Pat Dale is a lifelong horsewoman from Conowingo, Maryland. Her business, Three Plain Bays, buys and sells Thoroughbred horses off the track; she has supplied horses to everyone from Olympic team riders to backyard trail enthusiasts.

OTTB’s: A Cautionary Tale, Guest Opinion By Pat Dale (as told to Holly Covey)

Recently, I had a conversation with people who were connected to a lovely young OTTB (“off-track Thoroughbred”) I had acquired off the track for re-training and re-sale.

They called to discuss the possibility of the horse becoming their young teenage daughter’s riding horse. She had been taking lessons for a while, and wanted her own horse to ride and jump, and was tired of riding a school horse not her own. They were in a position to afford a horse for her, and began their search by calling me about the young horse they knew I was re-training.

To give some background, the horse was a huge 4-year-old who was well-handled in his race career, which means he was taken care of properly and taught manners and conditioned carefully to avoid injury. He was well-broken under saddle for a recent off-track horse and had no vices, and was very pretty. He was working nicely under saddle for us, and adapting well in his new environment.  From his videos and pictures, there was no question he was a beautiful horse – a total ‘tween heart-throb! We’ve all been kids who were horse crazy, haven’t we? It’s OK to dream about having a wonderful horse. But….

I explained that while he is all of that, he also has huge gaits, is still figuring out how to balance himself on the flat, and will jump a green rider right out of the tack. Factor in keeping him at a boarding barn with little to no turn out, the young rider’s inability to commit to at least a 5-to-6 days-a-week schedule to exercise and care for him, and the financial impact to pay someone else to exercise and train the horse – and you’ve got what is going to equal a recipe for disaster.

Her trainer completely agreed, and felt leasing a school horse for exclusive use for a trial period would be a much more suitable introduction to horse ownership than purchasing a raw, green, big OTTB, no matter how beautiful and trendy it might be to own an off-track Thoroughbred.

Here’s a few of the wrong things with this young girl owning this horse.

  • First, the horse wasn’t ready for a young rider who might be still balancing by using her hands, or unsteady with her seat. One “catch the balance” moment as he might stop or spook to look at something new in her arena, and off she’d go. And 17 hands is a LONG way to fall.
  • A young horse off the track needs exercise, turnout, careful attention to his physical well-being; a four year old is still a baby horse, growing up, developing muscle, balance, and ability. They need careful turnout and exercise. A commercial equitation stable is often a wonderful place to learn to ride and love horses, but may not be the best place for a young horse just starting a sport horse career, and may not fit in with the older, quiet, well trained horses there.
  • A young horse of this size has a HUGE canter and would have trouble staying balanced because he’s not developed the musculature to hold himself in steady gaits, for instance. A young teenager with an intermediate level riding experience might have difficulty staying with a horse like this, even just cantering through a corner.
  • If there is hesitancy, discomfort, and loss of confidence, this could deeply affect the training and future of the horse, and the happiness, as well as the safety, of this child. Young Thoroughbreds off the track do not normally make good school horses! Those of us with lots of years of experience in re-training OTTB’s inherently know this, but are finding ourselves explaining this more frequently recently.

So here’s the heart of this discussion. With the recent explosion of retired racehorse “makeovers”, publicity projects, and big expo “challenges”, we are seeing a renewing of appreciation for the Thoroughbred horse, and a rebirth of recognition for this breed as an ultimate sport horse.

Just like they are saying, “60 is the new 40”, the OTTB is the new “WB” (warmblood). Our economic climate has made the affordability of off-track Thoroughbreds a hot commodity. Those who study Thoroughbred pedigrees are dusting off the past Thoroughbred performers of note, offering pedigree advice, chat rooms and bulletin boards are buzzing with TB talk. It’s a steamroller of interest that shows no sign of abating.

While some sports, like eventing, have really never lost their love for the OTTB, we are now seeing a welcoming trend of the Thoroughbred back in the show hunter rings, and judging standards seem to be changing to appreciate this horse. We now have recognition, associations, and prizes aimed specifically at the OTTB, and for those of us who have been singing the praises of the breed most of our lives, it’s about time. We’re ecstatic!

