the amateur and the ottb

There’s been a bit of buzz in my blog feed lately about off track thoroughbreds, amateurs, and their appropriateness together.  In case you missed them, SprinklerBandit started it off with her “The Case Against The OTTB“, Lauren rebutted with “The Case For The OTTB“, and Calm, Forward, Straight chimed in with her personal story.

Oftentimes when I read posts that generate discussion at various blogs I think about writing a response, but often hold my tongue as all of my opinions are already collected in the comments.  And the comments become a wonderful area for discussion, and clarification, and they add so much to the conversation.  But I’ve got a big mouth and I can’t help but say something here too.

In case you were unaware, I love ottbs (if you’re wondering why sometimes capitals and sometimes not, I prefer little letters, but the former authors included capitals in their titles so I followed their lead).  I have been captivated, impressed, and fallen in love.  Thanks to my trainer’s projects, I have, under supervision, ridden ottbs in all different states — straight off the back side, after months or years of let down, after a few months of retraining, after years in another career.  In all this time, I have never felt unsafe on one of these horses, either under the watchful eye of my trainer or not (on the ground with a certain someone is an entirely different issue).   In fact, in all of my riding the horse I felt least safe on had been off the track for 10 years, and that was simply because of my own inexperience riding.

But to buy a horse off the track — and I make the distinction that SB did here, because there’s a serious difference between horses off the back side and horses with retraining — is a far cry from buying a made horse.  I disagree with SB’s statement that they aren’t green: you simply cannot call a four year old, even with two years of training on the track “seasoned”.  However, they are trained, fit, and ready to work in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

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Buying from the track can be an ordeal in and of itself.  Austen made the excellent point that it’s hard to evaluate a horse at the track, only their trainers and grooms really have the experience with them to know them, and a quick visit might not get you everything you need to know.  A trial from the track is also almost impossible, I’m pretty sure random visitors can’t just ride a horse on the back side, and I’m sure the number of trainers willing to let a horse disappear for a week or two is probably limited.  There’s also all the track lingo, which might not be crystal clear to everyone who hears it.  (Why yes, I’m sure that horse has a knee, I was hoping he had two of them?)

Having a friendly, knowledgeable connection at the track can be invaluable, both to help you find good horses and give you insider knowledge on others that you might be interested in.  These horses work hard and do it young, so there’s more to consider in terms of long-term soundness in a 4 year old retired racehorse than a barely-touched 4 year old fresh from the field.  Horse traders will be horse traders, regardless of discipline or breed, and dishonest people exist in every business.  We all know this, however, I imagine it’s much easier to overlook little hesitations you might have with the price tag many ottbs come with.

Then there is the retraining, which SB cautioned is a long process, and Lauren suggested brings the joy of the journey rather than the destination.  In my opinion, few amateurs are capable of training green horses alone anyway, regardless of their prior training, be it converting them from the racetrack, western life, hunters, or pasture puff.  Untraining old habits is hard no matter what they are — running counter clockwise on the turf or never having to work and eating grass all day in a pasture with your friends — and training new ones is just as hard!  However, there are lots of amateurs who have the temperament to do this successfully with help, and the rewards far outweigh the pace of progress, to me.

So yes. A straight off the track racehorse, be it thoroughbred, standardbred, quarter, or appaloosa, is not the best horse for everyone.  However, I think they might be the right horse for more people than you think.

free jump 1

Racehorses have an absolutely wonderful work ethic.  It’s not just their early training, it’s bred into them.  Certainly highly performing warmbloods have it too, I saw the way Flexible looks at Grand Prix jumps, the determination with which little Rothchild faces down his competition, and the look on Valegro’s face when he does his victory lap at the CDI.  But how many amateurs have access to such well-bred, hard-working warmbloods?  There’s a population of hard working, determined, athletic, enthusiastic horses in every state, working their asses off for people they might not know that well — imagine what they could do for someone they were committed to.

All of the ottbs I’ve ever ridden have so much try, on the flat or over fences, even with only a little training, and all of the opinions certain creatures have.  I’ve never started a warmblood, but I’ve been on a few, and I’ve definitely been on ponies, and by comparison the attitude the tbs bring to the table definitely impressed me.  They’re also athletic as hell, as Lauren pointed out, and can be competitive in all kinds of arenas at a fraction of the price of the warmbloods.  When we did our pace gallops this weekend the thoroughbreds came off their sets barely blowing, and the warmblood and quarter in our group were not quite that fit, despite the same frequency of riding at home.

For these reasons, and many more, I will recommend an ottb — in this case, not one straight off the track — to anyone looking for a horse for any discipline, any day of the week.  I don’t personally know the western-inclined ottbs (well, I know one), but I know they can succeed there just as well as they can in eventing, hunters, or jumpers.  And I know that once they find their discipline, they fucking kick ass at it.

IMG_0456Why yes, I CAN jump, thanks for asking.

But let’s go back to the straight off the track horse — the off track project.  More important than the off-track project not being for every ammy, I think project horses aren’t appropriate for every ammy.  Every project comes with baggage, be it an unsavory past, medical issues, behavioral problems, or a history as a pasture puff.  None of these problems is worse than anything track training could install in a horse, and in my opinion the track past is preferable to any of these.  At least track horses don’t (typically) have a history of rearing in the show ring until their rider falls, of stopping dirty at fences and flinging their riders over their heads, of bolting until they are given what they want, of bad training, bad aids, bad habits.  What ex racehorses do have is a history of going forward, listening to their rider (albeit for different things you might be used to asking them for), and working hard.  What about that isn’t a good project for an amateur?  These are the reasons I think an ottb makes a perfect project for an ammy — as long as the ammy is ready and capable of handling a project.

A project is a journey.  Lauren pointed this out, and I want to expound upon it.  There is more to riding than competing and winning ribbons, and I think that beyond good performance, more and more amateurs are seeking something greater with their horses.  To be able to say that they made something, fixed something, helped create something, helped teach something — to be able to say that the progress is yours and yours alone.  Even when you do it with a trainer, when you’re in the saddle and putting the miles on, there is an immense sense of accomplishment that you managed to do it.  Sure, it may have taken longer than when Dom Schramm or Hawley Bennett gets on, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a wonderful journey and learning experience for both of you.  But the pride you can feel when you get a quiet, balanced trot to canter transition, a perfect, quiet jump over 2’6″, or your first stretchy trot circle will be well worth the struggles, tears, and many hours of repetition it takes you to get there.

dressaging01
I made this!

This journey is not for everyone, and perhaps an ottb is not for you in this journey.  Not all trainers and people get ottbs — this is okay, goodness knows I don’t understand warmbloods or mares at all — and understanding how a horse thinks is a huge part of training.

I will never regret the time I have spent with ottbs, training them, riding them, fawning over them.  I will always encourage someone looking for a horse to consider an ottb, be it one that has already had retraining, or as a project to take on if they are prepared for it, because in my opinion, the journey is worth it.