Your Retired Racehorse Training Questions, Answered: Getting Started with an OTTB

Aftercare
Melissa Bauer-Herzog photo

In our second edition of the question-and-answer session about training off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs), we talk to Beverly Strauss, the executive director and president of Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA)-accredited MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, and Lisa Molloy, program director of TAA-accredited ReRun.

This session’s questions focus on getting a horse and transitioning them to life after racing with some things you should keep in mind when riding a horse soon after he retires from the track.

Have an OTTB question you’d like answered? Email it to Melissa@PyroisMedia.com to see featured in a future aftercare training Q&A.

1. What is the first thing you do with a retired racehorse when s/he arrives?

BS: It really depends on the horse and where it came from, etc. In the case of horses that come directly from the track, we generally know the history so we either start under saddle right away or rehab whatever injury the horse might have. As long as the horse is not injured, we turn out right away in a small herd and look the other way for the first 30 minutes while they settle in.

LM: I want to make sure they eat, drink, poop, and have normal temps with no nasal discharge before I do anything then I want them out of racing plates ASAP. When they are turned down and have grabs, it dramatically impacts the way a horse moves both in the arena and on tarmac, usually giving them a short choppy stride - a little like a needle on a sewing machine. Adopters find long and low movement with little knee action more aesthetically pleasing for the show ring. I also don't like turning horses out with back grabs on as there is the potential to overreach and do some serious damage to the back of the front legs, making boots necessary. Even though I have very diligent and experienced staff, there is always the chance someone might forget the boots and the horse could suffer an injury from the back shoes. We then want them vet-evaluated to make sure turnout is not going to have an adverse effect or aggravate a prior condition. ReRun has instituted what we call a mini PPE where we do X-rays, basic jog-up and records review before placing the horse up for adoption. We have found this to be tremendously popular with adopters.

2. How do you determine what discipline the horse may be best at once you get him off the track and evaluate him?

BS: It all depends on the soundness, the temperament, and the movement. A horse with soundness issues must be quiet, as that horse will have to be a pleasure horse, generally for people who are less experienced. A hot horse with soundness issues is really, really tough to place, because most riders that can bring along a hot horse also have higher goals riding-wise. We find the quiet horses typically appeal to the hunter and dressage people. The hunter folks want a horse that does not have a lot of action, and rather efficiently covers the ground with a long, sweeping stride. The eventing folks and jumper riders typically want to see a lot of engagement and an uphill build, and generally prefer more forward horses.

Melissa Bauer-Herzog photo

LM: Although I started and worked extensively in the Thoroughbred industry, over a decade of working in the Quarter Horse world at the top level stood me in good stead for evaluating what makes a good prospect, and an even better show horse, especially for the amateur rider. Long, low, flat-kneed with a little set to the hocks makes not only a superior hunter but a comfortable and relaxing trail horse or ground covering endurance prospect. Uphill with freedom of movement from the shoulder and well driven from behind is more appealing to those hunting or eventing. People are in too much hurry to talk up the horse and close a sale instead of watching the horse go and really "listening" to what their movement is telling you. Of course a prior injury might be limiting to some degree but with a good farrier that understands the way a horse travels and some maintenance, most horses can make it to the local shows or through the lower levels.

3. What is the most common misconception you hear from people about off-the-track horses and how do you explain the information isn’t correct?

BS: That they are all hot, need to be “rebroken”, have a lot of soundness issues and bad feet. These horses are smart, trainable, and have more mileage by the time they are 3 or 4 than most warmbloods at age 6! The longer a horse has run, the sounder it probably is.

LM: People that visit the farm frequently comment about how quiet the barn is and how settled the horses are, along with how fat they appear. They appear to be expecting thin horses with bad coats cribbing furiously. Horses are like dogs are like kids ... it's all in the handling, training, and your own expectations and capabilities. It really is a case of leading by example – calm and quiet with reasonable expectations and positive reinforcement and reward.

It's also frustrating that people still believe in the old premise that once a horse is injured, it has to be euthanized. I remember my dad telling me in the 1970s that once a horse broke its leg, there was no other option but to put them to sleep and unfortunately for not only us but also the industry at large, many people still believe that to be so. People don't seem to realize that equine veterinary medicine has come a long way in the last four decades so I always enjoy showing them chips and bone fragments that Dr. Hogan has removed and X-rays of horses that we have rehabbed. Most people are astounded … in a good way!

4. What is the thing you generally find hardest for an off-track Thoroughbred to learn after his racing career and how do you teach it?

BS: Standing at the mounting block while someone climbs on. (LOL). That and not freaking out the first time they go to a show and hear a loudspeaker.

LM: Many take time to not only transition to but be comfortable with turnout. We start them off in small paddocks side by side for short periods of time, usually under 30 minutes, and gradually increase the time outside. We then move them into larger paddocks and if still with us, into a field with a buddy. People often think that a horse should "want" to be outside and honestly, I don't want to stand outside with the sun beating down on me, being chewed on by flies so why would anyone expect them to prefer it over their stall with a fan? Then again, I have horses that never want to come in and some that even 10 years after retiring only want to go out for a couple of hours. A horse is a living breathing creature with individual preferences and a good horse owner will work with the horse to find the right situation where everyone is happy and comfortable. That might mean liberal use of fly spray and fly sheets or evening turnout or keeping the horse in during the midday heat. If a horse is happy in its stall and at turnout, I find the rest usually falls into place quite nicely making the horse more settled and confident when working.

5. What is the most important thing people should keep in mind when working with horses a year or less off the track?

BS: Give them time and a slowly build a good foundation- they are developing new muscles and a new mindset- the end result will be one of the most rewarding partnerships ever!

LM: The first time the horse has an issue, don't automatically assume the horse is having an issue because it must have been injured or abused at the track. Go with Occam's razor - the simplest answer is usually correct. If your horse was sound and then goes lame after being shod, chances are it’s the way the horse was shod and nothing to do with their prior career. It sounds like common sense but it’s surprising how many people automatically attribute issues to something that "may" have happened several years ago as opposed to the here and now. Educate yourself about injuries, ailments, and common procedures before you buy or adopt and don't rely on social media groups as your only source of educational information. Have enough humility and insight to examine if any problems that you encounter are truly the horse or caused by you. When training a horse – any horse – patience isn't just a virtue, it’s a necessity. 

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