Nevermind the Books, Go Stand at the Rail

Super Saver demonstrates a proper Thoroughbred warm-up.

I stand by my premise that you can’t ride a racehorse, retired or not, without understanding racehorses. I hope I’m not alone in this, but the world of equine literature keeps letting me down. In searching the web and books for different insights on reschooling OTTBs, I keep reading the same inane words over and over: that we must convince an OTTB to forget the things that he has been taught.

What educational curriculum would ever advise such nonsense? Would you teach a child a new language by saying, “Right, I know you’ve spent years only speaking English. But what I really need is for you to speak Dutch. So we’re going to stop speaking English, and from this point forward, you only get taught things in Dutch – starting. . . now.”

I’m a bit sad to be part of the new media movement at times, because from what I’ve been seeing, the Internet is the world’s worst place to get advice. Here is an example, from one of those “Write for us for free and you’ll become famous!” Web sites:

“An off-track Thoroughbred has very limited experience. He knows only how to circle a track at full speed, so retraining such horses from racing can be difficult.”


“You should know that working with off-track Thoroughbreds can be dangerous. Because they aren’t used to human-equine interaction, they can be slower than other horses to form a bond.”

Honestly. The article also suggests using draw reins to teach your horse not to gallop, which of course ignores completely the very common practice of galloping racehorses in draw reins.

I suppose what alarms me most about this article is that this isn’t the article I was looking for! There is more out there… I was actually looking for one that explicitly stated that everything a Thoroughbred racehorse had ever learned was wrong. I read it last week and it annoyed me so much that I didn’t save it.

The point is, when you ignore your horse’s history, you do so at your own peril. How can you train your horse with no regard or knowledge of his foundation? Certainly it can’t be done safely. 

Whenever I come back from a day at the track, I have a better ride.

Today was no exception. I got on Final Call expecting the worst. After all, he’s had several days off for weather/work issues, the wind was gusting ridiculously, and the footing was bad. There were lots of valid reasons to expect him to give me trouble.

But I changed up his riding routine a little bit. I think I’d been giving him a little too much of the Normal Horse warm-up. Too much circling and suppling and relaxing. He doesn’t understand that. Why are we being boring? Why don’t we have some fun?

So I did what Final Call was expecting, instead of what the books say to do. What do the books know, anyway? Watching the horses come out of the paddock and doing their jogs and gallops was still fresh in my mind. I decided to do the same thing with my retired racehorse.

Would I be telling you all this if it wasn’t right? Of course not! He was lovely. He trotted, I let him break into a gallop, we cantered around the paddock in both directions. And then, when I put my leg on and asked nicely – leg yields. Yes, really. He just needed his head on straight, poor boy. A warmblood may get his head on straight by doing some complicated half-voltes and transitions. An OTTB needs to go for a nice canter.

It’s another one of those little moments where it’s incredibly important to understand where your horse has been. There’s no reason to change the language on him suddenly. Be subtle. Learn a little bit of his language. Get out there and see some live racing! Spring is here, the weather is improving – just go!



Filed under Stereotypes, Training Diary, Training Theory

30 responses to “Nevermind the Books, Go Stand at the Rail

  1. You know, there might be something to what you’re saying, Natalie. After galloping Bar on the beach the other day, we were both pretty happy.

    Yeah, he’s never going to forget what he learned, but he can learn and he already thinks trails are way more fun than the arena.

    And that bit about slow to bond?? Have they not seen the way a Thoroughbred can snuggle? I have a 1,200 lb. lap dog some days, I swear.

    Keep getting the word out, Natalie. Those of us who love our Thoroughbreds appreciate it.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Maybe the writer needs to read “You Can’t Hug A Thoroughbred”? Newsflash: they’re horses like any other horse. And they develop deep personal relationships with their grooms and exercise riders at the track, just as they do when you lead them into the barn and drop their feed each night.

      I once read an article in the New York Times about the Midtown carriage horses. It was just a fluff piece, nothing important about animal rights or anything like that, just a space-filler, and in it the carriage driver said basically the same thing about Thoroughbreds: how HIS draft horse was so sweet and lovable, and you could rub him on the face, and you couldn’t do THAT with one of those racehorses over there in Queens… It annoys me as much now as it did then!

  2. Barb Fulbright

    Amen! Using you friend’s words, which I love, “You’re ‘talking Thoroughbred”, Natalie!”

  3. Saratoga

    Cantering was the gait that evolved first when equus was developing from eohippus. You see it in foals, they canter before they trot. I think it can have a lulling, lullaby effect on some OTTBs. And then there’s my 17yo mare who gets way jazzed up with it, seared in memories of the excitement of cantering down to the starting gate? Years and years ago found some interesting stuff by Billy Turner’s former wife Paula on training OTTBs. Not sure if it would stand up to your scrutiny, can’t remember details.

