Question: I have a 18 year old Standardbred who raced most of his life. I have him feeling comfortable enough to trot when I longe him but as soon as I get on all he does is pace. I understand that he is 18 and is going to be hard to get out of pacing. Is there any ideas though of how I might try?
Answer from April Reeves: Unfortunately your older boy will be a pacer for his entire life.
There are two predominant lines of Standardbred breeding: trotter and pacer. The pacer is bred to pace: it is inherent in his birthright. There are some trotters who show a degree of aptitude to pace and are often encouraged (mechanically) to do so.
Your gelding will pace forever, but he can learn to trot. Problem you have is that he raced for a very long time and is older, which means you may never get him to trot out consistently under saddle.
In all my years of rehabbing horses, I have never been able to take the gaits completely out of a horse once they have been established: once in there, always in there, (the same goes for rearing, bucking, kicking, bolting).
If longeing is helping, it may be one way you can encourage him to try harder. Word of caution: do not overdo the trot work at the start. Keep it light, grow it until his muscles begin to retain the memory and strength.
When you ride, you are not getting a trot because the trot needs an extremely supple horse in order to balance and engage diagonal leg pairs. Suppling is the most valuable exercise for a horse, yet the least known or worked on. It is the core of your foundation. I will give you a series of suppling exercises I do with every horse, every time I ride.
1. At a standstill, I gently ask him to bring his head from side to side. Depending on the horse’s degree of stiffness, I am very careful to start slow and build on this until I have a round bend with the poll moving to the side, not the mouth (horse stiffens neck, cocks his head and just gives you his mouth). Do this 6-8 times per side, 3 times during your exercise routine: front, middle, end.
2. Straightness. Most Standardbreds fail miserably here. In order to get a horse straight they must be supple. I have a great video about this on Horseman’s U.com. Follow this link: http://www.horsemansu.com/april_reeves_chalkboard_classroom_horse_training_tips
3. Lateral work at all gaits: bending, serpentines, circles (do lots of circles). Begin them large, moving into a smaller circle, decreasing the diameter one horse width each time until you are fairly small (small enough to keep him at the gait) and then back out.
4. Step-through: as you walk, take his head gently (follow a feel) to the side, use your inside leg slightly back, and ask him to bring his hind leg under his belly to his navel. You will feel this eventually. Do not overdue this exercise. Ask about 4 times each way, only bend and ask for 2-3 strides. Gradually he will begin to bring his hind leg under. With your horse this may take some time. This is how he will balance at the trot, by being able to feel confident about balancing on a single line under his body, as opposed to carrying his feet in a ‘block’. You are asking him to bring his legs under him, not just forward and back, but into the middle of his body. This is uncomfortable for any horse, and you need to build his confidence to do this. Without it, he will travel in a square frame, which only encourages him to pace. This exercise is the key to obtaining an upright balanced horse that does not lean. When a horse travels with his legs under his body, he cannot lean or he would fall over.
5. Do not overdue his stiff side, which in your case is likely both sides. How can you tell which side is stiff? It is not the side they have the problem on. If your horse is stiff to the left, it is his right side that has the problem. This is amplified with the head bending exercise; if he has more problems turning to the left than the right, he is stiff on the right. The reason is because sore muscles can contract but they cannot extend. When you ask the sore side to extend, it refuses. To get a horse equal, you must work on both sides equally.
This should give you a good start, and with your boy you should count on one year, 5 times a week, working on the above every day.
It’s a lot of work to rehab a Standardbred. It sounds like he is very lucky to have you and if I were you, I would keep him forever, work on this and see where it goes. It would be an excellent learning situation for you, as very few people can rehab this breed.