In this excerpt from her book Beyond the Track, Thoroughbred Program Director for New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program Anna Ford explains the four things you need to consider before beginning a retraining program for your off-track Thoroughbred.
Before you begin to work your new horse it is essential that you seriously think about what you expect of his future now that you know him better. It would be ideal if there was a set training program for every Thoroughbred that retires from racing, but each horse is an individual that requires a system specifically tailored to his needs. Each horse progresses at his own rate, according to his history, temperament, intelligence, and the quality of training.
Keeping this in mind, there are four questions you should ask yourself as you develop a plan:
1: What are my goals for this horse?
You should have specific goals in mind when you adopt or purchase an OTTB, and with those goals in mind, you should choose a horse with the potential to perform in the discipline you are interested in pursuing. Now that you have your horse home and are getting to know his personality and physical capabilities, it is time to reexamine those goals. Are they still realistic?
If you took your time researching and finding the right Thoroughbred, they should be—but now they need to become more specific (for example, “I want a lower-level event horse” should evolve into “I want to compete at Beginner Novice by the end of next year”). Break your goals down to weekly, monthly, and even yearly objectives: defining your goals will give you something to aim toward and focus on. And, identifying attainable goals as a series of stepping stones will provide the framework for a progressive training plan.
Unless you merely want to trail ride or hack out, your horse’s training will eventually be geared for one discipline or another, but try to remember that not every horse fulfills his owner’s initial desires: an event prospect could actually turn out to be better suited to the hunter ring if he begins to show a dislike of cross-country jumps or dressage work. An athletic horse that gets quick and nervous over jumps might be happier in the dressage ring. Stay flexible and be willing to modify your plan as you go along.
2: What will this horse require to be physically prepared for training?
A Thoroughbred, fresh off the track, needs time to let down from that extremely demanding and fast-paced environment. But, contrary to what you might think, the early phase of his transition can actually be stressful—despite the rest and quiet—because everything to which he is accustomed is changing. You must develop a plan to take care of his body—his physical needs—as it changes along with his lifestyle. So, concentrate on his nutrition, turnout schedule, shoeing program, and other aspects of his physical health. And, if the horse is recovering from an injury or illness, consult your veterinarian to ensure sufficient rehabilitation prior to beginning more serious training.
When your horse is sound, has a good appetite and a bright expression, and exhibits good body condition, then he is probably physically ready to start his new job.
3: What will this horse require to be mentally prepared for training?
Your new horse will need help to mentally adjust to his new life, as well. When he shows signs of stress or becomes unsettled, it is your job to find ways to help him relax. The first step is to provide a consistent, regular schedule so he feels comfortable and calm rather than anxious. Establish this with a daily routine that includes turnout time with at least one other horse, set feeding times that do not change erratically, and—eventually—training sessions at a regular hour of the day. If possible, it is also important to spend other non-riding time (the more the better) with your horse to best develop a relationship with him. Grooming and daily handling will help your horse get to know you and eventually develop a special connection with you. Thoroughbreds tend to seek human attention and form a quick bond with their handlers.
If your horse seems happy and at ease in his new home, and is no longer overwhelmed by simple tasks or fretful when tied, turned out, or being led, then his mind will likely benefit from the introduction of new stimuli via a training program.
4: Who can help me with the training process?
Turning a racehorse into a relaxed and happy riding horse is a challenging task. Unless you have a lot of experience training horses, I advise you to seek professional help, especially if this is your first time working with a horse off the track. You may not need a trainer every day, but once-a-week lessons can ensure you are doing right by the horse and give you help when needed. Even if you are a professional, it never hurts to have a set of eyes on the ground, or someone who can observe you and your horse together and make educated suggestions for improving your training program.
This excerpt from Beyond the Track by Anna Ford is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.