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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’
30 60 90 Days Training
Abuse NeglectRehab Part 1
Abuse NeglectRehab Part 2
Aids & Cues What are they
Assess Diagnose beforeFix
Are all horses trainable
Be safer use a Dummy
Behavior Retraining Tips
Behavior Solving Issues
Buying first Horse Guide
Buying Training Older Hor
Buying a Horse Part 2
Buying a Horse Mismatched
Buying a Horse Selecting
CalmingTrg 1 sided horses
How to Communicate Horses
How horses Communicate
Cycles and Pyramid Trg
Establishing Leadership
Exercises Warm Up
Flexion Lateral
Flexion Proper Training
Flexion Vertical
Foundation GroundTraining
Foundation Mounted
How Horses Learn
Liability Release
Motivating HorsesandMules
Natural Survival Instinct
OTTB Re Education
Overcoming riding fear
Saddle Fitting
Selecting A Trainer
Soft Inside Light Outside
Spurs How to Use them
Teaching Strategy
TRAINING Ask Properly
TrainingGreenRarely Handl
Training Guidelines
Train Outside the Box
Training Principals
Training Pyramid Natural
Transfer GroundworkSaddle
Turning and Neck Reining
Winter Training Workouts

Off-the-Track Thoroughbreds Re training Tips

Retraining this 4 year old OTTB was easy because it started on the ground!


For all their wonderful attributes,  OTTBs are often looked down on by many pleasure riders and competitive riders in specific disciplines alike, which is a shame because a quick flick through the history books will soon highlight numerous thoroughbreds who, once finished their careers on the racetrack, achieved glory in both English and Western riding.  The OTTB has a sensitive and quick mind and because of this, they do will under the guidance of riders who are careful and mindful of what they ask and how they ask for it.    The thoroughbreds also have fantastic athletic ability and are wonderful animals to train because of how well they can use their body and brain.  Of course, it goes without saying that initially choosing the correct horse is vital, with emphasis on the horses age, confirmation, temperament, racing history, soundness, to a lesser extent breeding and the all important condition and shape of the hooves.  Being such a highly prized and bred animal, the OTTB may need extra care which might just equate to extra financial implications and while purchasing an OTTB may be cheaper initially, he may just cost you in other areas in the long run. 

Behavior Tendencies

Contrary to our perception, some OTTPs behavior tendencies are actually not unique to racehorses. One that makes perfect sense for a horse coming straight off the track or from training stables is the tendency to get wound up whenever taken out for work. We can attribute this to some racing programs’ rigid and/or rushed daily training schedules, where the emphasis is on going fast for short periods.  Many young Thoroughbreds are allowed to circle around their handler when excited--a behavior that's undesirable once these horses move into second careers.  Similarly, they tend to not turn to the right or to back up well. They also might initially have trouble working clockwise or up and down hills or doing much of anything at the walk. And many racehorses, especially those living for long periods without turnout and/or in the track environment, have a high incidence of the classic equine behavior problems related to the stress of confinement and poor socialization, including stereotypes (e.g., cribbing, weaving, etc.), panic disorders, and wood chewing. On the positive side, in my experience I’ve observed that racehorses have fewer behavior problems than other similar-aged horses during everyday activities, such as loading and transporting, having their legs wrapped and feet lifted, being groomed or bathed, as well as being injected or medicated. Keep in mind, however, that these are all gross generalizations, and there are plenty of exceptions. I hear from as many folks who are pleasantly surprised as are challenged by OTTB projects.

Please remember that; OTTBs are asked to give 110 percent most of the time, but  as riding horses, in eventing, as in most other disciplines, we actually don’t want our horses to be exerting that much energy too often. As the former racehorse makes the transition to its new career, it’s not uncommon for him to feel high anxiety about his new job because now he’s being asked to do something different from what he’s known his whole life. A rider might think that asking this horse to slow down a little is not a big deal, but for him it’s a huge change.  Think small, especially in the beginning!  When working with an anxious horse, it’s critical to avoid adding to his tension by asking too much of him.  To help a horse overcome his nervousness, you need to become a source of comfort and security for him. Here are tips on how to do it.


