Four bay Thoroughbreds, loosely linked by thin leather straps, charged like Roman fighting steeds onto the Pimlico Racecourse this month in a spectacular display of horsemanship that was truly a thing you don’t see everyday.
With noses flared and heads high, the team darted and weaved in figure eight patterns at the trot and canter as Roman Rider and their owner/trainer Rachel Jackson stood balanced and strong; one foot on the back of two Thoroughbreds and driving them onward.
“Why do I do Roman riding? I’ve always been one who loves the speed and the adrenaline rush, and really connecting with the horses,” Jackson says in this week’s Clubhouse Q&A. “When you do any kind of trick riding, you become one with the horse, and really learn to understand them.”
Q: How did you even begin to train four Thoroughbred ex-racehorses for Roman riding?
The training is very similar to training a horse to pull a wagon. You always start them driving singly. Once they’re good at that, you long rein a second horse in front of them. Once their both good at that, you work with them as a team. And once you have them working well and used to it, you can start to stand on them.
Q: OK, how do you stand on a Thoroughbred?!
I got them used to it by starting with the horse who doesn’t care. That’s Jungle Red, my 13-year-old. His reaction when I started to stand on him was to turn around and look at me. After that, he learned to ignore it. It doesn’t happen overnight, and some of my team took longer than others. My Thoroughbred Grand Diana took a year to get used to it. And to get them used to working well together as a team has taken about a year.
Q: Who are the Thoroughbreds in your team?
My back two are Electras Ego, 7 and Grand Diana, 6. And my lead team is Jungle Red, 13, and Robb Tradd, 7. I got Jungle first, in 2009, from a farm in Virginia. He was a giveaway. I got Robb Tradd in 2012 from a Maryland farm. He’d been retired and had been out to pasture for a couple of years. I got Grand Diana and Electras Ego to match them. With this type of riding, all the horses have to look very similar, and there are very strict height restrictions. They’re all 15.3 hands.
Q: Being the same height and color doesn’t guarantee they’re on the same wavelength when you attempt to execute a transition. How do you command four horses at the same time?
It’s actually more common for people to ride two horses at once, not four. How I hold the lines is similar holding a wagon horse team. With the team I’m standing on, I hold both right reins in the right hand, and the left reins in the left hand. They’re crossed in between so I don’t have to worry about pulling them. Up front, both left and right reins connect to one rein, but these horses have to be more independent minded, because I don’t have as much control.
A big part of the training is that they have to learn vocal commands. When I say, “Step up!,” which means to move out. When I turn them, I use the reins, but I reinforce it with the vocal command, “Come around!” This type of riding involves a lot of vocal commands and talking.
Q: How hard is Roman riding?
It’s definitely something you have to build up to, as far as having the strength for it. When you first start, you can’t maintain it for very long at all. It wears you out fast!
Q: How did you get into trick riding and Roman riding in the first place?
My mother, Susan Jackson, works in the film industry for the American Humane Association, and her job is to go onto movie sets and ensure the animals are not endangered. While she was on the set of The Alamo she met up with trainers Austin and Don Anderson of Texas, who had horses doing stunts in the movie. And they also did Roman riding and trick riding. She told them how I liked to ride, and I eventually met them and that’s how I got interested. Previously, I did a little bit of everything. I did drill team with 4H and I was looking for a new challenge.
Q: How unusual is it for off-track Thoroughbreds doing this type of work?
I believe mine are the only ones that are off the track. In the old days, people had Roman-riding races on the racetrack. But today, most people use Quarter Horses of draught horses for it. So I guess it’s pretty unusual!