Best Practices for Restarting an OTTB

Hi all,
My current horse is getting close to retirement age, and I’m considering an OTTB, to be purchased sometime in the next 6-18 months. I was hoping to get input from those who’ve successfully restarted OTTB or those who would do things differently the second time around. What are the things that set up an OTTB for success post-track and during the transition to their new career? Are there things to avoid doing?

For purposes of this post, let’s assume the horse is being shipped at least 1000 miles, and would be recently post-track. How long would you provide let-down rest, and what sorts of things would you do to help during this time? Good farrier work and diet, of course. What about chiropractic and/or massage, and what frequency? Would you do a course of Gastroguard as a precaution, or only if I notice symptoms?

The new TB would go enter a dressage training program and start from the basics to ensure the foundation is solid. Prior to this, what can I do to make the new TB feel good and ready to work? Thanks!

I’ve restarted many OTTBs. One thing I can say for sure is that they are all different. Definitely allow at least 30 days of let down. Establish a solid daily routine so that the horse becomes familiar with it and begins to relax. Ignore the urge to put weight on him right away. He’s likely going to be “track thin” and it won’t hurt him. Better to change feed over time.

Some are totally broke by the time they get to the track that you can hack them out the first day. Others are just this side of wild horses. It depends entirely on their early owner/trainers/handlers. I always err on the side of caution and assume they know nothing.

I start with training them to the cross ties the same way I would train a baby to stand quietly in cross ties. Then I get the accustomed to my grooming routine. I also introduce them to lungeing with the assumption that they are not familiar with the paradigm. (They often are, but again, I don’t assume anything.) Same with side reins. I take a very slow approach to introducing contact as heretofore, contact meant go faster! But you are sending yours off for training, so likely won’t need to do any of that.

I 100% agree with your idea of starting prophylactic Gastroguard. I’ve yet to meet an OTTB without ulcers to one degree or another. Chiro and/or massage are also great ideas. Anything to help him (or her) destress and learn to relax.

I’m excited for you! OTTBs are the BEST! Once you win their heart, they will do anything for you. I’ve owned a lot of horses over the years, but I have to say that two of my best dressage horses were OTTBs. :wink:

Good luck!

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Feet and good feed go a long way IME. A round of Gastro won’t hurt. The rest is mostly patience.

Generally speaking (although, like Mondo says, never assume they know things), OTTBs are used to being ridden, they just have different buttons installed that you’ll need to untangle a bit. Some are ready to hop right into a regular work schedule (be it hacking or ground work) and may even find some comfort/stability in it. Others need more let-down.

Be prepared to see some personality changes in those first few weeks especially. The last one I worked with came off the trailer like a freight train and by all first impressions appeared to have terrible manners and frankly, be dangerous. He spent several days pacing nonstop back and forth in turnout. Two weeks later, he was standing nicely in the barn just as well as any of the other horses. A month later and he was the barn favorite because of how sweet and well mannered he was on the ground and under saddle had the BEST work ethic I’ve ever seen.

My other recommendation would be to invest in a good sheepskin pad. It can go a long way in saddle fit/comfort, especially since their body will change so much in the upcoming months and they’re usually starting on the skinnier/bonier side of things, so every bit of cushion you can give them will help.

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I’m curious, to what do you attribute the turnaround in his behaviour? Feed, turn out, etc?

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Agree. OP, don’t assume the horse you have in front of you is the horse you will have in 3 months…or a year…or even until they are well over 6 years old! I’ve had basketcases at 4 that are perfectly dependable sane packers at 7. So don’t despair if yours is a nervous wreck.

Double rec the advice that you should assume they come with ulcers, or will quickly develop them in a new environment.

They are used to being handled a lot, and not used to turn out. Try to do some groundwork daily during letdown to keep the kind active and introduce freedom gradually and only with calming influence type horses.

Have you started any other horses under saddle? If not, it’s really worth the $$ to hire a good colt starter unless you are very confident. As mentioned, some of them have a lot of really solid fundamentals and some are really just pointed out the gate and shot out!

People assume “only 3 races” is a good sign that the horse isn’t used up, but a sound war horse can be much easier to restart.

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MadTrotter, I have not started horses under saddle which is why I’m carefully aligning this with my trainer. I’ve made it clear I’m ok to only do groundwork and let the trainer install some buttons first. I thought about sending the new TB to a colt-starter, but my trainer does excellent work on the ground and is very comfortable staring young horses slowly and carefully. Is there something specific about a colt starter that you think is beneficial over a general trainer?

Definitely not ruling out a sound war horse either, but I’m assuming the general post-track transition would be similar?

