In the first question-and-answer session about training off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) of 2020, we talk to Bonnie Hutton, founder and director of After The Races.
We explore how After The Races handles a horse right off the track: from the first turn out to teaching horses about cross ties.
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. How do you handle the first turn out for a horse right off the track? Do you put them in a smaller paddock and work them up to a bigger paddock or put them in the bigger paddock right away?
We do this on a case-by-case basis. Certainly, some of our horses are transitioned by way of putting them in our large-round pen first, often with our companion miniature horse Styx. Most of the time, we give them enough sedation that they can walk/trot as they explore their new pasture and get a feel for it prior to "waking up" fully. This combined with a calm pasture-mate we choose for them and plenty of grass to distract them — or a hay feeder full of alfalfa in the winter — has made their first turnouts generally quite uneventful.
2. How do you teach an OTTB to crosstie (a way to restrain a horse to a tie ring on the wall for grooming, shooing, etc.) something they don’t experience when on the track?
We start them in our wash stall. It's three-sided so they can't back out of the ties. I find most horses don't panic when they move forward on the crossties but will very quickly if they back up too far. We also use rubber tie rings that will break if they toss their head firmly or in a strange direction. We find when these rubbers go, the crosstie falls gently, which largely does not startle the horse as much as one breaking twine or pulling the hardware from the wall. Most horses do not even move when they break that rubber tie and we just clip it back without them ever realizing they're free.
Once they're standing quietly in the wash stall, we have two crosstie areas where their rear is pointed toward barn doors. It's more space than the wash stall, and the doors aren't right behind them, but close enough they still feel "boxed in" a bit. Once they're comfortable there, they graduate to more open crossties. It's really usually a drama-free process at our barn.
3. How do you transition the OTTBs from their track routine to the more laid back routine they’ll encounter in their second careers?
I know there are varying opinions on this, but we believe in giving these horses at least 30 days to let down, enjoy getting to be a horse again, and learn the new routines of what farm life is. We've had horses come in with warnings from grooms about their behavior, or high as a kite as they step off the trailer, horses who I would not allow volunteers to handle on arrival. However, we will have a completely different animal after a week of turnout. A month later, most of these higher horses would be unrecognizable by the same groom that warned us about them at the track.
Turnout, in a large pasture with a herd (two to five) of horses, really gives them a chance to return to more natural horse behaviors and routines. We also believe in turnout as part of their mental rehabilitation. Horses get 16-24 hours a day turnout here and we routinely get comments from visitors, vets, and other professionals about how remarkably quiet and easy to handle our Thoroughbreds are.
A key thing to mention is that we also do not ride them during this time. They are handled daily, groomed often, bathed, and have all their needs met, but this time is more about them being a horse and transitioning to the sort of farm life they'll experience in their next home. Riding will come after they've enjoyed that well-earned vacation, and if a horse needs more than 30 days, we give them as much time off as they need.
4. What do your first few rides on an OTTB look like when they first come off the track?
I start all the OTTBs in our 70-foot round pen. I put them in full tack and on a lunge line where I teach them to have a relaxed walk on the line and a good trot-to-walk transition. I never lunge with the purpose of wearing them out, but rather to get them thinking and listening to their handler. Once I see their brain is where I want it — some horses this is in five minutes, some take a couple sessions — I have my assistant hold them as I get on. The first ride might just be establishing a nice walk, or it might involve more. I let the horse dictate what it's ready for.
Usually, after one to two rides in the round pen, we move on to our arena and even onto the trails. We tend to work first on relaxation, then finding a nice rhythm in their gaits while learning how to respond to our seat and legs. Things like bend and collection come last. We also incorporate frequent trail rides. Most of our OTTBs take very easily to trail riding and find hacking out with a buddy both relaxing and enjoyable.
5. If you suspect a horse coming off the track has ulcers, do you automatically put them ulcer medicine or do you get them scoped first?
Studies show that 90% of racehorses have ulcers at the track. I go ahead and assume 100%. More minor ulcers can often be healed through management, and much of what we do is to help with ulcers on arrival. We feed straight alfalfa (no, it does not make them hot), a highly digestible grain, provide ample turnout with friends, and lots of grass. We also do not ride them immediately and top-dress each meal with a generous dose of Outlast (a stomach buffer). That said, if someone comes in looking like they could be suffering from severe ulcers, we have our veterinarian scope them and we treat with medication, and we scope them again at the completion of the medication. I wish we could afford to treat every horse that walks through the doors medically, but we focus on the ones with severe ulcers and recommend our adopters consider ulcer treatment as well.