Not every off track racehorse is going to make the transition to a riding horse

Generally OTTBs are Good Horses with little to no Ground and Mounted Foundation Training as an English or Western riding horse!  I take this opportunity to point out that the ex-racehorse horse is not for everyone they are mostly Good horses with no foundation training as riding horses, so you should take plenty of advice and correctly assess your own abilities both in and out of the saddle before deciding to retrain such a horse. Retraining of these horses is very similar to starting off a young horse, if you do not consider that you may not be able to do this properly without the help of an experienced professional, then possibly a racehorse is not for you.  However there is plenty of help available if you ask, it will mean that you have to start with establishing a solid Foundation of Ground Training starting with the Basics. Challenging as it can be sometimes as any horse can be it is an extremely rewarding process.  The re-trained racehorse can, in the right hands, provide considerable pleasure and fun and be quite capable of being a pleasure horse or competing at levels which suit the vast majority of riders. And of course there are those that go on to excel at much higher grades and indeed international level.  Whilst sadly I must admitted that not every horse that has been in training successfully makes the transition from racehorse to riding horse in that one of two do retain a degree of unpredictability or inconsistency in their behavior.  The significant majority can be directed along other paths given the time, patience, correct handling, understanding and proper training plan.


Where Do You Begin?

It goes without saying that initially choosing the correct horse is vital, with emphasis on the horses age [I prefer a 2, 3 or 4 year old recently off the track or one that was not suitable for the track], confirmation, temperament, racing history, training history, soundness, to a lesser extent color, breeding and the all important condition and shape of the hooves.  I highly recommend prior to embarking on this journey a Vet check and a training evaluation.  Although these can't guarantee that a horse will be your perfect mount, why bother? For one thing, it could prove that a particular animal won't be suitable, saving you from heartache and financial loss.


    • A Vet Check can expose health concerns not apparent to the naked or untrained eye that could present management issues now or later, giving you an opportunity to decide if you want to take on that problem.   Some can have a host of physical issues a very good reason why I recommend a Vet Check.
    • Training evaluation – Personally I prefer to do the evaluation prior to purchasing the OTTB.  The evaluation reports are extremely helpful to identify what your starting point will be.  If you are unable to do it hire a professional to objectively assess what both you and your horse’s capabilities are before you purchase or start re training an off track thoroughbred [OTTB], you can then easily gauge your successes as you progress through the re training program.  I recommend using the Level one Foundation of ground training exercises that are transferable to the saddle.  I am very interested in the Emotional, Mental and Physical state of each horse.  The evaluation will identify the training the horse as, the behavior/learning pattern, personality traits such as being one sided is very important information to develop you training implementation plan putting you will be in a better position to determine what areas need work. 


Let Down Period
If the your OTTB has just recently retired from the track, you can either ‘allow it to be a horse for a while’ and after turning it out for a few months into some nice pasture, although not recommended you can start doing the Horsemanship Foundation of Ground Training straight away.  The let down duration It seems to depend on the horse and if it is not happy and needs more time ‘away’ it will let you know!  Providing sufficient down time (a.k.a turned out to pasture with no training, other than trust building and bonding.  If you're buying an OTTB through an adoption program, it might have been there for a month or two and have a head start, as far as a "let-down period".  If you purchase it directly of the track; this refers to the time off, whether several weeks or several months, given to an OTTB to alleviate body soreness and let any medications clear from its system.  Also the lifestyle at the racetrack is so drastically different from that of a riding horse, there's definitely going to be a transition. Racehorses are used to being worked every day and living in their stalls almost 23 hours a day. But they come to like it--for most of them, their stall is their comfort zone.  Some OTTB's will need more or less time depending on temperament and personality behaviour pattern. This step is difficult for many people as it requires patience in waiting long periods of time without any tangible results. I assure you this step is invaluable in the re training program.


Bonding with your Off Track horse
Your initial goal in your training program should be to achieve a level of relaxation from your horse so praise often.  You’ll also want a safe place where you can get to know your new horse a bit better. So you need a place to tie your horse safely.  Grooming is a great way to get to know your new horse. Again, tie your horse safely. During grooming you may find your horse likes or dislikes certain brushes, or being brushed on certain areas of its body. Most horses like their chests scratched, and this can be a way to make friends. Be careful about brushing or scratching around flanks and bellies and these can sometimes be sensitive spots. Go slowly and use these sessions to learn about your horse, and learn about things you’ll need to work on. Try to be with your new horse as much as you can, so it can get used to how you do things.


    Consistency is the key to retraining your OTTB and building a strong bond forged in trust will ensure you have a willing partner with whom to have wonderful adventures for many years to come.



