Each week a different expert ranks three OTTBs in terms of their suitability for a specific discipline. This week features Advanced level eventing rider, Jessica Bortner-Harris.
This Week’s Evaluator: Jessica Bortner-Harris is the owner/operator of Rocky Start Stables, LLC in Thurmond, NC, where she trains, teaches and rides eventers. Most of her own horses are off-track Thoroughbreds, including her Advanced/CIC*** horse, Win the War (JC: Little Jitterbug), whom she got from Charles Town racetrack as a 4 year old and brought up the ranks herself. She also participated in the Retired Racehorse Training Project Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium in 2013 with the OTTB mare, Pretty Hip Hop Hotty.
Jessica’s Favorite Thoroughbreds: I have been a fan of the Thoroughbred for as long as I can remember. Of course, Win the War, a.k.a. Bug, would be very unhappy with me if I didn’t talk about him first! There was just something about his cheekiness that caught my eye the day I met him at the track. It didn’t hurt that he could stand on his hind legs for minutes at a time as he looked over the stall walls at his neighbors in the shedrow at the track. I figured, if his hind end was strong enough to do that, he was strong enough to be a great jumper! Lucky for me, I was right, and I am very thankful that I found my way to my horse of a lifetime. Hopefully, he and I will get to eat up the turf at a big event in Kentucky in the next few years.
I think the horse that started the Thoroughbred fever for me was Seattle Slew. The trainer I had growing up had a daughter of Seattle Slew that I just adored. She was big, bay and beautiful, and her attitude was always amazing. She handled everything with style and grace. When my parents took me to Kentucky as a teenager, I begged to visit Seattle Slew. Luckily for us, Three Chimneys allowed us to come for a personal tour of the stallion barn. We got to meet a lot of stallions that day, but Slew was still my favorite. They talk about the look of eagles.This horse had it to the extreme. Everything he did was majestic. He knew he was amazing, and he posed so the world could take in his awesomeness. I have always dreamed of owning a horse with his line up close, and I finally have that in my gorgeous broodmare, Miss Ten Oaks. Between her Seattle Slew lines and her Fappiano lines, she is a stunner with a ground eating gallop. I can’t wait for her babies to eat up the cross country courses!
Chosen Discipline: Eventing
Horse #1: For The Ages
Foaled in Kentucky on January 30, 2009
16.2 hand bay Thoroughbred gelding
Rock Hard Ten x Fiddlin Devon by Deputy Minister
9 starts, 1 win, 5 seconds and 0 thirds for earnings of $37,255
Horse #2: Patrick Henry (JC Diable Tonnere)
Foaled in Kentucky on March 17, 2007
16.2 hand dark bay or brown Thoroughbred gelding
Unbridled’s Song x Win’s Fair Lady by Dehere
4 starts, 1 win, 0 seconds and 0 thirds for earnings of $10,468
Horse #3: Max Man
Foaled in Florida on April 10, 2006
16.1 hand dark bay or brown Thoroughbred gelding
Spanish Steps x Tomorrow’s Star by Tomorrow’s Cat
1 starts, 0 win, 0 seconds and 0 thirds for earnings of $220
What I look for: I am a bit different than a lot of riders, in that, I don’t really have a type. There are specific traits that I look for, but all of the horses that I have owned are all pretty different. I tend to go on my gut. Bug has traits that most people would say are not ideal for eventing, and I was told more than once to sell him when he was young. “He will never be an upper level eventer. He wants to be a show hunter.” Thank God I didn’t listen!
Jessica and Bug in the Advanced Cross Country at Pine Top this spring. He surely looks like an eventer here!
The hardest part about choosing horses off the track is that you need to have an eye for the future. There are some that look amazing and are well muscled in all of the right places, but usually, you have to use your imagination. You have to be able to see the diamond through all of the rough. I think that I have a talent for that. However, there are some key things that I always look for:
- Feet with a good consistency and size that, with good shoeing, will be sturdy and correct.
- Level or uphill build. If there is one thing I could change about Bug, I would add an inch to his front legs. He is slightly downhill, which can make some things tough.
- Good neck set. I don’t mind a bit of a lower neck set within reason, but I do not want a horse that has a super high neck. It can be very difficult to get a high necked horse to relax and use their whole neck.
- Strong hindquarters. I like big butts and I cannot lie! I want a horse with a big engine. Horses that are mostly front end tend to pull themselves along in everything that they do, and this can make for a very long training process. Everything with do in eventing is about push.
- Sound legs. I don’t want to use the word “clean,” as a lot of these guys have some bumps and marks. However, soundness is definitely something that is very important. Having said that, though, for a well built horse, I’m not afraid to do a little rehab if the vet thinks it is worth a try!
- A personality that attacks life. I love a horse that is a little bit cheeky (within reason!) and takes on life with a purpose. I don’t mind a little spookiness as long as they handle it well. For instance, Bug spooks at anything he has to walk next to! It’s more of a jump in his own skin. However, he will jump anything you point him at! He is innately careful, so he will just add another 12” to his jump if he feels it necessary.
