Barn Aisle Chats: OTTB Rehabilitation With Erin

In the series Barn Aisle Chats, we meet equestrians from all walks of life and disciplines. Today, we chat with Erin about racehorse rehabilitation and rehoming.

Erin and I “met” around 2012 as members of the original Horse Nation contributors. She reviewed books and I did movies, a pairing that can be as contentious as cats versus dogs. We might not see eye-to-eye on the eternal “books are always better than movies” debate, but, regardless, we have spent the last decade talking about horses and life with plenty of side tangents like the bizarre alien-esque nature of the current My Little Ponies.

But today we’re breaking down her new business venture — rehabilitating and (sometimes) rehoming OTTBs. Here are the highlights.

Amanda: How did you get started in riding/loving horses? Break down your childhood barn rat years.

Erin: I don’t remember ever not being horse-obsessed. My neighbor had horses and I would just stare at them. I begged my parents for a horse for years — every birthday, every Christmas. If anyone asked me what I wanted, it was a horse. I had all the horse stuffed animals, all the Breyer models, all the My Little Ponies (before they made them look like space aliens).

I read every horse book I could get my hands on, subscribed to Horse Illustrated, etc. etc. Finally when I was 12, my parents sent me to a week long horse summer day camp, and then I started riding lessons. About a year later, I got my first horse — a free, grade Quarter Horse type, who was a hand-me-down from another of my instructor’s students. I kept him in my neighbor’s two-stall barn and rode him in our backyard bareback for a year because I couldn’t find a saddle that fit him. I would ride him bareback down the street to my weekly riding lesson and borrow a saddle for an hour. Since then, I’ve never not had a horse.

“Sadie with Lindy photobombing.” Photo courtesy of Erin.

A: It sounds like you grew up in a very horsey area? When did you start competing?

E: It’s funny because I grew up on the edge of town, across the street from a huge park where I could go trail riding, but we were five minutes or less from downtown. My parents still live there, and now they’re basically in the middle of town. Their little street of one-acre lots is surrounded by subdivisions. It seemed horsey when I was a kid, but it was never really rural. If that makes sense.

I competed in my first horse show before I owned a horse, on the horse who would later become my first horse. So local shows were always something I did — just a couple a year. Later on, when I got my second horse, I did maybe one horse trial a year, plus the same little local shows. I told my first instructor I wanted to compete in the Olympics. Thanks 1984 Los Angeles Olympics! It took me awhile to realize I’m really not brave enough for much more than jumping three feet.

I did a bit more after college/before kids, but now showing just seems like a lot of stress! I miss having a goal to make me push myself, but I don’t miss being nauseous for days leading up to a show.

A: So when did you get your first TB? When did you fall in love with that breed?

E: My first OTTB was named Clue. I had been looking for a younger horse after my awesome Appy/TB mare Spot was diagnosed with Cushings. She was older and although she ended up being sound to ride for a good number of years after her diagnosis, I didn’t feel good about jumping her anymore, and I felt like I needed a younger horse if I wanted to do more with my riding.

So I spent a summer after my first or second year of teaching high school as a working student for a local eventing trainer and shopping for horses. I looked at several OTTBs, had a couple on trial, and I discovered I kind of liked the project of putting dressage and jumping basics on a horse.

But then Clue dropped into my lap. He belonged to the trainer I was a working student for and he’d just been sitting in her field. He had kind of a sad story and he had the most amazing canter, and he became mine. He wasn’t actually the best fit for me — he was really bold to fences. He knew his job and he wanted to do it his way and I wasn’t always good at staying out of his way or liking the way he thought things should be done.

We only had a year together before he injured himself bolting and crashing at a dressage show. I spent a year rehabbing him before it became clear his injury was more chronic than we’d first thought and he wasn’t going to be my competition horse. I semi-retired him and then I was horse hunting again.

Again with my small budget — smaller now that I had two semi-retired horses — and still no Appys I could afford, I found Sadie, a wonderful unraced OTTB. I felt safe on her from the very first ride. She was green, but just gave me that good feeling. She’s about the age now that Spot was when I got Sadie and the two of them remind me so much of each other — their steadiness, their “go” after that first canter, their willingness to listen. Just horses that give you that feeling that you can trust them and who will try for you, no matter what you ask. From there my love of OTTBs just snowballed.

