“You Can’t Hug a Thoroughbred”

My neighbor told me you can’t hug a Thoroughbred.

I think that was the catalyst, really, where it all started. Having grown up with Thoroughbreds – on the track, off the track, breaking from the starting gates, jumping double oxers, you name it – I have always been convinced of the breed’s total superiority in all things.

Sure, they have their quirks. They have history. A Thoroughbred fresh off the racetrack has forgotten more than most of us will ever see. They have been pin-cushions for veterinarians, they have logged thousands of miles in horse vans, making the trek from race meet to race meet. Perhaps, compared to a show horse, they have been taught very little – but what they have been taught is very specific.

The universal cues of the racehorse: change leads on the turns. When the jockey takes hold of the bit, push down against his weight and run. When the jockey loosens the reins and stands up, relax – the work day is over. And always, always, always stay in motion. That part is more genetic, than taught. A Thoroughbred’s most important purpose in life is to keep moving forward.

Go on. Hug him.

When my neighbor told me I couldn’t hug a Thoroughbred, the way she could hug a Quarter Horse, a whole chain of events started sputtering to life in my mind. First and foremost, it seemed that a sizeable portion of the equestrian community, expert and fluent in so many breeds and disciplines, didn’t understand the very unique life and thought process of the racehorse.

Moreover, retired Thoroughbred racehorses, which have dominated the American showing and eventing scene for so many years, have recently begun to feel the push from Warmbloods and cross-breds. Thoroughbreds are being categorized as “hot,” and “sensitive,” and “too much horse” for the average equestrian. They’re being marketed as “For Experienced Rider Only,” or “Great For Professional.” The rare quiet horse is being tagged as “Not a typical Thoroughbred!”

How, I wondered, could these horses be so universally tough to ride, when my childhood companion had been a five-year-old Off-Track Thoroughbred (OTTB), just six months off the racetrack? He’d been just the first in a long line of OTTBs that I’d taught dressage, jumping, and cross-country to.

And so, following this conversation with my neighbor (and myself), something serendipitious happened. A Thoroughbred, five years old, plain bay with a tiny white snip on his nose, came into my life. He and I are partnering up – with this blog – to help the world remember that nothing is quite so wonderful – and compulsively huggable – as a retired racehorse.

55 responses to ““You Can’t Hug a Thoroughbred”

  1. Aawww. Love the new look! And I’ve hugged a few. 😉

  2. Jitka

    Hi, I found your blog while looking for some TBs on-line; you have a wonderfull website/blog here!!! I’ll be a frequent reader.
    TBs are my favorite breed and I also used to gallop them long time ago and as a teenager in Central Europe.
    Now I have 2, one of them OTTB, one never raced, training them as eventers.
    Thank you very much for your articles and you are a wonderfull advocate for these horses!!!
    I suggest you add Steuart Pittman to your links:

    Cheers, Jitka

  3. GemTwist

    I always hug the TB’s in my barn. there are 5, 4 are OTTB One is just the sweetest thing and hugging him is a pleasure. I rather prefer hugging him to the 2 QH’s in the barn and my Appendix is not at all affectionate!

  4. Louise Bantner

    You’re absolutely right. They are lovely horses, and they love people and attention. Were they not so kind by nature, they wouldn’t put up with the training and work they undergo at the race track. They get a minimum of breaking at the track. So if they seem wild, that is why. But take one of those horses off the track, and give it a chance to learn, it’s a great companion — by and large. There are some bad eggs, not to use a mixed metaphor, but there are unpleasant individuals in all the breeds.

    I have two thoroughbreds, neither of which went to the track.One especially enjoys being hugged and having his ears rubbed. The other can live without the hugs, but he’s nonetheless an unusually kind, sensible horse.

    Both horses have a certain amount of spirit and bluster, which might be a bit off-putting, no pun intended, for someone with little riding experience. But those are my horses. There are thousands of retired thoroughbreds. among which are mounts for any level of rider.

