When I was fifteen, I met my first OTTB. Little did I know that this would be a life changing event, the beginning of a grand passion and the start of many lessons that these horses would teach me. While I had been riding a while, I was inexperienced with OTTBs and looking back, it definitely showed. My first OTTB that I trained was a 4 year old mare who I named Maya. She raced a handful of times under the name Princess Peanut and was an absolutely atrocious racehorse. Maya was your stereotypical Thoroughbred, hot headed and sensitive. Looking back, I realize now that much of this sensitivity could be attributed to the fact that she would have definitively needed treatment for ulcers, something that was overlooked due to my lack of experience with the breed. In spite of this, she tried her heart out for me, doing everything I asked and always trying her best even if she was stressed and confused. Shortly after selling her onto a new sport horse home, I got my second OTTB. A 5 year old gelding who I named Dallas, he had a fairly successful racing career under the name Alybye on Fire. Dallas was a gentleman. Within a month since his last race, I was riding him bridleless. He was incredibly well mannered, kind and gentle. He did not spook and went from racehorse to teaching beginners the ropes of riding in a manner of months under an inexperienced and youthful trainer. I cannot take credit for much of what these horses offered me, they learned it all at the track and only now, 8 years later, do I realize how very unusual OTTBs are.
You see, a lot of people underestimate these horses. They do not realize how very much Thoroughbreds are exposed to in their racing days, from a very young age. The racetrack is a very loud and busy place with many of the horses at it being under 5 years of age. Just babies. Everyday, these horses are exercised in a high traffic area with many other young horses and often, crowds of people nearby. The racetrack is livelier and busier than most show venues a lot of horses will ever see but especially more than the first shows many people take their young horses out to. Thoroughbreds have to learn to cope with high traffic situations and loud noises. By the time they make it into an actual race, they’ve gotten used to being in the paddock prior to races with crowds of people watching them, loudly talking, pointing and in some cases, waving objects around. The people in attendance of races often are not horse people. They have no etiquette and the horses have to learn to cope with the unexpected. How to deal with high stress situations. Racehorses have to stay focused on their jobs whilst loud crowds are yelling and cheering, while people are waving and jumping around from the sidelines. They have to get used to running at breakneck speeds through traffic and not fear other horses in close vicinity of them. They learn how to be ponied from a very young age and do so in front of huge crowds prior to their races. They also are expected to stand for wrapping, poulticing and a number of other treatments while tied, all in a very busy environment. Most young horses of other breeds are exposed to a fraction of the same things.
By the time racehorses retire, they’ve seen a lot and learned a lot about the life of racing only to go onto another completely different career and in most cases, be very good at it. Thoroughbreds go from racehorse to show horse in a matter of months, adjusting to their new lifestyles with an ease that people should respect, even if their OTTBs exhibit stress whilst being introduced to said new lifestyle. It is such a great shift in the routine they once new and the job they once did that it is amazing to look at how fast these horses come around when under the right handler and trainer. Thoroughbreds try their heart out in a number of different careers and are quite literally the jack of all trades in a number of senses. Few other breeds start out their ridden careers in a polarizingly different career than the one they eventually settle into. Few other breeds jump to such different lifestyles in such a short period of time. The versatility of the Thoroughbred and their ability to adjust and learn with such willingness is really something to recognize. Time and time again, we see the truly incredible nature of this breed and their ability and willingness to learn and try their hearts out.
Though the popularity of the OTTB is increasing, the Thoroughbred, especially off the track, is far too often discounted in terms of ability and attitude. People stereotype the Thoroughbred as hot headed and crazy, making it not uncommon to see ads specifically stating “no Thoroughbreds” even if a Thoroughbred may be best suited to the job they are looking to fill. This is a travesty. The stereotypical Thoroughbred that no one seems to like only really comes into existence with poor handlers. You can find the very same anxious, fried horse in a number of difference breeds and realistically, the only thing to blame is more often than not the people who created such a horse in the first place. Thoroughbreds are typically more sensitive mounts but such sensitivity is an asset to a rider with the ability to be soft and know how to appropriately handle such an intelligent and willing animal. Thoroughbreds are less resilient to harsh handling and rough riders, less resilient to confusing aids and training holes. They are thinkers and if they are constantly told that they’re giving the wrong answer with no means to lead them to the right answer, they lose their minds and rightfully so.
I am a firm believer that a Thoroughbred can do anything. I’ve had consistently lovely horses off of the racetrack who have been able to cope with and handle numerous situations that I would not trust the vast majority of young horses in any other breed with. This isn’t because I’ve “lucked out” with what I’ve gotten, it is because of how they have been brought along. The more experience I gain with Thoroughbreds, they better they have been turning out. They more they’ve been able to do. The more unflappable they have been… And, honestly, once they get settled into their new lifestyles, it has just been so incredibly easy to get them to the point where they don’t bat an eye over things like dragging a tarp bridleless… Things that scare the pants off of much older, more experienced horses onlooking from their fields. Thoroughbreds are the greatest.
