OTTBs: Forward, athletic, ready to learn

There is a wonderful new video from Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge, featuring an interview of trainer Kerry Blackmer (who of course is riding our darling Four X The Trouble, or Tempyst as we should be calling him) by Steuart Pittman, president of the Retired Racehorse Project. In their conversation, they focus on three things that I think are very important to public perception of OTTBs.

1) The Retired Racehorse Challenge horses are going far too well, and as an amateur rider, I’m either messing up badly or missing something:

Steuart Pittman suggests some riders might be asking “Why are they riding them so round, why are they riding them in a frame already?” and I’ve also seen a few self-deprecating remarks in the comments, as people say they clearly have been messing up on their OTTBs.

hotwalking and the living's easy

City living: OTTBs have been there, done that.

Well, come on, folks, you’re not being fair to yourselves at all.

There are two important questions to ask yourself here:

1) Do you go through multiple, possibly dozens of OTTBs per year, retraining them and selling them on as amateur horses?

Probably not. So stop beating yourself up, keep studying, and have fun with your horse.

2) Do you treat your OTTB like he’s a bronc fresh off the range, or do you remember that he already has a very specific skill set, and your job is to hone certain skills and re-direct others?

Never forget that they have a rich history! One of the reasons why Kerry Blackmer says that OTTBs only need a day or two in a new place to calm down is that they are already more well-traveled than most Americans, they already know what is expected of them in the barn (settle down, shut up, walk nicely, do your job), and they are already professional workers who are begging to be allowed to get back to work.

2) Every horse is different, and there is no one formula for training.

The trainers might be showing tremendous progress, or maybe even things that you think are over the top. But they’re doing what feels right to the horse. Kerry says Ā (paraphrasing)”He’s more comfortable at the canter; I’m going to let him canter to the jumps.” Even though you might normally start a horse over jumps at a trot, Tempyst feels really good at the canter, so it’s easier for him.

Some horses willĀ have a really balanced canter. OTTBs have spent a lot of time cantering. When they trot, they’re usually goofing off, looking around, watching what’s going on around the racetrack, putting their head wherever they want it. Trotting is busy-work at the racetrack. It’s not thinking time.

So it’s possible that you have a prodigy at the canter. It’s going to depend on their build, it’s going to depend on what kind of exercise rider they had, it’s going to depend on how they were trained and what kind of muscle they’ve built, but once again, remember: if the horse is coming right off the track, or even a few months off the track, you’re not dealing with a horse off the range, and you’re not (in most cases) dealing with a rodeo reject. You’re dealing with a horse that’s had quite a lot of training… how are you going to mold that training and complement that training to make your OTTB a sporthorse? That’s the question.

3) An OTTB’s prior training makes him the ideal sporthorse candidate.

Race training and the racetrack life do not automatically equal a schizophrenic sociopath that is afraid of birds, and it’s time to put that rumor to rest… permanently. What’s one of the most compelling reasons to select an OTTB, with an athletic background and history, over a young green-broke horse who has only lived on the farm? Kerry says it best: “They know how to go forward!” Anyone who’s started a youngster can attest to this: young horses have no idea how to go forward. It’s hysterical how much you can boot a baby in the ribs and they will turn and look at you with big, innocent eyes. “Um, you are kicking me? So maybe we are playing a new game? Maybe I should try to bite your foot? This will be great. Good idea, mom.” And you are sitting there thinking, “My baby has no go-button.”

When, in fact, it turns out you have to install the go-button.

OTTBs: go-button pre-installed. Part of the standard package.

“You can jump right in there and get down to the details,” Kerry says, and Steuart brings up the fact that it takes twice as long to get a young home-bred to the one-star level as it does an OTTB.

I think that about sums it up.




