Wednesday Book Review: ‘Beyond the Track’

When HN Book Critic Erin McCabe started retraining her 4-year-old OTTB, she picked up Beyond the Track: Retraining the Thoroughbred from Racehorse to Riding Horse.

From Erin:

I must confess, I love watching Thoroughbreds run. I like going to the track every now and then and betting $2 on the ponies. Even better is that a trip to the track is the one horse activity that my non-horsey husband actually suggests. I also love watching the Kentucky Derby and dreaming of a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime (it has to happen again some time, right?).

But more than watching the horses at the track run, I love watching my three OTTBs have racetrack flashbacks in their pasture. Even though they didn’t make it at the track (two of them never even raced), dang if they don’t love to gallop in a way my Appy mare never did. I marvel at my racetrack rejects’ speed and power every time I catch them racing each other. I’m astounded that every time they race, they always, always do laps to the left. The mark that their early race training left on them refuses to fade, even after years of dressage and jumping training.

I didn’t think too much about my first two OTTB’s race training because they came to me already well-trained (in the case of Clue) and greenbroke (in the case of Sadie). But then I got Lindy at barely 4, coming off a year of pasture, the youngest and greenest horse I’ve ever had. I felt like I needed some guidance, to understand what she might already know and how to best approach restarting her. And so I turned to Beyond the Track: Retraining the Thoroughbred from Racehorse to Riding Horse, by Anna Morgan Ford with Amber Heintzberger (and a snazzy foreword by Karen O’Connor).

I was expecting the book to mostly cover the riding part of training, but it actually begins with tons of background information, covering pretty much everything you could ever want to know—from how an OTTB is raised, what a typical day is like for a racehorse, what sorts of injuries ex-racers might have (with pictures!), to how to select a horse depending on the discipline you’re interested in (again, with pictures!). Then, the book moves on to how to help a racehorse transition into his new life, with tips on dealing with soreness and injuries, deciding what and how much (lots!) to feed and introducing your new horse to turnout. Peppered throughout the book are all kinds of interesting tidbits about how horses are typically handled at the track (really? biting is OK?) that might be a bit challenging at home. I will confess that I have not experienced any of these challenges with my three horses (except maybe the I-will-walk-as-fast-as-I-want-while-you-lead-me-regardless-of-what-you-think issue).

The second half + of the book deals with longing and riding. Everything here is very clearly and methodically laid out, emphasizing diligence, patience, and consideration for the horse’s prior experiences. The approach is traditional (as in, there’s no discussion of natural horsemanship techniques) and very sensible, although totally slanted toward the English disciplines. I can’t say I learned anything earth-shakingly new from these chapters, but I will say I was reassured. This book is sort of like a What To Expect When You’re Expecting book for those considering getting an OTTB. After reading it, you will have a good idea of everything that will likely happen, and every problem you might possibly encounter (but probably won’t). There are photos, photos everywhere (multiple on nearly every page), making it accessible for younger readers and fabulous for those of us who are visual learners. And even if you’re not interested in OTTBs in particular, this book has plenty of information (the injury and conformation sections in particular, plus the basic training program) to make it a worthwhile addition to your Horse Bookshelf.

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