  5. Meg Ash

    I love your blog. 🙂
    I love thoroughbreds. I want to put them in a little cotton wool ball and carry them around. ❤
    Not sure they would appreciate that though 🙂
    Perhaps a hug will have to do
    Peace, Meg

    Charming. 🙂

  6. Another avowed OTTB-hugger here. I’ve added you to my blog roll and look forward to following your journey. And, for the record – OTTBs hug back. http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1350/5183992925_47d0b3a09a.jpg

  7. melinda brown

    are there specific ways race horses are asked for lead changes? My daughter has a wonderful ottb. smartest horse i have ever been around. he is a wonder. he just sometimes picks up the wrong lead even with the correct Hunter type signals. since these horses are ridden at high speeds and with legs up on their withers, How does a jockey signal the horse to pick up a lead?

    • Hmm I had to think about this. Some things just happen so quickly you don’t really remember.

      Something important to remember about riding in an exercise saddle is that your left leg, the inside leg, generally doesn’t come into play that often. It’s your “bracing” leg and it’s usually on the girth or close to the horse’s elbow. So when you ask for any signal with your left leg, it’s unlikely to mean much to a recent OTTB.

      Your right leg, the outside leg, is generally further back and you can use it to signal lead changes. So you might find that your horse will more easily switch from right lead to left lead with outside leg-inside rein, and from left to right with outside leg-outside rein. That might be causing some of the confusion.

      When coming into a turn and asking for a change to the left lead, I would counter-bend the horse (outside/outside) and then give a quick kick (or use the stick on reluctant horses) while switching to the inside rein.

      When coming out of the turn and asking for a change to the right lead, I would just do the counter-bend with a kick or stick.

      The faster you are going, the easier a lead change is. By the time the horse is racing, he is going so quickly it’s easier to get the lead change. A well-trained horse will do it automatically, and a jockey can get it with hand and whip if necessary.

      A smack on the neck or hind end just as you give outside leg is a big help.

    • thoroughbreds44

      I am an exercise rider at Monmouth Park but also re-school them when they get off the track. Like Natalie said, we don’t have our legs on them so we need to use our weight…. just like in the show ring!
      if you want the left lead throw your weight to the right, and if you want the right lead throw your weight to the left.
      ***The best thing to remember is everything is opposite.***
      Try making a figure eight using the whole ring and when you hit the center line bend them and use your weight all in the opposite direction of the desired lead. Soon you will just be able to roll your shoulder back and use your seat and make it not even noticeable.

    • Dana

      I asst train own and gallop race horses jockeys do it with the movment of the bit the best way to pick up your correct lead is to pick it up In a corner of where your riding …. Soo as your walking into your corner use your outside leg push hip towards the center of the ring and as his hip is in cue him and squeeze he/ she should pick it up and if he dose keep that lead do circle keeping that lead then walk reward then try agin at the next corner you are probably having a hard time picking up the right lead?? Most tb’s have a hard time picking up the right lead because they run counter clock wise and only gallop that way

  8. LOVE THIS! Thanks for posting this… I have an OTTB who has gone 600 consecutive miles under my feet through where most other breeds would be terrified to go. Here’s some more testimony to the superiority and extraordinary characteristics of the breed. I got her a very short time off the track…. 🙂

  9. Deb

    I had a paint and when she was a baby, the lady I purchased her from kept her in a field with a huge (and I do mean HUGE) OTTB. He was such a sweetheart – which is why they were put together. She wanted my baby to learn from him how to act! Not only could you hug him but when I was out in the field, he would come up to me and nuzzle me and want to chew on my hair.

  10. Lorri

    I own an OTTB named Pac The Cooler. I hug her everyday! She was slow on the track. 22 races and only finished third, once. Today she is an awesome trail horse. She’s priceless to us!

  11. LOVE IT!! I have a training and lesson facility, and after all the breeds to pass through my hands, I have gotten to a point where all I will own in TBs (And Arabians). I have a son of Fly So Free (Flying Cayman – Bloodhorse featured him back in Sept.) that I picked up from the track in IL. That horse has been to hell & back with me, carries my little lesson kids with care, then turns into a beast for me runngin Barrels…And everyone say’s, “He’s not your typical TB”…”Oh I had a TB once and got rid of it because it was ‘Crazy'”….And the only answer I have to that is that a Thoroughbred is a perfect reflection of his owner.

