How To Handle & Care For
"Off Track Thoroughbred" (X-Racehorse - OTTB)
Before you buy
or adopt a Thoroughbred from the racetrack you should know…
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
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
- 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.
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- 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
- 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.
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- ...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
- 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!)
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- 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
- 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.
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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
- 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
- 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.
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- 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.
Edited by J. G. May 23, 2006
Written by Ludvik K
Stanek a.k.a. Lee Stanek
Copyright 2009 Stablemade.com. All Rights Reserved.