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Claire and Mingo in the Jumpers

Guest Post: Lessons Learned from a Sensitive OTTB

Guest Post by Claire A. Dague

When it comes to trainers, I can honestly say I have been truly blessed. My current trainer is  a true horsewoman: always putting the welfare of her horses above all else and I have learned so much from her in just the three short years we’ve been together. But the best teacher I’ve ever had, has been a pudgy, bay OTTB named Mingo. Mingo was the last baby to grow up on my grandfather’s farm before he took a break from the racehorse industry. Nine years ago, I would have never guessed that the small, gangly foal I was looking at would one day teach me more than any horse I had ever had the pleasure of working with.

Five years ago, Mingo came home as a track failure and I had just recently retired my first horse. I remember looking at him, laughing to myself, and thinking – “Well, what the heck. Why not?” And it was then that our partnership began. Since then, Mingo has taught me lessons in horsemanship that, as a horsewoman, I am eternally grateful for. Because of him, my passion for starting green horses off the track began, and I hope it continues to flourish in the years to come. Not wanting to keep these precious gifts of knowledge to myself, I hope that you can take away just one thing from the many lessons Mingo has taught me.

Claire and Mingo Dressage
Claire and Mingo showing Intro Dressage during the early years

Lesson One: The plan is always changing – and that’s okay.

You have bad days, I have bad days, and yes, your horse has bad days too. I am a self-proclaimed perfectionist and I had a terrible habit of heading to the barn with a set plan of what I would like to accomplish that day during my ride. But sometimes Mingo had other plans. Mingo is incredibly sensitive and loves to pick a fight; he will lock his jaw to the left and once he does that, the day’s ride is over. Mingo taught me that our plan doesn’t always work out how we think it should and that the definition of a successful ride is sometimes quietly trotting long and low around the ring twice after the jaw has been locked. Ending on a positive note is worth so much more.

Claire and Mingo Trotting
Working on relaxing in the jumper ring

Lesson Two: A defensive and rude horse is almost never the result of bad manners but instead, a result of poor riding or physical issues.

When things don’t go right, it’s easy to sit back and blame your horse. But you should always blame yourself first. Mingo’s reactions to my hands have always been magnified times 10. Therefore, when he is naughty and does things like taking off or bucking, I have to be very careful how I react as a rider. Pulling your horse’s face off as you yank him to a halt does nothing other than make the problem worse and make your horse more defensive. Stop pulling! It takes hundreds of rides to undue the damage that can be done in a few, harsh yanks on a horse’s mouth. (And yes, I do feel very strongly about this). Sometimes you have to ignore the behavior and softly ask for a different answer. Show your horse compassion everyday and he will give it back to you.

At the beginning of this show season, Mingo was more defensive and tense than usual. He wasn’t lame per say, but he was definitely off. After pulling him from the local show circuit, I discovered that he was suffering from a rather aggressive form of DJD in his hocks. In this case, his behavior wasn’t because he was being bad, but because he was hurting. After a set of injections, the difference in his attitude was incredible. For me, this was a roll “the newspaper up and hit yourself in the head” kind of lesson that I needed. If something is off, show the horse compassion and rule out all the other ‘what ifs’ first.

A quiet moment between Claire and Tucker
A quiet moment between Claire and Tucker

Lesson Three: Being a horseman goes so much deeper than the time spent on your horse’s back.

Some of my most joyous and proud moments have been on the back of a horse. But some of my most special have come from time spent out of the saddle. Know what your horse eats, know his daily schedule, know his normal so you know when something isn’t right. Spend time just grooming him and mucking his stall, and build a relationship with him that goes deeper than one just as rider and horse. My newest addition, Tucker, was a terrible biter and downright mean when he came to me as a three year old. Hours spent doing groundwork and grooming have created a special bond that goes far beyond the time I spend on his back and the partnership that I have gotten in return has been amazing. The first day he came running to me from the field, his most favorite place to be, was one of the most gratifying moments of our relationship.

Claire and Mingo in the Jumpers

Lesson Four: Stop engaging in the fight.

Many OTTBs love to fight and seem to have an opinion about everything – Mingo has certainly been no exception. With my penchant for perfection, I want every step of every ride to be perfect. When it isn’t perfect, all too many times I pick a fight. Or if Mingo is having an off day, he likes to throw in some sass here or there, which lures me into a fight with him. But guess what… I never win – never in my five years of riding him. Not only do I never win against my 1,000-pound horse, but also I leave the barn feeling frustrated and angry. When I feel myself getting annoyed I slow down, take a deep breath and remember that fighting won’t make the ride any better.