Not to rain on your parade, but I’d also encourage you to have a Plan B in case your TB ends up not being a fan of dressage.

I"ve had six OTTBs in my adult life, plus another I leased as a teen, and two of those HATED the continual adjustments and corrections that go along with dressage training (and yes, that was with excellent dressage-only trainers working with them). But I didn’t discover this until we were actually in training, because they were blank slates when they came to me.

One was happiest cantering around a hunter course with a loop in the reins and virtually no rider interference beyond steering, and the other one was a self-guided missle in the junior jumper ring, where he just wanted to be pointed at the right fence, rated several strides out if necessary, and essentially left to do his thing. And both of them were very successful at the chosen sports.

So if your new OTTB isn’t compatible with the micromanagement needed for dressage, will you take up another focus like the jumpers more suited to his happiness, sell him, etc.?

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Most that raced will be consummate professionals to some extent; give them time to step out of their box. Sometimes they are shut down, sometimes they have a physical component keeping their personality at bay.

Aggressively address their hooves, which often come with unbalanced angles (NPA) up front and behind. Remove any toe grabs immediately. Consider putting them on a short cycle to get their toes back and heels growing correctly.

Some sort of ulcer regime is good; if not Gastroguard, look at Nexium.

Don’t forget dental; some come from connections that do routine dental, but many don’t. All of my TBs have come off the track with questionable – if any – dental history.

Keep hay in front of them 24/7. They are used to a hay buffet at the track. I start all my let-down TBs on alfalfa pellets with a high fat/high fiber grain.

It would not hurt to have a chiro and vet look at this horse to offer a Day 0 baseline. Take videos, pictures regularly to keep track of progress or any backsliding.

Find a 24/7 turnout situation. This is my ‘non-negotiable’ for my horses.

Their letdown period depends on why they are retiring. Racing is the hardest job there is. Having some contextual understanding of what racing is will help you understand: these horses are juvenile/immature horses, who are fastest their 2-3 y/o year. They are often backed in a stall or small farm before their 2nd birthday. Depending on the farm, they may be started undersaddle by walking around the shedrow, in a round pen, or they may be started with a “nanny” horse who leads them to/from the yard to the track. Some are ponied. They are fed early, worked early, and rubbed down/bathed/wrapped all often before 11 AM. They live in a stall for the remaining 23 hrs a day that they are at the track; most venues do not have turnout or if they do, they are small (2-3 stalls in size). Many are housed in a shedrow style barn, and are handwalked or ridden inside the barn. They are often stalled with a haybag with half a bale’s worth (20-30lb) of hay, filled once in the AM and filled again PM. Many are used to being in the stall while you pick it, fill water, etc. They will typically be exposed to bikes, golf-carts, cars, even scooters or motorbikes.

Because they are worked hard and then put in a stall, many develop soreness over their back and SI because of the hard work and lack of movement. The motion is the lotion with athletes, and these horses are the hardest working athletes there are.

If they are coming off the track they are guaranteed backsore and guaranteed unsound to some extent - either through their work, their stalling, or their race-track hoof angles. Sometimes this resolves of its own; sometimes they have ‘jewelry’ or baggage from the track that require time and therapy to resolve. Make sure to get a PPE and ask more than one person what they think about the horse before you buy it. Picking up a SOUND TB from the track is an art, takes a lot of experience and a special eye to see what is regular old “trackiness” (which is just horse slang for a horse who is tight or snappy over their body) and what is an undiagnosed injury.

The first few weeks is an excellent time to work on ground manners and lunging. Most TBs will come off the track being micromanaged and handled often, so they will know to bathe, single clip, lead, etc. Teach them to ground tie, lunge, cross-tie if they don’t know, etc. The first month or two is a good time to do in hand work and desensitization work: cross tarps, bridges, poles, sack them out with crackly grain bags, do jumping jacks around them, pony them off of a schooled horse buddy, etc. Track their reactivity and disposition - are they worried all the time, do they stop and think?

I work on in hand things like teaching them to move over/leg yield to pressure, teaching them to yield their head if they step on the leadrope, politeness while going through gates - a pet peeve of mine! Work on teaching them to stand at the mounting block, which few know how to do. Remember these horses are trained, but not in the discipline of your choice. Most will pick up and understand pretty quickly.

I usually spend the first month of riding hacking around the property. We might do some light ring work and poles, but my priority is to get their confidence and exposure up.

Avoid an inconsistent routine. They thrive on routine and come from a heavily regimented, routine environment.

Work closely with your trainer. If you have never started a horse or worked with an OTTB before, this is out of your paygrade. Be realistic, and understand that this is a long process that is sometimes as unrewarding as it is rewarding. Read everything you can about restarting track horses, and don’t be afraid to involve other people, too.

