While Thoroughbreds are much like any other breed of horse you’ll encounter, admittedly those off the track can be a little confusing to figure out.
Recently we opened up the floor to equestrians all over social media to ask any questions about training OTTBs that they may have. Once the questions were selected, Paulus Racing and Performance Thoroughbreds’ Amy Paulus, New Vocations’ Anna Ford, Retired Racehorse Project’s Jen Roytz, and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance’s Stacie Clark provided their expertise, bringing experience transitioning Thoroughbreds and being some of the foremost experts in the aftercare industry to their answers.
You can find the part one of the two-part series below.
1. Do you automatically treat horses for ulcers right off the track and how can you tell if any behavioral problems are due to ulcers or due to the routine/career change?
AP: I do not treat horses for ulcers right off the track but instead I switch them to Buckeye EQ8 which is a food solely based around gut health where I do not have to worry about adding a supplement gut health supplement or probiotics because my grain has both. I think a lot of "racehorse problems" are immediately blamed on ulcers by riders who do not spend a fair amount of time on the racetrack or know racehorse tendencies. One example that I commonly hear is "my horse pins his ears or grinds his teeth when girthed" this is very common in most horses and it doesn’t always mean the cause is ulcers. Many of these horses change hands and are cinched up quickly and tightly making them "cinchy.” If you give it time you will find it fades the longer they are off the track, especially if you use the “tighten, walk, and tighten again before you mount” approach. I do not ever immediately go to ulcers when a horse is girthy or when they pin their ears while rubbing their belly, again these are common racehorse tendencies.
If a horse is not eating his/her grain that is a red flag for me. It's alright to pick at their grain through the day and that is what most will do but if they seem uninterested this is a red flag for me. If a horse eats its grain consistently and is not gaining weight or has a dull coat with a grayish tint this is also a reason I would treat for ulcers. Two others things I look for is chewing on wood either in the stall or on the fence, This means they could be lacking minerals. Also eating their poop, which usually means they need probiotics. Both go back to gut health issues that can ultimately cause ulcers or be a contributing factor of having ulcers. Lastly, if a horse is not moving forward under saddle and is sucking back, kicking out, pinning ears, this is an indicator they probably have ulcers.
AF: We do not automatically treat all of our horses for ulcers. Instead we watch them closely as they settle in and we adjust them onto our higher fat, lower starch feed. It's not uncommon for a new horse to be a slow eater over the first several days of arriving, but if it continues or they simply don't eat then we would start them on ulcer guard or something equivalent. Thoroughbreds are definitely used to having a very set daily routine. Our first goal is to get them settled with a buddy on turnout and make sure they are eating their food. If a horse is unsettled in turnout, meaning they run the fence or are not getting along with their turnout buddy, then we make any adjustments needed to help them better acclimate. We have found that getting them set up with the right buddy is half the battle. Once that happens they seem to settle to turnout and clean up their feed tub.
JR: Growing up I was lucky enough to do everything from ride Thoroughbreds in the show ring to pilot them before, during, and after their racing careers. While my professional career has focused on Thoroughbreds as well, it has been centered around marketing, communications and industry relations. This has allowed me to ride and retrain my fair share of ex-racehorses as a hobby, so my approach to these topics likely comes from a different perspective than those who retrain a larger volume of OTTBs as part of their career.
Treating for ulcers and offering gastric support are two different things. I do incorporate a gastric supplement into the mix for any horse coming directly from the track (I tend to like TRM’s Gastrofos or Resolvet’s RelyneGI, but there are several others with which I’ve heard/seen people have success). These horses go through a LOT of changes in their diet, activity level, socialization, and overall routine in those first months post-track. Any one of those is stressful, but all at once it is a lot to handle and I think gastric support can be helpful.
If the horse is extremely sensitive around the belly/girth area, not maintaining coat/weight/condition, or not wanting to move forward under saddle/while lunging (and it’s not due to a lameness or other physical reason), that is when I will truly treat for ulcers with omeprazole (I prefer GastroGuard) for a two- to four-week regimen.
SC: In my current position at the TAA I don’t get to work hands-on with too many horses these days however after years of re-training Thoroughbreds I think I can give some input. All of these points are good to consider when I’m helping someone find their new horse.
A horse coming off the track has usually been in a very routine based environment, so the adjustment to down time off the track can affect horses differently. Many are fine and others don’t know what to do with themselves. It is important to observe your horse and find out as much as you can.
