Help: Very Sensitive OTTB heavy on forehand.... Suggestions?

Hi guys,
I am posting this in the dressage forum, however this post is about my very sensitive 17hh 7yo OTTB gelding who I intend to event… Of course, dressage seems to be our downfall… Here is some background info:

Ive had this horse for 2yrs now and he has always been a “hot” horse. He is insanely sensitive and I have found this to be a good and bad quality. I have been really focusing on our flatwork over the last year. His nervousness can sometimes hinder us, but with regular turnout and structure, he does very well…He is one of those horses who you lead out of the stall and hope you get the easy uneventful version of him… He was started in a myler level 2 eggbutt bit and he did really well. We regularly do hunter paces and he requires the myler combination to do those, but is sensible and adjustable… Over the winter he began consistently cross cantering (swapping leads in his hind end), mostly to the left. I did diagnostics and found nothing of concern really (I feared neurological even). We began doing strengthening exercises on the ground over cavalettis and that issue is almost completely resolved. During the hard time, he was coming down from an episode of cross cantering (in our indoor)and during the downward trans. he fell (with me) pretty badly. He came out of it sound but I am sure it’s contributed to anxiety at the canter for him and possibly still even me, that i may not be aware of.

Lately, I’ve switched to an FEI legal bit in hopes to get him ready to debut at the end of august. The first thing I tried was a D ring with a decent sized lozenge and he wasnt a huge fan. I then tried a Stubben sweet copper baucher with the lozenge and he did well for about a week before completely disrespecting it and gaping his mouth, and being generally unhappy. I then purchased a Nuele Shule loose ring for him with the ergonomical curvature in it so it has zero pinch. He’s been schooling in that and a plain cavesson for about 2 months now and I have been generally very pleased with him. However, since we are reintroducing the canter, he has seemingly forgotten how to use his hind end. So, i was doing exercises where, in the center of our arena i would obtain a nice round trot and ask for a canter while pushing him out to a bigger circle and THEN throwing the reins at him and letting him figure out how to carry us both. He tends to stick on a 20ish M circle without guidance and was eventually figuring it out.

Most recently (past few weeks), after battling a hot nail/abscess, we went back to work and i found he had learned that tendency to dive to the inside when asked to trot (expecting our normal exercise). I have almost completely untrained that bad habit and now when I add the contact to him, he likes to kinda drag me around mouth gaping… This horse didnt like the flash when he went in the baucher, and i have tried loosening this cavesson to help, but no change.

If i try to do transition work (canter to trot/walk and back to canter) he gets outrageously hot and strung out during which he counterbends and basically has a mental breakdown. Needless to say he requires quite a lot of patience and is not easy by anyone’s standards…and his inconsistencies are kind of frustrating now. I have looked at the saddle fit and it seems good. He is ridden in a Bates Caprilli (MW gullet… He has a huge shoulder) to school in (i know, i know…the dressage saddle comes in a few weeks though) with a thinline pad.

Since I cant do transition work effectively, would circles help? Am I asking for too much too soon? I’ve thought of going back to our on the buckle exercises, too? His teeth were floated earlier this year without issue. I hear a lot of horses like this go well in a french link, and have thought about trying it, but worry with as strong as he CAN be it might not be ENOUGH. We had two nice canter circles (one each way) today and at one point afterwards while trotting, anticipated me asking again and half-bolted. Thankfully I am used to racehorses but this guy has been a true challenge. I love him to death and really want to help him be comfortable and reach his full potential, but I am in a rut.

Any advice is appreciated!:confused:

Are you working with anyone, preferably a dressage person? Your problems are very flatwork related, but don’t sound very simple to solve.

It is more than even a long BB reply would involve.

Agree with merrygoround but will give you my thoughts.

  1. your bit is likely irrelevent
  2. if he is cross cantering he is stiff thru the back, all part of the nervousness and rushing
  3. transitions are your friend. Start with simple w/t/w on a circle. Stay calm and relaxed yourself, don’t be afraid to take it back to a walk, take a deep breath and calm down.
  4. I would bet money that you are also tense and nervous. Horse won’t relax until you do.

i also own an ottb since 2 years.lot of the things you are describing sound my opinion these horses need lots and lots of time and even more patience.they come off the track psychologically and physically tense,when you hear about their previous life style there,it is no surprise.i gave my horse a full year of very light riding only where we mainly focused on loosening/suppling/balancing.he still picks up the wrong lead at the canter sometimes and has stiff days.making him do things mostly results in more stiffness and nervousness whereas relaxing and going a step back,lots of praising has made all the difference.