Filed under Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge, Stereotypes

10 responses to “OTTBs: Forward, athletic, ready to learn

  1. Lois Keays

    Right ON, Natalie! Let’s not confuse real “first person” experience with the often misguided perception of experience delivered in the “third person”. Confusion when a thoroughbred misunderstands a rider request and exhibits some frustration should not be construed as resistance. His deep desire to perform and please, a genuine pre-ordained and installed work ethic is the stuff of rider dreams! Understanding the OTTB’s desire to succeed and their self-inflicted frustration presents a unique opportunity for rider achievement and development. Add to that unparalleled athleticism and beauty and we have a pre-package equestrian Gift from the Gods!

  2. Natalie,

    Great series and I have been enjoying taking the journey with these OTTBs and trainers. From our experience, many of these horses coming off the track do not come equipped with good fundamentals. My background and the background of people I have talked too (on and off the track horsemen that represent over 30 years in the industry) have noted a significant decline in the fundamentals in many of our racehorses. In fact, one ex-jockey recently said a big reason he was retiring is that he did not want to ride the poorly trained two year olds that were coming to the track. We also have been talking to Larry Damore (30 yrs galloping horses, exercise rider of multiple KY derby and eclipse award winners, started many young thoroughbreds for the track, has been involved with OTTBs & horseshoe inspector for Hollywood Park) about how industry, especially the horsemanship, has changed over the past decades. Horsemen like these, in my opinion, are the barometer of the training that our young thoroughbreds receive and to ignore them is would not be good for the breed or our sport.


    • Highgunner ā€” I know you feel that way, and I do not. But it really depends on where the horse is coming from, so we could be dealing with very different circumstances. I’ve ridden for trainers who produce two-year-old horses that could just as easily win a training level dressage test as go out and win on the track… and I feel certain that they do both in their lifetimes.

      Whether you approve of their fundamental training or not, one cannot deny that they come pre-equipped with a work ethic, basic cues, and the desire to move out and show their stuff to the world. Truly, as Lois said, a pre-packaged gift!

      • Yes, there are good racing trainers who do provide great fundamentals to young thoroughbreds but far fewer than years past. I also agree there are regional differences in training. This was a quote from a rescue person in Texas: “And that the Texas-bred racehorses are often especially kind and easy to work with (due to their ranch-raised childhoods and good foundations under saddle)” But to ignore what our senior backside horsemen from Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar are saying about the decline in fundamentals in our young thoroughbreds does not make sense. I would love to have you come out and discuss this issue with those that we talk to. Appreciate all you do for our thoroughbreds.


      • Sadly I do not see a California trip in my future any time soon! Some day.

  3. Great post, Natalie–and near and dear to my heart, as you well know.

    And I agree with Highgunner. Come to California!! Please? šŸ™‚ Think of the blog series we could write! Of course, it would be good to get paid for that, wouldn’t it? Hm. Have to work on that part of the deal.

    I admit to being biased by the trainers I know at GGF and the horses I see there who all have some basic fundamental manners. If there are lapses in training out here, that would be a subject to tackle for sure.

  4. Love the little part about cantering. An eventing trainer who’s been around the block (in the best possible way) was at the track with us one day looking at a horse exercise and said to us “Always watch them canter. Too much emphasis on the trot. The walk and the canter will show you if they know how to use their hind end.” Makes sense, especially with the trot being “busy work” at the track. šŸ™‚

    • I totally wrote that in the novel I’m working on right now… but I may have cut it out. I can’t remember. But the line was “Never look at the trot… the trot will tell you nothing.” LOL!

  5. Summer

    I’ve been on so many ottb over my life, and they are the best, hands down. They are all very different as individuals. But, one thing that seems to be consistent, one thing I find so funny and love. You can pick out all 4 feet from one side. C’mon, thats a great thing. Tap the leg, and viola!, foot is picked up. I have never met a ottb that does not happily offer the “next” foot while picking, or trimming/shoeing. Its the little things that make me smile. Also, my current horse, Man That Alarm, has the most amazing and balanced canter. His trot, oh my, it’s like a hyperactive toy poodle having epileptic seizures. All over the place. But, we have the best canter, so thats one thing I can cross off the retraining list. Oh, and he picks up all 4 feet from one side of course. Haha Keep up the amazing writing my friend. Im always here reading. Always. (: