Things you need to know before riding a fresh off the track Thoroughbred

 

Things you need to know before riding a fresh off the track Thoroughbred

Each year, lots of racing thoroughbreds find their way into new homes and new careers. There are two schools of thought when a horse steps off the racetrack: turn ’em out, or get on with riding

Prior to my experience in the Thoroughbred industry, I was a member of the “turn ’em out” crowd. I figured it would be best for the horse to “detox” and enjoy a month or more of turnout, relaxing and just being a horse. I assumed all the horse knew was running, and I wanted to put some distance (time) between that association before I stepped aboard and taught him his new job. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and it works well for many horses

Changed perspective
However, my perspective changed when I became neck-deep in the Thoroughbred world. As part of my job, I handled racehorses (not retired, not “ex”) at the farm, who would eventually go back to the track. Maybe they were there for rehab after an injury, or for a short layover period. Nonetheless, as resident rider it was my job to get (or keep) them fit enough to go back to training

As such, I found myself on some moderately expensive, well-bred young animals who needed exercise. I had no training track at the farm– I had an outdoor arena with jumps, a big unfenced field, paddocks, and cow pastures. In other words, what you would have at any sport horse facility. After a few minutes in an enclosed area (to make sure they weren’t totally crazy) I often took them straight out to the field for a hack. We did trots and canters, building up to slow gallops in the field. Sometimes I rode in an exercise saddle, but I also used my everyday jump saddle too. They didn’t really seem to notice a difference

Track-trained horses are not lunatics and they know the basics
By and large, these track-trained horses were not monsters at all. They knew how to walk, trot, and canter, and how to change leads. They were controllable in open spaces, in a snaffle, perhaps with a martingale. They hacked out, often on the buckle. I didn’t expect them to perform dressage maneuvers– of course they weren’t taught to leg-yield, or shoulder-in, or any of that. But they knew how to go forward, accept the bridle, and steer from your weight. Half-halts were somewhat sketchy, but when I needed brakes I had them. I occasionally walked or trotted them over poles on the ground, and opened gates to hack out in the cow fields

What it taught me was that these horses are not so radically “different” after all. A horse can come off the track, have a few days off, and I can be riding him out in the fields immediately. They aren’t all lunatic runaways, and they don’t expect to gallop everywhere, all the time. They adjust to farm life pretty quickly, but they are used to having a job to do and many of them enjoy that

OTTBs thrive on work
That experience, combined with breaking babies for the track and understanding how they are started, has led me to scrap the general notion of “turn them out and leave them alone.” While I’m a big believer in daily turnout, most OTTBs thrive on work, so I don’t put off that first ride off the track. Coming right out of training, they may be a little body sore, but I like to take advantage of their fitness and work ethic. Putting them out to pasture can lose a lot of that condition, and some of them miss the attention work brings… or they may learn to like retired life just a bit too much!

When the horse gets to my farm, I give him a couple days to adjust. New place, new feed, new activity, and new friends. I turn them out first in a small paddock so they don’t run themselves silly. Once the newness wears off– it could be an hour, a day, or a week– I turn them out into a bigger paddock with a quiet buddy. When the horse seems relaxed in his new environment, usually after a couple days, we go for our first ride

 

 

First ride is for me to learn
My goal for the first ride: to learn about the horse. I’m not out to teach him or “train” him anything. I want to find out what he knows, and how he goes. I start in an enclosed area for safety, with someone available to hold him when I get on if needed. If he seems especially “up” I might lunge him first (though know that lunging skills are very hit-or-miss with OTTBs). Is he nervous or relaxed when I get on? If he wants to trot right away, I let him. Forcing them to walk too long in the beginning can instigate a fight– something I’d rather avoid at this point

I try to keep a soft contact, just enough to encourage the horse to maintain a rhythm and not get too quick (most of them will anyway, don’t worry about fixing it today). I’ll trot a few big circles each direction, noting how the horse feels: wiggly, or stiff? Worse to the right, or to the left? Falling in on the shoulder, or bulging out? I might instinctively try to correct this with my leg, but again I’m not expecting much response…if the horse tries to listen to my lateral leg pressure, so much the better

Canter will need some work
The first canter can be awkward. You may or may not get the proper lead, and he will likely be very unbalanced on a circle so try to stay on a straight line or gentle curve. He’ll probably run into the transition, falling into canter from a fast trot. If he doesn’t get it within 4-5 strides, slow down, rebalance, circle and ask again. Change up how you ask: stronger outside leg back, or more inside leg, or push with your inside seat a little, or maybe just stay in two-point position and kiss to him. The idea is to get him cantering, and praise him for doing so. Your goal is to evaluate the gait, not fix it today

How is the canter? You should probably stay off his back in two-point, for his understanding and comfort. It will probably be faster than you like, but resist the urge to tense up and pull against him. Stay relaxed, keep your hands low, and see if he relaxes. (It will still feel fast to you, but to HIM, it will be slow…go with what he knows.) Is he well-balanced, or leaning on his forehand? How badly does he fall in with his shoulder? Does he listen (at all) to a half-halt? Take and give with your reins to slow down, and use circles to spiral to the trot if necessary. If he feels quite unbalanced, trot sooner rather than later

Give him a pat, a brief walk break, and then try to canter the other way. You’ll find one lead is probably much harder than the other. Many OTTBs are more supple to the left, and stiffer to the right, thus finding the left lead easier. However, others are taught to break (from the gate) on the right lead always, and so find picking up the left lead difficult. It depends on the horse, so don’t go into it with any concrete expectations. If you can’t get the proper lead after three tries (make sure you aren’t leaning with your body!), don’t fuss about it. Maybe I’ll let him canter on the wrong lead, and see if he’ll switch through the turn. If not, just quietly come to the trot and worry about it some other day

If the horse feels confident and good-minded, I like to challenge him with a few simple, but new things. I’ll ask him to walk over poles, open a gate, or go for a short hack down the road. It’s no big deal if he balks at first or gets confused– what I’m observing is how does he handle this new task? How does his mind function? Does he need time to figure things out, is he easily frustrated, or does he get it right away? Does he want to work with me to solve it, or is he more independent? Or does he say “Screw you” and forget it? You never want to push a horse too hard in these early rides and you should always end on a good note

Understand your horse and tailor the training program
Once you have an idea of how your new horse thinks and feels, you can tailor your training program to suit him best. After that initial evaluation, I usually back off and work on the basics of rhythm, relaxation, and tempo at the walk and trot. When the fundamentals are in place, the horse can progress at his own pace and will learn to enjoy his new career

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