With retraining of racehorses a very popular topic currently I am going to extend this to my experiences with retraining horses that are not racehorses. For this, I lean on my experiences in converting, or attempting to convert, a wide range of horses into Police Horses, over many years. I am going to look at horses from four disciplines. This all came about for me when Merseyside Police Mounted department changed its policy of buying very young, barely backed young horses in bulk from Ireland and started buying horses from any seller in general, on and ad hoc basis.
This created a lot of challenges when trying to find and retrain good Police Horses. Out of the hundreds I saw tested and trained very few made the grade. When retraining horses it is in my opinion, very important to realise that in order to re train any horse you need a deep and experienced knowledge of the training it has already gone through. This should include to what extent it succeeded or failed in its chosen discipline and a realistic view on the time it will take to conduct any retraining and if it is even achievable. Any pre existing injuries can also make retraining difficult and some horse disciplines are more prone to certain types of ailments and injuries. At the end I will say what I believe are for me the most often highly retrainable.
The modern event horse in order to be successful needs the qualities of speed, strength and controllability. The best ones have the capability to be quick footed enough at speed to clear solid obstacles off short or long strides, be sensible enough for the dressage phase and sufficiently controllable to jump poles well in an enclosed area. Obviously some event horses are more straightforward than others. However, what I discovered with these horses is that they often pick up a range of injuries due to their initial training. Some get rushed as young horses and they get joint issues. Later on as they age a lot are injected in their joints to maintain their level of performance and this can leave them difficult to retrain as they get older and the joints fail. All horses, legs need to strengthen at a rate sufficient to deal with what is expected of them. Hock and fetlock issues are always a threat and can pose difficulties for anybody attempting to retrain them further down the line. Event horses are often physically strong and can be stubborn when confronted with something they do not like and will plant (refuse to move), which can be extremely difficult thing to train out of any horse, but particularly a very strong one, not given to subtle signals from the rider. This is also why a lot of event horses find the dressage phase a big challenge. That is another subject.
I have been fortunate to be involved with the retraining of ex showjumpers from people like Nick Skelton, working with the best gives you a good benchmark. Basically where, or more importantly who ex showjumpers come from is always very important. I have discovered that showjumpers, really need to have had a sound and thorough basic grounding as young horses for any retraining to be successful. It might well be that a particular horse can not make it clear around a one metre forty plus showjump track and it needs to retire from competitions or lower its targets. However, when all its other natural abilities have been nurtured and developed correctly, the building blocks for retraining are solid and in place. Jumping big fences does not matter for police horses, but sound basic training very much does. The police just want a sane and sensible horse that moves away from the leg and stays in the riders’ hands. So the watchword with ex showjumpers is make sure you are dealing with a good source. Nick Skelton was a hugely successful and is a complete horseman however these days a lot of people training showjumpers use a whole gamut of gadgets and restrictive equipment to get these horses to jump clear at whatever height is attempted. The physical effects of these harsh things are revealed later to the professional horse trainer in their attempts to re educate or retrain the horse. So if the basics are sound the retraining should be straightforward. If not and the horse may have been pushed too hard, too soon by amateurs (there are a lot of them about), or even some professionals, who need fast results, the fallout from thiss will make retraining these ex showjumpers to a high standard, tricky at best and nigh on impossible at worst. One word of caution with ex showjumpers, they do often demand a higher level of expertise from the saddle and mixed messages from a poor or even average rider will create big issues in terms of safety. When got right they make fantastic police horses and general riding horses which can pop the odd fence for fun, just remember showjump riders are nearly always of a very high standard and their horses sometimes demand a high level of rider capability whatever they are being asked to do.
Ridden show horses
Generally ex ridden show horses are not often put forward as potential police horses. In my experience of them they are very good, even brilliant at displaying balance and harmony with a highly skilled rider, light in the hand and capable of the smoothest changes of pace and direction. One drawback with show horses is they sometimes do not really see much of the world outside of show rings and indoor arenas. Show horses and riders need to express this balance, harmony and freedom of movement in all gaits when competing and when got right can provide a wonderful, joyful spectacle. However they will often present major spooking difficulties, when they get out into the wider world. Police horses have to not only operate in the wider world, they also have to be good at it. There is no place for spooky horses, only very well trained highly controllable ones. Once again I have to say if a young show horse has seen some of the world with say roadwork and such like as a youngster this will stand the horse in very good stead later as a retraining option, if the horse cannot succeed. Obviously there are showing horses that have a grand temperament and are not in the least bit spooky but these horses can be very expensive to buy and difficult to find.
The main qualities for any successful dressage horse are threefold. The horse should be forward going, it should move straight and be of a level headed temperament, especially when under pressure. The main problem with getting hold of ex dressage horses that have the required abilities to be a good police horse is just that, its getting hold of them. These horses are nearly always very well trained and have a high level of discipline. Now whilst similarly to show horses some of them do not see much of the world apart from menages and arenas that does not apply to horses trained by competent professionals. I will always say that the horses with the abilities most closely matched to that of a superb police horse are generally speaking, dressage horses. One word of caution here however, some dressage riders do an incredible job riding dressage horses that are in fact very spooky, with less able riders. This spookiness can obviously become a big issue with a less capable rider in a more challenging environment, like a city centre or a riot for example.
I did say at the start I would say what the preferred option is and for me personally, whilst I have trained and retrained many horses all things considered it would be an ex dressage horse as the requirements for these horses most resemble the requirements for a brilliant police horse.
Last month I did write about the retraining of ex racehorse and this article would be best appreciated if that one was read too.