Identifying Desirable and Undesirable Traits & Tendencies
Some ex race horses have many common behavior tendencies that, contrary to some people’s perception are NOT unique to racehorses. Many behavioral problems are associated with confinement. Under free-ranging circumstances, horses wander and spend 60% of their day foraging. The remainder of their time is spent resting (standing or lying down), grooming, or engaging in another activity. Keep in mind, however, that the following are generalizations and there are plenty of exceptions. I hear from as many folks who are pleasantly surprised as are challenged by OTTB projects.

  • Please note that have the history that the horse was abused or you suspect it was kindly read:  Abuse Neglect Rehab Part 1 and Part 2!  If the horse was not abused kindly read:   Confidence Respect Trust Leadership
  • One that makes perfect sense for a horse coming straight off the track or from training stables is the tendency to get wound up whenever taken out for work. Tendency to become anxious/excited whenever taken out for work particularly with other horses in an arena. We can attribute this to some racing programs’ rigid and/or rushed daily training schedules, where the emphasis is on going fast for short periods.
  • Many young Thoroughbreds are allowed to circle around their handler when excited--a behavior that's undesirable once these horses move into second careers.
  • They also might initially have trouble working clockwise or up and down hills or doing much of anything at the walk.
  • Many racehorses, especially those living for long periods without turnout and/or in the track environment, have a high incidence of the classic equine behavior problems related to the stress of confinement and poor socialization, including stereotypies (e.g., cribbing, weaving, etc.), panic disorders and wood chewing. 
  • They tend to one side dominant
  • They tend to not turn to the right or to back up well. 
  • They are practically clueless about traditional rein aids and yielding to pressure 
  • Some are very difficult because of severe separation anxiety
  • Highly intelligent , sensitive, extremely willing and eager to please. When you develop a mutual respect with an OTTB, they will be your best friend and you will find a partner that will give you 100%. However, try to force them to do something, and you will have a pretty big fight on your hands. Show them respect, love and guidance, and you will find an easily trainable horse.   

On the positive side, the ex-racehorse can be a Good Horse with a huge heart, a strong work ethic, great athleticism, wonderful sensitivity and potentially, a host of physical issues. In my experience I’ve observed that racehorses have fewer behavior problems than other similar-aged horses during everyday activities, such as loading and transporting, having their legs wrapped and feet lifted, being groomed or bathed, as well as being injected or medicated.


New Location and Companions

A word about moving your new horse to its’ new location if there are other horses you’ll want to have a spot where your horse can see them from a distance, but not mingle right away.  Different people have different approaches to introducing a new horse to a herd, so you might want to check that out. It will take time for your horse to get used to its new home, and it may take a while before your horse finds its place in the herd pecking order. Expect some nervous moments before everyone settles down.  Bringing home a newly purchased horse can be a stressful event for you and the horse, particularly for the horse. While you might feel a certain amount of stress, your new horse will be experiencing it twofold. After all, it's the one that has been uprooted from all familiar surroundings and companions.  For the first few days, the newcomer should be turned into a paddock that is adjacent to the pasture so all of the horses can see each other, but where they will not feel challenged by one another.  Horses should have a period of several days to observe each other at a distance, then across a safe fence.  Once the horses have become complacent, one horse can be placed into the paddock with the new horse.  It's good idea to move a non-aggressive middle-ranking horse into the paddock first. This will allow the two horses to become acquainted with one another and bond.  At this point you can rotate other herd members into the paddock, but another method would be to remove all of the horses from the pasture, then put the two newly bonded horses into the pasture together. Doing so will permit the new horse, in the company of his new pal, a chance to discover where pasture boundaries are.  If it is allowed to familiarize itself with the pasture before the rest of the horses are turned out, it will be less likely to run into serious trouble should it feel the need to flee from aggression.  Reintroduction of original herd members to the field should be done slowly, by adding one or two at a time every couple of days. This will help minimize some of the anxiety and brutal conflict that is sure to surface when a herd is altered.  Throughout the clash of introductions, and for the next few weeks, keep a sharp eye out for injuries and lameness, as well as lethargic or sulking herd members.  With any introduction, the newcomer is apt to be put through a time of hazing from various members of the existing herd. This is normal and needs to be allowed to take place as long as the clash of hooves and teeth don't become all-out brawls. 

