It's Not a Race... Anymore

Louie halting before walking off the gap.

Louie halting before walking off the gap.

Off the Track Thoroughbreds have become highly popularized sport horse mounts. To the extent where many people, regardless of experience or patience level, seek them out as affordable, athletic and started projects for future competition horses or for resale. Social media seems to have increased the popularity of retraining OTTBs even more, because it allows everyone to showcase the process and be extra loud about the potential these horses have. While this has been fabulous for helping to increase the value of the Thoroughbred, as well as promote the potential behind the ex racehorse, it has also created some drawbacks. Namely, the rushing of these incredible athletes.

I believe that I have been a part of the problem of rushing horses coming off the track, largely due to naivety. When I first got into Thoroughbreds, I was quite young, only about 16. I thought that I had an idea of how these horses were handled and ridden on the track, what the demands were and how much these horses really knew riding wise… I didn’t. I made mistakes, expecting too much or simply just being unaware of the right way to handle things. Getting the opportunity to start work as an exercise rider at 19 is what exponentially changed the way I ride and view these horses, as well as made me realizing how irritating and silly I must have sounded to people working at the track and assisting in the selling of these horses. This is why it is so incredibly important to have someone with knowledge of ex racehorses to help you through the process.

Roger having some fun…

Roger having some fun…

In this scenario, there are two types of people. Those who are aware of how trained track horses really are and still rush them and those who are completely oblivious, but still rush them. You see, a lot of people view these horses as a lot less broke than they actually are and then when they bring them in for training, they claim the credit for things many of these horses have already been exposed to and mastered. I have heard the whole “they only know how to run in a straight line” spiel far too often, such a ridiculous concept; as though when started under saddle, we just hopped on these horses and galloped them full force. Like that would be totally safe, right? No. These horses are broke w/t/c. They are broke in a manner where they are green broke, they know the absolute basics and nothing else. So, anyways, when the oblivious types get one of these horses, they will take credit for even the smallest of milestones, for example, “First trot! He only knew how to run in a straight line before, WOW!”… So, like the latter, these types of people can also end up rushing their horses with their awe and surprise in how their training prowess makes their already broke horse able to do, you know, green broke things. Mind you, quality of track training varies by trainer, like in any discipline, so some of these horses are more broke and others, less. Some have more baggage, others don’t. Some are more naturally spooky, others not so much.. The largest difference in these horses is the fact that they are trained to run into the bridle. This means, when they get quick and an inexperienced rider of OTTBs latches onto their mouth instead of doing a steady give and take and staying calm, the horse just goes faster. I have had this happen even with people trying my horses who have been retired a while from the track. Good hands are so so important. Don’t latch onto their mouths. The next thing that people need to remember, and often forget, is the fact that when you are buying end of season, these horses have ran and trained hard for an entire season. They have likely spent most of their time training or in a stall at the track. They are tired. Mentally and physically. Getting a horse off the track, especially a baby, only to immediately turn around and send it into full training again is simply not fair. Give them a brain break. Don’t buy one off the track if you can’t offer them a let down period with some turnout. Yes, they may run at first, yes turnout may stress them out but it is so necessary for all horses, especially high energy racehorses coming into retirement off the track. As the human, it is your duty to reintroduce turnout in the least stressful manner possible to allow your horse a happy and healthy integration into sport horse life. Mind you, many of these horses spend their off season turned out anyways, but alas, don’t freak out just cause they do. Use your big human sized brain to help them relax. Relaxation is necessary in their day to day life, too, not just when you’re motivated from the riding of them. If you’re willing to work hard to make them into a riding horse, you should be willing to work hard to allow them to be a horse.

Anyways, that aside… Whether they realize what track broke actually means or not, whether they turn out or not, whether they do let down period or not, there is a very specific type of person that actively contributes toward the “crazy, hot and spooky Thoroughbred” stereotype. The stereotype that makes people think these horses can’t be nice sport horses. That makes people not want to pay for a well trained, successful OTTB. The one that promotes the idea that all of these horses are skinny necked, ulcery freaks who lose their brains at shows. And that is the people who rush the living shit out of these poor horses, who make their transition into new careers so much more stressful than it needs to be. These are the types of people who see no issue with their horse bolting out of control at fences, hollow and with absolutely no mouth. Whose horses can’t turn a corner properly but are being pointed at grids and asked to jump fairly significant heights. Whose horses have basically no top line and no condition but are jumping large courses. These are the people who give Thoroughbreds a bad name. These are the people who are the driving force behind non-TB owners looking at my OTTBs in awe and being like “Wow, he so doesn’t seem Thoroughbred-y” when the horse is literally just being a sane, young horse who hasn’t been put in a position where they’re an anxiety ridden mess.

You see, as the person who typically resells the racehorses at the farm I work at once they retire, I feel I can spot this type of person fairly well, but they do hide. There are varying levels of this type of person. There are the ones who don’t really understand how it works at the track and often expect more than the vast majority of trainers at the racetrack are willing or able to give. They’ll ask to come ride the horse at the track. They will want to take the horse on trial (lol @ me several years ago… sorry guys). They may ask for free jumping videos or may want to come and jump the horse themselves. Keep in mind these people are asking about horses who last ran a mere number of days ago and are still at the track, with no let down yet. Then there are the extreme ones, who expect the horse to be good with kids, despite being a toddler itself, or want one to be a beginners horse or even a therapy horse. They expect these absolute babies to be ready to perform tasks that are essentially the equivalent of calculus to most of them. They want to take a literal racehorse and have it immediately turn into the riding horse of their dreams and they want it now. They don’t seem realize that getting a horse coming from a high adrenaline, exciting job and rushing them into another high adrenaline, more exciting job like jumping without foundational work is just a recipe for disaster.

