Ex-racehorses can have successful careers in another discipline or as a pleasure horse. Commonly referred to as OTTBs -- for "off-the-track thoroughbreds" -- these horses may have retired from a successful or semi-successful racing career; may show no interest in or talent for racing; or have an injury that makes them unsuitable for racing but still able to perform in another sport or be used for lighter riding. Understanding racehorse training will help you in your retraining efforts.
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Ask the horse's current owner or trainer about the horse's training. Some thoroughbred racehorses are trained to race -- period. Other racing trainers and racehorse owners understand that racing is usually a short-term career, and train their horses to be ridden, not just raced. The difference can be important as you begin retraining, such as whether your horse is used to having a rider's full weight at the trot and canter, instead of a fast posting trot or two-point position of a jockey.
Teach your horse to stand for mounting. Laura Whitfield, trainer and owner of Poseidon Sport Horses in Hutto, Texas, notes that OTTBs are used to being "mounted on the fly." Says Whitfield: "You must consistently teach them to stand for mounting from the ground or using a mounting block. This can take patience, but if you cannot safely mount your horse, you need to work on it until you can." Whitfield adds that in the early stages of the training, she asks the horse to walk off fairly promptly after mounting, but then builds on that until she can walk up to the mounting block, have the horse swing into the proper position, and then stand, balanced and immobile, until asked to move.
Expose your horse to as many different "common" things as possible. One of the advantages of training ex-racehorses is that they have already been exposed to a lot of activity, such as noise and crowds. What they may not be used to are some of the things that horses on a typical farm might see, such as cows and other animals. Your ex-racehorse may be more comfortable at a busy horse show than on a quiet, country trail. Plan as many outings in different settings as possible to help his physical and mental states, while building trust and confidence.
Start riding your horse at the walk with a soft hand. Practice regulating his pace with soft half-halts and straightening your shoulders back to slow him. Pulling back on the reins with your hands should be your last cue for him to slow or stop and if you do pull, release quickly -- racehorses are used to grabbing the bit against the jockey's hands and running. When the pressure on their mouth is released, they slow down and jig instead of walk. You need to help him adjust to a softer feel and slower paces.
Build muscle at the walk and trot. Not only does this help you two establish a relationship, but you do not want him to be back-sore, which is common for ex-racehorses. They are not accustomed to a lot of riding on their backs, so starting out with a sitting trot and canter will be difficult and unfair. This slower training also allows your horse to understand mentally that when you get up in your two-point position at the canter, he should not race. Do as much of this early on with other horses in the arena if possible, so he knows that he does not have to compete against them.
Tips and warnings
- Thoroughbreds are wonderful, sensitive horses. If you are nervous and fearful, they will sense it, and their natural instinct is to flee from fear. Take as much time as needed to develop a relationship with your horse on the ground. If you are still nervous, have an experienced friend or trainer get on him first, and then hold the horse while you get on, with your friend leading you. Never rush your training.
- To avoid pain-related issues when you first bring your thoroughbred ex-racehorse home, have him checked and adjusted by a chiropractor. This can prevent bolting and bucking from pain. Also have your equine dentist or veterinarian check his teeth before riding for the first time.
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