Saturday, May 11, 2013


There is a lot of mythology surrounding the Off-The-Track Thoroughbred.  Some of it is hype.  Some of it is misunderstanding.  Most of it is just plain bad handling by people who didn't know better.

Racehorses are not the insane, fire-breathing dragons that most people (particularly dressage riders) make them out to be.  They are actually very well trained animals, just trained in a different discipline.  You have to understand that when you take one on, because you're going to need to do some "de-tracking".

Racehorses can walk, trot, and canter under saddle while going past a grandstand full of noisy spectators on race day (try that with your fancy Warmblood!).  They are very used to tractors, dogs, chickens and people popping out of everywhere, because they're exposed to that on the backside of the track.  They get clipped, bathed, and groomed over every inch of their bodies.  They see the farrier much more frequently than our horses, and will stand quietly for the farrier.  They load into trailers constantly to go from racecourse to racecourse. They will even stand nicely if you tie them, but only for a straight tie... there are no cross ties on the track.

But, a racehorse's life revolves around one thing: Running. Running fast!  It's the end goal of their training.  Every aspect of their lives caters to this training goal.  That's a big difference from the goal in dressage, and we need to be sensitive to that if we're going to train these horses to new careers.

Thoroughbreds are very intelligent, sensitive horses.  They want to please, and will become upset if they don't understand something or feel like they're failing.  Going from track life to farm life is a huge change for them, and if handled poorly can result in very upset, confused horse.  You need a good plan.

Of course, I had a plan in place when I got Jack.

First order of business:  Diet!

Diet is important.  Racehorses are fed massive quantities of high calorie grain to give them the energy to run as fast as they can.  That's not really what I'm looking for.  So, I transitioned Jack over to higher fat/protein, decreased carbohydrate diet.  He currently gets three meals a day: Breakfast and Dinner are 2lbs of a senior feed, 1lb of a high fat ricebran/flaxseed feed, 2 lbs (dry weight, but soaked) of beet pulp, Lunch is another 2lbs of beet pulp and he gets all the hay and grass he can eat.  I chose a "senior" feed for him because "senior" feeds are lower starch.  He's obviously not a "senior", but I think those designations are mostly marketing, anyway.  He was also started on ulcer meds and probiotics as soon as I got him.

Second order of business: Groundwork!

While Jack knows how to ride, tie, load on a trailer, and doesn't spook at much of anything, there are many things he doesn't know how to do.  Racehorses aren't lunged, so I have to teach him that.  They also don't know how to stand at a mounting block (very important, as Jack is 17h and there is no way this 5'3 person is getting on him from the ground!).  He also knows nothing about the rider's leg and seat, or what he should do with contact in the reins.

In order to introduce him to these concepts, I like to start on the ground.  It's easier to take a break when he becomes frustrated if we start with groundwork.

On his first day here, we took a walk around the whole property.  I kept the lead line loose, so that he could look around.  I find a tight line usually increases anxiety with horses.  Sometimes it's necessary, at shows and such, when you can't afford to take the time to deal with naughty behavior.  But, for introductions, a loose line is better.  A loose line allows him to approach things or back away as he feels comfortable.  It gives a feeling of security, but not confinement.  Of course, any naughty behavior was corrected immediately.  A loose line does not mean it's a free-for-all!

We continued with that for several days.  During our walks we also worked on basic things, like moving away from pressure.  I would place my hands at the girth, where my leg will go, and ask Jack to move away from me. I brought out my whip to tap him with, asking him to move away from the tap, but not run.  I also walked him to the mounting block, where I asked him to stand quietly while I stood on it and fussed with him.  But, mostly, we just hung out together on our walks.  Horses are very social animals, the most important thing you can do with them is to just spend time with them.  It really makes a huge difference in their training.

Ordinarily, I would have started Jack lunging and riding during this time.  But, we had a bit of a roadblock in that I was also waiting to have him gelded.  I knew he would need time off after the gelding, and didn't want to start teaching something new only to have to put it aside for a week while he healed.

But, his "rear lobotomy" took place last Saturday and went perfectly.  He was gelded standing, under only a light sedative and local anesthetic.  We're still friends, and I don't even think he knows they're gone.

It's now been one week, his incision looks lovely, and he's going to start working!


  1. When my boys were gelded, they were supposed to be lunged every day. Were you told to do that with Jack, or was the turnout enough?

    Sounds like a solid plan to me. I am going to be very interested to follow his and your progress as things go along. This is going to be fun!!

  2. I was told he should be turned out and could do light work under saddle or on the lunge but, because of his age and size, too much work ran the risk of herniation. I decided to play it safe. He's only 3, we've got nothing but time!

  3. Well written post, I look forward to hearing about Jack's progress

  4. You are the perfect person to take on Jack. I Agee with everything you wrote and he is a lucky boy to live with such a knowledgable Mom.

  5. Great post! I just picked up my second OTTB yesterday! I think of OTTB's as the Pit Bulls of the horse world. A lot of people don't understand them and are scared of them for that reason. Pit Bulls can be great dogs and OTTBs can be great horses!

    My OTTB spent the last year de-tracking on a 4,000 acre pasture in Western North Dakota with 60+ other ottbs. I haven't had much time to work with him yet, but so far he's been a dream. Surprisingly though, he wouldn't load very easy into our trailer (3horse slant) He'd been shipped everywhere from Tampa Bay to Ontario, and he just didn't want to get on to the weird.

    PS. My heart horse was a Red OTTB gelding. I lost him last summer but he got me addicted to Thoroughbreds :-)

  6. You hit the nail on the head right here - "They want to please, and will become upset if they don't understand something or feel like they're failing." That describes my horse SO MUCH.

  7. So excited to rerad about your new horse. He sounds wonderful, both termperamentally and as a dressage prospect. It will be fun to follow the progress.

  8. Sounds like you've got a good plan for Jack. You are the perfect person to help Jack learn new things. Thoroughbreds are intelligent and sensitive and learn quickly. We had three OTTB's and they went on to be great a trail horse, a hunter/jumper and a talented dressage horse. I think you and Jack will have a lot of fun.


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