OTTB Basics: The First 10 Days

King William, OTTB

Tanya van Meelis and her newest OTTB, King William. Photo: T. van Meelis

The American political system is passionate about reviewing what the president has achieved after 100 days office. It regards it as a good measure of things to come. I think the same can be said when you get your ex-race horse off the track. The difference is with good and focused work, an adequate review can be made within only 10 days.

Work your new horse in a focused way

Thoroughbreds that have raced are used to routine and work. The racing barns are stressful environments – and they are run like machines. There are set times to work, to eat, etc. What this often means is that your new horse will probably take a bit of time adapting to his new environment with you. For example, if he gets paddock time this may come as a bit of a shock. Racing horses in training often don’t get much paddock time in order to prevent injury.

What this all also means is that your horse will be used to working, and you can expect him to apply himself to his work from day 1. Therefore don’t baby him – work him. If you need to, ask him kindly and firmly to perform to standard – but do it for shorter periods of time. Doing 20- 30 minutes of focused work correctly is better than an hour of incorrect work. He can build up from there over time.

Retrain your horse for a new environment

Your horse must immediately learn that a new environment means new rules. If you teach this from basics, it will make it easier for him. The start is that he learns to stand still when requested. Jockeys often mount and move off immediately. I teach my horses to stand still when I mount. They must stand patiently until I ask them to walk. It’s a basic of obedience in riding for a horse – move forward on command and halt on command.

King William OTTB gazing at field

Paddock time, just one of many new experiences for an OTTB. Photo: T. van Meelis

My first bit of basic schooling the green horse focuses on:

  • Moving off the leg on command
  • Slowing down and downward transitions
  • Not allowing leaning on my hands or pulling
  • Circles, serpentines and turning in response to leg aids and looking where I go
  • The horse maintaining attention and learning

At this point I don’t worry too much where his head is, as long as his nose isn’t poking up to the sky.

If you focus more on riding a set path that the horse should follow you start getting:

  • Straighter lines or rounder circles instead of zigging around feeling like you have an inch worm under you sometimes
  • A better quality pace
  • A more confident horse because he is sure where to go and what to do.

Socalizing your new horse

I’ve just started producing my new baby King William who has just come off the track. Within the first week I worked him with other horses and rode him in a warm up arena at a training show.  Riding with other horses produced high excitement – especially when they came towards him. Socializing an ex-race horse means they have to learn to work with other horses in a variety of settings. As long as we ride them calmly and confidently this can be achieved. (Though I have to say I also had to manage to sit a few fly leaps as well).

What they also have to learn is that the music at shows doesn’t have to get their adrenaline up – they are not about to race. I’m all for taking the ex-race horse to show environments as soon as possible. Let them walk around, watch and stand still when you ask. If there are not hundreds of ponies galloping around the warm up arena madly, do some quiet work in the warm up arena. The idea is to let your horse have a good and calm working experience, not make them crazy.

Expose your horse to different environments and things

Besides going to shows to walk around, I’d taken King William on a trail on the fourth time I rode him. I think trails are great for any horse  – it gives them a break from schooling, builds fitness and is generally good for the soul. It introduces the young horse to a range of new things in a relaxed manner – just go with a steady companion. This ‘stable old timer’ can teach him that outrides and the “big wide world” are fun, enjoyable and “there be no dragons.”

Exposing your horse to new things can also mean that you can introduce him to pole work. I think walking and trotting over poles from the beginning of training is great for show jumpers in the making. It can’t harm their joints but it teaches them to pick up their legs and start judging distances.  They also learn not to be scared of poles.

Teach your horse what it’s like to be loved

The racing yards are somewhat impersonal. There are a lot of horses and they are there to work. Some lucky race horses that have companionate owners and/or trainers, and they get placed in good homes with people who will look after and love them. These ex-race horses need to ‘learn to be loved’.  Each horse is different and some like to be fussed over and cuddled more than others.  But there is nothing more rewarding than giving a horse a good home.

Assessing your young horse after 10 days

After 10 days of focused work you should have a good idea of the following:

  • Your horse’s work ethic
  • How quickly your horse learns
  • How your horse learns best
  • Which side he is stiffer on
  • How he works with other horses
  • How quickly you are able to settle him in new environments and get and maintain his concentration
  • How naturally brave he is and how you can build his confidence
  • How you can bond with him
  • How you can get the best out of him

The information you get from these first 10 days can help you moving forward. It gives you a good idea where you are working from. If you diarise it, it will be great to look back on one day. The more detailed you are the more you will notice progress because young horses learn in small steps over time. The information also provides keys to your training programme. Each horse is different and we need to work with them in different ways. This all also helps you to nurture what will hopefully be a wonderful and fruitful partnership with your ex-race horse that develops over time.