When a horse first comes off the track I usually try and get ahold of the horse’s vet records, X-rays, and whatever else is documented on their past. If official records are not possible then it’s good to try and speak to the previous owner and trainer to get as much information as possible. Having good communication with the previous connections can eliminate a lot of guesswork. Getting to know their feed program and adjusting it slowly is always advisable.
If there is no possibility of finding out any history then typically I would suggest giving the horse some time to “settle in.” Sometimes just time will let them get comfortable in their new surroundings and they are less likely to get stressed and develop ulcers.
If your horse is showing signs of stress, discomfort, or appetite issues then I would suggest working with a vet to assess any problems arising. If you suspect ulcers a vet will be able to properly diagnose an ulcer and take all the guesswork out of it. There are plenty of ulcer treatments, both medical and natural, that can help your horse if ulcers are suspected.
2. Are there some horses coming off the track that should not be let down completely, and how do you know which ones can get turned out for a rest and which ones should keep some level of work?
AP: These horses are used to a routine and should be kept on a routine. A horse coming off the track sound in both body and mind should go straight into a work routine whether it is groundwork, then riding, or straight to riding, however you prefer to do your training. Something I see a lot is a sound and happy racehorse that is thrown in a field and has a failure to thrive. Many will get depressed and lose weight and muscle, and they can also end up with behavior issues and be very herd sour because they have learned to bond with other horses and have a routine rather than the person they are working with.
If a horse comes off the track with mental, physical, or behavioral issues you should absolutely give them time off to let them heal. Different situations should be treated differently. A horse with mental or behavioral issues should be turned out and left alone for at least 30 or 60 days to adjust, clear their head, and learn to be a horse again then be brought back slowly from the ground up learning how to trust and be taught in a way they actually enjoy learning and want to bond to their person. A horse rehabbing from an injury should follow your supervising vet’s plan of care for that injury and be given the time off needed. Just because a horse is rehabbing doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on a routine, though, or it should be "forgotten about" for a while. You can use this time to groom, bond, work on stretching and flexibility, and just get to know each other.
AF: When a horse comes into our program, we typically have enough details and vet records to determine if they can go right into our training program or if they need rehabilitation time for an injury or simply just down time prior to moving over to training. Our rule of thumb is that we only start transitional training once the horse is both physically and mentally sound. We obviously want to make sure there are not soundness issues that might need rest or veterinarian attention. We also want to make sure they are mentally sound, meaning they are happy with their turnout and stall schedule and are eating all their feed. If we get a horse that is lacking in one of those areas then we simply give it more time and any veterinarian care that is needed.
JR: Whenever I get a horse off the track, one of the first things I do is call my veterinarian to do a baseline assessment and soundness exam. Those findings will play a large roll in how I proceed in the first few weeks and months with a horse. If a horse is sound and mentally seems ready or even eager to work, I will start working (playing is probably a better word – there’s no real “work” involved) with him or her a few days a week, either on a lunge line or light hacks under saddle in the arena, around the farm, on trails, ideally relaxed and on a loose rein. My goal is to reset their brain from expecting to go fast every time they’re saddled or ridden.
And, if they seem stressed or nervous every time I get on, then I do more lunging or even just bringing them in to be groomed and maybe hang out near the arena grazing while others ride. After a few weeks of repetition in this way, I find they settle into the routine and you can slowly begin to increase their workload and what is asked of them.
SC: I think, again, time is the most important thing. Let the horse tell you what they want. The routine most racehorses have been in is pretty regimented. Patience and awareness of how your horse is adjusting will dictate when new work should start. If the horse is coming off an injury, one should consult with their vet and make sure the horse is ready for turnout and/or work.
Getting turnout is key if possible, keeping in mind most horses haven’t had turnout with other horses since they were (maybe) a yearling. It may be wise to slowly introduce a horse to turnout and to being “let down.”
Typically, a small round pen and or small paddock is good to start with then perhaps a buddy who will be the new OTTB’s stable friend.
I’ve seen some horses just embrace turnout and down time and others panic and stand at the fence to be let back in the barn. Every horse is different and as a trainer one should look for what makes the horse happiest and most relaxed. I don’t think I have a I seen a horse run on a Saturday and start retraining on a Monday … but I guess it could happen.
3. With a horse in his first few months of retraining, do you find 20-30 minute rides or hour-long rides are better to get more work done and why?
AP: I always start horses with 20 to 30 minute rides for at least the first 60 days. These horses are used to a lot of high impact, short rides throughout the week. Most are very willing to learn but when you throw too much at them at once they tend to get high-strung, upset, or anxious because they do not know what you're asking them to do. This is all new to them and it's best to focus on one small victory at a time and build off it with every ride.
AF: Early on we find that 20 to 30 minute rides are the best especially if you can do them in consecutive days. At the track they typically are only exercising about 20 minutes so that consistency is good. Once we have them going well, we can lengthen their training time yet will ride them less frequently. However, each horse is an individual, so we make adjustments as needed and make a plan that works specifically for that horse.
JR: Every horse is different. I remember when I used to gallop at the track, there was this little black speedball of a filly. The guys who galloped for her trainer hated her because she was nervous, headstrong, and scared of everything. I found that if I took the longest way possible from the barn to the track, then spent a good 10-15 minutes standing on the rail before asking her to gallop, she was a calmer, more confident horse. She just needed that time to take it all in and mentally prepare for what would be asked of her.
Some horses off the track have a shorter attention span and a 20 to 30 minute ride is perfect for them. Others need that time just to warm up, get the giggles out, and get into “work mode.” Regardless, it’s important to end each session on a positive note – find something to ask of them for which they can be praised. Sometimes that means adjusting the goal you originally had in mind to accomplish that day. Maybe your goal of working on canter departures to the right turns into some nice leg yields at the walk, and that is OK.
SC: Trying to get a horse out of his old routine is the key into helping them adapt, assuming the horse does not need any rehabilitation for previous injuries.
The first few months’ “groundwork” in short sessions mixed up with a few hack days is always how we would start. Hoping to help the horse not anticipate what is expected of them in a daily routine but rather relax in the consistency that every day is a new and trustworthy day for them. Take it slowly and build “a foundation” for the new type of work. Their muscles are being worked differently and they need time.
4. What is your feeding plan when switching an OTTB from a racehorse feeding program to one more typical of show/recreational horses?
AP: Racehorses are fed three times a day and I immediately switch them over to twice a day generally starting off with two scoops a.m. and p.m. Over 30 days I watch their weight and adjust their feeding according to what I see on each individual horse. I always make sure they have free range hay because they are used to having full hay bags at all times when in training.
AF: All of our farms feed different brands of grain which typically consists of a 12-14 percent protein with a six to 10 percent fat feed (nine to 14lbs) with unlimited alfalfa grass mix hay over two feeds. We have not had many issues switching them onto our program. We always watch their weight and adjust the amount of feed they are getting as needed.
JR: Since I do not do the volume of horses the others do, I have less of a “feed program” and more of a “typical approach,” and that always starts with a discussion with my vet about a recommended feed plan when she (or he) comes out to do an initial assessment and soundness exam. Typically that includes weaning them off of the diet they had at the track (ideally, get a few bags of the concentrate the horse was fed at the track so you can make a slow transition over 10 to 14 days to a new feed) and slowly switching them over to a feed that is lower in protein/carbohydrates and higher in fiber/fat than their previous feed (I personally like Hallway Feed’s Fiberenergy, but every feed company tends to have a good option in their roster).
I also top dress the feed with oil (I like McCauley’s Rice Bran Oil – it’s highly digestible and helps coat and body condition). Forage should play a major role in a horse’s off-track diet, and good quality grass hay is ideal. I try to transition the horses to a partial or full turnout schedule (again, this should be done gradually, especially if the pasture is lush or weather is harsh), and grazing will supplement their diet as well and should be taken into consideration.
In addition, I make sure I have their teeth checked/floated soon after they arrive, as that can make a big different in how well they’re able to digest their food. If all else fails, feed companies typically have a nutritionist on staff who can consult with you on your horse's specific situation and needs.
SC: As mentioned in question one, slowly introducing a new feed program to an OTTB is key for digestive and stress related reasons. It is important to remember Thoroughbreds are not like quarter horses AKA “easy keepers.” Almost all Thoroughbreds need more than just hay; veterinarian input can always help here.
5. What is the first step you take to “soften” a racehorse’s mouth after they come off the track?
AP: Always go back to the basics and start your horse in a snaffle. Also remember majority of these horses run in snaffles. It is common for the horses that run in gags to train in the morning with snaffles as well. It's most important to remember not to play the pulling game. Many of them will lay on your hands because they want you to pick up the contact so they can start working the way they are used to. I start with a lot of seat work right away and walk-trot transitions. Until a horse has flawless walk-trot transitions off my seat I see no reason to work on the canter.
