Beyond The Track, Retraining the Thoroughbred from Racehorse to Riding Horse

By Anna Ford (Program Director)

 

Breakthrough racehorse literature, concisely covering every facet of what to expect and how to get the most both mentally and physically from an off-the-track Thoroughbred.

The book is currently only available as an ebook from Amazon.com and the iTunes Store.

 

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Introduction

Ever since the first Thoroughbred race was run hundreds of years ago, there has been a need for people to help “transition” retired racehorses into new careers. In a business that rolls a lot of dice in the hopes that one will be a winner, it is natural that many of the horses bred and trained to run will fail to meet expectations — they might be too aggressive or spooky in nature, they might not be fast enough, or they might get hurt early in the game, rendering them unable to reach their racing potential. In North America alone, the Jockey Club registers over 37,000 Thoroughbred foals a year. A third of them might go on to be viable stakes winners or breeding stock. The rest…well, the rest are unsure of their fate.

It was in 1992 that it became apparent to my mother and me that a vast number of off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTB’s) were in desperate need of new homes, and so we took up the challenge and organized New Vocations Horse Adoption Program. Our focus is to prepare ex-racehorses for new jobs, rather than retire them from all service. There are “retirement farms” where OTTBs are essentially “put out to pasture” for the remainder of their life – a suitable situation for injured animals or those that, for one reason or another, may not be able to perform another job. However, we felt that many OTTBs — with a little time and training could in fact go on to excel in a different sport, or simply bring joy to a family as a pleasure mount.

As we began offering ex-racehorses a safe have, rehabilitation from injury, and retraining, we quickly learned that although OTTBs are in many ways different from other types of horses, there is great potential in each one of them. Yes, Thoroughbreds are bred to run. But, they are not just “running machines”; they have great hearts, too. Once a Thoroughbred is retrained for riding he will do anything for his rider and handler. Many act like children and constantly seek their owners’ approval. Give these guys a job to do, and they will wholeheartedly give it their all.

Through the years I have seen over a 1,000 adopted OTTBs leave our program and go to their new homes — New Vocations adopts out more ex-racehorses than any other program in the US. Horses from our program have gone on to become eventers, show ring hunters, jumpers, dressage horses, Pony Club mounts, foxhunters, trail horses, endurance horses and even barrel racers! Fortunately, most people who take these horses are successful in introducing them to their new lives, though there are inevitably a few who get frustrated and send a horse back to our program.

Over time I have noticed some common factors in the scenarios where OTTBs have been successfully transitioned:

Patience: It can take months or even years for a horse to fully work up to a new career. Many of the people who are successful with OTTBs give a horse several months to just relax before they start really working him. Holding a horse to a set time frame only puts unnecessary pressure on both the horse and his owner.

Commitment: An individual who chooses to adopt an animal is taking on or assuming related responsibilities — often a long list not to be taken lightly! In the case of an OTTB, you are making a commitment to that horse. Doing so often saves the horse’s life, since new skills make it less likely the horse will end up in a bad situation, as could happen when he knows little else than how to run fast. There will be good days and bad days, but in order for the horse to find and excel in a new career, the adopter needs to stay fully committed.

Experience: The more experience the adopter has with owning and training horses, the better. OTTBs need a lot of help figuring out how the world works away from the track — from both the ground and the saddle. When they first arrive at New Vocations, they may have bad barn habits, poor ground manners, and can be excitable and strong under saddle. While these are all issues that will likely change with kind and consistent training, they still require a foundation of horse knowledge and an ability to “read” equine behavior usually gained with experience. Therefore, OTTBs are generally not suitable for first-time horse owners.

Assistance: If an adopter is unable to work through a certain problem with a horse, he or she must be willing to search for someone with experience who can help. In addition, early work with ex-racehorses often requires a second set of hands or a ground person to ensure safety and a positive experience for all involved.

Environment: A safe and welcoming environment where the horse is able to focus on learning his new job is essential. I go into this in more detail later in the book.

Partnership: It takes time to get to know a horse, but by developing a good, working partnership you will have a better understanding of what the horse likes and dislikes. Successful adopters understand the value of working with rather than against the horse when they encounter a problem, never forcing the horse to mold to a set program. And, sometimes it is necessary to work around a problem — with time and patience — instead of working through it as you might do with other horses.

Overall I find that success with an OTTB has a great deal to do with the adopter’s mindset. I have seen people who lacked experience, but who were infinitely patient and always willing to ask for help, have more success than people who had plenty experience but didn’t posses the frame of mind to handle an OTTB.

If you decide that you would like to work with an OTTB, you need to realize that you will be in it for the long haul. You must understand that transitioning a Thoroughbred from racetrack to regular life is a challenging experience. You need roll with the punches, and patiently take the good with the bad.

The purpose of this book is to help you along the way, providing basic information and training tips that will enable the average horseman to prepare the OTTB for a new career. In addition, my recommendations for feeding, farrier work, and socialization are also helpful for transitioning the retiree to simply become a companion or pasture pal.

I will help you deal with everything from your horse’s first day at his new home, to his first outing away from home. I’ll discuss many of the “peculiarities” of the ex-racehorse, and knowing about these habits and behaviors before you begin retraining will help the process go much more smoothly. This book will not tell you how to train the ex-racehorse to be a hunter, jumper, eventer, or dressage horse, but it will help you build a solid foundation invaluable in the pursuit of any specific discipline.