What is really required for successfully retraining OTTBs (off-the-track-thoroughbreds)? Knowledge. Experience. Skillful horsemanship. Ex-racehorses have a unique temperament, training background and physicality when compared to the average show horse or pasture pet. Even the horses that held short careers have had extensive athletic training and are experienced with disciplined and regimented routines.
Of course, while every horse is a unique individual, there is something special and remarkable about the spirit of Thoroughbreds—which is why so many of us are devoted to them—making them our preferred equine breed. One of my favorite all-time historic retraining stories of a Thoroughbred is of Alois Podhajsky and ex-racehorse Nero—who placed third in the 1936 Olympics.
When I first started rehabilitating and retraining ex-racehorses 20-years-ago, there wasn’t much out there in terms of ex-racehorse adoption or makeover contests. I was pretty much alone, like many other Thoroughbred lovers who were doing similar rehab and reschooling. I would gallop up to 10-horses-a-day as an exercise rider. I often came across horses who had career-ending injuries or were deemed too slow. At that time, I was a transient rider—just floating from track to track freelancing mounts. I survived mostly off of Ramen Noodles, slept in some sketchy places (Hialeah, FL is horrifying at night), but I made sure the horses I took on had excellent care. Usually, only one at a time because that's all I could afford and I'm sure I can blame the Ramen Noodle eating on the Vet bills for these horses. I felt it was a small price to pay for giving a creature I loved a second chance at life. And honestly, at that time, I had no longterm "life goals" other than making a professional living as a rider and horsewoman.
Gone are the days of survival eating and getting on 10-a-day. I'm lucky to ride my horse a couple of times a week and I do more groundwork exercises than undersaddle training. But, my intentions haven't changed, just my methods of service. It's important to help horses who have given everything that was asked of them. They all deserve wonderful homes after retirement—after all, they didn’t ask for the job, they are bred and raced for profit.
There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about ex-racehorses. I know there are many well-intentioned horse trainers out there with lots of advice, but if you are searching for professional help with reschooling, I recommend working with someone who has had success and actual experience in retraining ex-racehorses. It doesn't take much to ruin a good horse because of bad or ignorant training techniques.
If you want to do right by reschooling or rehabilitating an ex-racehorse, you have to understand the world they came from. And I use the word “world” because the track is an entire universe upon itself with its own language, customs, and etiquette. Racetrackers know when other horse people aren’t from our neck of the woods—and so do the horses. Just because you can ride at the Grand Prix Level doesn’t make you qualified or capable of handling an ex-racehorse fresh off-the-track. You can't sit pretty without experienced hands. I sometimes cringe when I hear advice given from some top-level competitors talking about how they once retrained an ex-racehorse. Then in the next breath say Thoroughbreds aren't good at dressage or limit them based on elitist and conformist standards. Dressage is for the horse, and any breed of horse, not just six-figured warmbloods. But most competitive dressage riders believe the horse is for dressage. Horses reflect the training and emotional investment that's been put into them.
Understanding Training at the track
When you first start working with an ex-racehorse, it’s important to keep in mind the racehorse isn’t used to having a consistent center of gravity on their back during daily exercise—like many other riding disciplines do. The intense exchange of kinetic energy between racehorse and rider is unlike any other equestrian discipline. All you have to do is look at a fit racehorse and a jockey (who isn't +10 on the racing program) or the seasoned exercise rider. You'll notice both human and equine athlete possess a strong and well-developed physique. At my physical peak during my professional riding career, I did extensive core and lower back work—which helped immensely in achieving the balance and strength necessary for galloping and race riding. The strength and skills of jockeys and exercise riders are vastly underrated by equestrian professionals in other disciplines.
Rider position. One example detailing the shifting center of gravity is the daily training—going for a morning gallop or even a jog. Training typically doesn’t consist of more than 10-20 minutes of exercise–unless the rider gets dropped and the horse runs off and isn’t caught or something else crazy happens. The rider is seated on the horse's back with full weight for a short time. Usually during the walk to the track and back.
Another shift in weight change occurs as the rider posts with the trot, some riders rarely post and jog in a 2-point or equivalent the entire time—equitation isn’t a highly-regarded or stylized thing (just stay tied on). When the horse is asked to gallop the rider goes into a 2-point (if they were posting) putting their weight into the stirrups allowing the horse freedom to move.
