Before you buy or adopt a Thoroughbred from the racetrack you should know: The nature & behavior of OTTB
I hope that this information will be helpful to any horse enthusiasts who are not familiar with the life of a racehorse and are interested in obtaining one of these creatures for one purpose or another. I will attempt to describe the expected behavior of the average racehorse when leaving the racetrack for a new home, either in someone’s backyard or at a stable other than a thoroughbred farm or TB training facility. Those who are familiar with racehorses have no need for this article, as I am sure that you have learned these basics while working with them on the track or farm. Many horses, however, suffer due to the fact that people have little to no knowledge or understanding of the every day life of a racehorse. This often results in injuries to people and horses alike. Furthermore, it’s also earned the racehorse a somewhat infamous reputation for being “crazy.”
Thoroughbred racehorses come from an environment unknown to most horse people. The average day of a racehorse is somewhat like this:
Mornings start very early by going out onto the track for a work out/training. On average the horse doesn’t spend more than 20 minutes on the track itself, and in most cases less than 15 minutes. The rest of the time, when he is out of the stall, he is walked/cooled out or bathed, hand grazed, occasionally raced, etc. All in all, these horses spend most of their lives in their stalls while at the racetrack. Keep this in consideration when turning him out on the farm in a pasture, paddock, etc., especially if you use only electric fencing. There is a good chance that he will take off and keep running right through your fence, possibly causing injuries to himself or to people in and around the area.
- Remove his racing plates if he still has them on, since these are most likely equipped with toe grabs, mud caulks, block heels, etc. These will cause the horse’s hooves to dig deep into the ground if he tries to stop running at the fence. Chances are that it could result in severe injuries, especially when he’s just been retired from the track and most likely has some problems already.
- It is recommended that the horse be hand walked for several days, especially if he was freshly raced, in order to calm him down. It is also recommended to reduce the grain intake temporarily to about 6 quarts per day. Do not worry about his weight at this time. You can increase it again as soon as he has calmed down.
- When turning him out for the first time, use a small pen or paddock where he is unable to reach a full run, while keeping the horse under observation.
- It is best if you wrap his legs in polo bandages or something similar to protect his legs. After awhile, when the horse calms down, he can live pretty much the same way as the other horses at his new place.
Most of these horses spend about 23 hours a day in their stalls, which often have no doors, only webbing that keeps the horse in; hence he has the freedom to look out into the barn to see what is going on, etc. This often greatly reduces the animal’s stress, because he may suffer from claustrophobic-like symptoms, when the green and roomy pastures of the “Sweet Kentucky Home,” where he may have been born, are reduced to a 12 x 12 stall. One other drawback is that this kind of environment provides very little privacy in his repose, or while eating. To add to this hardship is the fact that the horses in racetrack barns often do not get fed at the same time, as several trainers share the stable and feed according to their own schedule. On top of all this, many of these horses are on steroids, and that alone will make them combative. These are a few of the reasons why these animals are often very agitated. They often bite aggressively while jumping against the webbing, trying to reach those who walk by, horses and people alike. No need to reprimand them or beat them for it, as that will agitate them even more. Give him a chance and in time he will blend into the (hopefully) more serene and regular life of your stable.
Try to find a stall in your barn that is somewhat secluded, away from the stable traffic, but in the presence of another horse or two. Provide him, at least temporarily, a stall equipped with webbing. There is a good chance that when he’s in a strange environment and in an enclosed stall with full doors that he may begin to “stall walk” or pace back and forth, etc. Give the horse a chance to adjust to the new living conditions, while keeping in mind that any change of place is much more stressful on many horses than most folks would imagine.