  12. BK

    To your neighbor I reply: http://helpfortbs.blogspot.com/2010/03/why-i-ate-peanut-butter-for-three-weeks.html

    Yep, that’s me hugging a thoroughbred, more specifically an OTTB. I can also tell your neighbor authoritatively that every single one that has come through Thoroughbred Placement and Rescue (www.goodhorse.org) gets hugs, scratches, kisses and every other kind of spoiling you can imagine.

  13. Kim Alexander

    Wow, poignant and sincere. I have found SO many wonderful people who love thoroughbreds as much as I do ever since I fulfilled a ‘bucket list’ item and rescued a lovely guy this January. He never knew a hug till he came to live with us… didn’t take him long to love ’em though!
    Love what you do. Let’s all keep on keepin on and show the world how awesome these animals are!

  14. Hugging is the first thing I teach a retired thoroughbred racehorse to do. It is a super easy trick to teach because they feel the love and want to return the kindness. It is a bonding experience for horse and rider.
    Donna Keen
    Remember Me Racehorse Rescue

  15. Marie


    I was a groom on the track and I hugged “my horses” everyday. I know many other grooms who did this also. I now own 9 of them and I still hug them everyday. They are my favorite breed.

  16. Allison

    My childhood horse was an OTTB, too. She was 17.3 hh and I was 7. She was “hot” and “crazy” and “dangerous”. She taught me that hugs and trust are earned, and she challenged me for the rest of my life to only have Thoroughbreds. And I’ve never met a breed that loves and appreciates hugs more. Can’t wait to read more!

  17. Bobby Ann Chistensen

    The most huggable horse I have owned was my 5 year old ottb mare. In a barn with qh, Arabs, paints, sky was the only one who would stand there for however long you needed and hug her. The sensitive part of the TB is what makes them so in tune with our feelings and emotions. I used to say of a sensitive paint TB I have that he replicates your emotions -if your happy he I happy, if your scared he is scared, if you are sad then he is sad. My ottb knew what I needed on any given day, whether it be a fun gallop, a distract me from the rest of the world workout, or a relaxing ride, she fit the bill every time. I tell everyone I know if they want a great horse, visit the track. You’ll be happy you did.

  18. natalie

    My first horse was a $500 TB. My first advanced horse was another $500 TB that was a racetrack reject. I have primarily ridden TB’s my entire life( both off the track and homebred’s) and had a lot of success with them. I still continue to love TB’s or mostly TB’s for eventing and have a breeder friend that produces wonderful TB sport horses by her TB stallion that have the bone and athletic ability of a TB and the movement of a warm blood. Idk how she found( besides her dedication to really knowing bloodlines!!!) this great group of TB mares and stallion for her small time breeding operation, but it works! They have all been great 🙂

  19. Bree

    Both of my Thoroughbred mares love to be hugged. In return, they love to give me kisses. These aren’t your typical on the front of the nose kisses, though. I teach mine to kiss me with the soft part of the side of the mouth just above their lips. This makes it a sideways motion where they can see you instead of in their blind spot at the end of the nose. Both mares will pop their heads out of their stalls when I get to the barn and give me a quick kiss before going back to their hay. Sometimes I will be standing near one of them and they make the first move to kiss me! Even though I teach them how to do it with treats, and they often get treats with kisses, they seem to know it is a sign of affection and offer it on their own without any hint of treats.

  20. lizbraun123

    My young years on the Hunter/Jumper/EQ circuit were all spent on ottb horses. The greatest horse I ever had was an OTTB. She did the A circuit hunters, EQ and Medal classes, hack classes, Jumpers, Dressage and even some x-country. SHe was a serious competitor in all rings. She took me right up to prelim jumpers at Spruce meadows. SHe saved my butt more times than I could count and she was sweet and affectionate and loving. Sure, she could be a bit hot and was a lot of horse to ride, but at the same time, I could put a beginner on her back and she would trot around like it was a pony ride, always ever so careful of the precious cargo on her back. Riding OTTB horses makes you a better rider. If you can’t ride a spirited horse then you need to go back to basics for a while. My mare was the best horse I have ever worked with and I am a grand prix jumper with 35 years in the saddle. She was one in a million and we could communicate without words or aids. I bred her twice and I retired her. She passed away at the age of 28 and it was heart breaking. Her last dying thoughts were of me. The vet was there and she was struggling to breathe and we knew it was the end. SHe had her head in my lap and she was fighting to keep going and she kept looking up at me,like she didn’t want to go and leave me alone. My 5 year old son came up and stroked her head and said “It’s ok Star. I will take care of mommy for you.” She gave me one last look and took her last breath. She took care of me til the end, she was my best friend, my heart and my constant companion. My teacher, my protector, my therapist… Anyone who thinks you can’t hug a TB has never had one. The bond you get with a TB is unlike anything else.

