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10 Things I Learned on the Backside

Two-year-olds in race training. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld. Two-year-olds in race training. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

When I first signed on to be a CANTER Volunteer, I had little interest in horse racing. I’m embarrassed to say my head was filled with negative stereotypes of what life on the backside of a racetrack entailed. I assumed racetrackers were lesser horsemen because they did things differently than sport horse people. But I quickly discovered what a great resource most are, and when we’ve needed assistance for horses, it is always fellow racetrackers who are first to help.

  1. Heart overcomes X-rays any day of the week. X-rays are important — I am a big proponent of them — but they do not paint a complete picture. What a horse (or person) lacks physically can often be compensated by his drive. A horse with heart is the one you see running or jumping aggressively after fatigue, with injury or against all odds. He can defy diagnoses and conformation to do a job he loves. A horse like this is irreplaceable.
  2. The most fancy, expensive products are not necessarily the best or most effective. Keep it simple; your horse doesn’t care whether your wraps are color coordinated, whether you’ve purchased every gadget out of the tack catalog or whether you buy name brands. Use common sense.
  3. All that glitters isn’t gold. After seeing so many horses be passed over for minute blemishes, big ears or plain coloring, my personal criteria for horse shopping has changed. It’s easy to swoon over the fit, shiny, chrome covered beasts, but don’t they all deserve good homes? Perhaps if we could open our hearts to a horse who may not have been the color or size we envisioned, or if we would be willing to put a little maintenance into a horse who is a little banged up, more horses would have promising futures.
  4. Experience often trumps educated theory. Racetrackers are a great resource in that they generally handle more horses in a year than sport horse owners handle in a lifetime. These horses are in a physically demanding environment, so grooms and trainers see significant soundness and health issues on a daily basis. They’ve tried techniques that you may have not known existed.
  5. Love of horses spans all demographics. It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you grew up or what tax bracket you are in, horses can take hold of your heart. When you’re at the racetrack, it doesn’t matter who you know; it’s about the horses, how they are going to run and who you are betting in the next Pick 6.
  6. Respect the horse as a horse. We are drawn to horses for the partnership and communication until they use a form of communication we don’t appreciate, like biting, kicking or rearing. Keep in mind, these are all normal horse behaviors and rarely are they done in malice.
  7. Enjoy what you do! Working on the backside is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle and a tough one at that. Early hours, late nights, unending work for minimal pay. Those that work on the backside came there out of a love of horses, and in the toughest times they still remain dedicated.
  8. Sit chilly. The skill I value most in a good exercise rider is their ability to sit quiet and provide confidence for a fractious horse. They diffuse dicey situations without creating confrontation, adding anxiety or upsetting a horse’s balance.
  9. The world is not black or white. It would be easy to categorize people or horses into good or bad, sound or unsound, but life is more complicated than that. Try not to assume that one action defines someone, two-legged or four-legged.
  10. Life can be turned upside down without a moment’s notice. Living with horses is a life of highs and lows. Relish in the high points and remember that the lows won’t last forever.

Mz. Manners’ Guide to Racetrack Etiquette

Photo courtesy of New Vocations. Photo courtesy of New Vocations.

CANTER bridges the gap between the race and sport world; we offer a safe outlet for retiring ex-racehorses and an opportunity for sport and pleasure riders to find quality prospects well below their market value, creating a mutually beneficial arrangement.

For your entertainment we have compiled an advice column regarding racetrack shopping based on real life situations. This is not directed to any specific person, we just hope you can appreciate a good laugh and a new understanding of the purchase process.

Dear Mz. Manners,

I brought home the prettiest OTTB; I love him. Unfortunately, we don’t have much in common. I only have time to ride once or twice a month and I want to unwind on a quiet trail ride. Unfortunately, while I just want to mosey along, the moment I put my foot in the stirrup I hear my horse’s theme song “Running with the Devil.”

We are drifting apart… literally, I can’t stay on. He never does what I ask and complains that all I ever do is nag. Is the honeymoon over?

Separated in San Juan

Dear Separated in San Juan,

Finding the right equine partner is not much different than finding the right life partner; just because you both are lovely individuals does not mean you are meant to be. We’d suggest you approach a trainer or other experienced horseman to help evaluate whether you and “the Devil” have irreconcilable differences.

If you can’t find a compromise, it may be time to find him a home with someone who has similar interests and will appreciate his drive. It’s important that you create a safe and mutually enjoyable relationship.

Dear Mz. Manners,

I was watching late night TV, browsing the CANTER site and saw the perfect horse; I know you need to act quickly so I texted the trainer. I waited ten minutes and then called the CANTER volunteer. She mumbled something about, “Is this an emergency?”

I explained that a trainer hasn’t responded to my text and I need more video of a horse. At that point I heard, “Bless your heart” and the phone disconnected. What gives, doesn’t everyone watch Conan? He’s a riot.

