Q&A: How to train fire-breathing T-breds

Vicki Zacharias, 14, on her first OTTB Scarlet Topi. This horse started her on the journey to teach others to ride hot Thoroughbreds.

Vicki Zacharias, 14, on her first OTTB Scarlet Topi. This horse started her on the journey to teach others to ride hot Thoroughbreds.

Some say Vicki Zacharias tames fire-breathing dragons.

The self-taught equestrian who learned how to conduct herself on the backs of some pretty hot Thoroughbreds at the tender age of 12 says what she really does is train “children.”

The proprietor of Rain Creek Farms in Oregon has seen not just a few break-through moments between difficult horse and frustrated rider, including the powerhouse duo Holiday Cat and Brayle McEllrath, a pair who worked through many bucking and kicking episodes before winning their armful of ribbons. (Please see an earlier story on Holiday Cat).

In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, Zacharias shares her philosophy and methods for riding difficult horses.

Q: You started your lifelong love of Thoroughbreds clinging to one on a training track.

I got my first Thoroughbred when I was 12. His registered name was Scarlet Topi. And the first time I rode him was on a training track. I was scared to death. But I fell in love with the horse. He has chips in his ankles and had run until he was 9. And, I rode him myself. We didn’t have the money to pay someone to ride him for me at first. I got him into Eventing, and he was extremely successful. I eventually sold him to a kid who rode him until he was 25.

Q: You pride yourself on your ability to bring difficult T-breds along. What’s your approach?

Zacharias rides OTTB Nina's Choice, another early OTTB who helped sharpen her riding skills.

Zacharias rides OTTB Nina’s Choice, another early OTTB who helped sharpen her riding skills.

The number one thing you’ve got to remember is that they’re high-energy horses. They’ve been bred since the 1,700s to race. The other thing to remember is that they’re very smart. This makes them extremely fun to teach, but you have to be consistent in their training. If I choose something I want them to do, they need to understand it’s not okay if they don’t do it. It’s like raising children.

Q: For the naughty horse, you have what you term a Box of Discipline. What is that?

What this means is that I always make the punishment fit the crime. And I have certain basic rules of behavior they all must follow. For example, on the ground, I won’t let them walk on top of me and if I stop, they stop. When I ride them and I ask them to stop, go, or move off my leg, I expect them to at least try to understand to do that. If they shut me down, I will get a little cranky with them.

Q: Sometimes going in circles is good!

Turning them in a circle is an easy way to get them to learn to move off my right leg, like in a side pass. I try to keep things as simple as possible for them, again, like I would with a child.

Q: How do you channel the energy of a bucking horse into good behavior?

Holiday Cat was a difficult mare, but one who has blossomed under rider/owner Brayle McEllrath.

Holiday Cat was a difficult mare, but one who has blossomed under rider/owner Brayle McEllrath.

The first thing is, I don’t have fear. If a horse is bucking, I tend to channel my feelings into anger. I’ve been riding bad horses since I was a kid because we could never afford the good ones. And I’ve learned a few things. Like, if you’re on a bucking horse, you want to keep him moving forward because they’ll buck less hard if they’re going forward. I’ll also reach down and pull their head around and spank them with a stick.

I’ve found that if you can ride through a couple of bucks they’ll usually stop the behavior because it takes too much energy. Unless their bucks are due to pain-related reasons.

Another method I use, which I teach little kids, is the pull-rein. I teach them to plant one hand on the neck, and pull as hard as they can on the rein in the other hand. This should unbalance the horse enough to get their behavior to stop.

I had one who would bolt and then buck. If I thought he was going to do it, I’d lean as far back as I could and plant him on the ground like a flower. I learned how to use my core strength, and by planting my pelvis up against the pommel of my saddle, it was must harder for him to pull against me.

Q: Holiday Cat is one of your success stories. She was a temperamental mare who kicked and bucked. Please tell me about her. (Please see earlier article).

Holiday Cat and Brayle McEllrath are the next generation of great OTTB teams.

Holiday Cat and Brayle McEllrath are the next generation of great OTTB teams.

By the time I got Holiday Cat, her rider Brayle McEllrath had already worked with her a lot. She had no fear and she rode right through bad behavior. I watched this horse buck all the way up to the jumps.

It turned out that nobody had really said no. The first time she tried bucking to the jumps, I spanked her, and the first time she kicked at another horse, I spanked her for that too. After that, her behavior got a lot better as she understood that some behavior wasn’t acceptable.

All the mare wanted to do was jump the jumps—she loves it. So, if she acted up or bucked, I would back her up, smack her, and make her do things she didn’t necessarily want to do. I took all the emotion out of it. If she bucked or acted up, I’d say, ‘No, sorry, that’s not OK.’ And when she finally got it, I’d say, ‘That’s it! We can go jump now.’

But there are also some battles you don’t need to win. The mare always got excited going into the ring to do her job or coming out. So I told Brayle to step off, let her settle down, and then step back on. Rather than escalate the situation, it was better in this case to give her a moment to collect herself. And the mare soon figured it out.

I think with most difficult horses the most important thing is consistent discipline and work. They’ll come around eventually because horses like to follow the path of the least resistance. ♥

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A T-bred heads to Devon dressage, hard won

Kaytee Mountain and Sue Gallagher go Prix St. George, get the silver, head to Devon.

Kaytee Mountain and Sue Gallagher go Prix St. George, get the silver, head to Devon.

A green T-bred who came from out of a field in 2007 with not much going for him but his spunk and the pluck of an Australian owner, now dances at the heights of the Dressage world.

Kaytee Mountain has been transformed. When once the dark bay gelding could barely trot, and moved his gangly legs in an awkward up/down “sewing needle” gait, he now displays the extension and the form of a fluid, cooperative mover. And he has the points and winnings to prove it.

