What Your Newly Adopted Thoroughbred Wants You to Know!
Written from the comical perspective of a retired racehorse, the following is intended to provide helpful caring and training tips to anyone that currently owns or is thinking about adopting/ purchasing an off-the-track Thoroughbred. We hope you will find this information useful as well as entertaining.
1. Are You a Perfect Specimen?
Yes, yes we’ve heard all the myths about racehorses – every single one of us has some kind of ailment or lameness that renders us useless for any future new career and the only horse you should take on is one that has no lumps, bumps or prior issues. Well we say Baloney! We wanted to use another word but Miss Anna the program director said no, let’s keep it classy boys! Yet another widely held belief that is unequivocally untrue. Although there are plenty with soundness issues, there are just as many without. Some never make it to the track, some do and run as fast as a proverbial donkey – there are a myriad number of reasons why horses are retired – owner is downsizing, syndicate broke up, loss of interest, horse is non-competitive, horse does not have the right aptitude, horse may not be a stakes winner and the owner has no interest in running in lower ranks – the list goes on and on. Horses frequently retire for other reasons than just soundness. A reputable re-homing or re-training program will disclose all the information they have available to them regarding soundness issues prior to you completing the transaction. Also consider the fact that some conditions that may render the horse unsuitable for racing may have no impact whatsoever on its potential use in a new career. Check with your vet if unsure of what the condition is or alternatively have the horse vet checked prior to making a decision. Osselets that may have bothered us in training usually present no problem when we are trail riding or learning dressage. A wind problem that only presents itself when we are opened all the way up breezing may have no impact on our career as a low level hunter. Bowed tendons that are old, cold and set are typically fine for jumping and some horses that have bows are better movers because they have to extend further due to the constrictions of the scar tissue. Horses with a chip present in the knee may never be jumpers but can and do excel all the time out on trails. Decide what your long and short term goals are for the horse – if you never intend to jump, is a horse that raced numerous times and has bumpy ankles but never been lame such a bad proposition? Look for the diamond in the rough; they can turn up in the most unexpected places. One old chap down the aisle has ankles whose bumps equate to the surface of the moon and he makes so much noise cantering, he sounds like someone is playing the bongos on his larynx but he still won his first ever dressage class. Be objective and realistic when thinking of what you want to personally achieve as a rider. On the flip side, just because a horse has stunning photos, no matter how much you stare at the picture and wish otherwise, that prior suspensory issue is not going away and he will not be a 3 foot jumper.
So you wanted a racehorse but are now a bit worried that the racehorse may have raced a little too much? Every time you mount, the lyrics to Life In The Fast Lane run through your mind? I’ve retired after 79 races and just like most people, retirement is usually warmly received after so many starts. My trainer has visions of retiring one day and kicking around the barn playing My Pretty Pony with her own horses interspersed with vacations in Mexico and just like her, our joints are feeling it a little more and our mindset isn’t quite what it used to be (her eyesight is fading too but we shall not mention that!). Just as drag racing the main street no longer holds the same thrill it did for you at 18, hauling our butts as fast as we can peddle our little legs no longer hold the same appeal for us. Learn to relax no need for the grip of death on the reins and sink your weight deep into the saddle and most importantly – breathe. Heavily raced x good handling and schooling = well rounded, well exposed confident horse with an appreciation for the slower things in life. That’s an equation we can all get our heads around!
