Your Retired Racehorse Training Questions, Answered: Part Two

In the conclusion of our OTTB Training Questions Answered series, 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 answer questions ranging from what they focus on during a first ride to how they think stereotypes about Thoroughbreds can be combated.

You can read Part One of the series with questions 1 through 6 here.

7. How does restarting a racehorse-turned-broodmare under saddle compare to restarting a horse directly off the track? Is there anything you do differently when restarting a broodmare who spent a few years having foals before becoming an OTTB or do you treat her like you would any horse off the track?

AF: Any horse that we get into the program that has not been ridden for an extended period of time (several years) we treat differently compared to a horse coming directly to us from the track or a training center. So I don’t think having foals is a factor, it is more about how long has it been since a horse, being a mare or gelding, has been in active training. Any horse that hasn’t been in active training, we start slowly and do a lot more ground work with them prior to riding. I don’t think horses ever forget their riding training but simply need a refresher and someone to go at whatever pace they are comfortable with.

AP: The one major difference between the two is a racehorse lives mainly in solitary confinement. They rely on human contact and thrive off it. They like being on a schedule and their dispositions can change drastically when put out of work. Broodmares are the total opposite. They no longer rely on human contact because the majority of the time they are in herds and rarely messed with outside of feeding, farrier, or vet checks. When you pull them away from that herd, they tend to get very sour and forget the manners they once had.

Usually when you take a broodmare that has been in a herd and put them in a stall, they will get nervous and start weaving or walking their stall. Broodmares can be successful in a third life career but they need to learn to rely on human contact and schedule again rather than on other horses. They need to slowly acclimate to a schedule and be separated from their herd. This doesn’t mean they can’t ever go out with horses again but they should have times when they are stalled and learn it is okay to be alone. 

Typically it’s an easy fix and you’ll notice a difference within a week. When you notice that difference you just continue to build.

JR: I’ve actually worked with a number of these in the past and with all of them, I found that the same process, just at a slower pace, works well. It’s been much longer since they’ve been ridden than the traditional OTTB and they also haven’t been in riding shape for a longer period, so both mentally and physically they’ll be a bit slower to bring along. Depending on how much time they spent in a stall versus out with their herd each day, you’ll likely have some herd-bound issues to overcome, but as they become familiar with a new routine, that will subside.

One key thing to keep in mind with these girls is saddle fit. Their “job” for the previous however many years was carrying a large living being in their belly, so often it has changed the conformation of their back and caused them to carry muscle differently and have more pronounced withers. Plus, they are typically older than the average OTTB and have filled out much more. Having a saddle with good wither clearance that’s padded properly and wide enough for their more developed shoulders and frame is important.

SC: Because broodmares live mainly in a herd group and spend less time interacting with people it may take some time to change their routine. This works out well because most of the time retired broodmares need some more time getting fit again. It’s important to be patient and kind, keeping in mind they have already had at least possibly two careers already. Time as always is your best friend for success.

8. When you have an OTTB that is anxious with other horses in the ring with them, especially in shows, how do you overcome the fears?

AF: At the track most horses are exposed to a lot of traffic as training hours are always congested and consist of horses going both directions; however, there is technically more room than there is in the average outdoor or indoor arena. The larger the arena the better we find it is for horses that are anxious with other horses being ridden in the same area. I find that the main thing is to focus on keeping the horse going forward and not get to upset if the horse is anxious. This is similar to what would happen if they were anxious on the track, the rider would just keep sending them forward. Some will naturally start to settle if their rider is consistent and remains quiet. I have also found that taking the anxious horse and having them stand in the middle of the arena while other horses work around it is good as well as lunging the nervous horse too. The goal is to help them face their fears with a calm hand or rider. Some may always be a bit nervous of nature but I’ve found with enough time and patience most will learn to relax and focus on working.

AP: A lot of track horses have this issue and when you think about it, it’s a very weird issue to have because horses run up behind you on the track and work the opposite way coming towards you. I try to keep my horse as comfortable as possible because as soon as you cross that line to their brain turning to complete mush there is no getting them back that day to keep working on the issue. I do a lot of walking with other horses in the arena and while I am walking, I work on bending and flexion. I do small circles, large circles, serpentine and figure eights to keep them busy and focused on something. When I start actually working a horse in the arena I try to trot behind another horse and pass them (rather than another horse coming up and passing me) once they are comfortable with that, I do a lot of serpentine and figure eights again to keep them focused on something other than another horse in the ring.