  21. jamie coughlin

    I have 2 TB mares, I hug and kiss them both all the time. And they can hug back too! One is a failed OTTB and one was show bred. they have their quirks but most intelligent horses do (and some dumb ones!) The OTTB does have some issues but they are not from her breeding but rather her rather brutal treatment at a small time track.

  22. mhm

    An inside release helps an ex-racehorse to change leads; check (half-halt) the rein on the side which you wish to change to, then tap the opposite (outside) hip as that leg is fully extended and just about to leave the ground. Release the rein which you held just a moment before, and sit deeper on the outside simultaneously. The leading/outside hind leg will then step up under the horse to carry your weight, and his foreleg will follow the lead established from behind as the inside rein is released. The whip, or crop, substitutes for the leg.

    As a trainer, it seems to me that racing thoroughbreds learn a lot at the track, and most are pretty calm. However, a lot of young horses never get the chance to run much, as they are not well broke when they arrive at the track, and that is how they leave. With all the exercise and lots of good feed, they are hot and ready to go.

    Happy New Year! Great blog, good luck.

  23. Anna

    I have to laugh-
    I can’t tell you how many people told me I was crazy when they learned that my very first ride on my 3 year old, then 6-months-off-the-track Thoroughbred was bareback, with a rope halter, and not a stitch of retraining. It was the best ride, ever. It was short, but exhilarating, even at a walk.
    Oh, and it was my first ride in 25 or so years.
    And the only Thoroughbred I’ve ever been up on.

  24. I have come up against the racist stereotyping against TBs repeatedly. First, no one believes my gentle, cuddly TB is in fact, not part QH. (He isn’t. He’s tattooed and descended from Man O’ War). Second, I’ve had people say (usually after I’ve done something dumb and come off my horse), “You need a nice paint.” I looked around the barn at all the paints: 1. Bucked off his rider last trail ride, 2. ditto, 3. impossible to ride in a straight line and barn sour, 4. batshit crazy and dangerous, 5. ditto, 6. dependable but choppy and lazy, and 7. ok, one’s good. I’ve found my TB is always completely engaged with me; I don’t think I could ever interact with a “deadhead” now that I know what it feels like to have a willing partner.

    On the other hand, the flipside of the stereotype is Hunter Jumper barns where they excuse all sorts of behavior with “oh, he’s a TB alright,” instead of taking a week and desensitizing and training the horses.

  25. Isa

    I love my OTTB. He is super huggable. He loves to cuddle and play with people’s hair. It took him about a year to warm up and realize that it’s okay to take and give affection, but now that he’s got it, he’s a grade 1 teddy bear. People don’t give these horses a chance. People write them off as dangerous without realizing that they’ve had very stressful lives and have never received consistent love and good horsemanship. Mine was dangerous when I first got him, admittedly, but I understood why and helped him to work through it. He has never been malicious, he just didn’t understand and didn’t trust. He is now the bravest, kindest, most hardworking (not to mention most talented) horse in our hunter jumper barn. He puts the 6 digit warmbloods to shame. You have to work harder for the end result, but once you get it, you get so much more back than you put in.

    • Julie

      “You have to work harder for the end result, but once you get it, you get so much more back than you put in.”

      I’ve learned more in less than a year with my OTTB, then I learned in 20 years of starting stock breed types. He is making me a better horse person. I love earning the great feeling I get when leaving the barn. He won’t follow me down the road over the bridge and past the flapping flag because he’s a dead head…he does it because I’ve given him time, patience, leadership, trust, etc.

