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Is an Off-Track Thoroughbred Right for You?
Thoroughbred racehorses are athletic, powerful, awe-inspiring animals. They are the superstars and supermodels of the equine world- tall, thin and beautiful. It's no wonder that many people consider purchasing a Thorougbred off the track who failed as a racehorse. Thoroughbreds also tend to be hot-blooded, highly sensitive animals. If you're thinking about purchasing an ex-racehorse, here are some things to consider.
First, off-track Thorougbreds (OTTB's) have a reputation for being nuts. This is sometimes, but not always and not even mostly true. An OTTB's temperament will depend on several factors. Some horses are naturally quieter and more mellow than others, and this is true even with a hot-blooded breed like Thoroughbreds. In fact, mellow horses rarely make good racehorses because they don't have the competitive drive that fuels the winners. An OTTB's laid-back attitute may be the reason he failed at the track, but the same reason he could excel as a pleasure horse. Don't let the breed reputation turn you off to a horse who may be a diamond in the rough.
Second, racehorses don't know how to do anything but race. They are not taught ground manners (how not to walk on top of you). They are not taught to stand still while being mounted. They are not taught to walk and trot calmly. They are only taught to burst out of a chute at top speed and to run like the wind until they're told to stop. It will be your job to teach your OTTB a completely new way of doing business. You have to teach him that it's okay to go slow, that you actually prefer it! Most OTTB's are okay with this. "Hey, I don't have to sprint all the time? Okay, cool!"
Third, racehorses at the track are not pets. Someone invested a lot of money in a racehorse and was hoping to strike it rich. Racehorses have a job to do and they know it. The good news for you is that when you slap a saddle on your OTTB, he knows it's time to go to work. Thoroughbreds are famous for having heart. They understand that you want something specific from them and they try their heart out to give you what you want. Many, many OTTB's have had extremely successful careers after failing as racehorses. They learn to love their new jobs and enjoy their new lives as pleasure and sport horses.
Next, horses at the track live very differently from most stabled horses. As I mentioned before, someone paid a lot of money for the horse and many racehorses are valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Their owners do not want to risk an injury, so they spend most of their time safely tucked away in their stalls. They are taken out for exercise, but most are not turned out into a pasture to graze with their friends. Because of this, many OTTB's need to take some time off after they leave the track to learn how to be a horse. They have to learn how to interact with other horses in a herd/ pasture setting. It's good to give an OTTB some time off to rest his mind and get used to his new life. He's worked his whole life; he deserves a little R & R!
Additionally, racehorses are ridden very differently from pleasure and sport horses. Their jockeys mount quickly while the horse is being walked to the track. They are not asked to stand still. Jockeys ride with a very short stirrup that allows them to get up off the horse's back and balance themselves. This gives the rider a lighter feel and allows the horse more freedom to run like the wind. Because the jockey's feet are up so high, an OTTB may not be used to leg pressure on his sides. You may have to spend some time getting him accustomed to the way you will ride him as a sport horse.
Another interesting fact about racehorses is that they are used to being what horse people call "heavy on the forehand." When they run, they throw themselves forward as fast as they can and use the pressure of the bit and the reins to balance themselves. Imagine I put a thick piece of soft rope around your midsection, stood behind you holding both ends and told you to run as fast as you can. You would find that you could lean your upper body far forward and use its momentum because I'm supporting your midsection by holding the rope. You would be "balancing on my hands," which is exactly what racehorses do. The jockeys are constantly giving and taking with the reins to help the horse balance himself. Sport horses, on the other hand, are ridden with steady contact between the rider's hands and the bit. Some ex-racehorses resist this steady contact and have to learn slowly how to accept it.
Finally, if you want a lot of horse for a little bit of money, an OTTB just may be the horse for you. You can get an OTTB straight off the track with no training for an extremely low price considering what an athletic and versatile horse he is. However, you absolutely must be prepared to do the work of re-training, or hire someone who can help you. You are getting the raw material of incredible potential. With some tenacity and time, you can help a failed racehorse begin a new career!