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Do Off-Track Thoroughbreds (OTTB's) make good riding/competition horses?

By: Galadriel Billington

10:29AM Apr 8, 2004

Many Thoroughbreds are quite talented, but acquiring one off the track has more complications than starting a green horse. Off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTB's) have had a very different lifestyle and training experiences from most other disciplines. It's also important, if you're looking for an ex-racer, to be sure that the horse is sound for your discipline; some may be sound for any discipline, some sound only for flatwork, or sound only for light riding--or pasture-sound only. If you are looking for an OTTB, it's important to have a knowledgeable professional help you evaluate his soundness; often X-rays of various joints are a good idea, too. (See link at bottom of article for more on soundness.)

I love OTTB's. They have rather a bad reputation, often considered "hot" or crazy. Some of them are indeed hot--but then, some horses in EVERY breed will be hot. Most of the OTTB's I have worked with were pretty steady. They're a lot of work at first, but after retraining are, in feed, handling and keeping, just like other horses: judge by their needs. One of mine eats half what the other does, and they now both live in full time turnout.

Getting an OTTB re-trained can be very interesting. Their lives on the track are very different from a pleasure riding horse's life, and the riding style they are used to is also vastly different. Their feeding regimen is designed to make them over-the-top hot, and their training designed to get them to do one thing: go from 0 to gallop as fast as they can, and keep up the gallop. It is best to assume they know less than nothing, and begin re-training them as if you are starting a green horse from scratch; after all, for your purposes, you are. There are a few track concepts you'll need him to unlearn before he can learn, though.

When you get an OTTB the first thing you do is cut his feed and turn him out for a while. Let him wind down and get used to the concept of turnout. The world will be very strange to him (turnout? what's that?), so he'll likely be a little jumpy at first, particularly until he gets off the grain high. Do handle him, but don't expect him to be able to work, or focus, for a while.

While you're waiting for him to calm down, you can occasionally put your saddle on him. The racing saddles he's used to wearing are very light; an English or Western saddle will come as a shock, particularly when followed immediately by a more-than-jockey-weight person hopping on! So let him get used to the saddle before you go to ride him.

Remember that, to him, being ridden means: You get on, you go to the track, you gallop gallop gallop, then he's done. He's never been taught to walk, trot, or canter calmly; convincing him that it's okay to do so will be a tough job, requiring lots of patience :) (You'll probably also need to put work into getting him to strike off on a right-lead canter, even before you ask for it in the saddle.) Your best bet may be to first teach him the voice commands in-hand or on the lunge, then eventually transfer the idea to under saddle. He'll probably need to know whoa, walk, trot, canter, gallop, back, and over (move sideways). Getting him used to having you touch him on his side to accentuate the command will come in handy later; for instance, when you want him to move over to the left, touch him on his barrel on the right side (where your leg would be) and say, "Over" (or whatever word you want to use).

I have an additional page on teaching voice commands; it may be helpful.

You'll want very clear, very distinct commands. I use a clipped, clear "walk," a two syllable "ter-rot," and a "can-TER"--and a deep "HOA!" Accentuating the syllables of the words differently helps him to learn the sounds of the words much more easily. You will probably want to make a distinction between a gallop and a canter--this will help when you want to canter under saddle, and you want a CANTER, not a flat-out run. I usually use "GO-GO-GO!" to ask for a gallop ;)

When you go to ride, you may wish to use very, very different tack from what he wore on the track--he probably had a light bridle, no noseband, and D snaffle; a heavier bridle, different bit, may be the ticket. This can help him to understand that what you want is different from what he already knows. I rode my Kat bareback in a halter and lead rope for the first few months, because any time I got out any saddle or bridle she got too excited. Riding her without *any* recognizable tack helped her to realize that she wasn't going to run just because she was going to work. (She's still much calmer bareback than with a saddle, even 3 years later.)

Because jockeys sit above the horse, not around the horse, he won't be at all used to leg aids. Be prepared for him to be jumpy when they are applied and give him time to just get used to the legs being there, before you use them. DO NOT just pull your legs off his sides--you'll end up accidentally knocking him occasionally, and it'll be a real shock when you do go to use your legs--he could spook. Let your legs lie softly along his sides, and just let him get used to them being there. You will eventually teach him to associate leg aids with the verbal commands he already knows.

The jockey also braces against the horse's mouth as he rides. When using your reins, if you pull back solidly, the OTTB will simply speed up. The harder you pull, the faster he'll go. Therefore, it's very important to use a pull-release-pull-release when using rein aids.

Recall that his job was to gallop in a left circle. The first few times you ask him to canter left you may be in for a surprise, as he tries to give you what he's been taught riders want. Be careful, be prepared, but ask him for *canter* as he was taught on the ground; try to be very clear.

Oh yes--ex-racers can be interesting to take to shows, also. Even if you've gotten them calm and steady at home, the first time they go somewhere with an announcer/intercom you may be in for a jumpy ride. It's helpful to take your OTTB to several shows just to walk around (lead him first, then ride if he's calm enough) before planning to compete. This will help them get used to the idea that busy, loud places with announcement systems are not necessarily racetracks.

All in all, re-training a racer is not a job for a novice or a timid rider; there are too many places where hesitance will lead to the horse reverting to his previous training, and just taking off. He's been taught that's what his rider wants; in the absence of other commands, it's usually his first impulse.

Evaluating Soundness of a Racehorse, an article by Steuart Pittman, Jr of Dodon Farm. He events at Advanced level (CCI***) with his ex-racehorse TB stallion, Salute the Truth.

CANTER: Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses, Inc. Source of more information on ex-racers, and has several regional (US) sites where racetrack trainers can list TB's that they wish to sell.

Exracers.com: "Our purpose is to promote awareness of retraining Exracers into new careers after their racing days are over." Articles and forums; ex-racers discussed are Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and also greyhound dogs, as well as "other."
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.