Racehorses on the Ranch

Off-track thoroughbreds run up against a lot of prejudice–that they’re too “hot” or “unpredictable” to be fully functional in the real world. Heather Benson points to a program that is proving the stereotypes wrong.

Top: Gate to Great’s Dale Simanton on off-track Thoroughbred gelding, Drake’s Dancer, branding cattle in spring of 2013.

From Heather:

In my real life (as opposed to my fantasy life where I get to just write about and photograph racehorses for a living), I run a company called Back Forty Media and Marketing, where I assist mainly horse-industry clients in telling their story to the rest of the world. One of my marketing clients happens to be the Gate to Great program in Western South Dakota.

In a nutshell, they take off the track Thoroughbred racehorses and turn them into some rather amazing cow horses on their ranch near the Black Hills of South Dakota. There they learn all about being a real life ranch horse… things like how to drag a calf to a branding fire or how to put a sheep inside a tent (it’s a real thing and even an event in a ranch rodeo competition called sheep tee-peeing, but I digress). At the end of a year or more there, they leave the ranch with a set of skills few horses can surpass and move on into new careers as everything from full time ranch horses to eventers and everything in between.

[Back Forty Media and Marketing]

In being a part of their marketing program and helping them sell horses, I get to come face to face with many of the widespread prejudices that off-track Thoroughbreds face both in ranch country (where the Quarter Horse is king and Thoroughbreds are often sold as grade so as to hide their true identity) and throughout the United States. It never ceases to amaze me how one breed can be the lightening rod target of so much criticism, misconception and ignorance… many times by people who have never even owned one. The themes of “racehorses are nuts” and “you can’t trust a Thoroughbred” pop up over and over again like those Facebook hoaxes that everyone believes and that nobody researches the truth of (no, reposting that photo will NOT mean that Bill Gates gives you $5,000!).


Dale and the OTTB Lucky (who ran 86 times from age 2 to 9) heading back in from the pasture in a halter and bareback.

Luckily for the Thoroughbred, there are a lot of people out there nowadays setting the story straight and getting the truth out there about what amazing horses these animals are…for all disciplines. Organizations like the Retired Racehorse Training Project (see their awesome “I love my racehorse” video below… btw, Gate to Great’s Dale Simanton is the fellow in the cowboy hat), New Vocations, the TCA and others work hard to ensure these amazing athletes continue to gain the respect they deserve as one of our finest athletes.

[Retired Racehorse Training Project]

And while there are a lot of truths about the breed that I would like to share with the uninformed masses, I will just stick with one and it is this: To ride a Thoroughbred, especially one that is off the track, is the chance to be a part of history itself. It is the opportunity to ride upon the back of an athlete bred for over 350 years to encompass greatness. The sports terms “heart of a champion,” “will to win” and “give it his all,” all come from these horses. The blood that made Man o’ War, Secretariat, Barbaro and Zenyatta such amazing athletes has been sought after for three centuries to create or improve just about every breed we know today. Olympic champions, money-winning cow horses and backyard best friends who never say no to another pretend race across the pasture all have the heart and perseverance of their Thoroughbred ancestors in common.

And so, while I may not have gotten to live my childhood daydream of riding a Kentucky Derby winner over the finish line, with the crowd roaring all around me, I do get to touch a part of that same greatness each time I get on a Thoroughbred’s back and glory in his strength, grace, intelligence and class. Long live the OTTB!


The 1989 Preakness, featuring Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, where the author’s lifelong love affair with Thoroughbreds began.

Heather Benson is a former racetrack executive, professional handicapping analyst and owner of a Triple Crown winner (well, at least a horse that played one in a movie). But far more importantly, she is a is still that girl who gets giddy when the starting gate opens and cries every time she watches a replay of Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes. Join her each month as she takes you on a journey through the world of horse racing, from top to bottom, with a little bit of everything in between! Heather also operates Back Forty Media and Marketing, a full service marketing firm focusing on telling story of equine ventures around the country. Go to her website for more info and to follow her on Facebook at www.backfortymarketing.com


Heather: “Me and my ‘Triple Crown winner,’ a.k.a. Cyclone Larry, taken at the North Dakota Horse Park in 2009. He was a racing prospect I owned that failed utterly as a racehorse but was cast in the role of ‘Secretariat’ in the 2010 Disney movie by the same name.”


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