EN Today: Why does my OTTB (insert quirk here)?

If you’ve spent much time around ex-racehorses, you know that they have some “quirks.” Lauren Nethery valiently attempts to answer some questions about OTTB behavior.

Lauren Nethery made it to the Final Four round of the EN Blogger Contest, and we’re happy to have her contributions to the site.  Lauren currently manages a farm in Lexington, KY, and is presently enjoying bringing her handful of an OTTB back to the Intermediate ranks after eighteen months off from a hoof injury.  She starts a lot of young horses under saddle, both for sport and for racing, teaches lessons, competes horses for clients, wrangles pot-bellied pigs, and trims miniature horse feet.  On a Monday.  Today Lauren answers some burning questions about why ex-racehorses behave the way they do.  Thanks to Lauren for writing, and thank you for reading. –Visionaire


From Lauren:

“Why Does My OTTB (insert weird quirk here)?”

Have you ever been embarrassed by the slap-slap-slap of your OTTB’s tongue against the side of his or her face in their best deranged, rabid wildebeest impression while in warm up?  When is the last time that you were calmly sitting on your derriere in the dirt while your OTTB toured the next county after coming face to face with a bovine ‘assailant’?  Must you get decked out in a full suit of medieval armor before ever attempting to curry the mud from your thin-skinned OTTB’s coat?  All of these woes are common place in the world of the OTTB and I am here to do my best to answer all of the questions about these elusive, notorious creatures that you have always been too embarrassed, afraid, or freaked out to ask.  Enjoy!

Why does Niagara have such strange urination habits?

Racehorses are stalled 20-22 hours out of the day in 95% of barns. Some barns like Fair Hill and Keeneland have turnout space available but these situations are few and far between.  Most OTTB’s will typically pee like “normal” horses in stalls. However, after competition or strenuous training that may replicate what racing feels like to them, horses may recall the days of the “spit box” and cue the waterworks.  Racehorses that place in the money of their races are typically taken to a drug testing barn immediately following the race for blood and urine samples.  This barn is known as a spit box because in ‘olden days’ saliva testing was quite common. Because of this, they learn to more or less pee on command if they are successful and end up in the spit box often. Whistling will often encourage this. Also keep in mind that 99.9% of horses are routinely treated with Lasix/Salix, which is a diuretic intended to lessen the instances of Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH, or “bleeding”). This quite literally makes them have to “pee like racehorses,” especially after exercise.

Why is Goober such a weirdo with his tongue?

80%+ of racehorses are routinely trained and/or raced with their tongues tied. Tongue ties vary from rubber band type contraptions to twine to a strip of linen ripped from a bandage. This is done to keep the tongue beneath the bit and to keep the tongue from impeding the airway. Their tongues are typically tied so tightly that they will lose most circulation and turn purple-ish and presumably lose feeling. This is because, if tied any looser, most horses will craftily untie them in short order. As a result of all of this tongue tying, OTTB’s often simply become accustomed to hanging it out the side of their mouths and this habit will frequently be a life-long quirk. Corn oil, a handful of dirt before going into the ring, or a pasty bran mash can often discourage this sometimes unsightly oddity for short periods of time.

Why does Lightning refuse to eat hay like a normal horse off of the ground or floor of his stall and why does he insist on spreading in within every square inch of his reach?

75%+ of racing stables feed hay in a hay net hung at the front of the stall. This helps ensure that they hay is not wasted or soiled and helps monitor hay consumption. Most racehorses are not accustomed to eating hay off the ground and are accustomed to observing the comings and goings of the barn while munching. Messy, yes, but in a racing stable all that hay is cleaned up off the ground and even stuffed into the hay bag the next day if the barn is particularly thrifty. Some racehorses find it difficult to adjust to eating hay off the ground after years of not doing so but most eventually figure it out.

Why does Slow Poke fear/adore/bolt from/cuddle up to barnyard animals, ponies, and/or cats and dogs?

50% of racing stables have barnyard animals. Goats, usually. Some mini ponies. Lots of chickens. Cats. BUT NO DOGS ALLOWED BACKSIDE. Most racehorses have never seen large dogs or cows but have typically seen everything else. Ponies, however, are NOT seen on the racetrack and most racehorses have not seen pint sized horses since they themselves were youngsters. While it looks like, smells like, and sounds like a horse it is usually terrifying to OTTB’s that they are so small. The Thoroughbred mind can be easily baffled when it has been surrounded by normal sized horses for years.

Why is Trigger SO heavy in my hand and why does he insist on pulling and leaning on the bit all the freaking time?

Because most track riders don’t know how to ride them any differently. ‘Take a cross (bridge of the reins), jack up your irons, and hold on tight’ is the typically way of the track rider. On this note, track riders range from accomplished Advanced Eventers (Hunters and DQs usually don’t show up) to just-over-the-boarder foreign grooms who have walked hots long enough to afford a vest and helmet. Most tracks require riding before the head outrider before being allowed to gallop but this is a flawed system and there really are no policies in place to keep idiots and hack jobs back in the barns.

Why does Geronimo get quick after one little canter and then I spend the next twenty minutes trying to calm him back down?

Racehorses come on the track, usually stand for a few short moments, trot off clockwise for anywhere between ¼ and ¾’s of a mile, turn and stand for a moment again, and then gallop off to get down to training business. It is a foreign concept to racehorses to change gaits frequently or to do any sort of transition. Once they start cantering, they only thing they know how to do is canter faster until they are told to pull up and jog home.

Why can’t I firmly brush or curry FloJo without him morphing into a homicidal maniac?

Firstly, it is important to remember that all racehorses wake up each morning with one of two things on their mind: homicide or suicide.  That being said, racehorses never get really “muddy”. Scrubbing caked on mud off is very foreign to them. Typically, a very soft body brush is used followed by intense rubbing with a soft towel as a daily grooming regiment. Most racing stables do not even own ‘stiff’ or ‘hard’ body brushes. If they are particularly poop-incrusted or muddy from racing or training, they are bathed thoroughly but never curried.

I do hope that some of my answers to the questions above have demystified atleast one of your OTTB’s strange quirks and I encourage you to send any further, horse-specific questions to me via email ([email protected] )for more in-depth and on-point answers.  Stay tuned for the next installment of “Why Does My OTTB (insert weird quirk here)?” which will feature such titillating topics as loading loonies, drinking disorders, and teenager testing.  Go Eventing and go gallop a (former)  racehorse!

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