On all the online discussion groups or forums that I frequent (ones dedicated to OTTBs), there are always people who have just gotten their first OTTB from the track, the horse has little to no training, and as it turns out, neither do many of the new owners. Now, while this isn’t ideal, it is a great learning opportunity for you new owners, if you are up for the task. There are lots of questions posted about this, including questions about bits, how to ride, etc. Therefore, this is the first in a series of posts about what I actually do in the retraining process. Now, this isn’t the only road to getting where you want to go. It is simply what has worked for me. So with this first post, I will start an overview of my process. Subsequent posts will cover each item in more depth.
- Let Down & The Foster Kid Syndrome
- Round Pen / Ground Work
- Teach to Stand at Mounting Block
- Releasing The Jaw & One Rein Stops
- Develop balance under saddle: Walk/Trot
- Develop balance under saddle: Canter
If you’re new to OTTBs, you’re probably wondering what “Let Down” is. The Let Down process is literally the time you give the horse to come down from being on the track. When a horse comes directly from the track, they are usually hugely muscled, getting lots of high energy feed to power that muscle, and they’re on a very regular work schedule or routine. They are also big, beautiful and full of themselves. Depending upon where they raced, they could also be full of steroids (or other muscle building drugs/supplements) that may be legal in the states that they ran in. Even if the horse came directly from a training facility instead of the track where they raced, this may still be the case. So think of “let down” as a detox time for the horse, both physically and mentally.
During this time, you want to work with your vet to monitor your horse’s health because many horses lose weight when they go through let down, especially horses that were run on steroids. If the muscle was built on steroids and the horse is no longer a) receiving the steroid or b) working the muscles, then they will lose them. Its OK. Later in the training process, you are going to build “good muscle” on your horse. Its just important to know this going in to new OTTB ownership. Because no matter how much you feed them, they’re still going to lose muscle. Only one of my 13 or so horses didn’t go through an ugly stage during their let down process. See the photos of Blazen Honey (aka Rose), who was one of my foster horses. The top photo was a couple days after she arrived — and less than a week after her last race. The bottom photo was 11 months later. Her let down was longer due to soundness issues. The muscle changes almost make her look like a completely different horse.
In addition to the loss of muscle, you’ll want to have your horse scoped for ulcers. Ulcers are a stress related condition in horses and almost all OTTBs come off the track with them. If you choose not to have your horse scoped, but you notice that your horse is having trouble putting weight on, or is sensitive on his/her sides, then it may be ulcers and they need to be treated. If you’ve ever had heartburn, you know what your horse is feeling like — and who wants to work or be pleasant with that kind of discomfort? No one!
So along with the physical detox they are going through, a lot of track horses need a mental break too. When they’re on the track, race horses are generally on a fairly strict routine. Their days start out early with morning workouts. There is hustle and bustle in the track barns. They know their routine. At your farm, even if it is a large boarding facility, its a new routine, new people, new everything. Your OTTB may have never been turned out to pasture before (or at least not since beginning race training as a 2 year old). They need time to adjust to their new lifestyle. Give them at least 6 weeks to just be a horse.
Another thing I have noticed with horses from the track, especially ones that had lots of owners, is that they have a bit of “foster kid syndrome” going on. That is to say, that it may take a while for them to truly bond with you. Not all of them will be like this. Some will be looking for you to be the leader. Others (the foster kids) will not be a loving. Its as though they’re leery of putting their hearts out there again for the fear that you’re just another person who has waltzed in to their lives and will soon waltz right out again. After all, if you’re not going to be there for the long haul, then why should they like you? This might seem like anthropomorphizing. Maybe it is. But it has been my experience that horses can be like this.
I like to remind myself that people get horses (usually) for long term relationships. Therefore, its OK to go slow. Go at the speed your horse is ready to go at. Some are ready to work sooner than others. Spending time with them on ground doing ground work, grooming and loving on them (even if they don’t love you back right away) is the best way to ensure that the next steps to retraining your horse are going to lead to creating that long term partnership as well as creating a space where they can show you how much heart they really have.