Tucker's First Horse Show
Tucker at his first horse show, two years after Claire purchased him

Lesson Five: Anything worth having takes lots of patience and even more time, but it is worth it.

This last lesson was really shown to me through the newest addition to my team at the end of 2014 – my now five-year-old OTTB, Tucker. I adopted Tucker from a local adoption agency and he was exactly my type: big, chunky, and plain bay. While the agency I got him from cleared him for any discipline, a post-purchase found a hairline fracture in his right carpus that needed to be rehabbed. In short: he needed time. So, Tucker got six months of rehab. Then, once I was finally able to start him under saddle, he was a nightmare. He became angry and frustrated easily, flying backwards many times and threatening to flip over on me. For a while, I didn’t think he was going to work.

However, I was patient and I stuck with him. When he got frustrated and threatened to run away with me, I gave him more rein and told him it was okay. When he flagged his tail and snorted when we went to a local facility to ride, I talked to him quietly and kept him busy. The times when I would get angry and lose my patience, he became even more upset and nervous. But when I showed him patience and compassion and waited for him to give me the right answer, it started clicking. We have now just finished our first full show season, and he is more steady than his nine-year-old ‘brother Mingo’, even getting some good ribbons in the hunter ring. Patience and time: always give your horse both.

Tucker in the Hunter Ring
Tucker isn’t a typey hunter, but the victory was successfully getting around the ring

Lesson Six: Stop comparing yourself to everyone around you.

When I first started Mingo, I was a freshman in college (out-of-state) and Mingo did not head down to Kentucky with me every time I left Ohio. This gave us a solid three months of intense riding in the summer together (while showing) and a spotty month together over winter break. Overall, this wasn’t much time at all. I am a person who likes to see progress and results rather quickly; however, most of the time, there is no such thing as quick progress with the green OTTB. I would come home the beginning of the summer and compare myself to all those around me who had been riding all fall, winter, and spring. And I never measured up – but how could I? I had literally only been riding ¼ the time they had, and on a baby horse to boot.

I became so much happier when I stopped comparing myself to others. At the end of the day, your opinion of yourself is the only one that matters. Progress happens slowly and not all results are good ones. Take the time to do things the right way and focus on you and your horse – create a solid foundation. There is a difference between being able to run around the jumper ring, out of control, and by the grace of God keep the jumps all up versus going around balanced, collected and correctly. The blue ribbon isn’t worth the shortcuts and your journey is different than that of anyone else – and that’s exactly how it is supposed to be.

Claire and Mingo Champion

Happy Riding,
Claire A. Dague

This is a guest post by hunter/jumper rider Claire A. Dague. A law student in Central Ohio, Claire has shown on the local A and B circuit in both hunters and jumpers. She currently owns three horses: Elliot (retired Appendix jumper), Mingo (nine-year-old OTTB jumper) and Tucker (five-year-old OTTB) who live at home on her grandfather’s farm.


Fly On Over is an equestrian lifestyle blog devoted to connecting horse lovers around the world. By providing equestrians with practical tips and tricks related to horse ownership, discussing training techniques for horse and rider, as well as covering industry news.

9 thoughts to “Guest Post: Lessons Learned from a Sensitive OTTB”

  1. The ‘stop comparing yourself to others’ is a really hard lesson for me to learn. Fiction is incredibly sensitive and three years of riding were spent ruining him, so I’m still working on basics now. I see people around me with agreeable horses with no baggage progressing so quickly and it makes me want to punch a wall. But then I remind myself that I’ll get there – it’s just going to take more time.

    I do find, however, that if Fiction tries to pick a fight with me, it works best if I don’t back down, because ultimately I always win. If I retreat, the bad behavior progresses. So definitely a different type of sensitive, I guess.

  2. I started reading this and was like “Wow I didn’t know Tracy’s Grandpa had Thoroughbreds..” “Wait she likes green horses?” Then I realized it was a guest post. Might want to make that line bigger (or maybe I need better glasses!!!!) Either way lovely, thanks for sharing this lovely post and story.

  3. Great guest post, I enjoyed reading this! Lots of good lessons all around, esp in taking time, being patient, and not comparing yourself or your horse to any other rider or horse.

  4. Love this post! I too am learning more about patience and compassion rather than fighting/pulling, and letting go of my perfectionist tendencies in the saddle. Gotta love OTTBs too 🙂

  5. Lesson two and lesson five FOR SURE. I just got my first OTTB and she is a complete treasure to work with on the ground and under saddle. I’ve found myself having a lot more patience and a lot more calmness around her (vs my first horse) and I love seeing that progress, even if it’s not always riding related

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