    As for what you read on the internet. Agreed, there’s also a lot of poor understanding of horses among writers for paper publication. One caveat, internet also has some of the best writing, check out this blog: Retired Racehorse: Creating Successful Off-Track Thoroughbreds.

    • Barb Fulbright


    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Oh, blush blush Fiona! Thanks for the compliment!

      I’d hate to become a critic of Thoroughbred training manuals (or…. would I….? Hmmm….) and I’m sure there are other theories besides mine that do the trick. Sometimes I think that’s the problem with the entire horse business, not just that every single individual has their own theories, but that every single individual believes that their theories are the only ones that do any good! I’m not that vain. I just call it like I see it. Your horse is used to galloping out before he does his job. So make him comfy and let him gallop out. The fact that the old boy came back to me after the gallop and gave me some leg yields and gave to the bit, things that he hasn’t been eager to do lately, is enough proof for me. Not every horse will react the same way, of course. But I rather think that the theory is sound.

      Excellent observation- foals canter before they trot! They canter almost as soon as they can stay up on those four wobbling legs. I hadn’t thought about that. But now I can picture Upper West Side taking one tentative step and then a beautiful, bursting little canter stride, at about one hour of age. And of course rolling onto her lovely little nose.

  4. I have also read so much wrong, wrong stuff readily available about retraining OTTBs. And it makes me sad because I know there are all these beautiful, and most likely terribly confused, horses out there trying to do their best to please a rider who doesn’t get it.

    You work with what you have. Sometimes, you have to do things a little bit differently, but as long as the end result is a sane, happy, confident horse, does it really matter how you got there?

    My old mare, Star, had to have her weekly gallop for her to be able to concentrate on arena work. No gallop = no brain. Actually, I think we BOTH had to have it, but I blamed those hell-bent-for-leather rides on her need for speed…not mine. 😛

  5. “ZOMG, that’s too fast… cantering is scary!” (The running commentary in those authors’ heads.)

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      LOL What is the “Z” for, Shannon?

      I really get that impression. Get out of the round pen and go have some fun, guys.

  6. Samantha

    I haven’t worked with OTTBs but I’m right with you on this! It’s like taking a western horse into the English arena. Hold onto his mouth and put your leg on as your supposed to and he’s going to get upset because you’re not communicating with him in a way that he understands. Sad to think that uneducated people are reading these articles on thoroughbreds and not knowing any better.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Good metaphor, Samantha, and thanks for the comment. If you were going to reschool a western pleasure horse to be a jumper (because, let’s say, you’re a total masochist and want to punish yourself), you wouldn’t just jack up your stirrups, throw him in an elevator bit to get his head up, and ask for big movement in the gaits. And you wouldn’t start completely over and teach him how to carry a bit, carry a rider, etc. You’d ride him the way he understands, acknowledging that he has a foundation for better or for worse, and then work slowly on changing habits. Sloooooowly! How long does it take for brain synapses or whatever they’re called to reform and realign for new habits? Three weeks?

      I also read an article in a magazine at Tractor Supply, may have mentioned this before but it just bothers me that much, that stated that Thoroughbreds are all traumatized and have had a great deal of emotional damage that has to be overcome before you can train them. Um, wow. Generalize much?

  7. Standing Ovation!!
    Whoot HOOOT!
    They were bred to move, let them!!

    Wow, greatest post yet! Hooray for intelligence in horse-training on the internet, right here, right now.

    working stiff out.

  8. Laurie

    I had more success with my OTTB when I started our ride outdoors – hack around the property, have a gallop along the nice, long driveway, then return to the indoor for a little schooling. This also cured the hurry up back to the barn problems.

    • Barb Fulbright

      You know that’s worked for me, Laurie! Thanks, again!

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      I have done that also, Laurie, a nice easy way to ride-in, and you can repeat it at shows by giving them a look around the property before you ask them to do any work, as well. Very good advice!

  9. Great post! I retrain TBs and agree with you! However I also see a lot of people who think that OTTBs are safe for their beginner children. It might be better, for the horse’s sake, that those people read the soca you’re talking about and look elsewhere for their mount.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Well, I’m ready to get nailed on this one, but it depends on the child and what you consider beginner, as well as the horse.

      When I got my first OTTB, I’d been riding for just a few years. I could jump a 2’6″ course comfortably, had a few ribbons from local schooling shows’ short stirrup divisions, and had previously ridden a dead-broke Quarter Horse schoolie. I had never ridden a Thoroughbred before, to my knowledge. My sole riding experience was Quarter Horses and school ponies.

      My OTTB was five and had been off the racetrack six months.

      We bonded immediately. Part of it was the horse, part of it was me. There are children out there who can work with Thoroughbreds comfortably. I happened to be one of them. He was the first of many. Yes, he ran away with me (but where was he going to go, honestly? They always stop.) Yes, he dumped me. Hard. Yes, he made me cry! But when I got him, I was an advanced beginner. When he was done with me, I was a professional. Those were formative years.

