Eventing Connect
November 20, 2015
By: AJ Dyer - aka Visionaire
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Each year, lots of racing thoroughbreds find their way into new homes and new careers. There are two schools of thought when a horse steps off the racetrack: turn ‘em out, or get on with riding. 

Prior to my experience in the Thoroughbred industry, I was a member of the “turn ‘em out” crowd. I figured it would be best for the horse to “detox” and enjoy a month or more of turnout, relaxing and just being a horse. I assumed all the horse knew was running, and I wanted to put some distance (time) between that association before I stepped aboard and taught him his new job. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and it works well for many horses

ECMoon2010 Thoroughbred filly Moon Sparkles, from CANTER PA.

Changed perspective
However, my perspective changed when I became neck-deep in the Thoroughbred world. As part of my job, I handled racehorses (not retired, not “ex”) at the farm, who would eventually go back to the track. Maybe they were there for rehab after an injury, or for a short layover period. Nonetheless, as resident rider it was my job to get (or keep) them fit enough to go back to training

As such, I found myself on some moderately expensive, well-bred young animals who needed exercise. I had no training track at the farm– I had an outdoor arena with jumps, a big unfenced field, paddocks, and cow pastures. In other words, what you would have at any sport horse facility. After a few minutes in an enclosed area (to make sure they weren’t totally crazy) I often took them straight out to the field for a hack. We did trots and canters, building up to slow gallops in the field. Sometimes I rode in an exercise saddle, but I also used my everyday jump saddle too. They didn’t really seem to notice a difference

Track-trained horses are not lunatics and they know the basics
By and large, these track-trained horses were not monsters at all. They knew how to walk, trot, and canter, and how to change leads. They were controllable in open spaces, in a snaffle, perhaps with a martingale. They hacked out, often on the buckle. I didn’t expect them to perform dressage maneuvers– of course they weren’t taught to leg-yield, or shoulder-in, or any of that. But they knew how to go forward, accept the bridle, and steer from your weight. Half-halts were somewhat sketchy, but when I needed brakes I had them. I occasionally walked or trotted them over poles on the ground, and opened gates to hack out in the cow fields

What it taught me was that these horses are not so radically “different” after all. A horse can come off the track, have a few days off, and I can be riding him out in the fields immediately. They aren’t all lunatic runaways, and they don’t expect to gallop everywhere, all the time. They adjust to farm life pretty quickly, but they are used to having a job to do and many of them enjoy that

OTTBs thrive on work
That experience, combined with breaking babies for the track and understanding how they are started, has led me to scrap the general notion of “turn them out and leave them alone.” While I’m a big believer in daily turnout, most OTTBs thrive on work, so I don’t put off that first ride off the track. Coming right out of training, they may be a little body sore, but I like to take advantage of their fitness and work ethic. Putting them out to pasture can lose a lot of that condition, and some of them miss the attention work brings… or they may learn to like retired life just a bit too much!

When the horse gets to my farm, I give him a couple days to adjust. New place, new feed, new activity, and new friends. I turn them out first in a small paddock so they don’t run themselves silly. Once the newness wears off– it could be an hour, a day, or a week– I turn them out into a bigger paddock with a quiet buddy. When the horse seems relaxed in his new environment, usually after a couple days, we go for our first ride

First ride is for me to learn
My goal for the first ride: to learn about the horse. I’m not out to teach him or “train” him anything. I want to find out what he knows, and how he goes. I start in an enclosed area for safety, with someone available to hold him when I get on if needed. If he seems especially “up” I might lunge him first (though know that lunging skills are very hit-or-miss with OTTBs). Is he nervous or relaxed when I get on? If he wants to trot right away, I let him. Forcing them to walk too long in the beginning can instigate a fight– something I’d rather avoid at this point

I try to keep a soft contact, just enough to encourage the horse to maintain a rhythm and not get too quick (most of them will anyway, don’t worry about fixing it today). I’ll trot a few big circles each direction, noting how the horse feels: wiggly, or stiff? Worse to the right, or to the left? Falling in on the shoulder, or bulging out? I might instinctively try to correct this with my leg, but again I’m not expecting much response…if the horse tries to listen to my lateral leg pressure, so much the better

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