Dominating Thoroughbreds, via Equestrian Ink

With thanks to Equestrian Ink – Writers of Equestrian Fiction, who have allowed me to guest blog once again on their fun website, comprised entirely of horsepeople who love to write, I’m sharing my guest blog post from last year. I like this one – for one thing, it was written in March of 2010, when I was two months into training Final Call, whom you might recall was the Original Retired Racehorse!

Go to the original post for some GREAT comments! 

Dominating Thoroughbreds

Who’s having fun here, exactly?

I spend my days with Thoroughbreds. I breed, I train, I reschool OTTBs. In prepping my posts at Retired Racehorse Blog, I do a lot of research, lurk on a few message boards, and try to find out what people are doing with their Thoroughbreds. There are so many issues out there, so many OTTBs that are slipping through the cracks after their “forever homes” turn out to be very temporary indeed, that I knew there must be some sort of communication gap between the racetrack and the boarding stable.

What I find is that there is a significant population of riders and trainers which thinks that anything outside of perfectly contained, on-the-bit, submissive obedience, is nothing short of dangerous.

Final Call in field

Having fun, for a Thoroughbred, can be an alarming experience if you aren't prepared!

Horses are motion. They are prey, constantly on the move, scenting the wind, listening to the sighs of the natural world around them, waiting for the shoe to drop. When you are prey, you are always waiting for the end, and you know it will be messy.

Extreme submission calls for the horse to put away his instincts and follow blindly. Some might call this a beautiful expression of partnership. But submission/domination is quite the opposite. You might be having fun, but what is your horse thinking? Nothing. He’s waiting for you to think for him. It really doesn’t sound like fun for either party. You’re working too hard – your horse is just going through the motions.

I went through a very windy spell as a teenager. My Thoroughbred, Amarillo, had taken me through some frightening rides, I’d taken some very bad falls, and although we had found a physical reason for the behavior and corrected it, the incident left scars. I’d grown up on his back, but now, after six years together, I was terrified to take him to shows.

I eventually got up the nerve and took him to a horse trials. Convinced that he was going to start leaping about and showing his heels to everyone (and I’d seen his heels, from underneath of him, and wasn’t looking forward to a repeat performance), I took him for a walk around the grounds. He went like a giraffe, all neck and his head so high I couldn’t have reached his nose, despite being just fifteen three. His reach was incredible; even at the walk, I could barely keep up with him. He pulled at the halter and broke the chin strap. I felt dread at the thought of getting on that beast.

But eventually, the time came to tack up and I swung into the saddle, sick with anxiety. I got the same reaction walking him under saddle that I had in a halter and rope. Amarillo’s brain was clearly going at a hundred miles an hour, and I had nothing to do with it. We went towards the warm-up area to prep for dressage, and I felt like I was looking at the world framed by two pricked ears.

Then someone’s voice called out to me across the ring. “Look at that horse, he’s having such fun!”

And it clicked. Amarillo was happy.

He was happy to be here, amongst all the other horses and excitement. He was a racehorse. He was in his element.

I loosened my tense fingers, asked for a trot, and he ducked his head into the bit, not to buck, not to grab it and bolt, but to round up, trot with pleasure, do his job as he wanted to do it. There was no question of submission, there was simply the two of us, jogging across a field somewhere in Florida, surrounded by joyous, leaping horses. And if we didn’t perform a Grand Prix dressage test, well, we got a few sevens and eights in a Training Level test, and we did it on each other’s terms, not on my own iron-clad ones.

Thoroughbreds thrive on one-on-one communication. They know their jobs, as racehorses, and the very good ones know how to work with their jockeys to get to the front of the pack and stick their nose in front. Trying to dominate a racehorse is simply nonsensical. Asking for total submission, a denial of the heart and intelligence that makes them great.



Filed under Dressage, eventing, Rillo, Stereotypes, Success Stories

22 responses to “Dominating Thoroughbreds, via Equestrian Ink

  1. Love, love, love thoroughbreds! I love their speed, their intelligence and the fact that, when you get down to it, they are just cool horses. Reading your blog makes me want to go back to exercise riding!

  2. LOVE this. It’s something I had to learn, too-not to be nervous if my horse’s head isn’t in the same position as all the quarter horses around us. It’s OK if he goes down the trail with his ears pricked, head occasionally turning this way and that. He’s engaged! But I think you’re right, it’s off putting to people used to something else or needing something else. Still, I think even in the few past years I’ve been online in the “thoroughbred” world, OTTBs are getting more and more popular, which is great, but with that comes more situations where it doesn’t work out. That’s why having sites like yours are SO important, so people can see they’re not alone, and learn what their horse needs to be successful:)

    • Sarah, do you think that all the hard work Thoroughbred enthusiasts are putting into social media and things like OTTB saddle pads might actually be paying off? I’m intrigued by this, since I’m not out actively going to horse shows and events, I don’t know who is riding what. I need a subscription to Chronicle of the Horse for Christmas this year….

      • Ok, so I don’t show so much either:) But yeah, from what I’ve seen online, on COTH and the Ultimate Dressage BB, OTTBs are being talked about more and more frequently. New Vocations put a post on their facebook a couple of months ago that they were adopting out so fast that they had stalls available for donors. And, let’s face it, in ths economy, getting a sport horse prospect for under a grand looks pretty good:) And yes, ALLL the social media definitely helps, at least in my case. I did SOOOO much research before I adopted. I figured all these people who loved their horses couldn’t be lying:)

  3. I wrote this huge long comment on your last post, and then chickened out. Off to read the old post!

  4. Bred to whoa, or go? Guess which I would choose? I couldn’t believe what I was feeling with the new-style QH I sat. Rooted, until hammered into moving. I have something to say about it, but I’ll be good here:)
    Awesome post, sorry I missed it! Horses are movement, indeed. Or at least, in my world they are.

