First Things First:
OTTB’s Are Not Crazy:
OTTB’s have a couple negative stereotypes underneath their belt. For example, “All those horses know how to do is run in a circle as fast as they can”, or, “They are Lunatics that get hyper whenever something happens”. Well, I hate to break it to ya, but that is not the case (in a negative sense). Now, don’t get me wrong, some may have bad habits yes, not all are perfect. For now, lets just focus on the positive.
OTTB’s are very well trained, and as someone who may work with them, plans on working with them, or someone who owns one, it is very important you understand why they do what they do. Once you understand the why, then you can begin your training plan from there.
OTTB’s know all of the basics when it comes to riding. They know how to walk, trot, canter, gallop, halt, steer, and their leads. They may not be familiar with leg queues, bending, half halts, one side may feel a little different, because at the track they always run to the left etc., but they have the basics, and that is all you need for a solid start in retraining.
Before we go into detail, please remember that horses are very smart, and if they had a job in the past, they are going to do what they are taught. Now lets get started.
Your preparing for you first ride on a fresh OTTB. You notice that while your grooming them, they may get a little worked up. They may pin their ears, throw their head, paw the ground, move around a little bit. To yourself you may start to think, “these are horrible ground manners!”, when your horse is thinking, “Yes!!! It’s time to go to work!”. These horses have a daily routine while at the racetrack. They are always groomed before they go out. So with that being said, being groomed means, workout time! Don’t you pump yourself up before a workout? Remember, they are only doing what they know, because it is a routine.
Once all tacked up and headed out, your horse begins to prance, snort, look around with wide eyes. You may think, this horse is not quiet!! They think, “I’m just doing my job!! Getting ready to go to work!! I can’t wait to show you how I work! I hope you enjoy the ride!”. Now, just because a fresh OTTB may get excited doesn’t mean they can’t have manners, or you can’t show them manners. They should still respect your space and not jump all over you. Also, they should not forget that you are the one in control. If they feel good, and are happy to be out, great! However, this is not an excuse for them to forget they have to respect your space, and remember that they are following your lead, not you following theirs. This is where the schooling comes in if you have to.
Now, we are up and ready to ride! If you watch the races on TV, jockeys are mounted up as the horses are walking in the paddock. Should we expect them all to stand quietly while being mounted? Not necessarily. They also may not know about using mountains blocks. However, some may do it! As a trainer, this is something that can be taught in the training program you have designed for your horse.
Once Mounted, they may begin to prance and trot off. You may think, “You’re supposed to walk off quietly!”. They are thinking, “Just another day at work! How am I doing?”. OTTB’s thrive on their job and that is something that we have to understand. They are simply happy to be working.
Now sure, they have a break system and you can get them to walk. In turn, that may cause them to become a bit more aggressive. Why? Because at the track, horses trot onto the track, trot for warmup, and then break off into a canter or an easy gallop to work. Again, they are only doing what they are taught. My Advice? Let them trot for a bit, to get the initial nerves and excitement out. Read your horse and feel them out as your doing so. Try to recognize what type of energy they are giving you.
Next, your transition up into a “canter”. Canter is in quotation marks because what may feel like a gallop to you, is a canter to them. Remember, at the track, these horses stride out, and are used to feeling their stride. Your transition into a canter may feel like a little “burst”, and all they are doing is going into their stride. When this happens, have your reins ready and go with them, but keep them underneath you at the same time. For some, it may be easier to stand for the first few strides until your horse finds a comfortable pace underneath you, and then you can adjust accordingly. Allow them to find their stride at a comfortable pace. They may grab the bit a little, that’s alright. Keep your hands quite, and enjoy the ride. Remember they do have a break system so don’t panic! Once they fine their stride, and they are comfortable, then you can work on easing them into a nice hand gallop, or a canter. In your training program down the line, upward and downward transitions, and pacing is something that you can include in your training program for the horse.
Cool Down. Once your work is done, they know their work is done as well. You may feel an at ease feeling from your horse. Why? Because they know their job is over. At the track once a horse is done with their work, they go back to the barn, get a bath, and then they are hand walked for cool out.
Again, these horses have a daily routine at the track, and they remember it! If you are aware of the routine, that the horses know, hopefully it will help you know where to start. As time goes on, you can gradually begin to train them on their new routine. For example, maybe they will learn how to stand while being mounted, or you work on nice upward and downward transitions.
But, don’t forget to give them credit. They have a great work ethic, they are in amazing shape, and already know the basics of riding which is a WONDERFUL start. All you have to do, is build off of what they already know, and gradually introduce their new job to them.