Riders (during galloping) distribute some weight into the hands by pressing them on the neck or close to the withers, with a full cross (doubling the reins)—allowing the horse to gallop at a controlled pace. Sometimes riders will “ski”, which is standing straight up if a horse is very tough (pulling on the bit). A scary but thrilling method of galloping, until the horse stumbles, because you will kiss the ground. Once the horse has completed galloping, usually a mile or mile and a half, they are pulled up, jogged back a bit and walked back to the shedrow. The rider takes off the tack and the groom or hotwalker takes the horse to cool down.
Saddles and fit. Exercise saddles are thin and very light, especially when compared to saddles of other riding disciplines (dressage and western, I’m looking at you). Exercise saddles are generally made to fit any horse. Considering all of this, you should always make certain your saddle fits the horse properly and be mindful they aren't used to heavy saddles (unless you acquire a horse that ponied at the track). Correct saddle fit is so important and often overlooked. If you don't know anything about saddle fitting, find a professional. So many problems can develop or be exacerbated with soreness, discomfort and/or negative behavior because of poor saddle fit.
Racehorses are trained on the forehand. I know I’ve written about it ad nauseam. In general, a horse’s natural balance is more on the forehand. This becomes exaggerated when more weight is distributed toward the front of the horse, especially during galloping and racing.
Proper racehorse conditioning consists of many interconnected components. Within the categories that concern racehorse conditioning is the connective tissues (ligaments and tendons), neural pathways and thermoregulation—which pertains to the cardiovascular system. The emotional state of a horse also plays a part in conditioning and performance. The primary function of training the equine athlete is to increase aerobic capacity. This function promotes muscle growth, strengthen muscles fibers, increases endurance and flexibility.
When horses are galloped, breezed or open galloped, the purpose is to increase fast twitch muscle fibers (type II). The production of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is essential, as it is the energy source from which the muscles draw upon to function at high levels. In this case, it is the fuel the horse’s muscles use during racing.
Over time excessive or improper use of a muscle can manifest as a symptom of lameness. When a horse is using their muscles improperly, over time the repetitive strain (if left untreated) will most likely result in injury. Racehorses, in particular, are the equine athletes that tend to have more muscle related injuries due to the competitive and stringent nature of training.
Horses will adjust their movement and compensate for an area that is restricted, tense or in pain. Often times this manifests in a horse with an awkward way of going such as: not changing leads, lugging in or out, etc. This compensated way of going compromises the horse's best chances of winning. A shorter stride (decreased range of motion) due to poor muscle function results in breaking down, losing races and ultimately, retirement. That’s usually when the search for their new career begins.
No hoof no horse. Another important consideration is the way the ex-racehorse is shod. So many times, ex-racehorses toes are too long, heels are on the ground, bruised or the bulbs are even crushed. Honestly, the vast majority of the tendon, suspensory, ligament, and other injuries could have been prevented or reduced with proper trimming and shoeing. When you first acquire an ex-racehorse horse, have a knowledgeable and trusted farrier examine and assess the feet. It's highly likely the horse will some will need some corrective or therapeutic work on their feet. Proper trimming, alignment, and balance is everything. One of the first things I do is pull off the shoes unless there is a medical reason from a vet. I prefer my horses barefoot and with proper care and supplementation when necessary, it can certainly be accomplished with many Thoroughbreds.
In order to successfully recondition or in some cases rehabilitate the ex-racehorse, you need to understand basic equine anatomy and exercise physiology to develop them for a new career. For horses with severe injuries, always work with a veterinarian and consider an equine physiotherapist (who are the unsung heroes in equine rehab) to aid the horse for optimal physical recovery. Whether the goal is hunter/jumpers or dressage many riding disciplines require a certain degree of collection.
What’s needed for collection and new muscle development
The equine anatomical structure is more than 60% muscle. Even with proper training, a horse can develop muscle fatigue and soreness in the body. Like people, horses have issues with asymmetry and imbalance and tend to favor one laterality over other—right or left side dominant. Because of this natural asymmetry, it can result in the overexertion and improper use of muscles. Eventually, the muscles can reach a noticeable point of restriction and will sometimes manifest as soreness, stiffness, lameness or some other physical limitation. Often times when a horse is misbehaving it’s because they are in need of relief from some type of unaddressed physical discomfort. Horses can’t stretch and massage all the muscles that need attention due to training and exercise–that’s why therapy is beneficial. Stiffness in the body is caused by a lack of flexibility in the muscles—which over time will lead to a decrease in range of motion.
Collection. Self-carriage is best described by bringing the hindquarters further underneath the body, supporting the weight. In order to achieve true collection, more engagement from the hindquarters is required. This happens when the horse's hind legs step further underneath the body. This propulsion from the hindquarters allows the horse to be “lighter” on the forehand while aiding in the elevation of the neck and flexion at the poll.