JR: For a horse that gets anxious or aggressive (pinning ears, kicking, etc.) when horses are working in close proximity or passing them, I tend to spend more time letting them stand and watch the action going on around them, cooling out with other horses while I talk to riders, trail riding, etc. Once we’re comfortable with that, I take it gradually, maybe passing horses going the same direction and with plenty of room between the two, keeping my aids active to keep their attention on me and going forward rather than focusing on the horse we’re passing, then I reward them for a job well-done.

I know Tom and Clare Mansmann, who have competed in the Thoroughbred Makeover and retrain OTTBs at the farm in Virginia, do a lot of ponying with their Thoroughbreds (and other breeds) both in the ring and out in the fields. This helps them transition into a new career, and this issue is one of the many things that it helps them overcome.

I can think of three horses over the years (one at the track, two off-track) that had more significant issues with horses passing them or being in close proximity when being ridden. There’s always a reason that a horse (or dog or human) reacts to a situation in a certain way, even if we don’t know what that reason is. It’s up to us to be good custodians of our horses, and to also not put them in a situation we know will over-face them or trigger a negative reaction. If you know your horse has an issue with other horses passing them closely, be proactive and try to keep him or her out of that situation as much as possible and praise them when they do what you know is difficult or stressful for them.

SC: Turnout in paddocks is key. Having a chance to be around horses outside of being on the track is invaluable. I like to have that one “old gelding” that is everybody’s friend and turn any horse that is nervous out with them to get them used to be free in the same space as “other” horses.

Smaller paddocks for some are less overwhelming at first, so if possible, it’s nice to get them used to being outside before going onto larger spaces. Then when it comes to riding or working with more horses in a riding ring or even a trail ride I would apply the same strategy: go with what is less stressful and will build confidence in the OTTB.

9. What are some things people should consider on their OTTB’s first post-track ride, such as cueing and even warm up?

AF: I think it’s important for the first ride to always be in a controlled environment such as an arena, outdoor is best and with no more than one other horse around. You want the first ride to be a good experience, so making sure the environment is calm and clear of anything that would be a major distraction is important. I feel a bit of ground work or even walking the horse around the arena on the ground is helpful. Once on, I would let the horse just walk around and take in its surroundings. I always want the first ride to be positive and not stressful, so I let the horse sort of lead the way and determine how much they want do and for how long. If the horse is comfortable, I’ll ask them to trot around the arena changing directions and doing circles.  My goal is to get a sense for how the horse naturally moves and thinks. If the horse is taking in everything well and is not nervous, I may ask for a canter but typically walk and trot is all I do. On average I would say our first rides are no more than 20 minutes.

AP: Make it a good experience! Remember, these horses are not used to long and strung out rides. Keep the ride short and have realistic expectations. Do not ask too much of your horse and remember they do not understand what you want. When you’re asking a horse to bend around your leg, engage from behind, work up into the bit, know the difference between your inside rein and outside rein and what they mean, and do what you want off your seat IT IS TOO MUCH for them. You do not want to fry their brain and make an experience no longer fun and enjoyable. Your first few rides are just get to know them under saddle. Learn what they will and will not tolerate, how they react in a new environment. Use what you learn and incorporate it in your restart. Some horses are ‘go with the flow’ types and in a week they’re floating around 20m circles with both leads … some horses do not have that mindset and prefer slow and steady. Both can make great horses, but it’s the rider’s responsibility to know what they’re working with.

JR: I keep those first rides short and easy for them mentally. Ask things of them that will be easy so you can reward them with a pat and a “good boy/girl.” For most, I find a mix of walking and trotting is good with big circles or crossing the arena. Not too tight of turns or abrupt changes of direction. Just go easy and smooth, ideally. Depending on the horse, I might spend more time at the walk or the trot – whichever gait they’re more comfortable with. I don’t ask them to go on the bit, and I don’t punish them for pulling, if they do so. I try to ride them the way they seem to be used to/comfortable with and I find reasons to reward them for an even rhythm, a circle, passing another horse or something unfamiliar, etc.

They’re used to associating being saddled and ridden with going fast, so the goal of those first few rides is for them to think “Oh, that’s it? That was easy.”

