Bringing the OTTB back into work after 1yr+ off

Update: I judged him unfairly and he was actually more than happy to wander around on the buckle at the walk. Couple of trot steps away from the mounting block and then that was it. Such a good boy!

About a week ago I picked up a new OTTB and I’m waffling about the best practices for starting him back. I’ve started horses back into work after a long period off before due to injury and I have re-started OTTBs fresh off the track before, but this is my first one off the track that has been hanging out and doing nothing for a long time but wasn’t injured.

He’s an 8yr old that last ran 9/15/19 and I was told he retired sound. The previous owner has a bit of a horse collection and had a whole bunch he just kept when they retired so he has been hanging out in retirement. He had great care and looks fantastic, you wouldn’t guess he had been out of work looking at him. Vetting was very good and his legs look great, especially for a horse that raced until he was 7. He has been turned out during the day and stalled at night since retirement and has not been out 24/7.

Normally, for one that had been out for so long I would go with a vet prescribed rehab or plan on just walking for a couple of weeks and mostly walking for the first month with just a bit of trotting added in. I’ve had a couple off of the track that would have been totally fine with just walking around right from the first ride but I’ve had others that really needed to trot to relax in the beginning and I expect he will be in the second category.

For those who have restarted one that had a long let-down period and no injury, how did you balance wanting to keep them on a slow and steady legging up schedule with letting them trot to relax if they want to? Right now I’m planning on playing it by ear and just keeping it as short and sweet as possible to begin with but if anyone has specific experiences to share from a similar situation, I’m curious to hear what you did!

I would start with ground work first. Including teaching the horse to lunge. You may not ever lunge the horse again after this phase is over, but it gives him something to think about and you can keep the sessions short and sweet while he’s first coming in to work. Once he’s got the basic concept you can lunge him over poles at the walk to get him thinking again and give him a “job.”

I did this with one of my OTTBs. He’d had some indeterminate amount of time off after a successful race career and wanted something to do, but also needed to learn to chill out a bit. He was much nicer to ride for the first month or two if I also kept doing some ground work one or two days a week.

If none of that interests you, you could also pony him. If you have a horse who can do that. That gives you a chance to get him out and walking around the farm with a buddy and is something he will understand from track life.

If he were coming back into work after time off at the race barn, they would probably shed row him to walk him. That’s super boring, but if you can do it and it gets you through the first week or two, until he settles a bit, why not?

Thanks. He came knowing how to lunge and we have done some but I don’t really like lunging regularly and I’d prefer to have him under saddle. I don’t think circles endlessly are particularly good, especially for one with wear and tear from a long racing career. I think long straight lines are much better.

We’ve been doing ground work and hand walking for nearly a week and a half. He hand walks over poles, up and down the very long driveway and on “trail rides” just fine. He has a few stallion-ish behaviors left over but overall is a well-behaved, well adjusted guy. He isn’t a nervous type and he isn’t spooky (although he doesn’t care to get his feet wet). He is 8 years old and was graded-stakes placed. He has been all over and had a really good life and handling career. He is easy to handle, well mannered other than a bit of mouthiness, lunges, cross-ties, and does everything you’d want him to.

If I had a horse I could pony off of, I would, I’ve done plenty of that before, but my mare is not a remotely suitable candidate for that.

All of that said, he is a big, energetic horse that does like to have a trot around while looking at things and checking things out in the ring and the pasture and I’m anticipating he will be similar under saddle, at least to start. I don’t think he is going to be difficult or especially nervous, but I also don’t really think that walking around quietly as soon as I get on is going to be the most realistic expectation with him and given the choice between having to make him walk and getting him wound up, I would prefer to let him trot around a bit and not fight with him. In my experience, that is a better approach. I am just looking for some first hand anecdotes from others who have brought back one that was on a year of turnout but not injured and how much trotting they let them do starting out.

Maybe, considering we have been hand walking so much already, I am over thinking this.

I agree that maybe you’re overthinking. From your original post, it sounded you just got him and he had been doing nothing at all. It’s great that he came from a good background. A lot of places take them straight to the track and back to the barn, without a lot of anything in between.

If he’s been walking for almost 2 weeks, I would probably start him trotting on kind of a regular ‘rehab’ schedule. Trot 5 minutes-ish and increase from there. As you know the horse will have a good baseline fitness and it sounds like you know a lot better than to trot a billion 20 meter circles as soon as you get on him.

As far as lunging goes, I think you and I have different ideas about what constitutes lunging. I start my horses over fences on the ‘lunge’ which doesn’t mean constant circles but does mean popping over a cross rail or a log two or three times and moving on to something else. Riding, done for the day, whatever is appropriate. I also use ‘lunging’ to work on developing the topline by walking over long lines of raised cavaletti, etc. I find it teaches a horse a lot about how to use himself and get stronger without having to also cart me around. As I said, I keep that short and sweet and then move on to something else. I guess I think of it more as a weight lifting session? Do what ever number of ‘reps’ is appropriate for the horse’s level and then move on to the next exercise. I 100% agree that endless circling for 20-30 minutes is not the best for most horses.

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