THIRD PLACE: Horse #3: Max Man
The ad for this guy states that he has already tried his hand at the A hunter circuit. Looking at his overall conformation, that is what I would guess he would excel at. However, someone forgot to tell Max that! From the description, it sounds to me like Max wants to be an eventer.
I like this guy’s neck, wither, and shoulder. He front end just flows together nicely with great angles and curves. I would guess that he probably uses his front end well, and after flipping to his free jump photo, I think I might be right!
I am not in love with his pastern angles, so I would probably not consider him as an upper level prospect, but again, pictures can be very hard to judge by. His feet look like they are on their way to having better angles and becoming more symmetrical. This guy looks to be a little longer in the back than the other two, but he is definitely not long backed.
Personally, I would like to see a stronger hindquarter, as in the pictures, it looks like it doesn’t quite match the front end. The pictures also make him look as if he stands slightly out behind, meaning his hind leg is slightly behind the point of his hindquarter when he’s standing square. However, from the free jump picture, it seems to does have the power.
I love his face and kind eye. He definitely has the look of a very smart guy. He looks to me like the adult amateur or teen’s perfect horse.
SECOND PLACE: Horse #2: Patrick Henry
This guy has all of the flash to attract someone’s eye! His overall balance and presence definitely catches my eye. I love his short coupled build and his lovely wither and shoulder. His neck set isn’t bad, but it verges on higher than I would like. Looking through the pictures, though, it looks like he does relax and look down when presented with an exercise, so this doesn’t bother me too much.
His front feet seem to have angles that are very similar. As with most OTTBs, his heels are a bit low, especially on the left front, but again, with good farrier work, this will probably look a lot different in a year. He is a bit long in the pasterns, but they are not horrible. By bringing his heels up, that should help the pastern angle a bit as well.
He has a lovely round hind end, which is right up my alley. With that engine and his short back, this guy should really be a powerhouse. Again, it is a bit hard to tell in the pictures, but he does look a bit straight in his hocks. If I was looking for an upper level prospect, I would be much more concerned about this than for a lower level horse. If he is a bit straight, it’s not a peg leg, just not quite as much angle in the hock as I would like to see for the bigger jumps.
I love his kind eye and his expression as he works through the pole exercises. This tells me that he’s a thinker and probably is quite smart and good with his feet. This guy seems to be the total package!
FIRST PLACE: For the Ages
My first impression of this guy is, “Wow!” His overall balance and presence is lovely. This is one that doesn’t require a whole lot of imagination to see how stunning he is going to be in a year. He is already well on his way there. He has a lovely uphill build with a beautiful neck set, lovely shoulder, and nice, big withers. He is short coupled, which usually equals great power back to front. In my experience, these shorter backed horses can struggle a bit more with movements that require shifting the rib cage (i.e. shoulder-in, haunches-in), but that would not be a reason not to buy them. It just means you may have to train a little more when you get to that stage. Personally, I like a shorter coupled horse, as they tend to have less back problems.
Looking at his legs and feet, it is a bit hard to tell with the shadows in the pictures, but I would notice that his front feet look very different in angles. This is pretty common in OTTBs, but the left front almost looks a bit clubby in comparison to a much lower right front. A good farrier may be able to fix this, but a lot of leg unsoundnesses can come from two different front feet angles. It is also hard to tell in the pictures, but his front fetlocks look a bit enlarged. This could just be the play of the light or it could mean some mild arthritis. For a lower level horse, I would not worry too much about that, but if I am looking for a resale or an upper level prospect, I would definitely research that further.
The description of this guy states that he would prefer to be a show hunter. To me, this probably means his canter is slow footed and rhythmic. I don’t discount horses like this from eventing. I think this canter makes it easier to see a distance and it definitely benefits you in the dressage. If their stride is big, it really doesn’t matter how fast their legs move, as they will be covering a lot of ground with each step.
Overall, I really like this guy, and it is very tempting to take a trip to Kentucky to meet him myself! To me, their personality and how they handle life is really the biggest thing that draws me to them.
The biggest thing to remember when searching online for OTTBs is that pictures and video are not always the be all, end all. Being someone to has to take sale photos and video all of the time, I know that it can be very difficult to get the horses to play along. Also, some horses are just naturally more photogenic than others. I have had horses that I knew were amazing, but I could just never get the perfect shot to show it off. Don’t fall in love or completely count a horse out just by picture and video. Find a few that catch your eye and then let them show you in real life whether they are for you or not. Not everyone wants to go by their gut like I do, but there is a little bit of that in choosing a horse!
If you think an off-track Thoroughbred might be right for you, no matter what the discipline, find out more information on what to look for, how to purchase and get re-training tips at retiredracehorsetraining.org
The Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center (MMSC) is located in the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, the Horse Capital of the World, is a premier reschooling facility and showcase for adoptable Thoroughbreds. Founded in 2004, the MMSC uses its illustrious location to herald the athleticism of this amazing breed by teaching new skill sets to horses of all levels of ability using the Horse Centered Reschooling Program® developed by MMSC Director Susanna Thomas so they can go on and be ambassadors for racehorses in new careers. The MMSC is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday (9 to 3) and proud to offer myriad educational opportunities for learning about and interacting with this remarkable horse–The Thoroughbred–America’s equine sports vehicle.