Thursday, March 18, 2010

Challenging the Thoroughbred stereotype

It is obscenely obvious that I adore my Thoroughbred and that I believe there is much more to him than just a guy who came off the track. I'm also learning that it could all come down to expectations--in other words, his behavior reflects my anticipation (or apprehension).

My dad was an English teacher and often told a story about a study that was done years ago to point out the impact expectations can have. One teacher was given a classroom of "poor-performing" students and told that they were so smart, the teacher would have to struggle to keep up with them. Another teacher was given a classroom of honors-level students and told they were so slow, the teacher would be bored. Test scores of the two classes flip-flopped.

Bar and I have more issues in the arena, where I "expect" him to misbehave and where we've had the most accidents. On the trail, I am relaxed and confident because he has proven over and over again that he can be reliable and calm on the trail--even in hairy, yellow-jacket-filled situations.

With this in mind, I have been trying to mitigate his responses by talking myself into expecting him to be himself--e.g. bouncy--but also to keep thinking in any given situation.

It seems to be working.

Tonight, Bar had several opportunities to act the way people expect Thoroughbreds to act. "Well, you just know how they are." And indeed they are that way sometimes, but really? No more or less than any other performance horse I've been around. I know people say there are bombproof horses, but to me that just sounds like a horse that has a much larger chance of surprising you. Or boring you to tears.

But I digress (as usual).

We have done a lot of work, Bar and me. He used to react first--often several feet off the ground--and then maybe check in to see if that was the right thing to do. Now, he tends to look to me first. Sometimes he spins his hind end away before looking at me to see what to do next, but he's still thinking about me in the equation.

Can I argue with that? No, not really.

His first test tonight was coming back up the driveway with Romeo (his nice twin) dancing up the inside of the fence line next to us. Bar really wanted to play. He wanted to go prancing up alongside Romeo and then prove once and for all who is the fastest racehorse. I got the muffled back-of-the-throat squeal more than once--you know, the one that sounds like steam leaking out of a tightly-sealed kettle. I also got some bouncing and once or twice he swung around to face me--"C'mon Mom, pleeeeze??!!" But he kept his distance, settled down and listened. No matter how much I knew he wanted to break free and play horsey tag, he didn't. He stayed with me and kept his brain engaged.

His next test as when we were in the round pen and Colleen came in with her two mares and worked them around her together all over the arena, making lots of dust and noise. Bar came into the center of the round pen a couple of times to check in, but never barreled in and always stopped a respectful distance away and then went back to work when I asked.

Finally, as we were leaving the barn, a horse and rider we didn't know--though everyone else seemed to--were coming in while another horse and rider were doing some canter circles at the end of the outdoor arena. He ended up between both and had a moment of wide-eyed worry before deciding I was right and he was fine. Then we walked calmly up the hill to his paddock and made sure Lena wasn't stealing his dinner.

I haven't always been this comfortable or trusting around his energy, and he hasn't always given me reason to be. All of these things have caused him to flip out on previous occasions, whirl around me, and become nearly impossible to handle. I don't really know when it changed, either, or what has enabled me to calmly watch him bounce on the end of his lead rope these days. (As long as he isn't endangering me or anyone else, of course.)

Methinks I'm onto something with this expectation piece of the puzzle.


Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful, and oh so true! He sound like a great horse - I have one TB and another TB cross, and I love them both.

Buckskins Rule said...

I think it boils down to learning. You are learning how to react to his reactions, and he is learning to trust you, looking to you for the guidance that he needs.

I have zero experience with TB's, but I am aware that OTTB's can be very challenging. All evidence would indicate that you are more than up to the challenge. As I think I've said before, Bar is very lucky to have you.

Anonymous said...

I've been very pleasantly surprised by my OTTB's ability to think his way through some scary situations. He's pretty mellow in general, and I think life away from the track has mellowed him out even more. I've had him about a year and a half and he has definitely learned to look to me for leadership when something spooks him. It's great to feel like he trusts me to take care of him!

wendyu said...

I agree with Buckskins Rule. I bet both of you are learning. My guy Ollie is all over the place all of the time. The thing is, he's just a happy active guy. So I view him in that light. He's just a busy body with a huge heart. Most TB's are that way - very expressive. I just want to channel that expressiveness into lovely dressage moves in the show ring! :)