I do not think you are asking for too much too soon - you have had the horse in training for 2 years yet are still struggling with canter work and basic transitions. Barring current physical/lameness problems, this is a horse I would ask MORE of in training - both physically and mentally. If you are not working with one already, I would recommend a good eventing trainer that has a lot of experience with Thoroughbreds. Such a person will be able to differentiate sensitivity/hotness from a central training problem, or from a possible physical problem.

In the meantime I think doing some transition work on a circle might be very helpful as a way to encourage more relaxation. Just don’t do them too frequently at first - give him time to settle into one gait before asking for the next. I like long runs of W-T-C-T-W-H on the circle, taking occasional go-large breaks at the trot. Don’t allow him to train you NOT to ask for transitions just because he gets excited about them; they will seem less exciting once he is doing more of them and they begin to feel like hard work. I would also say don’t be afraid to do a lot more cantering in general - one circle each way is not enough to work on much of anything, and might account for his exaggerated anticipation. If you are nervous about canter because of his fall, do it on the lunge line to persuade yourself that he is sufficiently strong and coordinated to do it under saddle. The lunge might also be a great place to work on the transitions and improve his balance/coordination without getting into a tug-of-war. I would not personally try to show a horse like this until his basics are more firmly entrenched.

I’m really not sure how to answer your posts except to convey a story. I have ridden mix-breeds, OTTBs and warmbloods in my life. I’m currently riding a very smart 4-year old WB who has been difficult for me to ride. He is very sensitive and very reactive, and I’ve adjusted his diet, lifestyle and supplements to benefit him. I recently enlisted the help of an advanced-level eventer to help get this horse over his antics. She takes his issues head on, because she’s fearless in that way that advanced eventers are…and she’s an extremely well-balanced rider in that way that Advanced level riders are. Taken together, she’s unphased by his antics and he now understands that his antics don’t get him out of work. However, she recognizes that he tests her. He’ll try to quit and she has to keep him forward. He knows he should be forward and he tests how forward he can be. He’s flexible to turn on some days and on other days he decides that he knows which way the rider is turning. If she canters a lot on one day he’ll decide the next day that he should be cantering and he’ll take over - she’ll just walk and trot to tell him that no, he’s not in control. He’s not allowed to make his own decisions at this point, he has to wait for the rider. He will pitch a fit - he’s tossed me several times, which is why I had this eventer put rides on him. He tried with her ONCE… once. She stuck everything he threw at her. I will say she rides this horse so well because she’s brought several difficult OTTBs up through the levels and broke several unhandled WBs to work under saddle. My horse is a piece of cake in comparison. She even rode him out of the arena and into nature (words can’t describe what a big deal this is). And I’ve gotten to watch her approach, which gave me a tremendous amount of insight regarding how to handle him. He doesn’t try things with me anymore and I don’t accept his shenanigans anymore.

That said, I have to say this is coincident with putting him on MagRestore. I’m a professional scientist and therefore a skeptic, but I can’t deny the change that’s occurred with him.

Can you get a brave and no-nonsense professional rider to come out and put some rides on your horse? Someone to just canter your horse and get him over his memories? I doubt that your bits are the problem, if your horse is smart, I’m wondering if he’s taking advantage of your fear/apprehension.


I agree with the above poster, put him on magrestore right away. Both of my OTTB’s are on it and they are night and day, it has been a life saver.
Also it sounds like your horse is locking his jaw and tense thru his back. You need someone that can help you work thru these issues. Has a chiro looked at him? If he is in fact locking his jaw lateral work will help to make him give and bend his ENTIRE body not just from his neck. It is important that you understand you have to be secure in your contact and have an independent seat and hand or else trying to ride him thru this issue can end up creating another worse habit instead of a horse that happily accepts the contact, lightens his jaw and poll and relaxes and lifts his back.

[QUOTE=merrygoround;7093342]Are you working with anyone, preferably a dressage person? Your problems are very flatwork related, but don’t sound very simple to solve.

It is more than even a long BB reply would involve.[/QUOTE]

Good lessons! I am helping a gal in between lessons with a GIANT TB mare who is lovely but dives head first. Holding the reins along with her hands I found a subtle tug of war and she was willing to work in walk for a bit to correct her backwards thinking hand and literally transformed her mare in a couple of rides!

Find someone to do this with you!

You said the saddle seemed to fit, but if you haven’t had a consultation with a saddle fitter, maybe it would give you peace of mind to do so.

Thought of one more suggestion while I was riding last night. I used to have a TB eventer that got quite hot and sensitive. The transitions will help with heavy on the forehand but if he was getting wound up I found that a repetitive series of large figure 8’s got him to relax. As in Figure 8 using the whole ring over and over and over. If I did work he found more challenging and he got hot and sensitive we would go back to the “happy place” of repetitive figure 8’s until we was in a better frame of mind.

I think the figure 8 work because it was a mild bend to maintain suppleness and the repetitive nature calmed his mind.