Retraining tips

  • Using a generic Foundation of Ground Training Plan; begin with an evaluation to identify;  Desirable and Undesirable Traits!  Who the horse is?  What the horse knows?  What the horse needs?
  • Use the evaluation results to Develop a horse specific training plan and implementation strategy
  • Start with desensitizing ground work exercises and sensitizing which many of the OTTBs have never had for; suppleness, flexiblity, flexion, to introduce aids, cues,  some voice commands, transitions, balance and self rating.
  • Be consistent and don't lose patience 
  • Tailor your rewards to any response, not just the perfect response, on the part of the horse." In the early stages
  • Use simple repetitive requests over time, do not dwell on each exercise, proceed logically and don’t rush ahead. Until the ex-racer understands what you are asking, does it willingly, carries itself in a balanced manner, rates itself and maintains a steady pace with infrequent transitions changes as reminders, there's no sense in going on to the next steps.
  • Focus on allowing the horse to understand the basic;  make a request allow the horse to respond, even if just slightly. In turn, the horse is rewarded. "I want to set them up for easy success,".   


Develop a horse specific Training Plan

A goal without a plan is just a Dream so; once you are certain your horse has had sufficient down and pasture time, it is time to establish; trust, confidence and leadership on the ground.  Using the training evaluation reports customize the re training plan using the level 1 foundation of ground training exercises your horse will need that mimic mounted exercises.  Most OTTBs do not have developed manners or moving of riding pressure expected and these are also reasons that you will need to literally start from the ground up. Starting with proper leading exercises from the pasture to the training area in an orderly fashion.  Work on respecting your space and set boundaries. As race horses are used to being in a state of hyper activity at all times and are high energy animals these seemly simple step that does not even require mounting can be challenging right out of the pasture gate. Do not move forward with the training until each progressive step is at least at 70 to 75 percent; then review them before you begin teaching the next step the following day. You are, in addition to teaching your horse ground manners, reprogramming your horse's mind for how he will interact with you and who is "The Leader". This will prove to be very important when the time to mount your horse finally comes.

Start with the Basics – The Foundation of Ground Training

Chances are you have already mounted your OTTB!  Although I do not suggested it; if you were to climb on board one of the first things you'll notice is the typical OTTB is that he is practically clueless about traditional aids and cues.  Rather than yielding to rein pressure, the OTTB is more likely to lean on your hands and go even faster or worse, he may raise his head like a giraffe. It's not that your ex-racehorse is being defiant. He simply hasn't been trained like your average show or pleasure horse. Unless you begin your program establishing a solid Foundation of Ground Training and transferring that to a new career in the saddle it will be difficult/time consuming for you and the OTTB.  The foundation training works as a transitioning tool from one career to the new one and allows your horse to ‘let down’ and realize that life is now very different, as is the work expected of him.  Your initial goal in your re training program must be to achieve a level of relaxation from your horse.  Begin with a step by step progress training plan being very mindful about what you are asking and how you are going about asking for it.  Remember your horse was asked to ‘go’ and ‘stop’ very differently in his past career and it will take time and consistent aids applied with patience and kindness to show him what you want when you apply your aids.  Ensure that you reward every small.  Thoroughbreds are often sensitive by nature and telling him that he is doing well, no matter how small the progress is, will go a long way to keeping him relaxed and happy in his job, rather than anxious and nervous.  As with all horses, as soon as he stops or yields to your aids, release the pressure and reward with your voice as well, so he begins to understand the reward system.  Consistency is the key to retraining your OTTB and building a strong bond forged in trust will ensure you have a willing partner with whom to have wonderful adventures for many years to come. 


Some people do not put a lot of value on Ground Training but ask yourself; if you cannot control your horse on the ground why do you think you can control your horse in the saddle!  Bear in mind that while your retired racehorse may rush and want to run on initially, this may not so much be caused by him being unbalanced, more that he just doesn’t understand what is being asked of him and old habits, as we can all attest to when put in stressful situations, die hard!  This is a horse who has possibly years of training in it to run hard and who knows how to do a job.  Just not the job you want!  Slow, steady and consistent are all important elements needed to successfully re-train your good friend. Ask yourself; how do you think your horse feels if it trying to please you but does not understand what you are asking it to do?