      If you ride an OTTB raise your hand, if you don’t raise your standards! 🙂

  26. Jen

    I also love my OTTB! he was a rescue and is just the sweetest thing! I did have to ‘convince’ him how wonderful hugs are and now he loves them (as long as they come with a good face and ear rub, and maybe a cookie)!! My TB also took some time to ‘warm up’ but that is because, I think, they are not used to just being loved for who they are? We all have our faults, I know I do!
    I know he was mis-treated by some awful person in his past and he is working hard at trusting again. he wants it so bad! I am so thankful I am the one that can give him that ‘soft place to land’. he is my sweet ‘Pony’, all 16 hands of him!!

  27. Hello! I sure do love this website, it really speaks to me because my life has totally changed since I was introduced to the magical thoroughbred! It has inspired me to have my own website about them and our experiences together. I own five of my own thoroughbreds and would never change a thing! I hope if you have the time to visit my site that you will enjoy yourself as much as I am enjoying yours 🙂

  28. Asher Murning

    Im 13 and my first horse was an off the track TB
    sure it wasn’t as easy as my friend with the push button pony thats 10000000000$$
    But in the long run I’ve learnt a lot more than her
    and have accomplished more

  29. gretchen

    I hug my TB’s EVERY SINGLE DAY!!! LOVE this blog! LOVE THOROUGHBREDS! A smarter, more sensitive, more caring horse with more heart, you will never find. Thorogubreds will teach you. They will teach you to ride. They will teach you about life. They will teach you about heart and determination and try. And they’ll do it with grace and beauty and boldness. I fell in love with thoroughbreds the first time I went to a TB breeding barn. How could you NOT love those big, inquisitive eyes and those bright alert ears? In regards to throroughbreds and hugs, the most amazing thing about TB’s is that they are so sensitive that they absolutely KNOW when you need a hug. Twice, I have been grieving the loss of a horse and gone to the barn and both times it has been one of the TB’s that has come over and put their head in my lap or over my shoulder and just stood there. Horses with brain and heart!

  30. Christy

    I hug my two every single day and can’t wait to tonight 🙂

  31. Robbin Ott

    I hug and give mine a kiss on the nose everyday, Love my OTTB mare, cece’s dream, she is very gentle, smart and amazing!

  32. I hug my OTTB everyday and she hugs me back. She nuzzles me, plays with me and is a all around sweet lovable horse. The bred is so misunderstood, just as they are trained to race they can be trained to do anything. Big hearted wonderful horses and really what i think anyone wants is a horse with heart who will do anything you ask because … they love you back.

  33. Kristi Puls

    How funny I stumbled across this website last night, on the link of a friend. And then I read this post how you “can’t hug a TB”. HA!

    This morning I woke up, told my 7 year old daughter that it was our horse Pilgrim’s birthday today (he turns 15). She replied, “Yay! I want to go out and give him a great big hug”.

    Yes Virginia, you can hug a TB.

  34. Sue

    We have a 13 yr old OTTB, he is wonderful and LOVES HUGS!! He is the first horse we have ever owned and we have rec’vd lots of negative comments after we bought him. My daughter is 17 and has a very mild auspergers, this beautiful horse connected with her in minutes of their first meeting. Only problem he gets picked on by the other horses in the pasture and will not fight back. We have no regrets and feel sorry for those who don’t get these horses a chance, they don’t know what they are missing!!

  35. Xtalgrrl

    I have two OTTBs. One is 26 and the other is more freshly removed from the racetrack, as he is 6. They are both sweet men, who are brave and bold. My older guy was an A-circuit hunter, and everyone assumed he was a warmblood because of his stature- 16.3hh & ~1500lbs. They were never confused when I let him gallop in his younger years, however, because he would throw down a home-strech lead change and flash by at light speed. I have spent most of my life on OTTBs, and I have to agree, they are amazing. Thank goodness for those formerly broken toys!

  36. Natalie du Toit

    I have a 36 year old thoroughbred (off the track during the 70’s – don’t laugh!) and he is the most loveable, huggable horse ever. I will always choose a thoroughbred – they are so much fun.