SC: Ground work cannot be overemphasized, not just lunging but really getting to know your horse and letting them get to know you. Make sure your environment is safe and try to may make it a great experience. Keeping the first ride short, simple, and positive. I would suggest trying to notice more about your horse than trying to teach them things at first.

10. What would you attribute to there being so much variation in how horses settle once off the track, especially when they are in the same conditions as other OTTBs right off the track (same feed, turnout schedule, etc.)? Is it just their personalities or are there things that can be done to help a more anxious horse settle in?

AF: Horses are just like people and will vary in personalities, likes and dislikes. I think each horse should always be treated as an individual and the rider/handler should work to figure out what the horse needs most to help their transition be smooth. I definitely feel that getting the horse into a steady routine as soon as possible is important. Horses at the track are in a strict routine so they seem to thrive with knowing what comes next. Part of that routine is turnout. I’ve found transitioning a horse to turn out can greatly affect their behavior. Our goal is to always help the horse transition to at least six hours of turnout a day with a buddy. Ideally at our Lexington facility, we eventually have the horses on night turnout, which we have found makes most of the horses extremely easy to train during the day. It’s amazing how some of the highly energetic horses will settle into a nice quiet ride with 14 hours of turnout. As far as feed goes, we monitor their weight closely. Not all horses will require the same amount of grain and hay. Most horses coming to us are coming directly off the track so we have to help them gain fat as they naturally lose muscle, which naturally happens with a lighter exercise program. We adjust their feeding program as needed.

AP: All horses have different personalities just like people. I think a contributing factor to how well they adjust is how they were raised and broke. The fundamentals always start from the beginning.

JR: It’s the old question of nature versus nurture, and I believe both have an impact on how a horse will transition to new things. Some are just naturally mellow and adaptable while others might be a bit hotter and more sensitive to change. Also, some may have traveled all over the country and been in numerous stables and training programs (these horses have learned to adapt to the unfamiliar), while others may have only ever known one trainer and one groom and have experienced very little change since their racing career began. I don’t want to anthropomorphize the scenario, but I can imagine it’s not only unsettling but can be downright scary when a horse like that is taken away from everything that is familiar and put in a very different environment without the capacity to understand what is happening,

A good horse person will be intuitive and adapt their training regimen to the horse. If a horse is having trouble settling in, they should give it time and not ask too much too soon. Assuming they’re sound and ready for work, some horses might be game for a ride a day or two after they arrive, and it might be a great ride and they don’t turn a hair. For others, they may need a week or two to simply settle in, learn the routine, get to know you and just chill before they’re ready for ANOTHER new thing to be asked of them.

SC: A lot of factors determine the ways horses settle into their new careers. The great thing about OTTBs is that they have usually been exposed to so much. But if they are anxious, they may just need more confidence. Perhaps they need a “friend.” A lot of horses at the track have a goat or mini pony to keep them company. It’s just a matter of time… and space.

11. What are the basic things you’d recommend people have done if they’re getting a pre-purchase vet exam (PPE) done on any recently retired racehorse they are looking at?

AF: PPEs can range depending on the level of riding the person hopes to reach. For example, if we have an adopter wanting a horse for trail riding, then a basic PPE that includes flexion tests are generally fine, but if someone wants to compete in upper levels of eventing or jumping disciplines then they may opt to take more X-rays to better ensure the horse is physically able to hold up to their needs. Thankfully at New Vocations we often have X-rays, ultra-sounds and vet reports on many of our horses. We openly share any information we have with potential adopters and encourage them to forward the information onto their vet.

If someone does want to do a PPE, we do encourage them to use a vet who has experience with racehorses. There are many common racing injuries that are not as common in other equestrian disciplines, so in order to get the most accurate opinion using a vet who has experience with racehorses is crucial.

AP: If you’re going to vet a horse, I personally think you should do X-rays. A person can make a horse sore from a bad flexion on any day by holding the leg wrong or holding for too long. A horse can also just be having a bad day. Flexions do not tell you what is going on. I think using flexion tests to figure out problem areas you want to consider X-raying is the smartest option. I have horses that will flex sore every single time you try but have clean X-rays and are always sound. Flexion tolerance varies in horses just like it does in people.

JR: This question totally depends on the person considering the horse – and a big part of my answer is that the person should have an in-depth conversation with their vet about what their intended usage is for the horse. A PPE can cost as little as $300 or as much as $3,000 or more, and a discussion with your vet will give him/her the necessary information to suggest what they feel is the best course of action.