What he knows or doesn’t know
- He is most likely not familiar with “cross ties.” When this is ignored, it can result in severe injuries to the animal or people around him. Please keep this in mind, because these horses are usually either tied only on one tie in the stall (when they are being worked on) or someone is holding them. The handler usually stands directly in front of the horse, as you often see in the paddocks while they’re being saddled before a race. When the person moves to the side, it signals the horse to move forward, as it is customary to move the horse out immediately after he is mounted to prevent rearing up etc. You are most likely standing in the front of the horse when cross-tying him. When you take the lead off and finally step aside, the horse will inevitably move forward to go. To his great surprise, he will receive a huge jerk on his head, so he may respond by jumping back into the ties and then very likely panic in great confusion, often with comments from bystanders like “This horse is crazy,” etc.
- He is not, in most cases, familiar with a common lead rope, as he was always led with either a chain over his nose or a bit in his mouth. He might have been handled on a lead rope when he was a little colt/filly, but he probably forgot that a long time ago. He will have very little respect for the handler who is using the lead rope, while the person will have very little control over him. This is true especially when turning him out, which could cause various problems and even injuries to the person. It is recommended that you use a “chain shank” over his nose, as he is accustomed to it. To make the shank less severe you can wrap the chain in “Vetrap” or you can even buy leads where the chain is covered in leather. In any case, before you attempt to change his ways, you have to adapt to his first.
- He most likely has never even seen a curb bit, let alone felt one in his mouth. You are really asking for trouble if you try to ride or walk the horse in this manner. Getting the horse used to the curb will require major re-schooling and much time and patience, of which there is never enough.
- He is, for the most part, familiar with a running martingale, but a tie-down or draw reins could result in the horse rearing up and flipping over while being ridden or mounted. The consequences need not be mentioned here as everyone can picture this in their mind, I am sure.
- He is not familiar with “western” equipment, particularly the western saddle. Use caution when using one for the first time, as there is the possibility that this creature could take you for a ride into “memory lane,” especially with the use of the rear cinch. Also keep in mind that most of them know elastic or partially elastic girths only.
- He doesn’t know what spurs are, or in some cases even the feel of rider’s legs in long stirrups. This could also give you the trip of a lifetime.
- He often doesn’t know how to be mounted by a rider using the stirrups, as most jockeys and exercise boys get a “leg up,” so to speak, or in other words, someone lifts them into the saddle. Some of the horses are accustomed to being jumped on in the fashion of getting one’s body (belly) over the horse and then swinging the leg over, but most of the horses are in motion forward during this process. This is done by more experienced/athletic riders. The point here is that you should not attempt to mount the horse for the first time by inserting your foot into the stirrup due to the possibility that he may “rake the arena” with you. This can be quite dangerous, so exercise caution and in time he’ll learn to do it your way.
How he was taken care of
- …is also of great importance, so you can understand what is happening to him during his new environment change. These horses are very well fed and very well taken care of. To most trainers, riders and grooms these horses represent their livelihood and a way of life. These animals are usually heavily grained and require much more grain than most other horses. Not knowing this, people often underfeed them by not giving them enough high quality grain/hay and it shows in their condition. On average the thoroughbred needs about 8 quarts of high quality (not necessarily high protein) grain per day just to live and look decent. When racing, it is 10 quarts and up. Often the trainers wish the horse would eat more as some of the racehorses will refuse to eat the given amount, so when you see a racehorse in “poor condition” it doesn’t necessarily mean that he isn’t fed well. They are accustomed to having hay in the front of them most of the time, though they don’t eat a lot of it as one may expect. Be prepared to spend a little more money on maintaining this horse than any other breed.
- After spending a long time on the track, these horses will become somewhat “indoor” creatures. Turning them out and leaving them on pasture, whether during the winter or hot summer days, will often account for their poor physical condition and suffering. It is recommended that when turning these horses out, they should spend at least equal time indoors as outdoors with respect to the seasons. Most of them do not do well with 24 hours out in the field, but in time they’ll adjust, I presume. Remember, horses are individuals and one is tougher than the other. Get to know your horse as an individual.
