Might an OTTB be Right for You?

By OTTB, I mean, of course, an Off the Track Thoroughbred. In other words, a retired racehorse, like my Ember, aka Embrace Reality, pictured below.

My bay Thoroughbred, Embrace Reality, stands in a stone barn on October 17, 2005. He is three years old and has just retired from the track.

OTTBs can excel in most disciplines, are generally inexpensive compared to young sporthorses that are not retiring from the track, and have been exposed to varied environments, sights, sounds, and experiences. If you’re an experienced rider considering buying a young sporthorse prospect, the option of purchasing or adopting a Thoroughbred off the racetrack might be an attractive option. Before you head for the backside to chat up trainers, here are a few things to consider:

Buy or Adopt?

Racehorse trainers are not unaware that washed out racehorses can have successful second careers. As a result, many have become open to keeping a horse that is no longer racing or is about to retire at the track for a few extra weeks and showing him to sporthorse buyers. However, other trainers prefer to dispose of slow horses quickly, through auctions, or by returning them to their owners to be sold. If you choose to contact trainers directly, be polite, be ready to meet at 4:00 AM if they would like to do so in order to be through with your tour before their busiest time of day, and bring an open mind. Even if you disagree with the way the trainer keeps and treats his horses, be polite; one rude buyer can cause a domino effect of trainers choosing no longer to welcome sporthorse buyers.

Another option is to contact rescues and other non-profit organizations specializing in finding loving homes for retired racehorses. It is a myth that horses in rescue are more likely to be lame or mentally unsound than horses purchased directly from the track. Rescues have many types of horses, from companion-only to those with show potential, and are likely to provide full disclosure of any soundness or temperament issues, unlike most private sellers. The downside is, the adoption process is generally more complicated than merely handing over a check, and the rescue may temporarily or permanently retain some rights to the horse. If you’d like to adopt, check out CANTER, ReRun, New Vocations, or a similar organization. Ember came to me through Another Chance 4 Horses, which does not specialize in racehorses, but rescues all types of horses in danger.

Physical Needs of OTTBs

Most OTTBs come with some special needs, either temporary or permanent. Before choosing to buy or adopt a retired racehorse, decide how much special care you are willing and able to provide. If you want to get started training a horse right away, look for a horse bred and raised for the sporthorse industry, not the racing industry. While some OTTBs are ready to start their new jobs after only a short rest period, others may need 60 days or more of rest, as well as veterinary and farrier care.

Hard work at a young age takes a toll on many horses’ bodies. Ailments common to OTTBs include hoof cracks, brittle hooves, slab fractures, bowed tendons, bone chips, ulcers, strained ligaments, muscle injuries, and stone bruising, among other conditions. In our first six months together, Ember dealt with a carpal bone chip, ringworm, ear mites, and brittle hooves, and it was later discovered that he also has ulcers. A list of diagnoses like this is not unusual for OTTBs. Be prepared to spend time and money on veterinary care, hoof care, and on board and feed while your new addition rests. Of course, it’s also quite possible to find any or all of these conditions in a horse that’s never raced, as well as to find a heavily raced young horse with no physical problems.

Mental Needs of OTTBs

Most OTTBs have lived in a very structured environment for between several weeks to a couple of years. They are accustomed to feedings at the same time each day, and a regular exercise schedule. They may be accustomed to a hot walker, baths, clipping, turnout, and galloping around the track, but totally unfamiliar with the concept of a round pen or trail riding. Many trainers achieve good results by pulling a new OTTB’s shoes and turning him or her out to pasture for at least two weeks before starting a new training schedule. Time to wind down from the track is essential to success in training an OTTB.

Do not expect that a newly retired racehorse will know any or all of the cues that a trained sporthorse understands. Racehorses speak a different language. Pulling hard on an OTTB’s bit is likely to make him run faster, not stop, and he may not understand how to turn clockwise, since races are run counterclockwise. Patience and understanding are key. Reward and praise your OTTB for progress, and avoid excessive punishment if he or she has a meltdown. Redirect the horse’s attention to a constructive use of his energy rather than punishing him for behaviors like shying or rearing. Start slowly, with walking in large circles, and make sure that she gets enough exercise through longeing, ground driving, turnout, and hand walking, rather than by pushing under saddle work too quickly.

If this will be your first OTTB, seriously consider working with a professional trainer with experience in this area. At the very least, purchase a few books specifically on retraining racehorses. The insight of someone with many years of experience is invaluable.

Final Thoughts

Be prepared for setbacks, confusion, and mistakes, both yours and the OTTB’s. Be humble and willing to seek and take advice if you’re struggling to teach your new prospect a new skill or overcome a behavior problem. Don’t be stuck in your ways. An unusual training method like clicker training could help you break through a “wall” in training or build a stronger bond with your retired racehorse. Remember that, however much you know about his history, there is more that you don’t know. Your OTTB could have been treated like a prince, or he could have been abused. Before labeling him “stubborn” or “difficult,” recognize that a behavior you are seeing could be the result of fear, trauma, or merely a lack of education.

Above all, prepare for a fantastic feeling of accomplishment every time your OTTB progresses toward your ultimate goal. However many setbacks you may face, the joy in knowing that you’ve given a horse a second chance and trained him for a new career is worth it. The picture below is taken during one of my first real rides with Ember, after six months of rehabilitation for his various health conditions, as well as his severe headshyness. The quality’s not great, but it captures the exhilaration of a milestone met and a strong relationship formed.

Me riding my bay Thoroughbred, Ember, at a sitting trot. He is well balanced and engaging his hind end while moving his shoulder freely. The vast blue Colorado sky stretches above.

PS: If you’re struggling with an OTTB or other horse, feel free to leave a comment on any of my blogs or in the comments below. I’ll answer your questions privately or in a future post, and if I don’t know the answer, chances are that I know someone who does.

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4 Responses

  1. allie
    | Reply

    Great article, just found out about it via google and thought it was great. Love Ember, she’s lovely!

  2. Suzanne
    | Reply

    just found your article on google also…….I am looking at adopting my first OTTB. It is kinda scary sice I know nothing about them except the negatives. I have only ridden trail riding quarter horses and am fearfull about teaching an OTTB everything I have taken for granted with my quarterhorses. The simple things like looking where they are walking or instance was something I was totally unaware of! I do have a friend that adopted and OTTB last year and have watched them learn from each other and grow to respect each other. So she is willing to help me along if I decided to take on this challange! Iam also only 5’2″ so owning such a huge animal is a little daunting! All of the info I have read so far is positive and helpful so it is easeing my fears a little. Thank you for the good, positive information.

  3. alyssa
    | Reply

    hey I have an ottb that is very nervous she is only 3 years old and tries to kick out when she is nervous. my barn owner said not to turn her out for at least a molnth just walk her as she may get hurt. is this true?

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