  10. Oh Natalie I do love your blog..and you must have been one of those wonderful kids I love having as a student! My sons OTTB is coming 24, when he is turned out in his field he takes off at a full out gallop and runs large loopy circles, BOTH directions by the way. His field buddies QH’s stand and watch him in disbelief! And not cuddly?? my ass! Me thinks they should do a stint in the backstretch.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Thank you Debi!

      I was one of those frightening kids that would get on anything, do anything, jump anything. All horses were racehorses, when I was a teenager. All logs were made for jumping, all rivers made for crossing, all boundaries made to be broken. I often miss that spirit of fearlessness, believe me!

      • LOL, as an adult I am *just* now decided that I *probably* will not end up a quadruplegic or dead if I trot outside the ring. (I still like having really good brakes and more whoa than go!) I was fearless right up until age 12 when I realized my OTTB wasn’t as push-button as my friend’s two gaming QHs and I came off over fences.

      • Natalie Keller Reinert

        You know, the one thing that always saved me when I was a kid was my first OTTB’s honesty. He would cart me over anything. Even if he didn’t think he could make it. There was nothing that could stop him – for more than a stride, anyway. He was the king of, let me stop and take a look first, then pop the fence like a frog. My old event trainer swore that if I took him prelim he’d plow through a combination and flip me on the second fence. But he never did. Just the sheer fact that we both had the teenage devil-may-care philosophy was enough to keep the two of us connected. Which proves, I think, that there is a breed and temperament specific to every rider. I don’t get along with Quarter Horses – we all know that now, lol – and I don’t particularly get along with warmbloods, ponies, haflingers, friesians. . . what else have I ridden…? Yeah. Those. I’m a TB person.

  11. Slow to bond? Little human interaction? Is that why I get the regal “I am not being kept in the manner to which I am accustomed”? ‘tude? The “Excuse me, I am insufficiently groomed, and while you’re at it my straw needs deeper piling, ifyouwouldn’tmind?” Because it’s that lack of human interaction that makes him behave like he’s the Kentucky Derby winner retired to Lane’s End.

    I swear, sites like that are written by people who have never set foot on a racetrack (let alone bet on a race) and insist they “rescued” their OTTB no matter how they got him.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      LOL Yes, don’t we all get that attitude. The Cryptoclearance mare is the worst. If everything is not up to her standards she won’t even go into her stall. She’ll stand about five feet outside of it and just huff and puff, then whirl and take off kicking and bucking, naturally bringing the rest of the herd with her, and give me five or ten minutes of alone time to think about how horrible a horse mother I am and get the place whipped into shape. All this for a stall that she stands in for about ten minutes while she eats her grain.

      What you say about people who insist that their OTTBs (or just TBs for that matter) are rescued, no matter the circumstances, is pretty spot-on. I’ve noticed that a lot. Even people who purchased a horse reputably from, say, a Thoroughbred auction such as Ocala Breeders’ Sales, or directly from the breeder or trainer – even for a decent sum of money – will tell people they rescued the horse. As if all Thoroughbreds are automatically issued a one-way ticket to the slaughterhouse they day that they are born, and only the good, forthright non-racing people of the world can rescue them from this certain fate!

      Here are the three degrees of purchasing an OTTB, leaving out about three dozen other ways of purchasing an OTTB, for purposes of brevity and editorial opinion:
      Exhibit A: Very nice TB, at racetrack, advertised by trainer for “placement fee” of $300, needs six months pasture rest for strained suspensory. Not a rescue.
      Exhibit B: Mystery OTTB, in someone’s backyard, stabled next to a pig and in just as much mud, advertised on Yahoo for $500, infected stitches from recent gelding and needs 500 pounds. Possibly a rescue. Still paid decent money for him, so… (also I made a profit on him, lol, so does that count? I wonder.)
      Exhibit C: OTTB, in kill pen at New Holland, ready to hop on the truck and disappear forever. Rescue.

  12. You can’t ignore hundreds of years of selected breeding. You must embrace what is good about the TB and also horses in general are easy to train because they have great memories so they are not going to forget the training they have learned. They just need to apply it to a new world.

  13. My TB never even made it to the track and he stills moves and focuses best once he’s had a good canter. No matter what breed or background, we always get a better ride when we listen to our horses and give them what they actually need instead of what we think they need.

    First time reader, and already a fan!

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Thanks Jackie!

      You’re so right, they all require different strategies from us. I wish more riding instructors would take that into account when helping people with their horses. Some horses can’t take twenty minutes of trotting voltes and serpentines and circles as a warm-up. Some require it. But a lot of trainers seem to apply it with a broad brush, instead of taking an individual look at each horse.

  14. Brittany

    Can you imagine that this same horse won the derby? Amazing.

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