Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: The Let Down

“… the let-down period is not a single moment that must happen immediately post track. It is a process that is not always linear.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey shares her logic on what it means to give horses let down time when they come off the track.

I could try to write this entire article with the “let down” double entendre that is woefully too obvious. That honestly takes more brain power or coffee than I have right now. Add to it thatm, in my opinion, when off-track Thoroughbreds “let down,” it is rarely that – in fact it is one of my favorite periods to watch their transformations.

A lot of information that I cram in these articles often works pretty broadly across breeds and disciplines. Letting down from the track, however, is clearly specific to runners. I’m sure it applies as much to racing Standardbreds, Arabs, and Quarter Horses as well. But there is something specific to what happens to equine bodies and their brains when they leave the exercise, routine and conditioning of the track for a slower life of (assumed) leisure in their second careers.

Amelia’s Map, a former sales horse, training at the track under trainer, Anna Meah. Photo by author.

There isn’t really a right way to do the letdown period – and I think that is what made me want to come back and revisit the topic. There are always internet trolls jumping up and down about the need to pull their shoes and chuck them out in a field for a year before doing any post-track riding or retraining. Yes, that is one way to do things – and some horses benefit greatly from the time and the “learning to horse” that comes from hanging out in a field; but it is not always the right answer or the only answer for how to manage that immediate post-track time.

This was Neumann (Bubba Bob)’s first post-track ride after a short period of a couple months turnout at Winchester Place Thoroughbreds in Paris, KY. Photo by Alanah Giltmier

So let’s run through some let down options. We can start there — the field:

The benefits of putting them out in a field for a proverbial year means that their bodies get to detox and soften without the stress of new asks or a new type of rider. Sometimes horses who have run hard and are tight and body sore all around will need some time off in between to just get comfortable again. Slow grazing and moving about all day certainly is not a bad way to do this.

Legs (Pederson’s Lion) is a great example. He came off the track growthy, leggy and tight around this time last year. I bought him and hopped on just to see what was under the hood in one of my Thoroughbred Logic Clinics. A then-participant and now-friend knew his bloodlines and fell in love – bringing him home and letting him have nearly a full year of time to hang out, grow and let his muscles and ligaments relax. He’s now starting back in work and feels great.

Legs (Pederson’s Lion) right when he came off the track in early 2023. Photo by Cora Williamson.

The downside to the field option is that you not only need the excess time, money, and access to the proverbial field while a horse is “unproductive,” but also you will be taking a sensitive, switched-on, job-oriented creature from a strict routine to a couch with a remote. Sometimes that “need a job” thing causes them to get into more trouble than not. All the while, even though they are out in a field, one still needs to stay carefully on top of their hoof angles, health, nutrition, and skin conditions.

Legs nearly one year later after a whole bunch of good care, nutrition and time in a field, courtesy of Kat Dortenzo. Screenshot by Alanah Giltmier.

Another option is what I would call intermittent let down:

I’m certain that I over empathize with these horses. If you put me on a couch with a remote for more than a few days and made me stay forcibly relaxed, I’d be turning the house upside down and quite possibly setting things on fire within a week. “Sit still” rarely works in my book. When Needles Highway was on turnout for healing a torn muscle, his lack of a job set him up for idiot antics and annoying injuries. He has also been the death of a number of my winter blankets (worn by his pasture mates). Thanks, Needles.

So generally, what I do with immediately off-track kids is set them up for slow success. I put them on a high-quality feed plan that gets them all the nutrition they need from the start, topped with ample alfalfa. Simultaneously, I’ll add body work to their care packets and stick as many shoes on their feet as they need and allow them to restart slowly – a ride or two a week with days, sometimes months, off in between rides when they are going through a growth spurt, or on the back-burner. They get stalls and big paddocks, friends and boundaries.

Lord Darnley (Sews) hacking around for his third post-track ride. He’s on the intermittent let down plan. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

In this vein, the transformations are sometimes slower. But as they both relax and slowly add new muscle, the metamorphosis is nothing short of amazing. Tetris is a usual character for this type of let-down. He came off tight from running, went through a growth spurt, and slowly began accumulating his post-track rides. His body relaxed, filled out, and smoothed over his topline while his step and the character of his trot moved from choppy to far more fluid.

Tetris (Not A Game) in late August just after coming off the track. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Tetris in early January 2024, with maybe 25 rides under his belt and a bunch of turnout. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Fun pet peeve: comments that point out that immediately post-track horses don’t have “nice enough” or “big enough” trots. Hold right on up. Sometimes you have to squint at these guys during this period to see how nice they will be, but trust me, that trot will change and open up as they soften and their muscles let go. Judge the walk or the canter all you want, but know that the trot will significantly improve on almost all of them.

Tetris showing off his far improved trot as his body has let down. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Then there’s the final type of letdown — let’s go to work:

These horses come off the track and either need a job, or they landed in a space where they have to work for a while before they can get to a home that can give them any time off they might need. Many horses that move through resale barns go to work to start. If they need field or intermittent let down, sure — most have access to this as needed. But the idea is usually to get a few short rides on these horses to test their brains and movement and check for vices as much as for talent before trying to make a match with a new owner.

Most of these horses do quite well with the work. And as Kat (Leg’s owner) and I joke, if they don’t get the letdown immediately, they’ll ask for it if/when they’re ready. Wolf (Louisiana Moon) is a great example. He came off the track wound and stall aggressive. He wasn’t one that I wanted to just leave alone and let learn to “horse.” So we put him to light work at first, increasing over time. Over the last year he has taken a few “breaks.” When he would become body sore or uncomfortable under saddle, I’d give him a week or two — or sometimes a month — to rest and hang out. But then he’d go back to work. And when in work, he is always happier.

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) still crammed up mid-letdown in the summer of 2023. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

After running 63 times over seven years of racing, he was poised for a big transformation – but it was a slow one. Most Thoroughbreds pack on the pounds reasonably efficiently – he did no such thing. But looking at him nearly a year into his post-track life, his whole body has “un-crammed” – softened at the connections, lengthened over his back and gained the necessary weight to look relaxed in his own skin and like a proper former racehorse,  not a current one.

Wolf in late December 2023. Not my favorite image of Wolf, but it nonetheless shows the difference. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

So how does one choose which let down will work for their horse? It largely depends on the horse’s needs and level of work/stimulation, and the expectations that the owner has of them on a given timeline.

Regardless of which works best for all involved, here’s an important caveat: the let-down period is not a single moment that must happen immediately post track. It is a process that is not always linear. Each horse and solution are a bit different but there are so many right answers and the only real wrong ones is to not listen to the needs of the horse, to push them past their comfort level, or neglect their care during that period of transformation. Set them up for success with what they need and their bodies and brains will thank you later.

Go ride, turnout, and weather the winter, folks. Here’s hoping for warmer, less rainy days soon.

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