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April 9, 2013

Check Your Baggage At The Door, Please

Emotional baggage can be a huge impediment when training a horse, as Paige Cade has learned in her time with off-the-track Thoroughbreds.

I could feel the sweat dripping down my forehead, making a sharp swerve when it reached my eyebrows. We’d finally come to an understanding. I put my left leg on, and you move over. No, not over into my left leg… away from my leg. Geez.

Training young horses is not all hearts and butterflies. I love it, it’s what I do, but it’s certainly not easy. And with difficult things in life comes some degree of frustration. But one of the greatest challenges we face as riders and trainers is not the green horses we ride, it’s our own emotions getting in the way of objective, constructive riding.

With all horses, but especially with Thoroughbred horses, it’s crucial that you leave your emotional baggage at the barn door. In fact, you’d better leave it in the car. With the horses, it’s never personal; they don’t know about your obnoxious co-worker, your problems at home, or that their field-mate whom you just rode was too wild to function.

So as I put away one horse, I thought about how my next ride, a brand new prospect, needed me to refocus. He needed me to be mentally with him, not lingering on the past 45 minutes, or the past 20 years for that matter.

Easier said than done, I know. I also know that I’m not going to find every jump, and I’m not going to have every horse perfectly connected on my outside rein, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. And that’s what training is: trying. It’s every day, one hoof in front of the other, trying to be better than the day before.

Emotions are tricky things, let me tell you. I’m the queen of letting my emotions get in the way. My greatest impediment as a rider has not been my lack of funds (Which at one time there was a distinct lack of; if you don’t believe me, check out the first apartment I lived in when I moved to Northern Va. Think, “indoor camping.”) or lack of horses. It has been and will probably always will be my own emotions. So, over the years I’ve tried to harness my emotions and keep them in check while I’m on the back of a horse. And just like the jumps, it’s a work in progress. I’ve found with the off-the-track Thoroughbred horses that emotional self-control is vital to success. They’re sensitive creatures who come with their own degree of baggage. My job is to understand that baggage and replace it with training and the only way I can do that is if I don’t allow my own baggage to get in the way.

As I threw my leg over the next horse, who was a little tense about this riding arrangement, I exhaled and thought to myself “time to turn into Jell-O.” Time to let everything else that’s banging around inside my head go and focus on the moment. Time to let the air out of the balloon, time to be present with this horse on this day.

And yes, he was green and fresh, and all kinds of baby Thoroughbred sparks were flying off of him, but because I was able to check my baggage and focus on being relaxed and calm in my mind we were able to make progress. About 15 minutes into the ride he let out a big sigh, and his mincing trot started to transform from car with square wheels to Cadillac. People often ask me how we are able to train and sell our off-the-track Thoroughbreds in six to 18 months—it’s not brain surgery, and I guarantee I’m not some Thoroughbred whisperer, but a big part of the process is taking the emotion out and replacing it with calm objectivity.

That business-as-usual demeanor is especially important on field trips. When I have an extra-expressive baby at his first show, I don’t go into it saying, “I must win the puddle jumpers!” Or “Heaven help us, there’s no way we’re going to get over the first fence!” I go and laugh about how silly he’s being and praise him when he’s calm and repeat the exercise the following weekend. And the weekend after that.

I keep going and having good, low pressure experiences at a level where the horse feels like he’s a hero. Many Thoroughbred horses that have raced are familiar with the busy horse show atmosphere but in a totally different context. They hear the loudspeaker and think, “Time to head to the start gate!” Not “all riders trot please.” It’s our job to help them keep calm and canter on by doing so ourselves.

Read Paige's first blog for the Chronicle, Must Love A Thoroughbred.

Hunter/jumper trainer Paige Cade works at Tebogo Sport Horses, a facility in Delaplane, Va., devoted to the re-training and sales of off-the-track Thoroughbreds.