They aren’t aware of how much walk and trot work they’d actually need to be doing to get that supple bend. To get them flexible. To get rid of the track “leftitus” from only going in one direction. To fix the body stiffness and teach them how to ride like a sport horse. To bend and turn in an arena that is a fraction of the size of the track that they trained on. They want a jumper, but without the flat work necessary to actually make them into a good jumper. These people set the bar, literally, way too high and are in such a rush to get to the end goal that they set up the most rickety foundation and create that scary, dangerous horse that you see at shows, that doesn’t have the muscle to flat properly let alone jump fences and hold itself together in between them. And they aren’t even doing “green horse” fences with a horse that looks so ridiculously green. These are the types of people quite literally riding the Thoroughbred stereotype. Now, this isn’t to say that you automatically are this person just because you own a stereotypical Thoroughbred, yes, some are actually like that. But that doesn’t mean your hot, sensitive Thoroughbred shouldn’t know how to bend on a circle before jumping. It isn’t the temperament that is the issue, it is the clear gaps in their training and the clear preference for jumping that has created a Thoroughbred who is frowned upon. Who people then use as their reason not to like Thoroughbreds. As their reason why Thoroughbreds aren’t nice. Why OTTBs aren’t viable options for show horses.

These types of people often have a higher rate of injury. Now, once again, don’t take it as me calling you this person just because your horse got injured. I’ve had my fair share of injuries and some horses may also retire with hidden injuries. BUT- if you make jumping and rushing a priority over flatwork and start jumping a horse who is not yet fit for it or able to approach jumps safely and jump them safely, then you are setting them up for injury. If the horse can’t go properly on the flat and has no rhythm towards a fence, zero suppleness and is and nervous mess, they are more likely to get injured.

Freckles winning.

Freckles winning.

A lot of these people are naive and don’t know what they are actually doing. They saw a friend or a trainer online get a Thoroughbred off the track and build an amazing underdog story and they want it too… But others are less so, I think. They get horses and want to do as much as they can and as soon as possible so they can sell the horse quicker or so they can look more prestigious to those in their day to day life or online. They want to get the perks, the bragging rights of jumping high, showing often without putting the necessary work in. They essentially want a made horse, in a matter of months, without putting the work in. This sort of impatience just creates a mess out of such a sensitive, hot blooded horse coming out of track life and it frustrates me to no end. There will always be jumps. Sometimes it can take years to get to where you want, but that is part of why working with these horses is so rewarding. Some horses are easier to get going and may develop quicker, but you can’t bank on that in making the decision to buy off the track. You need to go into it expecting it to be a lengthy process, not expecting your horse to be at the exact same stage in training as horses the same age who were born into sport horse homes.

Another thing to note is that it takes time for muscle to develop. Racehorses have entirely different demands than a jumper or dressage horse would. Their muscle adjusts for the job and while some of the movements are similar to what they’d use muscle wise in jumping, they don’t have the same suppleness and distribution of muscle as a performance horse would. Because of this, it is even more shocking to see these horses move up the ranks in just a matter of weeks or months off the track. Things take time. The saddest part of all of this is that a lot of these “rushers” who plague the horse world with more than just training OTTBs, is that they also seem to be the type to grow frustrated or blame the horse for the problems that were actually created by them, the rider. The frustration goes hand in hand with the impatience and the desire to rush horses beyond their capabilities and perhaps this is why so many of these types of people seem to attract the strung out, hot horse. They create it in them with their impatience and rush to get to the end game.

The programs that have been created with the desire to promote the OTTB in some ways promote this rushing mentality. For example, The Thoroughbred Makeover, while I absolute adore the concept of it and can’t wait to eventually go there, attracts these types of people. In this context, it may just be due to lack of experience because realistically, I don’t think basically an entire year of retraining is too much for most horses to do the lower levels of riding. Especially if they retire after their 2y/o season and start retraining as coming 4y/os. But, due to the number of people desiring to compete and heading to competitions such as these, there definitely results in people competing who maybe shouldn’t. May it be junior or amateur riders going it on their own, their first time actually training a horse like this or trainers who thought that training an OTTB would be just like getting in their clients’ young, broke performance horses. People who don’t really understand the track idiosyncrasies that can come with OTTBs.

Archie, a 4y/o OTTB I sold recently. This was about 18 months after retiring from the track.

Archie, a 4y/o OTTB I sold recently. This was about 18 months after retiring from the track.

So, in conclusion, this is a call to remind people to practice patience. Remember that while OTTBs are promising young athletes, they are babies. Babies who have had a high adrenaline, quick job and don’t understand the complexity of thinking and muscular endurance that comes with basic bending exercises in the arena. Who haven’t had to hold a contained canter for extended periods of time in a small arena. Who have developed muscles to assist with an entirely different job and whose expectations far differ from the typical riding horse. Horses who are in need of a bit of a brain break and time to settle down, come off high energy diets and learn how to do horse-y calculus by starting their second career in just a matter of years. And they WILL excel. They will try to please. They will give you their heart. You just have to let them and please, be patient. Don’t rush them into things when they show you that they aren’t ready, may it be mentally or physically. These horses will try their hearts out, but you have to set them up for success.

This can be applicable to any green/ young horse, really, but I think every year I hit a breaking point with some of the ridiculous expectations potential buyers have of these horses (Like wanting to buy a fast toddler horse on a sugar high and expecting it to hold still and be safe around their toddler or beginner rider child) and, well, after a couple of years of dealing with that I finally had to say something.