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Question of the Week: Relax the Ex-Racehorse

How do I help my Thoroughbred relax under saddle?

15-Mar-11

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Q: I just started working with a Thoroughbred recently home from the track. I’m having a hard time getting him to relax under saddle, go on the bit without pulling, and stay at a slow pace. I called his former owner, who was also his trainer at the track, and he reminded me that race horses lean on the bit and go faster when you pull back on the reins. Do you have any suggestions on how to re-start an ex-racer?

A: Race horses lean on the bit for leverage and jockeys rate a horse’s speed by creating a brace with the reins across the horse’s neck. Nonetheless, race horses still understand the basics of turning, stopping and slowing down via rein cues, some more than others. It often depends on the horse’s temperament (some are naturally more laidback) and how much sophisticated training they received back at the farm. Once you’ve worked with a few OTTBs (off the track Thoroughbreds) you’ll devise your own plan on how to re-school one and realize it’s not that difficult. That’s why working alongside a professional or knowledgeable amateur who’s experienced with OTTBs would be valuable in your situation. But here are a few suggestions to help get you started.

First, you have to give your OTTB plenty of time to readjust his way of thinking. He needs at least a month or more to hang out and see that life away from the track moves at a slower pace. Make sure he has plenty of turn-out time, too. Teach him to longe in both directions and introduce voice commands.

As for your work under saddle, use tack an OTTB is familiar with. Don’t rush into stronger bits and draw reins to force him to go slower and in a show horse frame. While some riders prefer a lightweight western saddle and a smooth loose-ring snaffle combined with a training fork for these early stages, you may be more comfortable in an English saddle, a simple snaffle and a running martingale. Just make sure your equipment is adjusted properly. Then start with your OTTB just like any other green horse.

Work on suppling him and getting him to bend laterally by doing lots of circles. As he tips his nose and bends his neck to turn, soften your contact on your inside rein as a reward. You’ll probably discover that he turns better to the left than to the right, as that’s the direction of tracks in North America. He’ll become more ambidextrous with time.

When you trot, use plenty of half-halts to slow him, and then soften your contact when he complies, even if it’s just for a few strides. Never resort to just hanging on his mouth and pulling; that won’t get you anything other than a fast, tense Thoroughbred. Again, make big, loopy circles to encourage him to soften through his front end and body and to accept the bit as a means of communication, not as a tool to lean on. Don’t try to canter until you have the ability to adjust his pace at the trot. As your schooling progresses, his head will begin to drop and he’ll start reaching for the bit on his own. Truly, if you’re patient and consistent, your horse will acclimate to his new career nicely.

--Cindy Hale

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Reader Comments

Kellin    Someplace, MD

7/6/2017 5:44:58 PM

This was really helpful as just last week I was riding an OTTB in a lesson and had very little clue the best way to communicate with him (I hadn't ridden him in a while so we were out of sync). I had no clue that he had been leaning on the bit the whole time but boy oh boy I could tell when I dismounted and relaxed my shoulders.

Horse Lover    Chicago, IL

3/20/2011 9:23:48 AM

Interesting article. Good advice for non-race horses, too.

Grey    Ames, IA

3/19/2011 7:39:43 PM

A very important part of owning an OTTB is to give them a good long time to detox. Racehorses are fed huge amounts of grain as well as "cocktails" to give them a racing edge, and all of that doesn't just go away within a week or two.

Horselover    Somewhere, DC

3/15/2011 2:26:10 PM

Thanks for the great tips.

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