  5. Great post! Ironically, I have one OTTB who loves “whoa” way too much and is a lot of work to ride. My legs are exhausted with constant asking for more go in a ride. I guarantee that our dressage tests will say somewhere in it “Needs more impulsion”…

    My other OTTB only knows “GO” and is so much fun to ride! We get comments like “fancy movement”. When I let my horse express himself in his movement the better we go. It was a great “ah ha!” moment for me.

    BTW – you write beautifully.

    • Thanks Wendy! I’ve definitely been around those push-and-shove OTTBs. Unfortunately, I even had to deal with one at the racetrack. It’s awful trying to get through a dressage test with one; it’s like a horror movie trying to shove one around a mile gallop.

      I remember being a kid and trying out different horses at my boarding stable. I’d always be like, “I’m just going to go back and ride my horse now. I don’t have to tell him to go. I’d rather have a horse I have to tell to whoa then a horse I have to tell to go.” Somehow it’s just dispiriting if the horse is like an equine couch potato! I don’t get the impression that they WANT to go out and play with me!

  6. Natalie, I love your new look! Very clean and streamlined. Good for you!
    Great pix too, of you and the Alert One.

  7. Thank you! You’re the first to comment on the new theme.. can you believe it’s just WordPress’s basic template? I LOVE IT. And if you look down at the very bottom of the page there is a tiny smiley face that cracks me up. Photo credit goes to Cory Reinert… in nearly everything!

  8. Blob

    I sort of disagree.

    I really do think there is a time for work and a time for play and I expect my horses to work when we’re working. That doesn’t mean they’re sour and miserable. A horse can and should enjoy his work. But work is also work.

    The way you work with an OTTB is certainly different from the way you might work with horses with different breeding and different mind sets. And although, yes, we’re working together– the rider is still the leader.

    • Well, I liken them to very gifted children. They are hyper-alert and hyper-intelligent. You can’t say to such children, “OH YOU WILL WORK NOW” for longer than a few minutes. They will resent you and they will revolt. You can do this for a limited period of time, but in the end, if you don’t make work fun for them, they are going to rise up against you.

      • Blob

        Well, sure you should make sure they enjoy their work. But I still think work is separate from play. I’ve never had a OTTB revolt against work, particularly if there are play times every few days or so. But it’s important for me that I build in ‘work’ time and develop a routine around it. I find that most of them tend to work well with and appreciate the system.

  9. Michelle

    Natalie – always love reading your post and am a frequent FB stalker. I am in the throes of trying to get MY TB from Belmont Park to Danvers, MA where he will become my OTTB…I have been in love with him since he was a 2 year old and I met him at Saratoga. He finishes up the track in his races,and at 4 he is being retired. He has the sweetest personality and a calm demeanor and good ground manners. I am really looking forward to his arrival and remind myself every day to keep my sense of humor intact. Your writing is required reading for this next chapter of my life!

    • Michelle, good luck! This is super-exciting! I want to hear more about this. I want to hear EVERYTHING.

      I need to figure out a way to do an OTTB book.. I haven’t sorted that out yet, but it would be a nice way to encapsulate the blog into easier reading.

  10. My OTTB is usually more whoa than go, but when he gets it in his mine to GO! he’s an absolute blast. I’ll take an engaged, happy, looky-loo TB any day of the week.

    Speaking of OTTB saddle pads, where can I find one? I’ve been looking for one with an OTTB or even just TB logo, but none can be found by me. Why shouldn’t TBs have their own logo? All those danged warmbloods do!

  11. Sara

    I think there is a problem with rescues and those “forever homes”. Lately I’m seeing more horses of all sorts having been “saved” from auctions by very well meaning people who end up with more than they can handle, and ending up back at the auctions. I know of an OTTB, 7 yr old, 17 hands, that has been adopted by a woman for her 2 kids. The parents don’t know anything about horses, and the kids are beginner riders, barely cantering proficiently. Can you say “train wreck”? Why do people do this? It certainly adds to all the misconceptions about OTTBs.

    Your description of Amarillo at the show is right on target for my horse too. My boy did not race, although he was certainly bred to and was tattooed. He is a push pony at home, until we start jumping, but at a show he’s all business. Take him out for a trail ride and he comes so alive! It’s like there a magnets pulling him forward, he’s totally engaged. I really want to get out of the ring and go hunting or xc. Not too much of that in Miami, though, .

    • “Take him out for a trail ride and he comes so alive! It’s like there a magnets pulling him forward, he’s totally engaged.”

      Magnets! Well-said, that’s exactly what they feel like!

      Regarding well-meaning people and poor adoption scenarios, I think that’s the danger of free horses in general, and I generally disapprove of people who will just give away their racehorses to anyone who wants it. Racehorses should go from the track to sport horse trainers who are capable of retraining them. There are no limit of resources for racing trainers if they would take thirty seconds to google “retired racehorse” and get the email addresses of organizations like CANTER, ReRun, and the many regional adoption agencies who exist to help them. Sadly, most don’t bother…

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