Wednesday, January 25, 2012

And They’re Off! Retraining The Ex-Racehorse

These days, a very common means of acquiring an inexpensive horse is to get yourself what we commonly refer to as an "OTTB" (which stands for Off Track Thoroughbred racehorse). Sure, people have been taking these horses and giving them a second career for ages, but in a poor economy there are both more horses in need of being moved into new homes off the racetrack and fewer people who can afford to buy a more expensive already trained (or in this case re-trained) horse.

Some of you may not know that as a general rule, racehorses are on an extremely high grain diet, which along with being in peak condition after coming off the track and expecting the same conditions in his life that he's always known can make things a challenge. At least these days most racehorses aren't being pumped full of anabolic steroids, because they're not allowed on the racetrack anymore, though there could easily be high energy feeds as well as other drugs in their systems. A majority of horses that come off the track have suffered some sort of career ending injury, and you can bet it's been treated with something. With those OTTB's I've dealt with, I prefer to give them a good 60 days to "let down" and learn how to be a normal horse. During this time, all I'm going to be giving them is high quality hay and perhaps a low starch, low carb ration mixed with probiotics.

It's always a good idea to have your veterinarian thoroughly check the horse out and give you a game plan to ensure the horse is in good health as well as to make note of any physical issues or injuries. Ulcers are quite common in many racehorses as well, which can easily be diagnosed by your veterinarian. Okay, sometimes not so easily...however keeping your eyes open as to the symptoms of an ulcer horse and treating a horse with such symptoms can go a long ways toward making him healthy and happy. If it turns out he doesn't have ulcers after all, the treatments for that condition won't hurt him.

Supposing, for the sake of this article, the horse you've recently taken in off the racetrack is healthy and sound, you'll need to develop a work plan to teach him how to go along with his new routine. Contrary to popular belief, my experience with OTTB's has largely been they come around amazingly quickly and it really is not all that difficult to get them moved into other jobs. By nature they're extremely athletic and most of them have an exceptionally strong work ethic. One of the places I start with a horse fresh off the racetrack is to teach them how to crosstie. What I've found is that most of them have no idea how the process works and they tend to be confused. I'll approach this training essentially the same as I do with teaching babies how to tie in the first place.

Another often perplexing and difficult thing you will have to deal with when taking one of these horses off the track is leading. Starting at the beginning with basic "whoa" lessons and training on the leadline, just like with tying, you can avoid most issues. Many former racehorses have never really been taught to respect their handler's space and tend to crowd. This does not need to be made into a major ordeal, just simple common sense and methodical training, again just like a baby. All of your ground work will essentially be like starting fresh from scratch, only easier because they have had a considerable amount of training already and they do know what it's like to have a rider on their backs.

Progressing along, I want to accustom the horse to training on the longeline, in a bitting rig, in longlines and other basic ground work. We've also found over the years that having small obstacles to negotiate (such as ground poles to walk over and so forth) helps these horses immensely with understanding where their feet are and basic body control that's accomplished with most two and three year old pleasure, show or trail horses. I like to use such training as ground work (and later under saddle work) for all horses. Even the older already trained or finished horses go back to ground work on occasion.

I always re-start the off track horses identically to every other horse with very few exceptions. Obviously, they need to get used  to a much heavier saddle  than they've ever carried (particularly because I get on them for the first couple of weeks in a Western saddle until they're going forward confidently, and sometimes regularly thereafter). Mounting is another issue that hopefully won't become problematic. To diffuse most situations which can arise with mounting one of these horses, I make sure they're trained to stand at a mounting block before ever thinking about getting on, because usually I don't have someone handy to boost me into the saddle as the horse will be expecting.

Using a mounting block and training a horse to stand next to one is not difficult either, but like any type of training we do, patience is a must. You should have already gone over "whoa" training and the horse should fully understand that word means STOP NOW, cease all movement and plant your feet! Don't make a big deal out of any mis-step, go back and repeat each exercise or concept until the horse cooperates every time. Just like with starting a baby for the first time, I like to make sure to spend some time in one stirrup, 'hanging' off the side of the horse, and I repeat this on both sides. Eventually, you will be able to mount up from the ground with no problem. Since many (if not most) racehorses, at least in my experience, want to walk or even trot off as soon as you mount up, this is an area you'll want to spend a good deal of extra time on.

I always use a round pen or small enclosed area to get on any horse for the first time in training, if you don't have access to a round pen, you can use an uncovered 24x24 pipe paddock...just don't ride under a shelter (which can be hazardous to your health)! This way, with a former racehorse, I don't worry about being ponied or led ~ the horse knows what being ridden means and they understand how to follow the fence. Staying out of the horse's face is vitally important, you can retrain them to accept and understand contact in time. First rides on an off track horse for me usually are walking, with a little bit of "follow your face" in circles using a leading rein with plenty of slack on the off side of your turn.

These horses have been taught to take hold of the bit as opposed to yielding to it, so take the time to help them slowly learn what it means to give. Voluminous praise when he does something right, and if you prefer, a treat (though I'm still not the most keen person on treat training) will go a long ways toward helping him understand what you want and comply with your requests in a relaxed manner. Soon your ex-racer will be a willing partner.

Another thing your retired racehorse must become accustomed to is your legs against his sides as well as  your seat in the saddle. Straightness will come later on, using only light contact with your legs and concentrating on getting the horse to relax is the task at hand for these early rides. By that I mean you'll probably spend most of your time at this stage bending the horse, allowing him to stretch down (which they learn quickly to enjoy) and if he starts to get nervous or act like he's going to launch into a familiar gallop, taking a cross hold until he yields. As long as you stay consistent and don't let his nerves get to you, you'll both be fine.

One of the last tests you'll need to make sure the ex-racehorse passes is being ridden with other horses, first in the arena and later on, if you desire, on the trail. Being naturally socialized animals who prefer to live in the company of other horses, most of them adjust easily and don't revert to their prior training (catch the other horse, pass the other horse) as long as you make it easy for them to do the right thing and listen to you. My favorite means of getting them out with others is to have the quietest horse in the barn as their riding partner, the horse that nothing bothers, nothing upsets and does not spook.

Of course, if you are a novice or newbie horse owner, I DO NOT suggest getting a former racehorse. While these horses are a ton of fun, be sure you are fully prepared for the task at hand. Whether in the show ring or going down the trail, you'll be sure to have the time of your life.


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