If it’s any consolation, the aforementioned TB (who was once banned from the track for bad behaviour) ultimately finished his show career as a short stirrup hunter carting young children around the ring. :slight_smile:

Though I agree with the above posts that a bit might not be the issue, it doesn’t mean that one he likes wouldn’t help and I found with my guy who was and is also a leaner and a super sensitive guy, that he really likes a Waterford. I got a d ring at the time to try and it’s flexible and light nature, we both loved. It fir his more petite mouth and it flexed and basically collapsed if he tried to lean on it. Working with him, even using this bit for a little bit, I still had to really focus on riding and getting that impulsion from behind, but it did really help when he wanted to get heavy and I could drop him a little to let him know if he didn’t support him self, neither was I. I now have him in a simple loose ring jointed snaffle. Lots of work still, but he seemed to really like it. And the nuele schule bits, I love them with how light weight they are and so did he. Only brand I found in a copper metal type and Waterford.

Other then that, I did lots of transitions and simple changes, so I didn’t the large figure eights and each direction I went back to a trot for a few strides to change leads and repeat. It kept him light and thinking. My horse is thinker and likes to keep his mind busy. He also Hayes to mess up and with doing the simple changes on a large figure eight, if he was heavy on the for hand he wouldn’t get the change so this really helped us…

Good luck, I feel like leaners can be the biggest challenge sometimes…

Yes ma’am, a chiro and massage therapist have seen him (massage is done monthly). Not huge complaints on his back ever, but recently mentioned a shoulder being painful, but it was on the same side as the hot nail and subsequent abscess we were battling, so I am not surprised about that.

I have had him on SmartCalm Ultra with the highest magnesium dose and saw no difference in him (but a lot of reviews had said similar), and that goes for riding in the indoor (only) and his stall behavior.

I know this is weird, but in the outdoor he works MUCH better. I am wondering if he/we have anxiety in the indoor? I have had the trainer at my barn who is both competent and brave ride him through his gaits and agrees he’s tough. She tried side reins on him and it really messed with him, I think he felt more trapped, so I opted to stop on that and just do the loose rein exercises where he was really coming along. I am wondering if i should be more consistent with that. But again, outdoors he tends to carry himself less on the forehand.

I am checking out MagRestore now, I wouldn’t mind giving it a shot! He currently is fed free choice hay and pasture plus about 8lbs of McCauley Bros Alam (in two feedings), along with ProBios, U-Gard and a joint and hoof supplement am only. I feel like his diet isnt lacking…

Pennkaye - I think you’re right about locking his jaw. I may just REALLY need to make myself aware of my whole body and check the mirror occasionally - I will likely see the problem if thats the case. I do know I really need to teach myself to really slow my seat down. I’ve sadly been on a lot of really strong horses AND was a taught Hunter, so I already have to battle with a semi foreward body (UGH!!)

I LOVE the simple changes idea, I will have to try that. He is a thinker and can be an anticipating type, so this could keep his mind active without letting him take advantage of me.

I am going to second the benefits of having a really experienced rider help out. My mare can be very much like this and with me on her she gets increasingly hot and reactive in response to transitions (especially at the canter). I am working out a situation where a GP rider can get on her a few days a week for the next 6 weeks. During the first ride my mare pulled every trick in the book and because the rider never once tensed and responded with absolute precision my mare was amazing. Once she went through the tricks and realized that she couldn’t get out of work she actually started putting that thinker brain to work and they had some beautiful moments. I know that funds and access can be huge barriers but even a few rides with a good rider may be very helpful if they can articulate how they are fixing problems as they pop up.

We all spend vanishingly small amounts of time actually in front of a judge in a dressage test; so “FEI legal” need not be a consideration for training and daily riding. One thing I’ve found works well is a Mullen-mouth steel Tom Thumb (short shank) Pelham–it used to be the “go-to” bit in the hunter world to teach respect for the hands and a little soft flexion.

Do remember to hang it a little lower in the mouth–“no wrinkle.” If it agrees with him, school him exclusively in it until you actually hit the show grounds–then the “legal cheat” is a Baucher snaffle, which hangs from the rings just like the Pelham and will therefore feel comfy to him–the best is the Herm Sprenger with lovely curved cannons like a Western snaffle, but they’re hard to find today and absurdly expensive. Look regularly on E-Bay!

He needs to learn that there is a very happy rectangle he must stay within; bordered by the mullen Pelham, the reins and your legs. Nothing bad happens to him within that rectangle (independent seat prerequisite!). Going above, below, or crookedness will avail him nothing. You are a force of Nature and resistance is futile! :slight_smile:

Get THAT muscle-memory established at home in Whatever It Takes, and when you get him to a show fake him out for that very necessary 5 minutes in a snaffle.