Sleepless in Seattle

Dear Sleepless in Seattle,

Sleep is an elusive concept to horse people, something to be cherished. Your objective in horse buying is to win the seller’s affection such that they negotiate with you and ultimately sell you their horse. Waking up their household is not the best way to make new friends.

Try to keep those calls between 8am and 8pm, EST. Please also keep in mind, it is rare that a trainer would be able to provide additional photos or video of a prospect; we find the best way to view horses is in person.

Dear Mz. Manners,

I was shopping at the racetrack last week; found a horse that fit my bill. Everything was going well until the trainer told me I couldn’t take the horse for a test ride. I could never buy a horse without first putting him through his paces. How else will I know if I like him?

Bucked Off in Bronson

Dear Bucked Off in Bronson,

There is too much liability in allowing buyers to ride horses while they are on the racetrack; these horses generally do not have any after track training so they need to be re-educated to the discipline of your choice.

If you aren’t comfortable purchasing a horse without first riding, our program isn’t the best fit for you. Not to worry, there are endless programs out there that offer horses who have been reschooled and you can first try out before adopting.

Dear Mz. Manners,

I’m having a tough time finding a new horse. I’m looking for a 17.2 hand, 4 year old, bay gelding with chrome and immaculate legs that, at a minimum, will jump a 4’ course and poop rainbows. I’m a serious rider, I refuse to entertain a horse with any type of blemish and prefer something with less than 10 starts.

I hear that there are a lot of horses at the racetrack who need good homes but few are what I’m looking for and when I do approach trainers, they refuse to give away their horses.

Unrealistic in Utica

Dear Unrealistic in Utica,

While it is true great deals can be found at the racetrack and you can sometimes find free horses, trainers have learned through experience to be suspicious of strangers requesting free horses. Even more so, our ultimate goal is for trainers to be incentivized to retire their horses sound, when at all possible.

These horses have value as quality sport prospects. Please be respectful and polite when negotiating.

Mz. Manners’ quick tips to becoming a quality buyer:

1. Keep appointments or call to notify the trainer if you cannot make your scheduled appointment.

2. “Please” and “thank you” goes a long way; common courtesy is greatly appreciated.

3. Shop only when you’re ready to buy; scour the web-site daily, but avoid looking for horses until you have stabling, funding, etc. in order. Trainers do not have the facilities to hold horses for months while you try to sell your existing horse or find boarding.

4. Be honest. If you are not interested in a horse, there is no shame in that. We do ask that you tell the seller this isn’t the horse for you and avoid stringing them along thinking that they shouldn’t show the horse to other buyers who may have genuine interest.

5. Be knowledgeable and financially stable; horses are expensive, be prepared for unexpected vet bills and seek out assistance if you have questions about horse care or training.

6. If a horse doesn’t work out, find another suitable home for the horse. Low end auctions and dealers do not guarantee safe homes for horses.

7. Please be polite; treat sellers the way you wish to be treated. Build a relationship with the seller; if they don’t have the horse you want today, maybe they can refer you to someone who does or call you the next time they have a nice prospect.

Your New OTTB: The Beauty of a Good Let Down

Sue Smith recently brought us a three-part series on selecting your next OTTB (Read Parts One, Two, and Three), and she’s back with another article on common reasons why OTTBs are often overlooked when shopping at the track. Many thanks to Sue for sharing her insight, and thank you for reading.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Any professional athlete, whether two-legged or four-legged, knows that a certain amount of body soreness accompanies heavy exertion. It is not uncommon for a horse directly off the track to go through a period in which he may be reactive to the touch. Perhaps you will notice tail swishing, kicking or nipping while being groomed, or that your new horse may take short, tight strides rather than offering relaxed, fluid movement; each are ways that a horse may confess his body is uncomfortable.

For those horses who fall in the “sound, but sore” category, you may find a brief let down period could be beneficial for both a horse’s mental and physical well-being. A few weeks or months of rest may be a great start to your horse’s new career and save you time in the long run.

Rather than viewing this phase as a rider’s purgatory, use this time to develop a relationship with your new horse and as an evaluation of how he reacts to his environment. Personally, I use this time to build my horse’s “Life Skills Resume.”

I have a clear list in my head of tasks that I like all my horses to master, such as standing still at the mounting block, loading on the trailer, cross tying, not stepping on my toes, etc. You may find it helpful to take the time to sketch out a list of skills you would appreciate your horse being proficient in; reference it sporadically, crossing items off your list as your horse progresses. It will create an easy way to measure your progress and can also be a nice reminder of projects to work on when you want to shake up your training routine with your horse.

I think we’ve all experienced the “green horse’s first show” panic attack. You’ve picked a horse show date, and as it approaches you start to wonder, “Is he going to load?” “Will he be THAT horse who screams all day and gets the eye rolls from other riders?” “Will we survive the warm up ring?” “Heck, what if he won’t stand still long enough to get a foot in the stirrup?” “Will people notice that only one ear is clipped?”

