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Not Too Old, Part 1

Published: 1/13/2015
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Editor’s Note: This Not Too Old series was developed from reader feedback of the popular Anatomy of a Wreck feature.
Guest columnist Debbie Hight is a Remuda Reader from Norridgewock, Maine. For the past few years, she and friend, Rob Rowbottom, have worked to rehabilitate a retired 24-year old standardbred.
Read more about retrained and rescued standardbreds here.

Postcard Jack happens to be the winningest horse in Maine track history, but how will he work as a saddle horse?
The series reminds us: Horse or human, you’re not too old to learn.
As Henry Ford said: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

Aside from the challenges of teaching a senior horse, Hight and Rowbottom are older learners themselves. Hight took up riding in her 50s. Rowbottom, a long-time dairy farmer, had lots of experience with large animals but only more recently took up serious horsemanship study through the works of Buck Brannaman, as well as Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt.
As Hight noted, “Rob has pretty much worn out the grooves of Brannaman’s 7 Clinics DVDs." Still, in the grand scheme of things, they consider themselves “rookies who like figuring out what works and what doesn’t,” she said.

By Debbie Hight

Dear Maddy,
We both loved Steve Peter’s article. Well, you might have guessed it: we are working with a 24 year old Standardbred race horse to ride.  
Postcard Jack is owned by my brother-in-law and when he retired, my husband (whose work with horses involves giving them carrots, period) suggested he retire to our farm. Jack deserved a good retirement.  

The first few years were pretty tough. He was pretty mean and had to be in his own pasture for some time. I rode him a little but only with elevated heart rate and temperature (mine).  We decided that he would be fully retired.  

Meanwhile, my friend Rob, recipient of your newsletter, has become very, very good at using the Brannaman methods and has trained two rescue horses to be beautiful riding horses. One was pure wild.

So, what the heck, let's see what we can do with Jack. 

It took Postcard Jack quite awhile to decide that the groundwork was okay. He stopped blowing up and became a much nicer horse.  
Then it was time for a saddle and then to get on.  Things were going very well...

And here’s our own version of Anatomy of a Wreck:

We had had several rotten days of weather: below zero degrees and then three days of relentless rain.  Jack likes 70 and sunny.  But it was Jack's night to be ridden in the arena.  He wasn't terribly pleasant while being groomed, but "he'll be better once he gets to work," we said.  

We went up to the arena to do our 15 minutes of groundwork.  Huh, he's slinging his head and his change of direction is a bit wild and not very good. These were behaviors he hadn’t shown us in several months, but I continued with my plan.

He was pretty brace-y, but maybe, I thought, if I don't upset him by demanding too much on the ground, he'll settle in once I get on him. He stood nicely while I mounted, and had a pretty forward walk. We worked on changing direction around cones.

And then…there was something in the mirror or dark window that really scared Jack. Or perhaps a reflection just gave him a convenient excuse. The rodeo began. While I hate riding in a western saddle, I was certainly glad for that saddle horn.

As I explained to Rob later, it's hard to do a one-rein stop when you are hanging on for dear life!  I tried to get him to move his feet more in order to have him focus on me… He had another mini-fit and then another gigantic fit. It was my doing, of course.

I not-so-calmly rode him to the other end of the arena after two more one-rein stops, backed him up, told him that he wasn't getting the best of me, and sat there.  Then I slithered off the saddle, with my legs like spaghetti.  
Rob took over, did some more groundwork, and then rode him.  He finally settled down.  

So, we both thought of your Anatomy of a Wreck story. His earlier behavior on the ground should have warned me. Now I am forewarned.  As much work as Rob has done with his horses, we both have now learned a little more.

Coming next: Nurturing nice from naughty. Postcard Jack’s celebrity story and new life.

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1/15/2015 Anne Ensminger
Loved your article, Debbie! Looking forward to the next edition. Sounds like Jack has plenty of life left in his 24 year old body and mind. You be careful but don't give up!
1/16/2015 Pat
A great happening!! Standardbreds can have lots of other jobs after racing. Just takes time and patience. Most of the time they are willing, just not sure what you're asking!! There is a great book out called "Retraining the Standardbred: Good luck and keep up the good work.

"The ears never lie" - Don Burt