There are ZILLIONS of mouths out there folks who are not “snaffle mouths,” and to use what works is to cut to the chase. You will NOT ruin him, and there is not one thing about a snaffle that is inherently “nicer” than a Pelham–especially if you’re having to grind 75 lbs. onto it to hold him.

Manners, manners, manners . . . :smiley:

Bitted for respect, DO AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE. I’m working with a rider right now who does too much “frammin’ on the jim-jam”–and that’s 98% of the problem! It’s like an outboard motor–ride him from back to front!

I found lateral work to help a lot with my ottb. He seems to enjoy the challenge of it and it really helps him to be round and supple. When he starts anticipating I will put him into a shoulder in or haunches out or leg yield. He’s even picking up up half pass at trot now. Backing up and turning, turning on haunches etc. along with serpentines figure 8s really keep him from getting hot and bored. At first I just asked for a step laterally so as not to frustrate him. Lots and lots of praise. Like over the flipping top “omg youre the best horse ever!” He eats it up. Lives for getting the simplest things right. Good luck with him. With mine it’s up and down but now knock wood it seems to be three steps forward and only one back. I am a huge believer in using lateral to supple and teach balance. You sound very competent but if you don’t feel so with adding lateral excersises I’m sure your trainer can help.

Oh and not that this would necessarily help your horse but I discovered mine has a low roof of the mouth. Not a lot of room in there. He hung onto the snaffle. Grabbed it in his teeth and leaned like crazy anytime I gave him something to lean on. He’s been going much better in a French link eggbutt.

LOVE this response!! I actually spent around 1-2 months exiting winter doing lateral work with him as a warm up schedule for him. Counterbent circles (moving the shoulder), pivoting, moving haunches etc. he can also half pass at the trot! He caught on to everything very quickly. I had to use these exercises after I got on before my training rides to keep him cool & calm (he is wild in winter, our farm has limited turnout…they’re going to HAVE to put him out for a couple hours in winter to help this.) TOO MUCH ENERGY. & that thinking work really helped him. That is a great tip though! & I absolutely should continue with it always!

I looked at this reply again & re-watched that Stubben YouTube video about saddle fitting for OTTBs & decided I’d go utilize what I learned. I ride in a Bates CC, so luckily I have the changeable gullet system. He was going in the MW for months. I assessed it Sunday & decided itd be a good idea to go back to the Medium. Today I rode him in it with the thinline pad (as always), & he went SO well! He wanted to stretch long & low a LOTTTT today at walk & trot AND his canter work was the most solid it’s been in months! I had a very very nice right lead namely. Left is his weaker side but it is improving. He took the lead both times & never cross cantered at all. Seemed very levelheaded.

Lesson here: even if your saddle isn’t leaving white hairs/rubs etc, it could still be wrong. I really think the MW was coming over his shoulder. I noticed on Saturday when I rode him in our jump field that my outside leg was moving forward at the canter and I could feel a weird popping by his elbow. I figured right away obviously the saddle fit is flawed, since that’s not normal. This would ALSO explain why he’s been more forward too - a too wide saddle dumps the rider forward. I would be thrown even more forward than my tendencies already had me.
The trainer watched me today & said I’m doing a much better job sitting/riding the canter & he was not racing & divey, as he was before.

step in the right direction!

I’m in the camp with lateral work always and that this horse needs more ask of him not less. First, never ride the horse in a straight line, always on loops asking for shoulder-fore. I don’t think my horse ever put a hind leg into the same front leg hoof mark for a good 6 months and if he comes out hot and ignorning me we return to out lateral work. Leg yields, shoulder-in, haunches in, halfpass, and turns on the haunches.

My canter solution that worked for me.

In the canter I always ask for lateral just before the transition, and never on a circle with out establishing shoulder in. Right now we are having some issues with left lead canter and turning off my outside leg. I’m asking for the canter from any of the lateral work above, he picks it up wonderfully and collected then he will dive. I instantly counter bend and outside leg to move over now, and metaphorically my inside rein is flapping in the wind wide open. Touch outside rein and apply outside leg together. You want an instant sideways jump. Then we resume normal canter and he is much lighter. We go down the long side and he’ll dive again. Same routine counter bend and outside leg with the signal “sideways NOW”. Then continue forward with the canter.

Now if we crash we used to do that horrible strung out trot, now we do instant sideways, into a leg yield, shoulder-in or turn on the haunch.

Disclaimer: Establish sideways and instant responses in the walk and trot first before the above or your horse will most likely give you the WTF look.

My trainer and I spent a long time establishing sideways/lateral buttons. I was so terrified of applying leg in any way to my guy. Then I was taught how to apply it properly for sideways, not forward.

Ride your horse sideways first.