 Tanya van Meelis is a competitive show jumper with two horses. She has the blog Horse Thought.

“The blog is the personal opinion and views of the author. It contains general information and may contain inaccuracies. You should always seek the advice of a professional horse riding instructor on your own specific situation and circumstances.”



Filed under OTTB Basics, Sport Horses, Training Theory

8 responses to “OTTB Basics: The First 10 Days

  1. Interesting perspective. I have to say, if I had assessed my OTTB Miles in the first 10 days he was with me in such a manner I would have made the biggest mistake of my life and sent him back. He needed 3 weeks to settle in to his new environment, and then it was like switch got flipped and he was a different horse. This was after plenty of down time off the track as well. Now he is a big teddy bear who is one of the sanest horses I’ve ever ridden…but it took time to bring that out. Totally worth the wait

    • Good to know. Every horse is different! I think these are good goalposts, though, to stop people from trying to move too quickly… something Miles clearly wasn’t going to let you do 😉

    • Hi Sarah. Thanks so much for replying. I’m glad to hear that you persevered with your horse and that you are so happy with him. Different horses take different times to settle. My key point though is that you can tell alot of their real characteristics within the first 10 days – their work ethic; their willingness to learn; how brave they are. If you like these essential elements in your horse – when you have seen him or her at his or her “worst” – stressed and totally green, then you are set for a good partnership. However, you won’t get to determine these characteristics in your horse if you are not trying to work him – even if it is only for 15 to 20 minutes. To me your story is a case in point – there must have been something that you liked in your horse that made you want to keep him. And what you saw proved you right! He settled and grew into the horse you had the eye for.

      I keep remembering they are total babies. Today I almost came flying off King William as he decided to career across the arena in absolute glee, fly leaping and bucking. In a few years I will be able to look back and laugh. Today I was just hoping to not hit the ground.

  2. “At this point I don’t worry too much where his head is, as long as his nose isn’t poking up to the sky.”
    That’s such a brilliant thing to say, thank you. About time I read “Let their heads alone”. Excellent.

    Each horse settles according to his own timetable, and the talents of his trainer. Wouldn’t days for some, also mean weeks for others?

    Great post. Good luck to them all.

    • Thanks for the great comment! I agree the pace of progress depends on the horse and the trainer. I also think it helps to have a really good person on the ground helping keep an eye on things and giving feedback. For me the joy about riding is that we can continue to learn – from each other and from each horse we ride.

  3. As non-PC as this is a horse fresh off the track who has run in the last month will need to be “Let Down”. It will need time to clean all of the extra drugs that are given at the track out of it’s system. Expect weight loss. Some horses loose only 25-50 lbs. Some will loose ^ of 250-300 lbs. It is what it is. What Media Relations say and the Truth of what happens in the barns are VERY VERY different things. I don’t have the time or patience for the twaddle the AJC is selling, I only care about the horses who are used up and have been discared by their industry. Knowing the Truth will help the new owners, Politically Correct Propoganda will Not!

    • This can actually be true, although it isn’t true 100% of the time. But you will see some changes if a horse has been on some sort of steroid or other medication.

      Not every OTTB is coming directly from a racing stable or from training, and not every OTTB coming from a racing stable or from training is going to have been on major drug therapy. But I have seen it happen, so thank you for pointing that out.

      I don’t think anything in this piece is propaganda, however. This is a set of goalposts for new OTTB owners to consider as they bring their horse along.

    • Hi Lori. I think that any work with horses always has to put the welfare of the horse and the safety of the rider first. This is without question and can never be compromised. I’ve seen horses come out of racing looking fabulous and within 2 months looking shocking because the rubbish that was pumped into their systems is working its way out. If one does get a horse where you do suspect this is the case, the best thing to do is consult a vet and get advice on how to let the horse down properly. This is especially the case if you are not sure what medication the horse had been given.

      However, I’ve also seen many horses come out of racing yards and begin work programs such as I have described. The yards I’ve ridden at have established relationships with trainers which helps. In the case of King William, I have been extremely fortunate. He was racing before we got him, but my coach has a very long standing relationship with the racing trainer. She has got many horses from him before.

      What I worry about most is what happens to horses who have been pumped full of lord knows what by unscrupulous trainers, raced until they can no longer perform, and then just discarded.