A few determining factors are whether the horse is a resale project or something you’re intending to keep. If you’re purchasing a horse purely as a project to train and resell, you may have less tolerance for PPE findings such as chips, soft tissue, fractures, OCDs or other issues, simply because you don’t want to limit your pool of prospective buyers. As an end-user (if you’re buying the horse for yourself) you have an idea of what you can and can’t live with based on your goals for the horse and conversations with your vet.   

SC: Once someone is really serious … blood test, X-rays, and a flex test at a minimum.

12. Why do you feel there is such a stereotype about Thoroughbreds being “crazy” or the breed overall not suitable for most riders? How do you feel that stereotype can be resolved? 

AF: Thoroughbreds are bred to be fast and athletic. They are naturally a more sensitive breed, have a heightened flight instinct, and tend to react quickly to what is being asked of them or to their environment. These are all things that also make them fast, too! Unfortunately, I feel that our riders today are not being schooled like they were 20-30 years ago. When I was growing up, we didn’t use lesson horses, we used whatever was in the barn and that often was a retired racehorse. We had to learn to ride everything. Nowadays, lesson programs rarely venture to let their students ride anything but the old broke school horse. I’m sure the increase in liability is mostly to blame for this. With that said, when you bring in a Thoroughbred and compare it to the old broke school horse the Thoroughbred will most likely be more energetic and require a more experienced rider to help them transition into their next riding discipline.

AP: I agree with some other responses. Racing has really buckled down on medication that can and cannot be given. Equipoise was a commonly used steroid back in the day that use to make horses aggressive and very wired. It takes a LONG time to come down off stuff like this and regardless of what people want to believe, these types of things are no longer permitted on ANY track. I think it’s a combination of that and years ago people would get OTTBs because they were free without having any idea how to work with them. We didn’t have social networking and programs or learning options that were specifically for OTTBs back then, so it was harder to ask for help. 

The stereotype is being resolved every single day and these horses are doing it on their own. The one thing people can do is stop referring to their horse as “the crazy Thoroughbred” while showing how calm they are. It’s hard for old habits to die when they’re consistently brought up. 

JR: The best way to overcome any stereotype is to counter it with opposing information in an effort to dispel it. As it relates to overcoming the stereotype of “Thoroughbreds being ‘crazy’ and not suitable for most riders,” we need to continue to get more Thoroughbreds back into the show ring, on the trails, in hunter paces, at rodeos and in the spotlight, showing people examples that are counter to that stereotype/impression (in the last 10 years, we as an industry have made MAJOR strides in this effort).

This is what the Retired Racehorse Project is all about. While people might know us best for the $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover – and I believe that event has done wonders to move the Thoroughbred sport horse movement forward – we are essentially a marketing and educational vehicle for the Thoroughbred sport horse. We work year-round to get positive stories about Thoroughbreds in their second careers or the opportunities for Thoroughbreds out there out in front of equestrians, the Thoroughbred industry and the general public, both through our channels (social media, Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine, etc.), and also by doing a LOT of demonstrations/presentations at equestrian events and a ton of story pitching to equine and non-equine media. We want to showcase positive stories about Thoroughbreds, the organizations affiliated with them and the opportunities available for them, like T.I.P./TAKE2 classes, Thoroughbred-only shows, and other prizes and awards people can earn if they ride Thoroughbreds.

It is all of our responsibility, as Thoroughbred riders, owners, lovers or otherwise, to do right by them. That can mean making decisions about their training and care that are best for each individual, but that can also mean doing whatever each of us can to support the greater Thoroughbred sport horse movement. That can be simple things like sharing positive stories about Thoroughbreds in their second careers on social media, celebrating your own Thoroughbred’s bloodlines and racing career or can be as much as making a small donation or hosting a Facebook fundraiser for organizations that you feel are making a difference for horses – or for you!

The best way to create positive change is to be an active participant in the movements and issues that matter to you!

SC: I think in the past when racing wasn’t so diligent about medication there was a period where thoroughbreds were “wired” for speed and that made the transition to another career difficult. Now that steroids and such are not permitted, OTTB’s need less down time and are more honest in their willingness to be worked with. Thoroughbreds are not for everybody, but they all deserve somebody.