The Plight of the OTTB
My one of many examples of how these horses slip through the cracks.
“Look! I bet that is a Thoroughbred!” I almost shouted as I grabbed my husband’s arm and started dragging him to the farthest pen across the rows of sale horses.
He rolled his eyes and stated that he supposed we would soon own it.
“Let’s check and see if it has a tattoo!” As I climb into the pen of the largest horse I had seen in a long time I was met halfway as if the horse was willing me to look at his lip.
My husband knows me well and already had his pen at the ready to write down whatever numbers I may read off to him. Luckily this giant beast had an easily readable tattoo and with the help of my iPhone and the Jockey Club’s online tattoo search we quickly knew his name, age and his race record. A little more googling and I started to back track where this mammoth came from.
I have a soft spot for off the track thoroughbreds and feel they are some of the most under appreciated horses we can buy as prospects. I really wanted to know how a 17.2 hand stunner like himself ended up in a podunk horse sale in tiny town, Montana. I usually have to travel out of state to find off the track horses. But either way I knew we would go home with that horse. Sadly most of the horses that come to this sale end up being sold to slaughter simply for lack of buyers. So for a whopping $525.00 my husband and I owned a thoroughbred named “River Rafting”. (I thought that was appropriate for a Montana resident)
I couldn’t wait to get home and work with my big beastie. I was hoping that at 8 years old, he was sound, healthy and ready to put in training for 3 day eventing. I have owned dozens of off the track horses over the years and as a professional trainer, feel very comfortable working with them.
The horse loaded easily into my friend’s trailer (because of course I was not going there to buy anything, so why bring a trailer) and we headed for home. I could hardly contain my excitement.
I started making phone calls and luckily touched base with several people that used to own him or knew of him. He had been passed around a lot. He went from the track (only 2 races), to a broker, to a teenager that wasn’t ready for a huge, off the track horse, to a rescue, then to a woman who had trouble understanding how off the track horses think, to a lady that was supposed to give him a job, to another young lady that thought he would be her forever horse to a sale in Montana and currently in my paddock. The more I tracked his story the more heart broken I started to feel for this horse. In between talking to people and leaving messages I put shoes on his sensitive feet, gave him hugs and saddled him up. I had several phenomenal rides on him. He knew his leads, could round up and collect well and drive from behind. He jumps like a dream and has a trot to die for. He was everything I hoped he would be when I first saw him towering above the rest of the sale horses that day.
Which brings me to my concern with our horse industry and the too often unexplored group of horses off the racetracks. These are amazing horses, with tons of potential, are used to noise, traffic, being ridden at all gaits and even know flying lead changes. However they also come across to the average rider as naughty, hot, unruly and aggressive.
As I researched this horse I learned that his first real owner was way too young and inexperienced to handle him. He however received some excellent training from the barn owner that is a well known professional and three time Rolex competitor. She said he had “tremendous” potential but never knew what happened to him when the girl left. According to the rescue that had him next, he was turned over because he was not going to be competitive, but reading between the lines that was just the excuse to get rid of him. He then was ridden by some wonderful young ladies that knew what they were doing and he excelled in his training. He then went to another lady that for a year struggled with his (according to her) bad behavior, aggressive attitude, lack of forward motion and inability to excel under many of the professionals she hired. As I sat and listened I could hardly believe we were discussing the same horse.
This is truly an example of what is wrong with our off the track horse industry. Everyone has good intentions but not the knowledge to truly do what is right by these horses. Had I not been at that horse sale this sound, healthy, big, beautiful, athletic animal would be headed to Canada to be offered up as food in Europe. What did he ever do to deserve such a fate? Why did he slip through the cracks? How could he have been so blatantly misunderstood? And lastly is it really the racing industry that lets these horses slip through the cracks, or the many well intentioned but undereducated that give up after the fact?
The problem as I see it and have observed over the years is that everyone wants one but not just anyone can understand them and accept them for who they are. When they first come off the track they know only what was done while there. They are saddled in a stall, they are not tied up, they don’t stand still while someone gets on, (the rider is hoisted on as they walk to the track), after they work, they are hooked to a hot walker and don’t stand around. They are hosed off more than brushed off, put back in the stall and fed all the time. With this comes great things. We know they are broke to ride in a large open area, they don’t spook from much, they are handled daily, used to noise and commotion. But they have no manners, not because they are bad, but because they simply don’t know any better. They are an energetic breed, they don’t like to be cooped up with no exercise, but yet are often stall babies that take a long time to adapt to a pasture herd, have a high metabolism that requires a lot of food compared to your average Morgan or Quarter Horse and they often are body sore and have thin soles. They need shoes, (at least for awhile) massage, patience, retraining to carry themselves round and balanced and they need a brave, quiet, understanding and loving trainer. They will work themselves into the ground for you, but you must respect their needs.
From all my research into this horse it sounds like he lived a life without shoes, but was expected to work regardless of his foot soreness, he was expected to live in a small paddock, but yet was expected to stand quietly. He was supposed to love and respect all people even though he didn’t have one of his own. This is a big horse that wants to please, but his riders didn’t know how to ask for it so claimed he was badly trained, aggressive, dangerous, unwilling to listen. When he was hauled to Montana he felt displaced and scared and after four days of pacing the fence and whinnying was brought to a horse sale. I can go on and on about other OTTB’s that have been mishandled and misunderstood. I’ve bought a few back over the years. It always starts with a professional trainer that does some not so professional things. Although I want to encourage all people to give these horses a chance, I also want all people to be aware that they are not “normal” projects and your A,B,C; 1,2,3 horse training videos won’t get you by. But if you can learn from them, get help from people that know OTTB horses you will have a workaholic that will never quit you.
It’s easy for me to blame the racing industry for these cast offs and the 10,000 OTTB’s that go to slaughter every year. But that is less than 10% of slaughter horses. (according to a 2011 statistic). So they are not the only industry mass producing throw aways. Many owners and trainers try to rehome their horses to trainers and riders willing to give them a chance. I see as many OTTB’s falling through the cracks AFTER they were “safely” rehomed as I do horses that go straight to slaughter from the tracks. Some tracks have anti kill rules in place, in an attempt to make it more difficult to sell to slaughter and easier to rehome them with willing people. However the Nebraska tracks still allow the kill buyer to park right on track property and collect horses for cash. Those are the tracks I go to when my pastures are feeling empty. I don’t have a wonderful answer. Everyone on FB does, one being buy back guarantees. Because of course that is legally binding (insert sarcasm). This horse of mine had no less than three buyback guarantees, that were broken. Our industry needs more compassion, more knowledge and a better system of retraining and rehoming our off the track horses. A horse will never lie and he will always communicate, but one must know how to listen. As sad as this story could have ended he landed in my lap for a reason and I’m looking forward to many competitions and adventures with him.
I encourage anyone interested in OTTB’s to look into the Retired Racehorse Project. It is a wealth of combined info and networking options with OTTB professionals. I hope someday to compete in one of their competitions. Their distance from me is truly an issue, but maybe someday. https://www.retiredracehorseproject.org/