Before anyone gets offended, I totally understand breed preferences. As I’m sure you can tell by this post, I have my preferences. However, discounting the talent and abilities exhibited by these horses is unwarranted. Thoroughbreds have the talent and the try to get to the upper levels of many different sports, even more notably, a lot of them do it after having an entire career in racing. Incredible. Thoroughbreds used to be the mount of choice back in the day for disciplines like Show Jumping and Hunter/Jumper. Now, with the increasing popularity of Warmbloods, people often write off said talent despite the prevalence and success of Thoroughbreds in the past and present, most notably in eventing disciplines. And… they also tend to forget about the fact that Thoroughbreds are one of the reasons why and how Warmbloods exist today. The level of athleticism it takes a horse to compete at, let’s say, the 4* event level is exceptionally high. There is a reason why so many people choose to do that on a purebred Thoroughbred or at least, a Warmblood with lots of blood. Thoroughbreds have earned their place as a formidably talented breed that has exceptional resilience and ability to move from one career to another in the blink of an eye.
Thoroughbreds are stoic. They are often willing to run themselves into the ground if they are asked, which I suppose, is a problem if people are willing to take advantage of that. However, the amount of try these horses exhibit and the honesty and love they show their owners is truly something else. Thoroughbreds, of any breed, are the breed I trust the most to jump out of virtually any situation. Once they figure out their job and what it is all about, they often will go even when they shouldn’t. The same is to be said for the many other disciplines Thoroughbreds are seen in, everything from show jumping to polo to eventing to barrel racing and more… Thoroughbreds have been seen coming off the track and participating in a variety of entirely different disciplines and doing it well.
The timing of this post has everything to do with the Thoroughbred Makeover Project. If you have not heard of it and especially if you are someone who for whatever reason dislikes Thoroughbreds, go have a look at some of the finales from last year and see how many incredible Thoroughbreds there are excelling in numerous different sports in a matter of months since their last race. It is truly humbling to see what these horses can do and what they continue to do. I am absolutely ecstatic to have been accepted as one of the trainers for the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover. It is an absolute dream come true to be able to represent the Thoroughbred breed and show off the talents of OTTBs in their new careers. I am so incredibly lucky to have a very special horse to do it on, too, Bionic AKA George, a 2015 BC-bred gelding. I galloped George while he was racing and he has always been a classy gentleman, completely unflappable and cool as a cucumber while he went around with the gaits of a dressage horse and impeccable self carriage. George’s racing career was short lived but not unsuccessful, only having raced for his 3y/o year. I bought George after his owner mentioned considering selling him as a sport horse, due to risk of him being claimed on the racetrack and because of his aptitude as a sport horse. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity and here we are.
Ironically, Mr. Bionic is a bit of a bionic horse. George was found to have some bone chips after his racing connections decided to x-ray him right before my purchase due to a windpuff. George had never taken a lame step and his only evidence of having anything wrong was the windpuff and some slight heat in one leg. Upon further inspection after purchase, we x-rayed the rest of his legs and found that he had more than 1 bone chip. The grade of his injury should have definitively caused acute lameness, as per the vet. George went about his job as a racehorse with the utmost happiness and with no indication of there being anything wrong, furthering my point regarding the stoicism and resilience of the Thoroughbred. Before people jump to blame the racing industry for George’s injuries, I want to make something clear. As far as racehorses go, George’s career was low intensity and he was given plenty of time to grow up. There are plenty of horses whom I’ve personally ridden that raced as 2 year olds and raced more and retired without any injuries, unfortunately, in George’s case, he was just unlucky, like some horses are. Bone chips are something that have been found in horses before they’ve even begun a sport career. For him, I’m thankful that he had such loving and caring connections who cared to look further into him despite the absence of lameness.
Thoroughbreds simply are not the anxious, pansy-like creatures so many people make them out to be. Sure, some are, but the stereotype doesn’t prove true in the manner a lot of non-Thoroughbred folk believe it does. Like I said, crazy Thoroughbreds are often made crazy by people. Events like the Retired Racehorse Project serve as evidence for how truly incredible these horses are and how exceptionally talented they are. I hope people will start to move towards respecting the Thoroughbred breed and their ability to change careers with such success, even if they may not personally be a fan of Thoroughbreds. Thoroughbreds are not inferior to Warmbloods and other sport horse breeds. They are not “the poor man’s Warmblood.” They are magnificent athletes with a whole lot of versatility. Even if I were to become a millionaire tomorrow, you would still catch me with a barn full of Thoroughbreds. There is nothing like a Thoroughbred.
Keep up to date with George and I’s progress in our journey to the Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky. We will be travelling all of the way from BC, Canada (over 4,000km) to attend the Makeover. Hauling costs are steep so we are starting out fundraising off with some fun designs dedicated to George, you can check them out HERE