  37. Sam may

    Tb horses are the best I have two chestnut ones! My ex racer is the safest most trustworthy horse I have ever ridden he has my small nieces and nephews riding him all the time and he’s a perfect gentleman but we can still leave everyone for dust when we gallop on the beach 🙂 thoroughbred forever ❤

  38. Amy

    We have a beautiful OTTB that my 10 year old daughters ride. I trust her completely. Far more than my sisters paint. She raced and won yet doesn’t push more than a trot or occasional gallop with my girls. She seems to know they are young. I hug all over and she rests her head o my shoulder, I have gotten shocking comments from horse “experts” about her being to young (she’s 8) and being a wrong breed for what my girls want. (We ride her westrn and my daughter wants to rodeo and run barrels) Talk about breaking the stereotype! She is so smart and I have ZERO doubt she will be with my girls for years and years to come and take them anywhere they want to go!

  39. Krista

    My OTTB, took awhile, but now she is very loveable…that’s the thing with TB’s, they don’t let just anyone hug them…but once your in, it is an amazing relationship.

  40. Kat

    We got our OTTB when he was 6 and my daughter was 12. He has taught her to be an amazing rider. They show both hunter and jumper with great success and are now getting into eventing. He has so much heart and try – sometimes I think he can do anything! Best of all is his intelligent, loving nature. He is closer to my daughter than any human and has been her solace through very difficult times. I wouldn’t want to imagine life without him -he is that important to us. We have other horses, but he is THE ONE. We are so grateful for his hugs and kisses, and that he shares his life with us. ❤ our OTTB!!

  41. When working in a racing stable in Melbourne, Australia, I was lass to seven 2-year-old colts in full training – perhaps the most volatile of all TBs. Of those 7, 5 were huggable (of the other 2, one was too headshy, the other a rig). One, by the Epsom Derby winner Generous, is by far the most gentle and genuine horse I have ever come across in my life and that’s counting the Shelties and riding school plods I grew up with. Hug him? I used to shower him in kisses and with 3am starts I would come in and have a catnap with my head on his belly, both lying down! Whoever told you you can’t hug a Thoroughbred hasn’t had much to do with them IMO. 🙂

  42. sue

    I have a beautiful thoroughbread 16 2h hes 19.i am a novice rider .people i speak to think i was mad when i chose this breed of horse.but he is loyal and my best friend i would trust him with my life.

  43. 4. Ellen

    How true. I have worked with hunter jumpers since I was in my 20’s and galloping 2 year old and working retired and just off the track horses for the last 15 years. I grew up training my Grandfathers trail horses every summer. I have ridden all breeds and TBs are smart willing versital and strong. I have had people call me and want me to work their “crazy” TB.
    Ninety nine times out of a hundred it is the owner that are crazy and the TB is trying to figure out why the owner is crazy and what in the world they are doing wrong. They are really
    wonderful and that being said I don’t think a TB is a great first time horse because they are usually smarter than their owners.

  44. Nicola Mielke

    What is the blog. We are getting a 6 year old and I’m eager to follow you

  45. Nuala Galbari

    They are wonderful horses and love to be loved.

  46. Lexi

    This needs to be seen and heard by more people! I completely agree with everything you’ve said. i’ve seen the same ads about retired thoroughbred racehorses being “ too much” for the average person. It’s crazy how people don’t see retired thoroughbreds as normal horses and your story with your OTTB proves them wrong!

  47. Nicole

    Ran across your blog, and find it funny as well. Just acquired a injured OTTB not yet raced but trained and almost started. By the grace of god, and stroke of luck, timing worked out in our favor. I could t resist his cute face, and the fact he was such a snuggle bug hugger, head shy yes, but quickly got over that (0:

  48. Nuala C. Galbari

    Ah now! As an Irish TB owner, I can tell you they love affection and hugs are OK. Generally, a horse would only be ‘hugged’ by a lion or tiger — so it’s not natural for them to respond kindly to that. Rubs on the withers are better. We have to remember that in their track lives, it is 10% riding and 90% care. Give them short rides, and long baths, grooms, hand work, walks, and lots of affection. Keep your OTTB for life!

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