Ally McBeal I am not but take a moment to refer to your contract. I know, I know - load of legal jargon and you just want to get me home and have fun and test ride your new horse, show me off to your friends, show the new gelding who wears the pants in this barn by making him wear a pink polka dot sheet but wait a moment! What does it say there – please wait ONE week before riding me? Really wait a week before riding me? You are by now foaming at the mouth like a 5 year old on Christmas morning, you just want to get me tacked up, lunge me, ride me, jump me, haul me to a friends arena and ride me again in yet another strange place. At this point, one needs to place a chill pill under their tongue and let it dissolve slowly. Now – if you had just sat in the moving box for 12 hours, been displaced from your friends, given strange food to eat, made to sleep in an unfamiliar place and in many cases are subjected to massive changes in climate – how do you think you’d react? Tired perhaps, maybe a little anxious? Unsettled, nervous, upset, overwhelmed – the list of adjectives can go on and on and most have negative overtones. I don’t think the people wrote this into the contract just to be party poopers or to see how long you can suffer through the waiting period before you explode under pressure. It’s there as a reminder to let us get moved in, settle down, get into the schedule, adjust to the new menu of delights you offer, meet and greet new buddies, become familiar with our new surrounding, new smells, the cows that lurk behind the fence and most importantly let us relax. You’ll make the whole transitioning period a lot easier, safer and more enjoyable for both of us by containing that urge to jump straight on. Patience is a virtue and when adopting or buying a new horse and allowing us some breathing room and time to catch our breathe, it can pay big dividends.
Our housing situation presents a whole new host of unfamiliar and somewhat scary residents and we are not talking about the strange spotted horse across the aisle or the bodybuilder next door known as QH – these are suspicious furry creatures which make us wonder if these are the chupacabras (South American Mythical creatures) that the horses south of the border talk of. Upon further investigation, it has been determined by the Oldenburg that these are cats and dogs and although curious, are for the most part harmless. However to everyone arriving from the track, they indeed embody all that is different and scary in this new world, something outside of the norm but strangely alluring and worthy of a good snort and sniff. Be aware that our exposure to cats and dogs is limited at best and caught unawares may prompt us to kick out, bite or stomp based on the notion that attack is the best line of defense.
Speaking of chupacabras, another creature of unknown origin that screams like a Tasmanian devil in search of a mate and whips down the aisle with all the force of a tornado is the one known as “The Child”. The one in our barn has succulent little fat fingers that force mints upon us and it’s all too easy to suck those fingers into our large mouths along with the candy. His hair has the smell of “Blueberry Blast” which encourages us to want to sniffle and taste it and if he comes prying to close to our feed, his little nose will soon find out where it does not belong. “The Child” can render the new guys incapacitated with fear much like Damien in The Omen movie although he means no harm at all. At this point I should also mention that cows, deer, goats and mini ponies can also have the same effect. All retired racehorses should be considered a wild card when it comes to behavior around children and safety measures maintained and explained to the child – no feeding them by hand, no walking behind them, no going near their feed and no retired racehorse should be left unattended near a child. I should also remind you that just because we have formed a kind and respectful relationship with you, it does not mean that we are safe for children to ride or handle. Please do not put us into a situation that could end badly due to no fault of our own.
Let’s talk about playtime – I like to go out, socialize, chat with friends but it’s not for everyone. Some are homebodies that like to just venture out for an hour or two, some like to go out with one special friend, others like to mingle in large groups and some of my wild friends stay out all night just coming in for breakfast – they use this barn like a hotel! Finding the right social situation is vital for both our physical and mental well being. What works for one might not work for another. Take the time to watch and see how we are adjusting and interacting with our friends. I’ve lived in a stall 23 hours of the day and may be a little socially awkward. Tossing me out in a field 24/7 is like leaving The Ritz to sleeping on the streets – scary, bewildering and very overwhelming. Ask my facility manager for more details on my current social schedule.
So some of the boys have had the “op” (castration) and you might not think they are really boys anymore but keep that to yourself because as far as they are concerned, they are all male! Recently gelded horses should not be near mares or turned out with mares and even some of the older boys haven’t forgotten those heady days of youth when they had all their functioning parts. An older gelding that is out with mares and becomes herd bound and aggressive needs to be separated from his harem immediately. He may think he’s the sultan but he needs to go back to being the eunuch. Separating mares and geldings can prevent many behavioral issues both in and out of the saddle.
