Sam Felton: retraining racehorses

Event rider Samantha Felton shares her tips and techniques for producing young horses and re-training ex-racehorses

Sam and Ricker Ridge Mystery Man (Image: Trish Dunell)

Samantha Felton is one of New Zealand’s top eventing talents; she recently won the Forest Gate Trophy for the CIC3* at the Kihikihi International Horse Trials and has just been named in the New Zealand team for the upcoming Oceania challenge at Melbourne 3 Day Event with both her top horses, Ricker Ridge Pico Boo and Ricker Ridge Escada.

Sam, who is based at Matangi, currently has four horses at three-star level, all of whom she has produced herself, as well as a number of up-and-coming horses.

She is a huge fan of off-the-track thoroughbreds, and in October 2015, Sam won the inaugural Dunstan Ex-Factor Cup at Equidays, where invited riders were asked to re-train a racehorse for a new career. For the competition, Sam rode the five-year-old Ricker Ridge Mystery Man, who she had painstakingly produced over 10 months. ‘Boston’ and Sam’s composed, harmonious routine was a unanimous winner with all four Equidays judges.

While some of the Ex-Factor competitors’ freestyles had fancy tricks and props, including snowboards and skipping ropes, Sam stuck to a fairly simple freestyle routine of flatwork, then jumping a grid of bounces and other fences. “He’s being produced as an eventer, so everything I did was relating to his career going forward,” she explains.

And the most challenging aspect to the competition? “You have no idea how they are going to react on the day. That environment would have been a big test for any horse, not just horses off the track. Boston was nice and calm, but we had put in the work to achieve that. We had taken him out to a lot of events and put in the hard yards at home in those 10 months leading up to it.”

Sam enjoys working with thoroughbreds because they love to please. “I find them a lot easier than the warmbloods in terms of their trainability. Sometimes I think the warmbloods are a little bit too clever, whereas the thoroughbreds are really workmanlike.”

In fact, Sam describes thoroughbreds as workaholics and her approach when taking horses off the track is to keep them in a routine and give them a job to do straight away. She finds keeping them busy helps them settle and relax.

“Boston does get worried and anxious. He is never naughty, but he sweats and gets himself in a lather, so we’ve had a bit of an issue dealing with that, but it’s decreased as we’ve done more and more.

“He coped really well in the ring at Equidays, but he found the prize-giving really stressful because he didn’t have a job to do. Thoroughbreds love it when you put them to work.”

Creating the contact

The two thoroughbreds Sam is riding for this story couldn’t be more different in the contact: Boston is lovely and soft, while they grey Lionel was a puller on the track, and can be quite strong.

Boston is soft in the contact, but needs encouragement to take the bit forwards (Image: Trish Dunell)

Boston’s softness can sometimes be a curse, says Sam, as he has a tendency to suck back. Because of this, she does a lot of long and low work with him, encouraging him to take the contact forward. Now he’s beginning to progress and get stronger, she can start to lift him up, getting him to take the contact forwards and upwards.

On the other hand, Lionel is quite strong in the contact and Sam schools him in a gag sometimes, ‘not for any other reason than to save my hands a little bit, so I can school him through more. He doesn’t really go anywhere, he’s just strong downwards. He needs to carry himself a bit more as he’s obviously been relying on other people’s hands.’

Lionel can be strong in the bit but is proving trainable (Image: Trish Dunell)

Sam favours the Neue Schule range of bits and uses them for pretty much everything. “I’ve played with various bits for off-the-track thoroughbreds, including the Neue Schule Turtle Top, which is quite a soft bit and designed so that it only folds in one direction and doesn’t move around too much. We put Boston in that to help him relax and soften. For jumping, my favourite bit is a universal gag, which is like a three-ring but not quite as harsh.”

Sam’s most frequently used exercise is a simple one-stride grid, consisting of a place pole, 2.5m to an X, then 6m to an oxer. Because it’s repeated often, the horses get very comfortable within the exercise, but it can be used to change their jump. For example, if the horse is rushing, Sam may add another ground pole in the middle of the stride, or if it is drifting, she can add V poles or a pole on the ground to one side to keep the horse straight.

Sam likes a grid using a placing pole to a small cross, then one short stride to an oxer (Image: Trish Dunell)

It’s a short one-stride, the idea being the horse learns to back itself up and jump. The ideal is that you are not touching the mouth at all – you just leave them alone.

“A lot of my riding is based on teaching the horses to understand and allowing them to fix a lot themselves without you interfering. The basis for all of our jump work is letting the horse figure it out. I think that creates happy horses and horses that will work hard for you. Also, I’m not perfect, so when I get things wrong, I need the horse to be able to fix it.”

Sam usually rides her horses for about half an hour each day. The young horses jump more than the ‘big kids’ – at one stage Sam jumped Boston every day until he settled down.