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Probably a variety of things, mostly related to improving his QOL. The owner wasn’t particularly forthcoming about his living situation before he came to the barn. From what I could piece together over the following months, I’m guessing he had very little if any turnout and not great feed. Supposedly he’d been restarted for a year, but he was frighteningly thin, GREEN, and the timeline was suspicious, at best. To top it off, at least one of the people I knew had ridden him really had no business being on him (beginner with a “git 'er done” attitude and a rough hand).

To clarify, I don’t think they had malicious intent, but I think they were afraid of him and lashed out in their fear of what might happen if they didn’t keep him under control (he was 17+hh with a BIG step - a 12’ stride was “collection” for him). When he inevitably bristled at their “correction”, their fears that he was dangerous were validated and the cycle continued.

All in all, I think showing him we didn’t want to bully him around went a long way. He was big and sweet, but not brave. He needed a steady eddy rider who would hold his hand a bit, as it were, and give him some space to think when he got worried instead of seeing it as disobedience or panicking and punishing him.

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Poor guy, sounds like he was in self-preservation mode.

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So I’ll go against others and say not all OTTBs need a let down period. Some do better going right into a job because that’s what they are used to. My current one maybe had two weeks off and that was mostly to make sure he recovered from his brain surgery. I worked him 3-4 days all winter before increasing it in the Spring.

But that being said, I didn’t drill him and there was a lot of hacking and trail riding over those months. He got tons of turn out as well. So just know that each is an individual and their needs may vary.

Aside from that, I did teeth, GG, tons of good quality hay. I’ve never had an issue with one cross tying so I never had to work on it.

Also one thing to keep in mind is strength takes time so lots of hills etc the first few years. My guy is big and long and it’s taken a long time to get him to really understand how to use himself

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So much excellent advice here.

I’m just going to add one thought. And this is coming from a dressage trainer.

Most dressage trainers have absolutely no idea what to do with an OTTB. They will be too controlling, potentially afraid of the horse, and will try to compress them. They would potentially try to get right down to business in the arena, and ride a horse like a dressage horse. This would be a mistake.

You would probably be better off finding a really good cowboy type (and I mean good). Or, the right combined training trainer. Someone who will will take them out and go on long hacks, Interspersed with limited ring work, and stay out of the horse’s face Until they relax their body.

Maybe you have found a dressage trainer who is knowledgeable and able to make the kind of Segway that a horse like that Needs. They’re out there, but they’re becoming more and more rare. Most of the younger trainers have cut their teeth on warmbloods at this point.

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I don’t know your trainer but as others have said, if their experience has only been starting blank slate warmbloods, then they not be a great match. Even top trainers in every English discipline seek out excellent colt starters because that is their niche, the horse may not come out doing beautiful lateral movements, up over the back into the bridle, but colt starters really know how to read all sorts of signals and have seen everything. And they specialize in desensitization, and are not afraid to ride a buck or a bolt or a rear. They will rapidly give you a read on the horse, and get quicker results than many discipline oriented trainers in getting a horse with some basic buttons. And often cheaper :wink:

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I love ottbs, but some ottbs are really picky about their flavor of dressage. Like hell hath no fury like a pissed off bay ottb mare that you try to put in a frame with low hands… thats an eject button.

They race with the front end, so you cant get handsy, instead you have to build the back end and teach them ALL the new muscles to use correctly.

Some ottbs love to show.
Some get super neurotic at shows.
But if you speak to them correctly they love to work!

They can eat the kitchen fridge and still be skinny. 24/7 hay + soaked beet/alfalfa whatever + grain.

And if the wind blows the wrong way they will get a cut or magically scrape themselves on something random and bleed.

Tbs already know how to ride. They already have work ethic. They are very very different from a 3 year old warmblood.

I love that they are so honest. They will always tell you if youre correct or incorrect and keep your aids beautiful and refined.

They love to think.

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When you say “bleed”, are you talking about bleeding that happens to some horses when they race? If so, that’s not an issue after they retire unless they’re under sustained fast, hard work. Certainly not something a dressage horse would trigger. A high-level eventer running and jumping at a fast pace over a long distance? Possibly? But no other disciplines.

I can’t think of other ways any of my TBs have bled, unless they sustained an injury in turnout.

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Turnout, turnout, turnout.

You already mentioned my other two biggies: good nutrition and good farrier care.

Transitioning from the track to a riding career isn’t rocket science. But a lot of people set themselves up for failure by trying to cram the horse straight into typical boarding barn routines with limited turnout and too little hay.

