Retraining an off the track Thoroughbred
What do racehorses do when they are done racing? Can an off the track thoroughbred (OTTB) become an eventer or showjumper or pleasure horse? The good news is that your OTTB can most certainly make the shift to pony club, eventer or showjumper. Have you considered OTTB adoption? The not so great news is that it will not happen overnight. A lot of patience and time is required as well as a fair bit of retraining before an OTTB can adjust to a new lifestyle and environment.
Am I training a “crazy horse”?
Let’s call it. OTTB’s have some strange behaviours. They do things like taking off when you put your foot in the stirrup to mount up. They refuse to leave their stall for the paddock, and when you finally get them out, they confuse the paddock gate for a start gate and take off like a rocket. You often hear people mutter, that horse is crazy, after observing a thoroughbred panic attack. Do not despair. Your OTTB is not crazy. These behaviours can easily be explained by understanding a bit about their breeding, and the very different nature racehorses live.
He isn’t crazy, he’s hot-blooded
The first thing to keep in mind is that thoroughbreds are ‘hot-blooded’, which means that they are a nervous and energetic breed of horse with a heightened flight response bred into them. Horses are herd animals and their natural instinct when spooked is to run away. Having a horse that runs like the wind and just goes faster and faster at the slightest provocation is fantastic, if you want to win a race. But not so fantastic when you are taking friends on a pleasure ride. Most riding horses are in fact warm-bloods, which is a mix of hot-blooded breeds (thoroughbreds and Arabian) and cold-blooded breeds (like the large boned and heavy bodied draft breeds). The warm-blooded breeds are more even-tempered but more athletic than the draft breeds, which is why they are the breed mostly used for show jumping, dressage, trail rides and events.
However, a hot-blooded thoroughbred can be retrained to be a wonderful eventer or showjumper, but you will have to be patient and take things slow. Also be aware that your OTTB will have a few thoroughbred panic attacks, which involves them getting spooked and running like 7 Devils are behind them without much incentive. Let your horse run for a while and see if he settles. If he struggles to self-calm, take him back to his stall. He is probably just overwhelmed by his new environment and needs a timeout in the security of his stall.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when starting your retraining regime:
- Walk your horse for several days to calm him down when you get him.
- Turn him out in a small paddock where he will be unable to reach a full run and keep an eye on him. Racehorses spend 23 hours a day in their stalls, so they aren’t used to being turned out.
- Gradually expose them to the great outdoors for longer periods of time. Also, keep in mind that some thoroughbreds are tougher than others, so if your horse is not coping, keep them indoors for longer.
- Don’t mount up by placing your foot in the stirrup. When a jockey is mounting a horse, the jockey is given a “leg up” into the saddle. A sudden movement of the jockeys foot in the stirrup will give your OTTB a fright, and he might rake the floor with you.
- Racehorses are trained to be lead by a chain over their nose or a bit in the mouth, so a common lead rope won’t do the trick when handling them. Use a chain shank wrapped in leather instead of a lead rope to make handling easier, especially if it’s early days.
- Find out what type of bit and saddle your horse is accustomed to and stick to it or be ready for a reaction of some sort (running like mad) when you try out new gear.
- Long stirrups will be new to an OTTB, so make gentle adjustments and test your horse’s reactions. If a loose stirrup bangs into his side, he will get a so be prepared to hold on tight.
- Remove his racing plates and get the farrier to put some new, appropriate shoes on him.
- Don’t sit on your OTTB for an extended period at the beginning. Your thoroughbred can carry a lightweight jockey riding him for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, so his back muscles need to get used to carrying weight.
Good luck and happy riding!