But with this, there should also be a clear awareness: it takes professional trainers and people with experience re-starting these horses to develop a good versatile horse that is safe to ride and compete. The OTTB is not for everyone and not every OTTB is going to make that transition from race horse to sports horse.

Affordability does not mean that when you get the horse home your upkeep expenses will be less, or you can hurry up the training. Just because he was a failure at going fast enough to win a race, for instance, doesn’t mean he’ll be an instant slowpoke in the lesson barn. The transition from 23 hours a day in a 12×12 boxstall to daily turn-out, a totally different schedule and feed, plus a myriad of life style changes is immense for the horse. In many cases, horses off the track need time to heal from injuries sustained while racing, or simply need to de-stress from the tightly wound racing world. Only an experienced trainer is going to know when such horses are ready to start re-training, and once in the saddle, how much to ask, and when.

Nice Guy one year off the track is now developing carrying muscle in his hindquarters for a sport horse career and recently attended his first dressage show. Training and development take time!

Nice Guy one year off the track is now developing carrying muscle in his hindquarters for a sport horse career and recently attended his first dressage show. Training and development take time!

We all see the daily publicizing of re-homing programs, re-trainers and rescues flooding the market and social media with beautiful pictures of OTTB’s being ridden in a ring, jumping cross rails, and going for trail rides only a few days off the track. We watch, read, attend venues, follow blogs and leave with a warm glow of “I can do this”.

There is no dispute from me that the OTTB is one of the most versatile horses a person can buy at an affordable price. For the experienced rider and horse person, they are a still a fantastic option. But for a novice looking for an affordable horse, this new paradigm has potential for disaster. As a seller, I shouldn’t be telling you this – but I think for the industry’s own good we do have to be responsible and careful who we sell these horses to. I know there are horror stories out there and for the horse’s sakes we need to educate our potential buyers.

Here’s some basic advice if you’re certain an OTTB is for you.

For the first-time buyer, going to the race track: 

It is an absolute necessity to speak with your vet and trainer as well as read the very complete and detailed information available from websites like C.A.N.T.E.R.,  (who also have volunteers available to meet with you and help you view suitable horses.) It is money well spent to seek out and pay someone with experience to go with you, and to act as a liason for the pre-purchase examination you should have done on any serious prospect. If there are questions that arise at the vetting, ask your vet to review the pre-purchase results before committing to a purchase.  Make yourself familiar with terms like “bleeder”, “pinfiring”, “tie-back”, and “osselets”, all of which are common conditions of most experienced racehorses. Those are just a few pieces of advice that anyone purchasing a horse off the track should adhere to.

With this avalanche of star prospects, shoppers should seek out and take advice from recognized, knowledgeable professionals with a proven track record in re-starting, training, and competing the off-track Thoroughbred. They’re out there – they’ve been around a while – they aren’t always advertising or chatting on the bulletin boards, but they are your first, best source of information. Seek them out by word of mouth, or watch how they ride and school young and green horses at the Thoroughbred horse shows or at their home barns. We love to talk about our horses and that’s where it should start – an honest, curious discussion with smart people who will answer your questions and guide you to a successful purchase of what we hope will be a life-long friend and partner to you.

We want to see everyone enjoying their Thoroughbred horse, and want to see every Thoroughbred off the track going to a loving, educated owner who cares about their well-being and knows how to best manage the horse’s education, care, and handling. But the fact remains that the very breed qualities these horses have had ingrained for centuries – to produce speed – can make them difficult for the young rider, the green horse person, the inexperienced horse owner. Thoroughbreds can be nervous, sensitive, spooky, and difficult. The wonderful videos, and beautiful photos, and greatly positive descriptions of OTTB’s for sale on the internet have the potential to get someone seriously hurt – or killed. We have to be responsible – all of us.

There is nothing on earth greater than the partnership between a rider and a Thoroughbred, in my opinion. I also know there are some lovely horses out there just waiting for the right home, a lot of diamonds to be mined. Being well informed and prepared for OTTB ownership benefits all of us and most of all, the horses – and that is the most important reason.

Pat

I thought this was particularly relevant with the outgrowth of the Thoroughbred horse shows. Those of us who love and know Thoroughbreds also know they aren’t for every rider. Thanks, Pat! – Holly Covey