Foundation of Mounted Training

Now that your horse has completed the foundation of ground training it should be; calm, supple, soft on the inside, light on the outside, focused on you; it is time to transfer what the horse has learned on the ground and establish leadership mounted.  The first step may be best with a helper on the ground that is someone with experience.  Even if you have experience in riding green, barely broke horses, the OTTB can still be a challenge and can be dangerous if attempted by someone who is not ready for the task.  I prefer using a small area free of distractions such as horse eating monsters as it is likely that your OTTB will be ready to spook at just about anything at this point. If possible I recommend using a sixty foot round pen.  This could be one time for some and three weeks for another, again it will depend on each individual horses personality. I would continue to do a check in on the ground before mounting throughout the entire re-training program.


To re-educate a OTTB, normally I have to resort to some exercises inspired by western riding. In western terms, I teach every horse to follow its nose. When tracking in a large circle to the right, I use an inside (right) opening or leading rein—hold your right hand out to the side, approximately even with your horse's shoulder, and slowly bring your right hand back to your hip. Your horse should oblige with his nose following the soft contact on the right ring of his snaffle bit. As he curves ever so slightly in a half turn to the right, bending his neck, release the pressure and pat him.

Eventually, add pressure with your inside (right) leg as you gently guide his nose—and thereby his head, neck and body—around to the right. Your inside (right) leg will keep him from simply falling in on the circle. By pressing his ribs gently "out" on his turn, but leading his head and neck around to the right, you should be able to create a reasonable circle. With a lot of praise for an honest effort, your OTTB will begin to realize that there are two directions in life.

By changing and not dwelling on what is being asked and not allowing the OTTBs schooling sessions to become boring for his sharp mind, you will probably find it is enough to nip any bad habits in the bud, and when you return to the ‘problem area’ again, either another day or later in the schooling session, he will willingly oblige you.


Learn to Understand & Communicate 

Retraining your Off-The-Track Thoroughbred is a challenging and rewarding endeavor. It is basically guaranteed that you will have days, especially in the beginning that you will think to yourself, "I am selling this horse, there is no way he/she will ever make a suitable trail, Hunter/Jumper show horse." I have had those days myself and will share some of those experiences with you. I want to stress the importance of patience. This cannot be taken lightly. You will need to have unending patience with your Thoroughbred; it will be taxing at times. Yet while it is an enormous amount of work and added stress the rewards are boundless. The Thoroughbred's inherit love, bond and willingness to perform for his/her human counterpart is unmatchable and unbelievable.  The very first step and possibly the single most important step in your re-training program will be to gain your horse's trust and ultimately leadership.  Many OTTB's find this difficult and it may prove to be your first stumbling point in your new relationship with your OTTB. To gain the trust and gain leadership of your OTTB you will need to think like an OTTB, which at times is not the same thinking as a non-OTTB horse. OTTB's generally will learn more from praise than punishment and will need to have that praise often and exaggeratedly expressed. Feed into the OTTB's own desire to please. This is extremely important in building a relationship with your new OTTB! For the most part a stern "NO" will be enough to let your Thoroughbred know a behavior is not acceptable.  Remember, trust is not a right, it must be earned, and in a split second it can be lost. Be very sensitive to your horse's emotions. Thoroughbreds are sensitive horses and an overly harsh command or punishment for undesired behavior can set you back months in terms of trust. While you cannot allow bad behavior and must maintain the superior/subordinate relationship, you will need to always consider that your overall goal is to gain trust and react appropriately with that in mind. There must be a balance between trust building and maintaining the proper relationship status with your horse. It can be difficult to achieve, and thus why this step can prove to be challenging for some owners and horses. Trust building will start from the moment you gain ownership of your ex-race horse.


Riding is not a problem but Speed Control can be

In short," "the harder a rider pulls on the ex racehorse, the more leverage and speed that horse will give to you."  Hence, you must attempt to connect with your OTTB in by teaching it speed control.  Teaching it that there is a difference between pulling on the reins to go faster and a definite check [western] half-halt [english] to regulate and establish the desired pace.  "I use simple repetitive requests, such as half-halts with big releases of the rein pressure, in conjunction with the voice commands.  First I do it at the walk, and then as the horse improves I move on to the trot and canter." When the horse responds, I promptly reward with the release of pressure and praise. "I make sure I use lots of 'big praise' and lots of rubs on the neck."  As an example of how I accomplish this, I work the OTTB in a large circle at the trot, approximately 20 or 30 meters. By using the voice command for "trot" and perhaps a simple cluck to achieve the upward transition, the horse will begin to trot. If his pace increases beyond I desire, a half-halt is applied to steady the horse back to the optimum pace. At the precise moment the horse complies, however, there is an immediate reward of softening the rein.  "Sometimes just a two-minute ride with one good transition at the walk is worth more than an hour of pulling at the canter.  Praise goes a long, long way with any horse.  Since your intention is to educate your OTTB, don't take the perceived easy route by resorting to a harsher bit to gain some short-term responses. Instead, stick with a bit the horse is used to: the simple smooth-mouth snaffle.  Then work from there by asking the horse to carry himself without leaning on your hands for support. Institute half-halts liberally, but don't forget to reward your horse for any response by relaxing your feel on the reins.