AF: We ride all of our horses in a plain snaffle as that is what they are used to. Obviously at the track they are taught to gallop on the bit and often hang. We start with the basics, often with groundwork and sometimes side reins. We also let them have their heads and teach them not to rely on hanging on the bit and to balance themselves naturally. Typically they are happy to trot around our arena with light contact. Once we have them comfortable then we start with simple bending exercises at the walk and trot. When they are doing well with those two gaits then we move onto the canter which is a bit tougher but with the consistency and soft hands they quickly appreciate the new approach and adapt to not hanging on the bit.
JR: I don’t think the majority of racehorses coming off of the track truly have a “hard mouth,” but rather sometimes people confuse a horse being forward with having a hard mouth. The first step I’d take would depend on the horse and how he or she is presenting, but some things I typically do include a lot of transitions between the walk, halt, and eventually trot, and every once in a while I’ll ask them to stop and back up a few steps. I also do a lot of circles, leg yields, serpentines, etc. to get them bending around my leg, and I try to give them a strong supportive (not driving) leg and seat, as often their desire to go forward comes from lack of confidence. Sometimes I’ll also ride them in a rope halter, side pull, or light hackamore (something without a bit, but nothing too severe), which helps them to be less dependent on the bit and more aware of the other aids.
On one that truly has a hard mouth and is a puller, I do much more at the walk, trot, and occasional backing up than at the canter in the initial weeks and work on rewarding any hint of softness/giving to the bit. You can also play around with different bits – maybe something with a twist or that incorporates poll pressure – and different nose bands (often asking the trainer what they found worked best for the horse is helpful, or if the horse won any races, you can look up the win picture to see what they used). I find groundwork with these types especially – lunging in side reins or long lining – can have great benefit. Again, a lot of transitions in gait, direction, etc. are helpful, as the goal is to engage their mind rather than wear them out.
SC: Groundwork training is important. Everyone is different but I like the horsemanship skill games such as the Parelli method. Let your horse get to know you on the ground and then the mouth should be the last thing you have to worry about (if at all).
6. How do you decide what discipline will be best for an OTTB? Does conformation and attitude play a part?
AP: Conformation, movement, and attitude are how I decide where these guys will be a good fit. A horse that is short coupled, catty, bold, and confident is probably going to thrive in a more aggressive discipline such as gaming, eventing, foxhunting, or polo.
When I market jumpers they usually have a lot of the same qualities but they may have some flaw in their movement (such as paddling or being short and choppy) that wouldn’t work well in the dressage phase. Another thing I take into consideration is the horse’s mindset. If I know a horse can be overly hot or even lock jawed it probably isn’t the best option for cross-country but could do great work in the jumper ring where they're more confined.
Horses that are a little more conservative, longer bodied with flatter, correct movement are usually marketed as hunter horses, depending on their attitude these types are also marketed as foxhunters.
AF: From the first day a horse arrives we are taking note of both their mental behavior and natural movement. The longer the horse is with us the more accurate we can be on judging who the horse is and what they will be best for. For example, we've had plenty of horses come in with a ton of energy only to settle in and be a kick ride a month later. We've also had horses come in that were quiet and just not interested in working then go onto having more energy and being a more of a handful to ride after a month. Back to the second question, we typically wait until the horse is both mentally and physically sound to make any final assumptions on which discipline the horse will be best suited for. Then we consider the horse's movement, disposition, conformation and soundness to decide on the best discipline.
JR: Thoroughbreds are so versatile, so I think many of them are well-suited to easily adapting to any number of disciplines if they won’t be asked to compete at the highest levels of that sport.
To me, it depends on the horse as to whether its attitude or conformation that should play the primary versus secondary role in determining an ideal job. As you work with them more regularly, you begin to learn what they enjoy and what they don’t, as well as what tasks are more or less physically or mentally challenging for them. Both conformation and attitude will likely influence your findings.
SC: Conformation is nice (and important) for most show horses. I believe that a horse’s movement and a good forward attitude are even more important. A pokey yet pretty gelding may just want to be a trail horse and never ever want to do 20-meter circles … they are all different. Due diligence and spending time with the horse will USUALLY let you know what they like best.