Thoroughbreds often have a bad rap for being crazy, hot and difficult. But in fact, they are the complete opposite. I have three OTTB’s of my own, and have ridden a few others as well, and they are really awesome, smart horses. At the track they are exposed to so many things that other horses may never experience in their lifetime.
Upon retiring from the track, they are given some let-down time to relax and adjust to their new life. It can be hard for some as they are used to a rigorous schedule. Some may readily adapt to turnout while others desperately want to get back to the protection of the stall. I have worked with a couple retirees right off the track who paced the fence the whole time they were outside. My recent adoptee Posse enjoys being out in the field with two other horses, but when the sun sets and it starts getting dark, he panics. Once I get him and the others inside the barn, he is fine again.
When a racehorse is taken out on the track, the exercise rider usually has the horse’s head tilted to one side to keep him from taking off with him. It gives the rider some leverage to stop him if he does get strong, as obviously turning the horse in a circle to slow down on the track is virtually impossible. The athletic horse learns to move with his head and neck tucked and craned to one side which will prove to be a challenge when retraining him.
I was blessed with the opportunity to gallop some racehorses a few years ago, and my experience really helped me with my new horse Posse. He raced for four years and so getting him to connect his head with the rest of his body was a big project. It took months of work, which wasn’t pretty at all in the beginning. I can not count the number of times he slammed my left leg into the fence as he swung out so wide turning to the right. Now he can go around at all gaits, balancing himself on the turns without his head craned to the outside.
Help, my ex-racehorse can’t pick up his right lead!! Well in fact, he does, and really well. Watch a race and study the horses. Although the racetrack is designed to go counter-clockwise, roughly about 70-80% of the race the horses are on their right lead. Yes, I am serious. When they break out of the starting gate, they start on their right lead. Then they switch to the left approaching the turn, but right after the turn, they switch back to the right. Depending on the distance of the race and the track, there could be one or more turns. On the final stretch to the finish line, they do switch leads a few times to get the extra surge.
Getting Posse to pick up the canter proved to be a challenge as he had no desire to move forward, burned out from his days at the track. One trick I found to get the right lead was to ask on a straight line (since they break out of the gate on the right lead in a straight line). It took weeks to perfect, but now he gets the correct lead almost every time. If you can take what they already know and put it to use in the new setting, they will learn easily.
For some horses, life at the track can prove rather terrifying, which brings up a major part of every race, the starting gate. Think about it from the horse’s perspective: you are led up to a narrow metal stall with no way out, only a closed gate in front. You are on edge with adrenaline flowing as you know you are about to run. Blinkers keep you from seeing around you, only in front, as you listen to the confusion - metal gates clanging, horses snorting and stomping, and jockeys yelling. The assistant starter tugs on the lead to get you to walk forward, but you hesitate. The jockey goes for his whip, the sudden pain startling you forward. As you gather yourself inside the metal contraption, the gate is slammed behind you, causing you to jump forward, hitting your nose on the gate in front. For any claustrophobic horse, not keen on being closed in, this is the last place you would want to be.
My first OTTB Elmo had a mishap in the starting gates where he reared up and flipped over backwards, dislocating a pelvis and knocking out a tooth. Because of the incident he had some physical limitations after retiring from the track. On the other hand, my second OTTB Spicer was so traumatized that when I got her when she was three, she resented any human’s touch. As I brushed her, she was always ready to kick out. And she was so claustrophobic that getting her in a horse trailer was literally impossible. It took hours, weeks, and months to work with her alone as bystanders sent her into a panic. It was all worth it as three years from when I first tried to load her, she loaded like a professional into my custom-made trailer, rode inside quietly, and unloaded completely relaxed. Once I won her trust, she was willing to try hard for me. My once impossible loader now actually enjoys going for a ride!!
Each racehorse retires from the track with a different story. Time does take a toll on their legs and joints so they may be no longer able to run as fast, or they could be misunderstood and labeled as difficult. The trainer may say the same thing for each one “just not fast enough,” but in the end, the horse knows the truth. The horse will tell you everything if you take the time to listen.
Save a life, adopt an ex-racehorse!
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