What should you expect for your first ride on your new OTTB?

This is not your horse’s first ride and it shouldn’t be a rodeo!  Thoroughbreds are used to being ridden everyday at the race track. They walk to the track, in groups or alone. They jog and canter most days and they have days when they gallop. They do not gallop or work fast every day. At The track, the horses doing their slow work ride clockwise on the outside rail in the opposite direction as the horses on the inside rail doing the fast workouts moving counter clockwise. There are also horses in the center of the track doing medium speed workouts. The morning workouts are great training for the schooling ring at a horse show – only with better riders and more organized chaos.  Horses work in both directions at the race track – at the same time. The slow horses are ridden clockwise and the fast horses work counter clockwise. The faster horses are on the inside rail.  The horses at the track have riders that are confident and they instill that confidence in the young horses. YOU need to be confident when you get on your off-the-track Thoroughbred. I am not surprised by the OTTB Success Stories of new owner’s first rides. Many people expect OTTBs to be hot or difficult to ride when, in reality, the opposite is usually true. Sometimes you even need a crop or spurs because they are so relaxed.  Take the time to do some pre ride checks by doing some ground work before getting on. Wear a protective vest like the jockey’s wear under their silks. We wear a helmet and have a ground person holding the lunge line which is attached to the horse’s bridle.  When you first mounted ask the person on the ground help you by asking the horse to do the mounted exercises you will be doing!


A general rule of thumb in exercise physiology is to allow one month of progressive re-conditioning for each month off. A better rule might be to not allow these losses of underlying strength in the first place. The good news is that you do not need a big time investment to prevent them.


Walk and trot your horse until you feel safe enough to canter.

Hill work and walk,/trot transitions are excellent training. Teach your horse to respond from your seat with half halts before a transition. You can do this on the trails as well. Look in the direction you wish your horse to go and you will find you hardly need to apply rein. When you turn your head and shoulders, the weight in your hips signals the horse to move in the direction you are looking. You will also be applying legs in the proper manner if you are turning with your head AND shoulders. When trotting do not tip forward or post too fast. Your horse will automatically match your tempo. If you wish him to slow down, slow down your posting and bring your shoulders and chest back. Breathe. Your horse will slow down. Jockey’s lean forward and take hold of the reins. The Thoroughbred race horse leans into the reins and balances on the Jockey’s hands. When they cross the finish line the jockey sits up and lets go of the rein pressure. The horse slows down and starts to jog.  Think about walking and do a half halt and your horse will be walking. Off-the-track Thoroughbreds are very sensitive and learn quickly because they want to please their person. Reward your horse by lightening your hands and talking to him with your voice.



One of the exercises you used during ground training should have been lunging and that may not have been an easy task, as most racehorses aren't taught to lunge at the training farm. While teaching your OTTB the basics of lunging, include simple voice commands, especially the meaning of the word, "whoa." You should have also taught it to respond to the words "trot" and "canter" by using distinct vocal cues for those words; reinforced by the verbal cues with a cluck or a snap of the lunge whip if necessary.  When you are riding your horse, you can associate the verbal cues with subtle leg and hand aids during transitions. If you have not educated the horse on the ground canter will be the hardest gait to get under control.  Expect his first days at cantering to be fast. He has always been told to run, as a race horse even on practice days when they are not pushed to full speed they are still galloped at a speed greater than that which we will ask. Further Expect that your OTTB may not be watching where is he headed and may run into walls if he is not steered around the corner of the arena (one reason why I recommended the round pen). Begin your departures at the walk to the trot and then to the canter. This will be different than the old usual departure to the gallop which was from a stand still. Keep your cantering limited to short amounts and keep them in a 20 meter D pattern or as close to it as possible. This will aid in keeping him from blasting off into a full blown gallop. Reward greatlyevery time he demonstrates a nice canter departure and canter transition to the trot and back down to the walk.


