, er, attributes, although thankfully she’s not spooky. I need to remember to follow my gut and just keep working on the small, basic stuff and hacking out to “allow the muscles to shape themselves without pissing [her] off too badly” (as you so eloquently put it). I do love her, and I think she has the potential to be fun and talented–I just need to have patience and keep chipping away!

    I seem to have a talent for picking out…opinionated…female critters, from cats to horses. Most days they are the loves of my life. On the tough days I have actually found myself thinking, “I’m letting Jess pick out an easy gelding as my next horse!”

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