I got my third OTTB — for $1 — right after I finished grad school. Lindy came from a 501(c)3 that focuses on rehabbing OTTBs. She came out of race training with a fractured sesamoid and I wanted to try to work with horses off the track, retraining them for new careers.

“Prince.” Photo courtesy of Erin.

A: Tell me about your current OTTB rehabbing/rehoming program.

E: In 2019, I reconnected with one of my former riding students, Emma. She was working as an exercise rider at the track and invited me to come to the state fair to watch a horse she had an ownership interest in run and hang out with her. So I did, and it was fantastic.

Later that year, Emma asked if I would be interested in having the horse I’d seen run at the state fair come and take a little R&R break from racing at my place. He was not racing well, seemed to have lost interest, and his owners wanted to give him some time off to see if he’d come back to racing happier. I immediately agreed!

Prince was just going to stay for three months and then go back to racing, but that was early 2020, and then COVID happened. He ended up staying for six months. Having Prince here was one of the few bright spots of 2020 and helped me feel more like I was part of the larger horse community again.

When Prince went back to the track, I think I started to get a little bit of a reputation for sending horses back to the track fat and happy and with good manners. He’s gone on to race 24 times since he was here and has earned warhorse money.

A: What is warhorse money?

E: Warhorse money is lifetime earnings over $100,000 or having raced over a certain amount of times. I think it’s fifty, but I forget.

“Panda.” Photo courtesy of Erin.

A: You gained a reputation for making horses fat, happy and super successful. What happened next?

E: So the trainer at that same racing stable as Prince sent me his half sister, Panda, to come rehab from a tendon strain. Panda was here for about seven months, part of the time in a stall/paddock and then out with my permanent herd, and then she went back to racing for a year or so before retiring.

Along with her came a two-year-old that didn’t really seem to have the talent to be a good racehorse. He has a more dignified name now, but my son named him Turtle. Turtle was the first horse that I helped sell.

From there, I’ve basically had one or two horses at a time. Right now I have a little mare who originally came for some R&R time, but I’m currently trying to place her in a private home. If I can’t find the perfect person for her, she’ll go back to her racing career. And I have another horse rehabbing from an injury.

“Zeppelin formerly known as Turtle.” Photo courtesy of Erin.

A: Do you consider these horses boarders? Do you charge?

E: So, it depends? Like the one I’m trying to sell right now, her owner pays board, and that was true for the other gelding that I helped sell, and for the two that went back to racing.

But the horse we have rehabbing right now is co-owned by me, though he did come with a “dowry” to help pay for the months of stall/pasture rest he needs. And when I helped sell Turtle, I didn’t make any money from that. I don’t ask for commissions or anything like that.

A: Okay so I’ve been stalking your Insta … tell me about the Thoroughbred Feminist Ladies Club?

E: So, I have only mares as my personal horses currently and Emma knows I love mares. At some point she started calling my horses the Thoroughbred Feminist Ladies Club and I kinda loved it. So now every time she has a small filly that’s ready to retire, she’ll send me a pic and say, “Possible TFLC member?” And if she has a cute little gelding, she’ll ask me if I need a TFLC Ally.

So many people say “NO MARES” on their ISO posts, and I’ve seen some of the big resellers say that they have a much harder time selling mares, especially ones 16 hands and under. So I kinda have a soft spot for mares in general.

A: I absolutely love that. We need merch for the TFLC. Okay, just a few questions left. Coffee, tea or soda?

E: Tea. Earl grey or chai.

A: Summer or winter?

E: Summer.

A: Sunrise or sunset?

E: I love the idea of sunrise but let’s be honest: SUNSET.

A: Cats or dogs?

E: I feel like my life is incomplete without both.

A: Black Beauty or Black Stallion?

E: I’m gonna go Black Beauty, because I actually have artwork in my house connected to Black Beauty, but I read all the Black Stallion books too.

Go riding.

Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @uechironan.