8. Weight Watchers Membership Not Required
Losing weight and condition are not a part of the letting down process regardless of what you’ve been told. You can still pack on the pounds leaving me with a robust, svelte like figure without making me as fizzy as an Alka Seltzer. Talk to your local feed store and select a high fiber, high fat, low sugar, low starch feed – if you stuff me with sugar and starch, I’m going to behave like a 5 year old that just ate a whole box of Twinkies. Fiber is as good for my tummy as it is yours. Fed correctly, I’ll have the hair coat to match the shine of a Pantene hair commercial and curves in all the right places – nobody finds skinny attractive right?
You find me irresistible, who wouldn’t? Look at me, I’m stunning! You find it hard to keep your hands off me but when I’m eating, this Thoroughbred says hands off and if you persist, this policy will result in me strictly enforcing it in a way you won’t like! Just as you don’t like to sit down to eat with children tugging at your sleeves and rubbing your face, neither do I. As I have underdeveloped vocal skills, my only way to let you know that I find your behavior unacceptable is to react in what is frequently construed as an aggressive manner. I’m trying to give you a hint; I want to savor my yummy dinner in peace and quiet – it’s hard enough to eat with the Oldenburg that only gets a handful of grain glaring and drooling at me through the bars without someone wanting hugs and kisses. It’s not that I don’t want to be your friend or don’t appreciate your attention; I just want to eat in peace and quiet – period!
10. Indigestion, Upset Stomach and Diarrhea
Ulcers, ulcers, ulcers – not all of us have ulcers. For those of us who did, we will probably have had them treated by the time you have adopted us. However, for those of you unfamiliar with ulcers, let’s go over a few of the symptoms. Just like you they make our stomachs hurt, they dull our appetite; they can cause us to grind out teeth and become rather surly when handled or messed with. Some horses become extremely “cinchy” and I know one or two chaps that have even tried to bite their rider’s legs when pressure is applied. It hurts, it makes us miserable and in turn we make you miserable. Some of us just act dull and depressed. While everyone else is banging his or her walls and feeder eager with anticipation, I stand solemnly at the back of my stall. I might venture to look at what you’ve given me but it hurts to eat. A few may even exhibit colic like symptoms repeatedly during feed times or shortly after. Talk to my doctor – your vet! Ulcers can be treated quickly and effectively and have me eating like a horse (pardon the pun) in just a few days. Just three tubes of Gastrogard spread over a 7-day period is all it takes in most cases. Horses, like most animals, will gorge themselves rather like Augustus Gloop at the Wonka Factory – we should not be dismissed as “poor eaters”. Lacking appetite is normal within the first 24 hours of arriving at a new home however if it persists, please take the required steps to get us back on track!
I have been shod and pampered my entire life. I’ve walked on manicured pastures and lawns, imported euro footing that costs more than my trainer’s house and rubber brick aisles. Pulling my shoes off can leave me looking like I’ve had a run in with Tonya Harding and her co-horts – crippled! The only rocks I’ve ever seen before are the ones that were on my donor’s wife’s hand. If you wish to pull my shoes off, please think ahead – ask the farrier not to trim me so short the first few times and leave plenty of toe, try to plan on doing it when the ground is soft and most importantly, for the first few weeks please treat my feet to a twice daily brushing of Venice turpentine. It’s cheap, it’s easy and it will leave me with soles like titanium – well almost!
Grooming and spa day – seems like the perfect time for a bit of R & R, something I will surely appreciate and love. Um no, not quite! At the track, I have been roughed up vigorously with a stiff brush especially on my big glut muscles that hopefully will power me to a winning finish. I’ve been strapped and brushed hard to enhance muscle tone and blood circulation. With my thin hair coat it’s akin to sitting on top of a vehicle and letting the brushes and rollers run over you in a car wash naked - it can hurt! It’s what I’ve known all my life and the anticipation of being brushed is like you waiting to have a Band Aid ripped off, this is not going to be fun. Please be gentle while I learn to adjust to the soothing rhythm of the brush strokes and a softer more finessed touch. Hush me if I wave a back leg once in a while. I am not trying to kick you; I’m just suffering from post-traumatic stress related to hard grooming.
