Ex-racehorse, a retired racehorse, OTTB; so many different names for a thoroughbred that has now begun their second (or third) career. They are one of the most versatile breeds and, sadly, often one of the most misunderstood.
I believe that there are 4 basic principles that you must work with your retired racehorse on, in order to set a foundation for everything else that follows.
Being intentional about covering these 4 topics with your horse, regardless of how long they have left the track, will allow you to set your horse up for a wonderful 2nd or 3rd career.
Expectations Have Changed
It is easy to forget that, before coming to you, your OTTB has had many different expectations placed on him or her. A lot of their current behavior is a result of this early and consistent conditioning they received while in training on the track.
One of the greatest responsibilities we have when working with a retired racehorse is to help them understand that what’s now expected of them has changed.
It is also worth remembering that these changes are across the board. Not just the whole ‘we no longer expect you to get from A to B as quickly as possible and before anyone else’ :) You must find a way to explain what is acceptable behavior on the ground, in the stable, being led, and, of course, being ridden. And all of the other bits and pieces in between.
Finding ways to explain the new ‘rules’ to your retired racehorse can be a challenge, especially when he does not understand your aids or ways of doing things. It requires time, consistency, and patience
Boundaries are important in all successful and long-term relationships. So it makes sense that they will also play a large part in your partnership with your retired racehorse. What is allowed, what is desired. And what is most certainly not!
Before you begin explaining boundaries to your OTTB, I strongly suggest becoming clear with what you want (and, therefore, what you don’t want) first.
Is it acceptable for you if your horse walks around in circles while you are grooming and tacking up? And what about mounting up? For many ex-racehorses, this would have been very common behavior while in training. We pleasure riders, however, often don’t enjoy circling round and round!
How about mounting up? Is it okay if your horse continues to walk while you mount up? Again, this is usually acceptable at the track – but not if you use a mounting block.
The second big ‘re-training’ conversation you will definitely want to have with your retired racehorse is about aids. His understanding of aids while at the racetrack will most likely be quite different to being a ‘riding horse’.
I find it is key to pay particular attention to legs, seat, and weight aids when you are re-training your OTTB. The half-halt won’t work until he understands what you are saying and what you want him to do.
So many riders complain that their retired racehorse ‘won’t listen’, or ‘runs away’ from their aids. Is it possible that he simply does not understand what is being said?
I find lunging to be invaluable when it comes to re-defining aids and understanding with OTTBs. Couple this with very intentional use of the voice aids initially, and soon your horse will being to understand what it is that you want.
While contact is related to the above topic of your aids, it is important to realize that contact is also a principal in training. And to understand that your OTTB will probably have had a very different understand of contact when compared with yours.
If the concept of contact has not been retrained or re-schooled with a retired racehorse, there tends to be a tendency towards heaviness and pulling. Usually every time the rider picks up the contact.
Obviously, this is not what we want. Who wants to be hauled on each time you try to start the conversation with your horse?! And yet, so many riders fail to devote the necessary focus and time on this with their OTTB.
If you want to develop your retired racehorse correctly, the topic of contact will have to be redefined. This is where correct retraining is essential.
4. Leaving the Herd
This is the one that many riders forget about when working with their thoroughbred in their new career. And it is the one that can have pretty startling consequences if not visited early in his retraining! So many riders have a negative perception of retired racehorses due to this not being dealt with correctly.
For most of his life, up to this point, your thoroughbred will have had ‘stay with the herd’ reinforced, both intentionally and not. Both at the stables and on the track… Stay with the herd.
So it makes sense that if he finds himself either being ‘left behind’ while on the trail with his new pleasure rider, he will do all in his power to catch up! The same applies if he is asked to leave the herd to go into a different arena (maybe for a round of jumping, or a dressage test!).
In order to retrain your horse to leave the herd, he must become happy to be with you. This is where trust becomes so important. Are you safe to stay with?
When Pressure is Applied
The final thing I want to mention is that all of the above 4 topics can ‘seem’ to have been dealt with. It can look like your horse has been retrained when the circumstances are ideal. However, this may not be the case.
True retraining has occurred if your horse can maintain the ‘new’ way of doing things when the situation is not going to plan. When either one of you, or both of you, feels under pressure.
If your horse can maintain the ‘new’ ways of doing things, then, yes, you have successfully retrained him. However, if you are grooming your horse in the stable, only for him to see the other horses leave the stables already – and then proceed to walk anxious circles around you. Well, there’s still work to do :)
Re-training your retired racehorse takes time, consistency, patience, compassion, and focus.
And, it is one of the most rewarding relationships you can be gifted with as a rider.
Extra Help for Riders
- FREE TRAINING – Helping Redefine Contact for Your OTTB
- OTTB; From Racetrack to Ready Program
- Free online community for OTTB riders and owners
- Creating a Program for Your OTTB or Ex-Racehorse
- Starting Off on the Right Hoof with Your OTTB
- Setting Your OTTB Up for Success Off the Track
- FREE OTTB Checklist & Healthcare Journal
- Lunging for Riding
- Connection; The Online Membership for Equestrians