- Often these horses are on various enhancers and supplements and they’ll become dependent on them, especially hormones/steroids. Horses like this will go through “cold turkey” withdrawal symptoms when you get him. Often this will result in the animal’s poor condition despite all your efforts to feed him well, etc. You have to give him about six months on average before the horse will be back to his nature. Regular exercise and green pasture with the sunshine will speed up his recovery. (Gradually introduce the grass and don’t “cook” him in the sun!)
How he was trained and handled
- Most future racehorses are broke to ride around the age of 18 months. The majority of trainers, not all, prefer that the horse is taught only the minimal requirements for racing, while leaving it to the horse to figure out how to balance himself with a rider on his back. The most important thing is that the horse learns how to run amongst other horses and is easy to control by the jockey, so very little use of legs and minimal flexibility in the neck is preferred when teaching the horse to travel in a straight line and on proper leads around the track. A good racehorse trainer finds it very important that his training has minimal influence on the inbred nature of the running horse, as speed cannot be trained but can only be bred.
- The required flexibility of other riding horses (for example, in dressage, which is always supported by the use of legs) is unwanted by jockeys in most cases (often referred to as the “rubber necked horse.” Some green horses will do the same in a high speed) and often causes hard steering of the racehorse (and also interferes with lead changes), since the jockey cannot use his legs to steer the horse and all he has is his weight, whip and the reins. The point here is that for the most part when the horse leaves the racetrack, he will not be as flexible as people would expect of a horse that’s been ridden for several years. Please, be as patient with him as you would be with a young horse. Riding in arenas and small places will require different uses of the horse’s body and muscles. The most common damage occurs to the stifles, which later on is transferred to the back muscles. This is due to the fact that people do not give the horse enough time to develop physically for more collected gaits. The race horse is already used to riding and handling; he will often very quickly learn what the more experienced rider wants from him. Within a few days he will deliver reasonable collection, while straining himself much more than the rider or trainer is aware. The horse may go well for a week or two and then he will run into problems with his aching body. This often goes unnoticed and will later result in lack of willingness of the horse to cooperate or even in lameness. Coming off the track, the horse will need at least six or even as much as twelve months to develop physically for the collected gaits he inevitably needs in order to move in small areas, especially in turns during a slow canter.
- “My racehorse can kick me, bite me or do just about anything to me as long as he wins.” As funny as it may seem, this is to some extent the attitude most racing people have toward racehorses. They don’t, of course, overlook the necessary education of the horse for performing required tasks, mainly so he can be worked on. Generally these horses stand well for bandaging, and for the most part for the farrier and grooming and such. However, no one requires any unnecessary discipline of these horses, as we may find in other horse industries. Race horses will, for example, swing their hind legs around when being groomed, kick out, etc., while the handler thinks very little of it and keeps on doing his thing as if nothing is happening. When this poor creature finally enters the riding world of horses and behaves in such a way, he is often perceived as mean or as if he is trying to kick the groom. Well, for the most part, when a horse really wants to kick the handler he most likely will; however, that is very seldom the case, as the horse is often responding to the discomfort of the brush during grooming, or in other cases kicking out due to the excitement before racing while being saddled in the paddock, etc.
This kind of behavior is often tolerated and pretty much ignored as one just simply stays out of harm’s way and does his thing. You have to keep in mind that these horses are very fit and full of themselves, which is the whole point of getting the animal ready to run and win, and often it’s more than just that, as the trainer’s point is for the horse to want to run and want to win-in other words, to be “game”. Please, give the animal enough time to simmer down before you judge him according to your requirements.
Riding and mounting
This section should be of utmost importance to you, as you most likely obtained the horse to ride as a hunter, jumper, dressage horse or even western horse (please, no western pleasure).
When tacking up use an “English” saddle and when using a running martingale (recommended in the beginning) make sure that when pulled up, the rings of the running martingale are as high as the withers. Try to stay away from any other restraints like draw reins, tie-downs, etc. The horse is most likely familiar with a loose ring snaffle or a D-ring. You should preferably use an elastic girth which should be tightened up gradually, often by the rider from the saddle.