Extended turnout is so important because the movement helps them work out their aches and pains as their muscling changes. It also give them an outlet for that now undesirable excess energy. 24/7 is ideal for most horses so long as you can make sure the horse is fed and comfortable (that’s sometimes not possible at barns for whatever reason). I personally think you are setting yourself up for challenges if turnout is less than 10-12 hours a day. That doesn’t mean no one is successful with post-track horses on less turnout, but it just makes everything a little tougher on the humans involved.

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Not OP but in my experience TBs have paper thin skin. They easily bleed if they knock or catch something. I don’t think OP meant lung bleeding, agree that dressage is very unlikely to cause that.

With respect to starting the horse, remember that most event trainers are very used to thoroughbreds and also know how to get the best out of them in a dressage test. Good to keep in mind if you hit stumbling blocks.

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Here’s a thought, if you’re a reasonably confident individual, and the horse is at least 80% sane…

You’ll never learn “how” to do this if you don’t do it. Why don’t you take over the starting blocks with the over-arching eye of a trainer or coach? TBs really aren’t that hard, IME. They’re broke, they’ve seen a bunch, sure they’re lacking in areas but what’s to say that you can’t do the work yourself? If you hit a wall, have the trainer take over for a few sessions and then pick up the torch again. Unless you’re a total yahoo, you can’t do much that is going to permanently mess the horse up. You might start down a “wrong” path, trainer sees it, pulls you back and puts you on the “right” path.

I would not be saying this if you were buying an unbroke 3yo warmblood.

As long as you have guidance when you need it, there is no reason to hand this horse over to a trainer. Do it yourself, it’s very rewarding and next time you’ll have about a million more “tools in the bag” so to speak.

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No, i was talking about how sensitive their skin is and a tiny sratch they will bleed.
A tb an warmblood run around the pasture. The tb will knick itseof sonewhere.

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I agree with your post about how many riders can get handsy with the front-heavy horses, including TBs – who can look as if they are not moving along on the forehand when they are. Then they tend to go faster than their passenger wants, so the passenger starts to pull on their mouth, horse gets tense, speeds up, the two feeding off of one another.

The rest of what you say about TBs hasn’t been my experience, though.

Tthere is so much diversity in the breed for it being a closed studbook for some 200 years. Certain regions have bloodlines that dominate them too. You’re unlikely to see a Hookandladder horse outside of NY, or Freud on the west coast, for example.

None of my TBs have been bleeders. I have several that have done hunting and/or Training eventing and not run into a bleeder yet.

Ours are super sensible in turnout, though they play really rough AM and PM. We might get one or two unexplained vet-needing injuries every few years, like the time I came down to feed in the morning and found a framing nail (6") in my TB’s neck. No idea how he managed that, as we never used them on the property and they weren’t used to build our barn.

I won’t jinx myself with my current crew of horses, but I’ve had horses long enough that a few of my TBs have passed the Rainbow bridge. Speaking of those that have passed specifically – not a single one of them ever had a soft tissue injury once they became competition horses. I did have one TB that shortly after we got him who blew a suspensory – it had been brewing at time of purchase and failure to address his feet caused it. He lived another 16 years, competed up to Novice and was used heavily as a Pony Club horse. My late TB Spooky was freakishly sound: while my barn mates were sidelined with coffin joint issues, suspensories, check ligament injuries, we were schooling Prelim and flouncing around at hunter paces.

I’m certain that management plays the largest role in longevity and soundness. If a barn has frequent soft tissue injuries its time to reassess why that is happening.

TBs should be fairly easy to keep weight on. Ours are fed next to nothing for competition horses (1qt of Poulin Fibremax/ 1 qt alfala pellet) - but they do get high quality roundbale hay 24/7. I’ve been considering switching the herd to grain free, as I don’t think they really need it.

TBs being skinny when you are feeding more than recommended grain amount is typically because of a physical component. This is not directed at you MapleBreeze, just a general observation of the “average” horse owner – I have seen many posts on social media about skinny Thoroughbreds and how difficult they are to keep weight on. The post is always the same theme: “I feed so much!! He won’t gain any weight, I’ve been trying for months!! What flax or oil can I feed him???” Then the details start to trickle to light: they’re feeding only 1 cup of Strategy a day. Maybe they’re skimping on hay because they’re on a budget. The horse is barefoot and clearly uncomfortable. The barn only feeds hay 2x a day. The owner appears to be a young person on a shoestring budget or a new horse owner. The horse is lame. The horse is stalled 18 hours a day. The horse isn’t given hay in turnout. Etc, etc, etc. So many of these “skinny TBs” would be fat in a better program.

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