Now that you have incorporated the three main gaits into your training program, you will want to just spend a lot of time putting "miles" on him. Use your riding time to practice a lot of transitions, and make sure to mix it up, don't always ask for the canter at the same point in the arena or ask for the downward transition to  the walk at the same point in the arena or after the same amount of strides. Spend time going from walk to trot to walk to trot to canter to trot etc.  Be sure to exercise your OTTB in both directions equally. You will likely find that he is faster on the left lead as well as more comfortable on the left lead at the canter. This is because while race horses are exercised in both directions, races are nearly always counter-clock wise or left lead. You may also find that he feels a bit out of sorts on the right lead and you may have more difficulty getting him to pick up the right lead consistently.


Lead changes

Despite your progress, when you begin to canter, unless your horse yields to pressure be prepared for your horse to have some difficulty picking up his right lead and circle patterns. You must remain patient and again refresh his memory with ground exercises.  One method for introducing a lead departure onto the right and left lead is to practice the D exercise quietly to the right and to the left first at a slow trot making sure he is correctly bent to the right and to the left.  After a while you can nudge him into a canter departure using your voice command, a cluck and a squeeze of your outside (left) calf. Some ex-racers will pick this exercise quickly, others are much more reluctant.  Just be patient and consistent, and in a few rides, your horse will have his right and left lead. And he'll be well on his way to a new career.


If your OTTB still seems on edge when he works in a group, work on ground and mounted exercises that encourage him to focus on you and your requests, not on his surroundings or the other horses. For example, include flat work movements like figure-eights and serpentines that not only develop relaxation, suppleness and looseness in your OTTB, but also keep him from sightseeing.  If he elevates his head and becomes tense while working in a group; try frequent transitions, but execute them slowly and deliberately. Vary his routine and remind him of your previous lessons on remaining supple in his turns and circles. If you merely make continuous laps round and round your arena, he may begin to anticipate a cue to break into a gallop. Keep his intelligent mind focused on you, on a task and he’ll begin to understand that other horses are not potential rivals. One other mental adjustment your OTTB will have to make is accepting his new working hours. The average racehorse is stabled about 23 hours a day. During that one hour outside, he’s saddled, ridden to the exercise track at the walk, trotted a brief period to loosen up, and then he gallops a designated distance. Then he’s ridden back to the barn, untacked, washed off and put on the hot walker. It’s a very predictable routine that is only altered slightly on race day. That’s why so many OTTBs initially have a short attention span. A weekly group lesson might seem like a marathon schooling session to your OTTB and is liable to elicit behavior like nervous energy or an evasion to your aids. Hence, keep your group activities to a minimum until your horse begins to understand that there’s a shift change involved with his new career.

Make sure you reward every small step forward.  Thoroughbreds are often sensitive by nature and telling him that he is doing well, no matter how small the progress is, will go a long way to keeping him relaxed and happy in his job, rather than anxious and nervous.  As with all horses, as soon as he stops or yields to your aids, release the pressure and reward with your voice as well, so he begins to understand the reward system.

Thoroughbreds are sensitive and need to be praised

Thoroughbreds are sensitive and pick up on the emotions of the people around them. It is important to relax and open your heart when working around your Thoroughbred. If you are not confident enough to train your Thoroughbred then don’t buy one. It does not take a lot of skill but it does take patience and confidence. You can walk your horse for a year if you are not confident enough to trot or canter and that will be good for the horse as long as you can relax. Sit all stiff, fall off or scare yourself or the horse and your training will take a big step backwards. OTTBs like to have a job and they like to be ridden. If they could not be controlled by a rider, they would never make it through a race – they would run out of gas before the finish line.  The race horse waits for the rider to tell him to make the push at the end of the race to win. He is used to a rider telling him what to do and when. He needs to learn your cues when asking him to do something. Sending a Thoroughbred to a trainer will cause the horse to learn how the trainer is asking and then he will need to relearn the cues from you. The trainer can tell you how he/she taught the horse but you will not do it the same way. It is better to work with the trainer during the re training process. The Thoroughbred needs to respect you and learn what YOU are asking him to do.


