11/24/2006 12:00AM

Filly's first lesson has a psychological touch


LEXINGTON, Ky. - An athletic dark brown filly with a star on her forehead, Empiress was a child of destiny from birth.

A daughter of Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, Empiress is out of the Dixieland Band mare Regal Band, also the dam of Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos.

With relations of the most exalted stature, there was never any question that this young filly would be a figure of interest among breeders and racing people.

From the first crop of one of the most highly regarded young sires in America, she is a filly with a future, but what the stars will hold for her, nobody can tell.

To this point, she is a pretty, intelligent filly with very good balance and quality. She is agile and strong, but she is also clay yet to be molded into its final form.

Each step in the process will have a determining effect on this filly's prospects to fulfill the lofty hopes of her owners, breeder Jim Squires and co-owner Frank Gardner.

Foaled and raised at the Two Bucks Farm of Squires and his wife Mary Anne, the filly had prospered in becoming a late yearling ready for her first lessons on riding, which took place on Wednesday afternoon.

The early learning of a young Thoroughbred can have an immense impact on a racehorse's career, and for this reason, Squires and Gardner brought in Martin Black, an experienced trainer.

Squires said: "Martin is an equine behaviorialist who understands what a horse is thinking and feeling. He is one of the premier starters of Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses in the country. He is not a conditioner, training horses on the racetrack, but he trains their minds.

"Although it is typically called 'breaking,' breaking is in dramatic contrast to what these men do. He gets every horse ready to ride personally, but generally other young people ride the horses while he is working alongside.

"His main business is in Texas from November to May, working with Quarter Horse colts. He goes around to the big ranches, as well as Thoroughbred operations like Edward P. Evans's and mine. We start all our horses this way, including the less-expensive ones, because they don't know how much they are worth."

Before working with Empiress, Black tacked up his trusted training horse Chili with a heavy Western saddle and rode into the middle of the round pen. Then Squires led in the alert young filly.

The first step in this approach was teaching Empiress to move past a fear of Black or anything strange and respond to a command. Black began this task by using the pressure of the lead rope on the filly's halter as a barrier.

Black said, "If a wild horse had come into that pen, he might have run into the bars trying to escape, but he would have realized that it was firm and consistent. So he would have quit that pretty quickly. The rope on this filly was as firm and consistent as the pen."

In five minutes, the filly had learned that moving away from Black was uncomfortable, moving toward him was not. By getting Empiress to respond to commands by voice or pressure from the halter, Black got her past her instinct to flee in fear. When she did what Black asked, he rewarded the filly, and then for several more minutes, Black continued working with the filly, as he tried to get her to "loosen up her hindquarters in turning to the left and right" so that she reacted to instructions from a human, rather than responding to fear in unusual circumstances.

Squires said, "In three sessions of working with a young horse, Martin can teach the horses four things: to stop, move forward, and turn to the left and the right."

These basics of horse instruction are essential to safely riding and managing a horse. Squires explained that the "turn is not just a turn. It is the horse's learning to move his hindquarters to the left or right when cued by a slight tug on the mouthpiece. Martin wants to allow the rider to have control of the horse, and that's what he teaches these horses from horseback before they ever have a rider up. That lesson will stay with them forever. With these lessons well learned, a horse never grabs the bit and runs off, which is a problem we see every day on our racetracks."

Not broken but trained by her lessons, Empiress stood sensibly as Black's assistant, Austin Rawlins, put a saddle on her back and mounted.

She didn't buck or flee in fear. The dark filly was alert, her ears were pricked forward, and she was responding intelligently to the unaccustomed situation of being ridden.

After less than an hour in the round pen, Black was satisfied that the filly had begun her progress toward being a well-trained young horse, and, not wanting to overtax her, returned the filly to her stall.

Over the next couple of days, Empiress was ridden daily and given further training in responding to her rider and coping with the unexpected. She progressed to being ridden outside in a paddock and shortly will be shipped to Camden, S.C., to begin conditioning for her new life on the racetrack.

As an interesting and talented member of the 2-year-old crop of 2007, she will be a filly to watch for in the months to come.