Tis the Season, and if “Adopt Don’t Shop” resonates and there’s a conveniently empty stall in the barn, then perhaps an off-track Thoroughbred is on your wish list. Anna Ford, Thoroughbred Program Director at New Vocations Racehorse Adoption, applauds those who hope to give an OTTB a second chance at life, but she also has seen some well-intentioned adopters discover that transitioning a Thoroughbred from his old life to his new one is more challenging than they realized. In her bestselling book Beyond the Track, Ford offers this advice to those hoping to bring an ex-racehorse home.
Ever since the first Thoroughbred race was run hundreds of years ago, there has been a need for people to help “transition” retired racehorses into new careers. In a business that rolls a lot of dice in the hopes that one will be a winner, it is natural that many of the horses bred and trained to run will fail to meet expectations—they might be too aggressive or spooky in nature, they might not be fast enough, or they might get hurt early in the game, rendering them unable to reach their racing potential. In North America alone, the Jockey Club registers about 20,000 Thoroughbred foals each year. A third of them might go on to be viable stakes winners or breeding stock. The rest… well, the rest are unsure of their fate.
There are farms where horses are “retired” from working; they are simply turned out in fields. However, the vast majority of Thoroughbreds love having a routine and a job. With a little time and retraining, most OTTBs can go on to excel in other riding careers, whether that is in the show arena or simply as a pleasure mount.
Over time I have noticed some common factors in the scenarios where OTTBs have been successfully transitioned from the track to a new life:
It can take months—or even years—for a horse to fully settle in to a new career.
Many of the people who are successful with OTTBs give a horse several months to just relax before they start really working him. Holding a horse to a set time frame only puts unnecessary pressure on both the horse and his owner.
A person who chooses to adopt an animal is assuming many responsibilities; one who adopts an OTTB has the added responsibility of understanding that the horse is trying to learn right along with his new owner. Horses retiring from the track go through a massive life change. They must learn new routines, including how to be turned out and how to work in an arena, as well as new skills, like bending and picking up canter leads. And they learn that life off the track is much less regimented than what they are used to—and that this change is okay.
An OTTB needs an owner who is committed to ensuring that his transition from racehorse to riding horse is a positive one. An understanding and sense of empathy for the horse as he learns his new job is essential—and a sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either.
The more experience the adopter has with owning and training horses, the better.
OTTBs need a lot of help figuring out how the world works away from the track—from both the ground and the saddle. When they first arrive at New Vocations, they may have bad barn habits, poor ground manners, and can be excitable and strong under saddle. While these are all issues that will likely change with kind and consistent training, they still require a foundation of horse knowledge and an ability to “read” equine behavior usually gained with experience. Therefore, OTTBs are generally not suitable for first-time horse owners.
If an adopter is unable to work through a certain problem with a horse, he or she must be willing to search for someone with experience who can help. In addition, early work with ex-racehorses often requires a second set of hands or a ground person to ensure safety and a positive experience for all involved.
A safe and welcoming environment where the horse is able to focus on learning his new job is essential.
It takes time to get to know a horse, but by developing a good, working partnership, you will have a better understanding of what the horse likes and dislikes. Successful adopters understand the value of working with rather than against the horse when they encounter a problem, never forcing the horse to mold to a set program. And, sometimes it is necessary to work around a problem—with time and patience—instead of working through it as you might do with other horses.
Overall, I find that success with an OTTB has a great deal to do with the adopter’s mindset. I have seen people who lacked experience, but who were infinitely patient and always willing to ask for help, have more success than others who had plenty of experience but didn’t possess the frame of mind to handle an OTTB.
If you decide you would like to work with an OTTB, you need to realize you will be in it for the long haul. You must understand that transitioning a Thoroughbred from racetrack to regular life is a challenging experience. You need to roll with the punches and patiently take the good with the bad.
This excerpt from Beyond the Track by Anna Morgan Ford with Amber Heintzberger and Sarah Coleman is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).