Tying – now there’s a conundrum! I have been tied all my life, only not in cross ties but to a wall. The wall and I are familiar friends; I know every knot and nook on that wall. I have spent many an afternoon tied to the wall being groomed – the wall and I are very well acquainted. But what’s this – cross ties? I feel trapped, my head cannot move but my body can. The walls are closing in on me, I feel claustrophobic, my heart is racing, I’m panicked, I am an animal with a flight response and my instinct is to flee, break out of these things you call cross ties. We are not familiar with cross ties – you need to be aware of this and take your time to teach us to stand there and overcome our desire to have a nervous breakdown. Before throwing me out in an aisle way, start by tying me in a familiar place such as my stall, then an area like the wash rack where I’m surrounded by three walls and can’t back out of the cross ties. Once I seem comfortable with that, try tying pieces of baling twine between the cross ties and the wall to prevent injury on the occasion that I will test the cross ties in an open space. And believe me, I will try. Be patient, practice makes perfect.
So you have found a new way to further confuse us and have us embark on our own variation of the Magic Roundabout, round and round we go, where we stop nobody knows – that’s right – longing! This activity belongs in the memory archives back from when we were yearlings, a memory somewhat hazy and faded as we aged. The younger chaps remember the days of longing because it was so recent but most of us older horses with a lot of starts have somewhat foggy memories and quite frankly don’t want to remember and view the whole exercise as annoying and futile. In addition, we find it the simplest way to confuse and frustrate you while being able to maintain an attitude of “Je suis désolé, je ne comprends pas l’anglais” – I am sorry but I don’t understand English.
We all can and will longe if started and asked correctly regardless of trying to tell you otherwise. Unlike Santa arriving every Christmas, longing correctly does not just happen. Taking us into an unfamiliar setting and sending us whizzing round in circles is like sending your child out to ride the Space Mountain roller-coaster – for some, it’s an enjoyable experience, for others it’s deeply upsetting and a thing we vow never to repeat. The whole purpose of longing should be to develop muscle tone, balance and cadence along with learning vocal commands and a healthy mutual respect of each other; it should not be used to just run the buck out of me. Chasing me with a big crack whip in your best rendition of Wild Bill Cody does not instill my confidence in you – strangely it can have the adverse effect. Whooping and hollering sounds that conjure up images of Little Bighorn do not inspire me either.
Longing me in a halter with a chain across the nose is sufficient to begin with, that way I am not banged in the mouth or pulled on although a certain degree of control is maintained. Start with small circles – small circles equate to more control and should I attempt to forget all English phrases I may have heard, you will be better positioned to keep forward momentum going. Unless you are planning to enter me in a lunge line futurity in the next 48 hours, what is the rush to execute all three gaits on both reins in the next 15 minutes? Focus initially on walk and trot in one direction, usually to the left is easier. Make sure we understand the vocal commands especially whoa, as this can be an invaluable asset when mounted. Teach us to go long and softly on the longe without weight on your hands. Once this has become second nature to us, then add in cantering allowing the circle to become bigger. Remember a big 17.2hh youngster may not be developed and balanced enough to successfully canter on what is essentially a small circle without breaking stride – it’s like asking you to swim in a child’s wading pool, it gets a little tight. Once we can successfully pull off all three gaits one way on command, it becomes a lot easier to teach us to go the other way. Wanton displays of ill will or high jinx should be curtailed by stopping the behaviors immediately and then ask again. The foundation that you can lay using longing as an educational tool can be tremendous – making sure we are balanced and always picking up the correct lead when cantering, understanding that bucking or balking about going forward is never acceptable, rider or no rider, saddle or no saddle and that whoa means whoa. When you explain in clear plain English what round and round really means, you’ll find we suddenly are able to translate it into a language we can understand too.