In regards to collection, it’s important to mention that there are many stages and levels of collection. You can get collection on the first day you work with a horse, you don’t have to get to PSG to achieve it. And it’s also important to note that many horses competing in traditional modern day dressage may appear collected, but many of the horses are still too much on the forehand.
The Hindquarters are responsible for the propulsion of the horse and it’s equally important to strengthen the deep core muscles of the horse’s neck to aid in the elevation at the base of the neck and for flexion at the poll. The basic main muscle groups are the iliopsoas (psoas major and minor), gluteals, biceps femoris, quadriceps, tensor fascia latae. Think of the rear of the horse as the motor, where true horsepower is. You want rear wheel drive, so to speak. These muscles stabilize the pelvis and the spine allowing propulsion from the hindquarters.
It’s important the lumbosacral joint has optimal mobility. A symptom of weak hindquarters can be uncoordinated movement, lack of balance or even stumbling. When a horse has a weak hind end more force is exerted on the forehand. If flexion in this area is inhibited, collection and smooth transitions will be difficult.
Many ex-racehorses experience pain in this area during their racing career and after retirement. Some have the onset of arthritis in their SI joint. Sacroiliac problems can sometimes manifest visibly as a “hunter’s bump”. Dynamic stabilization exercises, massage, Kinesio taping and chiropractic work is extremely beneficial to achieve and maintain mobility.
Fascia. Keeping the fascia flexible is also essential in the proper development of hindquarter and core strength. Restrictions due to fascia affect flexibility, strength, stability and overall mobility. The onset of muscle fatigue will occur more rapidly in the horse if the surrounding fascia structures are tense. Fascial restriction is your horse's enemy because research has proven this restriction has the capability of pulling 2,000 pounds per square inch. Myofascial release is a powerful modality that one should consider adding to their horse's therapy routine.
The Front. Neck muscles; brachiocephalicus, multifidus cervicus, obliquus capitus caudalis, and omotransversarius are important to develop. There are many exercises you can do on the ground, to facilitate and stimulate these muscles. In order to raise the forelimbs (lessen weight bearing on the forehand), these neck muscles must not only be strong but flexible. Making sure the surrounding fascia is supple and the stress points within the neck are released with regular therapy will improve range of motion and help increase strength.
Neck muscles must be strong enough to support proper head carriage (holding the poll at the highest point with the nose at the verticle). The proper exercises must be implemented to engage and develop the rhomboids, trapezius, scalenus, serratus, splenius, and nuchal ligament. Once these muscles are developed there will be enough power to raise the forelegs properly. Mobilizing the neck muscles through a series of core exercises is very helpful to develop that beautiful crest and head carriage we see on trained dressage or sport horses.
The Center. Without strong abdominal muscles to hold the front and hind together, you have nothing. The transverse abdominals provide stability to the vertebrae in the back while the obliques aid with arching the back. Core strength is what keeps the back from hollowing out. The topline must be well developed the provide a solid connection between the hindquarters and front. A strong core is the "glue" that helps hold both ends of the horse together.
The rider’s seat. What makes a good rider? It’s not equitation alone. According to Gustav Steinbrecht, a good rider will sit appropriately according to the horse’s center of gravity, which may not be perfectly balanced or centered due to asymmetries within the horse. A good rider is centered but fluid with their seat position to aid the horse. Having perfect “show ring” equitation with green horses isn’t always possible.
A wonderful book to read regardless of discipline is Centered Riding by Sally Swift. If you enjoy visualization techniques, this book is tops. I've had my copy since the early 90s and I still love it. Another great book for the more advanced rider and horse(wo)man is The Complete Training of Horse and Rider In the Principals of Classical Horsemanship by Alois Podhajsky.
You may not be able to ride a horse on the track unless you have a license. In this case you'll have to watch them walk/trot in hand either in person or video. Ex-racehorses coming off-the-track may have pronounced and visible asymmetries if you know how to assess movement and mobility. Watching a horse transition from walk, trot to canter can offer insight into some of the possible range of motion limitations. However, many visible symptoms can be one of many root issues. It's best to consult with a trusted veterinarian and have a PPE done as a precautionary measure before purchasing or adopting any horse.
If you want to dive deep and learn the exercises that mobilize the joints and engage the muscles, I highly recommend Activate Your Horse's Core by Narelle C. Stubbs and Dr. Hilary M. Clayton.
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