Sam finds that thoroughbreds are generally fit enough to keep up with the time on cross-country, regardless of any actual fitness work. The road she is based on is unfortunately too busy for hacking out, but she has a dirt track around the perimeter of the property where she likes to canter the young horses.

Developing balance and strength

One day each week, Sam focuses purely on trot-canter transitions, which she describes as a sit-up for horses.

“Trot-canter transitions engage the circle of muscles through their tummy and over their back more than any other exercise; they’re even better than walk-to-canter transitions. The top horses will do 100-plus canter transitions a day, while the younger horses might do 30-50.”

She says for young, unbalanced horses, she does flat work in her jumping saddle. “If the horse is feeling a bit unbalanced, especially in the canter, I can get up off his back and allow him to canter underneath me. For horses straight off the track, sometimes they can feel like they’ve got too much wrapped around them in a dressage saddle, whereas in the jumping saddle I’m a little bit more sitting on top. And if they buck it’s easier to stay on! Initially I’ll do quite a lot of two-point in canter until they’re happy with it and then I’ll sit on them. It doesn’t take them long, but it’s nice to pop out of the saddle and let them loosen up a bit and then come back.”

Riding in a light seat in canter can help when they are weak and unbalanced (Image: Trish Dunell)

For Sam, temperament is the number-one criterion when picking any horse. Then she likes to assess their jump and movement, and finally conformation. Conformationally, she’ll write off anything with major flaws. “I don’t like a straight hind leg, because they’ll struggle to push off the ground for the bigger fences and with the harder dressage movements.”

Temperament-wise, she says it’s hard to define what she looks for exactly, although she’ll generally avoid horses that are overly anxious.

“When we are buying horses, they need to either be a horse that we can produce to three-star, or something that is quiet and kind that we can sell to a junior rider. If a horse is too highly strung, then a junior rider is not going to be able to handle it, so we are not that interested in the super-flashy ones that are really difficult – we’d rather start with horses that have a good brain and are trainable.”

Before taking an ex-racehorse, Sam will get her vet, Alec Jorgensen, to do a conformation check and flexion tests, but doesn’t usually do a full vet check and x-rays.

Stretch and flex

Sam uses carrot stretches every day on each of the horses, to help improve their suppleness. It’s part of her grooming routine, and she always does one stretch to each side before riding. “I use an equine chiropractor, Rick Boyd, and he’s been telling me to do them for years and years, although I’ve probably only been doing them properly for the past two,” she explains.

Escada shows why he is the king of the carrot stretches (Image: Trish Dunell)

With the horse standing straight and square, Sam simply holds a carrot by the girth, so they have to bend their neck right around to take it. Ricker Ridge Escada  is the ‘king’ of carrot stretches and can stretch all the way around to his flank with ease. The ex-racehorses can barely reach the girth at first, but by doing them each day they will slowly get further and further back. “It’s funny with horses off the track – you not only have to teach them to do carrot stretches, first you have to teach them to eat carrots!”

Teaching a horse to stand still

One thing that really stands out about Sam’s horses is their calm and happy demeanour, both standing about the yard and under saddle.  One way she fosters relaxation when training her young horses is to jump and then stand about doing nothing for a while, before jumping and then standing again.

Young horses learn to stand still and watch at Sam’s yard (Image: Trish Dunell)

She often does her cross-country teaching while riding a young horse, so they learn to stand for ages – it’s good for their brain to switch on and off, says Sam. “But you have to change your methods a little bit for each horse to keep them comfortable and happy.”

Style file

Show jumping has been Boston’s most difficult phase and it’s taken him a while to settle, says Sam. “Because he can get worried, he used to flatten out and rush at everything. At his first events last season he wasn’t watching the fences at all, and would try and run them down. Then it’s just a case of more outings, basically to get him settled. And we do quite a lot of grid work with him.”

Boston has a tendency to overshoot his fences (Image: Trish Dunell)

Boston also tends to jump too far beyond the fence, overshooting his arc a little, says Sam, so often she will add a placing pole on the far side of the jump to encourage him to land closer in.

His biggest mistake today is drifting to the right, so Sam adds a placing pole on the right, to help him look and stay a little bit more in the centre of the jump.

Lionel, meanwhile, tends to drift excessively to the right, so she does a lot of bounce work and straightening work to get him to jump in a straight line.

Using a placing pole to prevent a right drift (Image: Trish Dunell)

Today, he wants to rush through the exercise, but Sam still stays very soft and leaves him alone to figure it out for himself. However, she adds a canter pole in the middle to slow him down, plus a V pole to the right to stop him drifting right.

Racetrack reject

Boston in his racing days (Image: Trish Dunell)

Boston sold for $52,000 as a yearling, but was a ‘complete dud’ on the track, much to the disappointment of his owners, who included rugby legend Sir Colin Meads (hence the horse’s racing name ‘Itsatry’). However, the beautiful, athletic gelding has found his niche in the eventing world.

  • This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of NZ Horse & Pony.