EN Today: Weekly OTTB Q&A

Each week, Lauren Nethery takes a swing at inquiries submitted by OTTB fans from across Eventing Nation. Here’s this week’s edition.

Top photo: Wikimedia Commons

From Lauren:

Your Weekly “Why Does My OTTB (insert weird quirk here)?” Q&A


One of my horses, Centria, owned by Ralph and Vicki Elliot, breaking her maiden in the slop in Ohio last Monday.

I hope you all of Eventing Nation is staying dry and warm this morning!  Congratulations to all of the Copper Meadows, Feather Creek, and Pine Top finishers this weekend and a special shout out to the competitors at the Thoroughbred Celebration in VA.  It really warms the cold cockles of my heart to see the Thoroughbred breed receive so much support from so many different sponsors.  While TBs, especially the OT variety, may not always be the sanest or soundest or have the best feet or be the easiest keepers, they all come factory-equipped with hearts of lions and will gallop for days and jump through fire all in an effort to fulfill their owners dreams, whatever those dreams are on a racetrack, in a ring, or across country.  This week, the mail bag is full with some unique questions and I invite you to bundle up with a nice cup of cocoa and enjoy EN readers’ latest queries.

I recently watched the 2 Year-Old In Training Under Tack Show at OBS in Ocala, FL. I was by the grandstand and couldn’t help but notice that horse after horse would lead with the outside (right) leg down the stretch and switch leading legs to the inside (left) around the turn.  I am wondering why they would lead with their right leg down the stretch when they are going their fastest. I have asked around to see if the riders were cuing them to change leads but they all say, “the horse just knows.” I have had the privilege of riding multiple OTTBs and their sense of canter lead is quite schooled up from the start of their retraining. Can you please fill me in on the training and purpose of a horse having a right “lead” down a straight away as opposed to the left lead? (contributed by Emily Milchling EN reader )

Under-Tack Shows at OBS (or anywhere for that matter) are so much fun!  In my younger days, I used to ride them and really did enjoy it (and the paycheck that comes with it).  You are correct in your observations that racehorses run around the turns on their left leads (in America, at least) and down the straight-aways on their right lead.  Have you ever tried to canter a 20m circle on the wrong lead?  Think of the turns of a racetrack as really big circles.  If you watched the horses lead up to their breeze, the would start on the backside on their right lead most likely, change in the turn, and then change again down the lane.  In most cases, their gallop will begin around the ¾ mile pole on a 1 mile track and their breeze will not begin until the ¼ or 1/8  pole so they will gallop around ½ of a mile before they begin to show their stuff.  Asking so much of a horse (to run at peak land speed, especially at such an early age and stage of training) will obviously cause fatigue in short order and the habitual switching of leads is more or less a tool to attempt to combat this.  If they have galloped strongly up to the quarter pole or eight both before breezing, the muscles they use to balance to the left are already building up significant amounts of lactic acid and switching to their right lead will call upon different muscles (and the same muscles in different ways) and will enable just that little extra bit of umph needed to reach 40 mph in 2 seconds.  For Thoroughbred racehorses, changing leads is largely natural and most babies come onto the track for the first time knowing how to switch leads and desiring to do so.  There are cues that riders use on the racetrack and those cues largely depend on the riders’ prior education.  The racehorses that I have in training, especially those which I started under saddle, switch leads like show horses.  Idiot gallop boys (and girls) who came to the track and just earned enough money to buy a helmet and vest before throwing a leg over their first horse will jerk them all over the place and unbalance them to achieve a lead change.  By the time any TB gets to a breeze show or to race day, a little opposing rein is really all you need, if that.  They really do, for the most part, ‘just know,’ if they have made it all the way to the breeze show/race.  To answer your question very specifically, yes, Thoroughbreds are trained to switch leads and this training varies widely depending on the abilities of the rider. The purpose of having a horse switch leads down the lane is to combat the fatigue that inevitably has occurred leading up to that.  I hope this helps!

Junior is a generous 17 hand chestnut gelding with four matching white socks up to both knees & hocks and a big blaze.  Yup, my model came fully chromed!  Anyway, what are some exercises, or advice you can give me to help unlock his shoulders, besides just good old time?  Dressage judges see these long, sky-high, legs of his and think he should be reaching out like a warmblood.  Sadly, he prefers to go around like a carousel horse.  As we’ve started jumping higher (schooling Training in stadium), and building more muscle and topline, his “front reach” has improved, but the judges seem to think my beginner novice / novice horse should be moving like a Grand Prix Dressage horse. (contributed by EN reader Carolyn Bahr)

Happy to help!  To relate a little bit of personal experience, I have an 11 y/o TB Mare that really got dinged for her lack of reach when she was starting out as well.  She was not tense but her way of going made her appear that way and I suspect you are experiencing a similar issue with your guy.  An exercise that really helped her was shoulder-fore and eventually shoulder-in on a 20m and eventually 15m and 10m circles.  We started very simply with one or two steps of shoulder-fore on each half of a 20m.  I then added one or two steps and progressed to two or three steps on each QUARTER of a 20 m circle.  Once this was solid both directions, I began asking for one or two steps of shoulder-fore on each HALF of a 20m COUNTER BENT (circling right bending left/circling left bending right). Remember, however, that reaching from the shoulder comes from pushing from the hind end to a large degree.  Try experimenting with a lot of transitions WITHIN the trot (collect collect medium collect extending collect medium collect collect).  If he has a pretty solid canter, don’t be afraid to work on his reach at the canter, establish it well there during a flat school and see if it carries over to the trot after some solid canter work.  This may be a key in warming up to help him really loosen up but of course every horse is different.  Good luck!

I encourage you to send any horse-specific or general-knowledge questions to me via email ([email protected]) for more in-depth and on-point answers and am certainly happy to help you evaluate any potential prospects that you are eyeing. Go Eventing and go gallop a former racehorse.



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