After beginning the show season at 4th level, the American Thoroughbred started training Prix St. George in July, competing in classes at Hawk Hollow Ranch in NJ against World Equestrian Games riders. Kaytee Mountain placed sixth of eight riders, a mighty achievement considering the competition, she says.

Kaytee Mountain
Sire: Deniro, by Gulch
Dam: Kara Mountain
Foal date: April 16, 2003
“We were in quite a serious class competing against some who are far more experienced than us,” she says. “I was so excited he could hold his own in a class like that.”

Not only did he hold his own in a class last week, performing 26 different movements, but also her little T-bred preformed better than she did! “I need to be quicker and better prepared—for him. I feel like he’s saying, ‘OK. I’ve got it, now have you got it?’ ”

Having amassed enough points in the USDF system to earn a silver medal, they are not resting on their laurels. The pair will compete at Devon on Sept. 27 and 28! “I’m sure our eyes will be sticking out of our heads like they were on sticks. It will be a wonderful experience, but terrifying,” Gallagher says. “I’ve only ever been to Devon as a spectator. It’s the main international horse show, the cream of the crop. There are beautiful horses, beautiful riders— you have to be at the top of your game to compete there.”

Kaytee Mountain performs with Sue Gallagher. Photo by Stacy Lynne Photo

Kaytee Mountain performs with Sue Gallagher. Photo by Stacy Lynne Photo

To those who see them now, it might look easy, as if bot horse and rider team were born with it. But Kaytee Mountain was living in a field in 2007 when Gallagher met an animal she found to be one of the friendliest horses she’d ever encountered. Though he was built all wrong for a dressage career, she felt so much joy just being in his company that she went for it. She bought him.

For years their training labored on together. Sometimes seeming as though they were pushing the proverbial rock up the mountain; in a rainstorm! He was tense. He was stiff as a board. And he possessed a weak topline. The list went on and on.

Unfazed, Gallagher pressed on through his temperamental outbursts and bit by bit, together, the got a little closer to the top of the hill.

In an earlier interview with Off-Track Thoroughbreds, she described the battles in the schooling ring, and the disappointing outcomes from the show ring, and the predictable judge’s comments that noted her horse was too tense. (Please see an earlier story about Kaytee Mountain).

But Gallagher never gave up on Kaytee. She ignored his bad behavior and rode it out until, after years of effort, she found herself sitting on a USDF silver medalist last week—a far cry from the horse she pulled out of the field.

“I know there are a bunch of people who have Thoroughbreds,” she says. “I just want them to know that they can do it. It can be done. They just need to stick with it.” ♥

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A 2nd chance for rescued mare & new owner

A week after the South Florida SPCA rescued six Thoroughbred broodmares, including Hope, a friendship was made.

A week after the South Florida SPCA rescued six Thoroughbred broodmares, including Hope, a friendship was made.

Her coat bleached red in the Florida sun, her body sapped from starvation, the mare was tired when she rested her head against the chest of SPCA volunteer Susie Martell, and made a friend for life.

“Something just drew me to her. She was the skinniest of all the mares the SPCA had rescued in June … and there was a sweetness in her that I was taken with right away. Every time I went out to her paddock, she would walk up to me and rest her head on me,” Martell says. “I fell in love with her right away, and I made a promise to myself that as soon as I found out she was healthy, and that I could ride her, she was going to be mine.”

For a kindergarten teacher who swore off horse ownership 20 years after the devastating loss of her cherished Thoroughbred, the decision to risk her heart again to another T-bred was not made lightly.

“Earlier in my life, I vowed never to own another horse. When I lost my Thoroughbred mare Chancey when she was in her early 20s, I was distraught. This horse had come into my life when I was a teenager. She represented a part of my life that I could never get back” that was lost when she died, she says.

Now in her mid 50s, Martell says having the mare she named Hopefully Mine come bursting into her life feels like a second chance at something she never thought she’d have again.

“I’m not a particularly religious person, but I do believe in fate,” she says. “I was starting to think about adopting a horse, but I’m a Thoroughbred person, and the SPCA didn’t have any horses I was interested in. And I remember that a friend of mine said she wished the SPCA would pick up some Thoroughbreds, and the very next day I got a text from Laurie Waggoner of the SPCA telling me she’d just picked up six.”

Hope, who the South Florida SPCA has tentatively identified as The Graceful Saint, meets Martell.

Hope, who the South Florida SPCA has tentatively identified as The Graceful Saint, meets Martell.

From the moment in early June that those horses arrived at the South Florida SPCA, Martell spent as much time as she could with them.

And the one mare, whose body is so sunken in that beneath her tail it looks as though a cavity has opened up where her hind quarters should be, sought out the teacher every time. With her ears pricked forward, and an eager look on a face still beautiful despite the ravages of starvation, she followed Martell around like a loyal dog.

Despite the skin issues, and the hair loss, the horse Martell named Hopefully Mine possessed the refined head and carriage of the beautiful Thoroughbred she was, and reminded her of the Thoroughbred she’d lost years ago. In fact she named her after her first horse, whose race name was Elm’s Hope. “I wanted part of Chancey’s memory to be connected with her,” she says.

Hope now goes for short rides to build up muscle as she regains weight.

Hope now goes for short rides to build up muscle as she regains weight.

As Hope puts on weight and regains her strength, she is proving to be as sweet under saddle as Martell first suspected. Piling on saddle pads for cushioning, Martell has ridden the mare very lightly to help her regain muscle. And while sitting on her new horse, who becomes more beautiful and healthy with each passing day, Martell is grateful to have a second chance to recapture her childhood joy.

“This has been a very emotional thing for me, a really big deal,” she says. “I did not think this would happen for me again.” ♥

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