If your Thoroughbred is “up”, hot tempered or bucking out sideways on the lunge line, you might want to look for a pain issue and take care of that before trying to ride him. Many ex-racers need a few chiropractic adjustments to feel good.  Who you buy your Thoroughbred from can make a huge difference. It can be the difference between success and failure with OTTB. Horses that are racing at the low end, who have not had good care or training can have a whole different set of problems than a horse from a better track or a caring trainer/owner. Make sure your OTTB has been properly cared for and handled well. If the horse is sound for racing and he is checked out thoroughly by a vet, he will most likely be very easy to ride when you get him home. A horse that is quiet and well behaved at-the-track will be even better when you get him to the farm. Horses that are unhappy at the track can turn 180 degrees and become the biggest pet you ever had, but starting with a sound, happy horse will almost guarantee a great first ride. Check to make sure the horse is not in pain. You need to make sure he feels good if you hope to have a quiet first ride.


Always be safe

At the track the Thoroughbred is used to a rider getting a leg up – sometimes from within the stall and sometimes while walking to the track. Use a mounting block if you are not agile enough to take a leg up. Kick the mounting block, stomp on it and throw it around in front of the horse before getting on. Make sure your horse is not scared of the mounting block. If the horse will not stand when you climb up on the block, get down and back him up while carrying the mounting block. Try again when he is willing to stand quietly. If he does not stand, repeat the process until your horse stands quietly. You may have to do this each time you mount for several days but eventually he will learn that is it easier to just stand and let you get on. Make sure to stay towards the center of the arena away from the fence in case you have problems.  Another good thing is to have a ground person with the lunge line attached to your horse’s bridle as your safety line. Stand on the mounting block and lean on the saddle. Put your foot in the stirrup and add weight but don’t get on. If he stands quietly you can proceed to get on. If he moves, repeat the above steps until he stands quietly for you to mount.


General Guidelines

I use the following guidelines in my own program:

  • Until my horses have at least 60 days training I always begin with a pre ride assessment using ground exercises that identify where my horse is at or to review undesirable behavior I may have had mounted.
  • Read your horse: if it is in distress it is too much. There are plenty of simple, less strenuous exercises you can such as walking/ jogging straight lines off the rail, lateral/vertical bending and counter flexing your horse, circles, figure eights, stopping and backing up or even just spending time standing still. This will allow for time on your horse and help promote an all around well trained horse.


Ready, Set, Mount!

After a short warm up/check in if the horse is standing quietly it is time for you to really get on – do it quickly and quietly. Hold the reins and mane and put your leg over his back quickly and gently put your weight on his back. Now your heart is racing. You are sitting on a Thoroughbred RACE horse!  Stay calm and breathe. Stroke your horse’s neck. Have your ground person with the lunge line lead you around in the center of the arena. Within a short amount of time you will know what to expect. 95% of the time the horse is unconcerned and ready to work – unless you are making HIM scared. Have your helper lead you around the arena until YOU are calm. Extend your circle out on the lunge line. When you feel safe and have a calm horse under you then trot. If you feel the horse is not going to explode under you and you are not making him scared, then you can come off the lunge line and enjoy riding your newly off-the-track Thoroughbred. If the horse seems too up, get off and lunge him some more. If you are nervous, do not get on. You will scare the horse with your fears and tense body. A scared horse will run. He is a prey animal and that is what they do!  You may or may not canter on the first ride. Let the horse guide you. Sometimes it will take a few rides or even longer before you will feel safe enough to ask your horse to canter. Many times you may feel safe enough to canter on your first ride.  Remember that your horse is not used to cantering on tight circles or having a rider sitting on his back. Jockeys are usually up in the irons with little or no weight on the horse’s back. Ex race horses can get back sore easily which could lead to bucking if you move to quickly with his training and make him back sore. Don’t do sitting trots or canter circles until you have built up the top line muscles with lunging and hill work.


Ride your horse outdoors

Hill Work YES... I spend many pleasurable years riding in the hills of the beautiful Qu’Applelle Valley in Saskatchewan.  Ride your OTTB outdoors as soon as you feel you can safe. Once they accept it Thoroughbreds love going for walks in the woods and working up and down hills. Riding out of the area in the woods is so different than a wide open, flat track. OTTB’s back ends are weak when they come off-the-track and the hill work is good for their minds and their bodies


You can never go too slow with the training but you can go too fast.

Never do anything that will scare your horse or yourself.  Develop a relationship unequaled by any other breeds by taking it slow and steady. Be confident and your horse will be too. A confident horse is a safer horse.