When mounting, please do not insert your foot into the stirrup as previously mentioned. It is recommended that you get some assistance with mounting and let the horse move immediately forward as he is accustomed to doing. A hard handed handler on the ground could result in the horse rearing up or at least backing up while mounted. A certain expertise is needed here to prevent miscommunication or even injuries.
Try to ride the horse for the first time in an enclosed area like an arena (in which you have previously walked him around several times) or preferably something even smaller like a round pen in order to get a feel for him. Gently try his response to your legs in long stirrups and then adjust your riding accordingly.
Should you find yourself in a situation where the horse is speeding up (in the faster gaits) with you, refrain from reaching for a shorter rein, as this will often signal the horse to pick up the speed. For better understanding of this you should know the following: whenever the jockey wants to collect the horse (“pick his head up”), to speed him up or to use the whip on him, he will shorten the reins. This gives him better control over the animal, especially when using the whip. Therefore, when you reach for a so-called “new grip,” known to you as shorter reins, the horse will expect one on the butt and you are going for a ride. Do not panic under any circumstances, because that will add to the excitement that the animal felt from you already. Stay calm, stand up higher (not straight up) in the irons, lean somewhat back (not beyond vertical) in order to substitute for your “out of reach” long rein and slowly take him back by leaning in his mouth while working the bit. When he slows down, reward him by putting your hands on the neck and keeping a long rein on him. You may have to repeat this several times before you get a feel for each other. Of course there are some that will “pull your brains out” so to speak and with those you will need the help of a professional with certain expertise. Resorting to a more severe bit will be of very little help, if any. It may solve the problem sometimes, but only temporarily and sooner or later you will find yourself back in the same situation.
In the beginning, do not sit on these horses too long, as they are accustomed to lighter weight and only carrying the rider about 15 to 20 minutes per day. Their backs are developed more for running and less for carrying weight. Furthermore, for the most part, no one sits on these horses’ backs when they running, galloping or at times even trotting. These are very often ignored facts! A lot of time and conditioning is of the essence before the horse will be ready to perform well as a hunter, jumper, dressage mount, etc. Don’t gallop these horses on hard services and when trail riding avoid rocky surfaces.
Discover the horse’s other talents and keep in mind that he may not be suitable for the use for which you have acquired him. The will can submit, but the nature will not!
Do not forget him when you are done with him for the day. He is used to receiving a lot of care after his work.
This should most likely sum up the most common misunderstandings and miscommunications between x-racehorses and riders/handlers who are not familiar with the life of a racer. There is much more to know but no one can teach you that better than the horse himself. Learn to “listen” and that “there is no boss when dancing with a partner!”
In conclusion, a racehorse will undoubtedly deliver the ultimate experience of his nature to a man. One day when you pay a visit to a race track, try to stand somewhere between the 3/16 pole and the quarter pole (if possible) when there is a full field of horses going by. Try to separate the noise of the crowd from the sounds of the running field. You can close your eyes and only listen to the sounds of horses in full run, the whips and the jockey’s voices. Hopefully, this may give you some idea of what these horses are going through. A racehorse today is the closest thing to a “war horse” from the past, and to be a part of that requires a huge heart on the animal’s end, much bigger than a man’s. The bigger the heart, the bigger the courage of the animal, which demonstrates itself and its beauty at every opening of a starting gate on every track in the world. As most admire the fascinating beauty of this animal in full run, you should learn to “hear” his heart, for it is not surpassed by any other divine creature of this Earth.
Of course, like in any other horse industry, there are many “chicken hearted horses” among the racing stock as well, and these are the ones that you will most likely get, as the greater racehorses will take part in reproduction. Nevertheless, accept this horse with respect even if only for what he went through. It is much harder for the coward to get through a war than it is for a brave heart. Where there is no fear, there is no courage, and it is the fear that makes heroes. These “little chicken hearts” are the true heroes of this “sport of kings” and they will need your brave heart to lean on.