I’ve been around, I’ve seen a lot, some of us are even world travelers, however just like you, I operate and function best in my comfort zone. My trainer never feels comfortable without her boots and I feel the same about my saddle. You might have visions of being Lady Godiva riding the beautiful Thoroughbred naked, but me, I’m a little more conservative and like to go out tacked up. I like to feel accessorized. Attempting to ride one of us bareback immediately upon welcoming us into your home may result in a rocky ride, which neither of us will enjoy.
The girth, oh the girth – I wasn’t going to go there but perhaps we should for both our sakes! I’ve spent most of my life having them rather rudely and somewhat abruptly jerked up as tight as they will go. It’s like trying to put an elephant in a corset, sticking your knee in it’s back and yanking the strings hard enough to puncture a lung – beware adverse reactions will quickly follow. Saddle me by all means and if you are not on me and going to spend another 10 minutes gossiping with the barn manager and searching for your gloves, does the girth really need to be this tight from the outset? Leave it loose, walk me in a circle, let me catch a breath and then go up another few holes. It’s like following the instructions on a shampoo bottle – rinse and repeat. Only in my case, tighten slowly, walk a few steps and repeat. Some of my friends can blow themselves out like a puffer fish and be just as lethal if the girth is hauled up to their ears. We need to be walked around, maybe let us do a few circles on the lunge line and then tighten the girth a little more before mounting. Taking a few extra minutes can save you and me parting company in a rather spectacular, rapid fashion.
Oh the mounting block! Can you people really not jump on a moving target? Firstly, our pilots have always been hoisted up there on our backs – oh the tales I could tell about leg ups that have gone seriously awry! However I digress – they are legged up while we are moving; there has never been some strange box from which they launch themselves onto us while we stand stock-still. Never before have we had the sensation of the weight in the stirrup while we are expected to stand motionless like a statue in the Louvre with someone that was substantially shorter a few minutes ago now is towering above. Practice walking me by the mounting block or tack trunk, stand on the block or trunk, pull the stirrup iron down, using your hand press weight down on the iron to simulate the weight of your leg, bang about on the saddle with your hand. Have someone to assist and for the first few times, as soon as your leg is going over the saddle, have your assistant walk me immediately forward to help with that trapped tense feeling. Practice makes perfect and if you have gradually tightened the girth as explained previously, I’m already in a more relaxed frame of mind and more on a level to accept these new random ideas you keep throwing at me.
Oh it’s the moving box on wheels – are we going somewhere? I’ve been hauled coast to coast, I might have even traveled more than you across this fair country but what’s this – it’s a small metal box, it has a ramp/no ramp, there doesn’t seem to be much room for my head. Putting me in there is like trying to squeeze a sumo wrestler into a sardine can – it isn’t going to work – or at least it won’t if you don’t convince me otherwise. We all load but we have traveled in different ways. Some of the more posh guys have only traveled in air ride 18 wheeler rigs, some of us only traveled previously in box stalls – the two horse trailer is an alien concept as is the open sided stock trailer which rattles when I try to get on. Spare a moment and consider my new mode of transport. I’m not asking for a limo but a nice ride with at least seven feet of head room, rubber matting or shavings in a stock trailer to muffle the rattle and some good hay is all it usually takes to convince me to board and I promise I’ll make it much easier for you the next time around.
We know our job; we know what is acceptable and what is not. Try looking at it from our perspective – it’s like being dropped in a foreign land and trying to understand that a sausage biscuit is not a sausage link stuck between two chocolate chip cookies – yuck! It may make perfect sense to you but when you’ve been raised a different way some things need to be explained in a clear and concise manner. Time and patience will yield the greatest results and you will reap what you sow. One day we hope that you’ll be able to look back and say, “Wow, thank you for giving me the ride of my life!” and we can reply, “it’s been a pleasure!”