August 2016 - My Thoroughbred Makeover
Written by Emily Flaxman
Sunday, 31 July 2016 18:23
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Dressage baby steps and Charlotte Dujardin advice benefit contenders.

by Emily Flaxman

For once I’m happy to report that this month has been progress all round. Small, not very exciting progress, but it’s forward momentum at least. After the negative spring months I’ll take tiny positives all day long!

Even Louie seems to have turned a corner with his feet and has been sound for over a week now. If he continues improving I might start riding him next month. He won’t be going to Kentucky for the Thoroughbred Makeover in October regardless, as I’ve registered both KJ and Merlin as my official entries. Last week they opened up ticket sales for the Makeover and they have released the proposed schedule for the competition. So exciting and so nerve wracking at the same time.

I had my first lesson with Merlin this week. My trainer liked him overall, although she did think his canter looked like a pantomime horse with both ends doing different things.

He is very soft in the bridle, almost to the point of being behind the bit and he has a tendency to curl behind the vertical as an evasion. So a lot of the focus is on pushing out his nose, with his neck a little higher, closer to a Second level frame. Normally we would work towards a lower, more Training level position with a novice horse but he disconnects at the withers and curls under if we try that.

Having him a little more up and out makes him use his back better. He also tends towards rushing in the rhythm when he loses balance or if you ask him to change anything, so slowing him down to allow him time to find his feet helps.

When he gets tense you can hear him start breathing like a dragon and he gets very tight through his whole body, so lots of praise and walk breaks to keep his brain relaxed. He is very responsive to the aids and to my weight, which is great as it allows me to access his body and help him. For such a big horse he is very smooth in his gaits, almost cat-like.

As I said earlier, the canter is terrible right now.  He is so weak in the loins/lower back that there is literally no connection between his hind end and the front. Again, slowing the rhythm helps, thinking towards pushing quick hindlegs up to a slow front leg and keeping inside flexion in the poll. As he develops strength and a little more suppleness I think the canter will improve. At least I sincerely hope it will! Last year at the

Makeover, all three top-placed dressage horses showed counter-canter in their freestyles so I am keeping that in mind for both his training and looking towards our test at the event.

We have to do Training level, Test 2, then after the final halt salute we all get two minutes to show off our horses training and potential to move up the levels. The rules have stated that they will penalize efforts to perform movements beyond a horse’s level of training and development.

Using the USEF tests and levels as a guide, I will look at movements that are introduced during Training 3 and into First level. I will also look at things like lengthenings and direct transitions that show a horse’s ability to extend and collect as these start to become more important as you move up.

There are also movements that show off the trainability of the horse, such as walk pirouettes, shoulder-in and rein-back. I won’t design my freestyle rides yet, but I’m watching what each horse finds easy, or shows talent for, so that nearer the time we can really polish those moves. My horse from last year, Wheeler, had a great walk-to-canter transition and a good walk pirouette so we showed those, but his counter-canter wasn’t reliable enough to show so we omitted that.

The New Guy: KJ

I’ve had a few lessons on KJ now, and likewise, my trainer thinks he’s a nice horse with a very trainable attitude. He is the polar opposite of Merlin though. He prefers to travel low with his nose in front and is happy to take a good solid hold of the bit. However, his tendency is to lean and brace when he loses balance rather than to back off. As I move him about more, both from side to side and faster to slower, I feel like his trot is improving. He loses the consistency of the head carriage through changes but the more I shake his world up the more that is going away.

I went to a Charlotte Dujardin clinic in Los Angeles a few years ago and I remember her saying that she never ignores a problem, she always attacks it and that she felt good trainers always looked for the weaknesses and tackled them.

Obviously that could be taken to the extreme, but human nature likes to stay away from things we find difficult. So if I have a problem with say, walk-to- trot transitions, I’ll challenge myself to do 10 of them in each direction. Not so many that it becomes drilling, but 10 in each direction is 80 each week!

I also moved my horses onto the training schedule Charlotte described at the clinic and I really find it works for both their bodies and minds. My massage therapist tends to find a lot fewer muscle problems these days. Per Charlotte’s schedule, my horses work in the arena Monday and Tuesday, go out for a trail ride on Wednesday, back in the arena for Thursday and Friday and another trail ride Saturday. Sunday is a day off for everyone unless we’re showing.

KJ’s canter is also starting to resemble something we wouldn’t be embarrassed about people seeing. As is common, it’s a lot better left than right. Because racehorses run counter clockwise at the track most of them tend to favor that lead and have the muscling to match. I’ve been working lots on the trot-to-canter transition as it needs to be more reliable, it is also a good way to encourage swing in the back.

Mostly we’re on a circle these days as the canter isn’t balanced enough for straight lines yet but that’s something we’ll be starting soon, along with leg yields from the quarter line to the rail to encourage jump.

I went on a shopping spree and treated myself to a Rambo SportzVibe massage blanket, so a couple of times each week the boys have been wearing that. I’ve alternated between using it as a warm-up tool and putting it on in the evening.  They seem to enjoy the sensation and they do seem to be more soft in the back afterwards. It stimulates bloodflow so I’m hoping at the very least it will help to encourage the development of the topline muscles.

I’m aiming to do more lessons this month with both Merlin and KJ. July and August are busy showing months with my other horses, especially as I want to qualify for the USDF/Adequan All Breeds awards with another one of my Thoroughbreds, and for that I need eight scores over 60%. I’ve decided not to try for the year-end finals as they are so close to Kentucky and it would really affect my final preparations with the boys.

I am going to be brave though and enter both of them into the Dressage in the Almonds Schooling show on August 20 in Lodi. I’ll post the ride times on my Facebook page, so if you want to come and meet us and/or cheer us on, you will be very welcome.

Columnist Emily Flaxman uses dressage as a foundation for training OTTBs and other breeds from her base in the East Bay Area’s Clayton. She trained Go Wheeler Go to top finishes in her first Thoroughbred Makeover last year (California Riding Magazine, January 2016). Emily is detailing her preparation for this year’s Thoroughbred Makeover, in late October in Kentucky, in our pages. To learn more about Emily, visit For more on the Thoroughbred Makeover, visit