A little preparation every day can make the difference between dreading your new prospect and having a horse everyone drools over. The great part is you can practice these skills before you even have your first ride so that when the time comes, you are confident in your horse and can actually enjoy the start of his show career.

Break down your tasks into smaller segments or quick sessions rather than wait until an imposing deadline to try and stuff in six months of work. For instance, as someone who almost always trailers by myself, loading and trailer safety is important to me.

Once my horse loads reliably, it’s common for me to load him and have him stand on the trailer while I clean stalls or ride another horse, let him practice standing in the trailer at home without distractions.

I also like to take greenies along to my other horses’ riding lessons; I may or may not unload him. Regardless, it is good practice loading, trailering and standing in the trailer while his buddy is ridden (not an easy task).

If there is time, I may unload horse #2 and walk him around the farm, make it a positive experience and very low key.  If you want your horse to act like trailering is just another day at the office, you need to make it as if it is part of his daily routine.

Example of Possible Life Skills List:

Ground manners (please do not maim me)
Stand tied
Stand in cross ties
Stand for vet/farrier
Stand tied in horse trailer
Stand tied outside horse trailer
Stand for mounting
Just stand, damn it!
Learn to lower head for bridling (I am elf size)
How to be vacuumed
How to be clipped
How to be lunged, long-lined, lunged over cavaletti, etc.
How to be ponied from another horse
How to load on the horse trailer
How to be calmly transported in the trailer alone and with company
How to be calm and confident at horse shows, etc.
How to go through water
Verbal commands (walk/trot/canter/WHOA)

The above are just some suggestions to develop a horse that you enjoy being around, who is safe to handle and well-adjusted to the sport or pleasure world. These are skills that also make your horse more marketable, which is one of the best things you can do for your horse — mold him into a partner everyone wants.

If you do decide to give your horse a let down period, remember it is exactly what you make of it. The retraining process is not specific only to the riding aspect; groundwork and daily handling is interconnected.

Many of the same principles we use in the tack — going forward, moving laterally, halting, yielding, waiting, etc., are concepts that can be introduced and should be reinforced in many different ways. Take advantage of every opportunity to work with your new horse, and you may find yourself ahead of the game when he is ready to begin his under saddle training.

The Plight of the Less Than Perfect Horse

Sue Smith recently brought us a three-part series on selecting your next OTTB (Read Parts One, Two, and Three), and she’s kindly offered another article on common reasons why OTTBs are often overlooked when shopping at the track. Many thanks to Sue for sharing her insight, and thank you for reading.

Libby Head and Sir Rockstar at Fair Hill CCI3* in 2013. Photo by Alec Thayer.

Libby Head and Sir Rockstar at Fair Hill CCI3* in 2013. Photo by Alec Thayer.

Every week I go through the same ups and downs. I meet a horse to be listed with a cute personality, nice build, and everything is going right until I look below the belly. Two key things that I know are going to impact how easy it will be to find that horse a good home are a) Sex and b) Blemishes/Injuries. And while this may be an unpopular posting, some things need to be said.

Mares are people, too! I’m not doubting that there are legitimate reasons not to buy mares, but I implore you to keep an open mind. Horses are individuals; their sex is part of their make up, but to categorize prospects based on whether or not they have a penis is a bit absurd.

Mares can be just as athletic as geldings; they can be just as kind, quiet, powerful, etc. If you are going to stereotype mares as being “more difficult” then geldings, I challenge you to bring up your skill set to be able to handle a horse who tells you when you are being abrupt or rude in the tack. Become the type of horseman who has the level of finesse required to handle a variety of horses, not just a dumbed down version of one.

Colts are one inexpensive procedure away from becoming geldings. End of story. Within thirty to sixty days of castration, a horse’s testosterone level reduces to that of the average gelding. Further, there is research that shows the age at castration and sexual experience have no bearing on the behavioral outcome, meaning it generally doesn’t matter if a horse is gelded at six months or six years.  It’s just important that he’s gelded!

We see a high number of colts at the racetrack and our personal experience is that the majority are well-handled gentlemen who should make fantastic geldings. I would also like to emphasize that at CANTER PA, we do assist with the cost of castration, as we feel this is a key issue in making these horses more suitable for pleasure and sport careers.

Lastly, racing is a demanding sport. On a weekly basis we see a complete range of physical issues and injuries from superficial blemishes to significant chips and fractures that may require surgery and/or will greatly affect their riding careers.

We are as honest as we can be when representing these horses, we want people to have as much information possible before deciding on a prospect, yet there is always that sinking feeling before I include one of these issues in an ad. Even saying something as minor as pin-fire marks, body soreness or minute ankle rounding affects the likelihood of placing these horses.

Many horses retiring from racing simply need a little down time, a few weeks or a few months. To say that a horse isn’t going to get a shot at a new career simply because someone doesn’t want to wait sixty days to begin riding is sad. Sad for the horse and sad for the rider who misses out on a lovey horse for a very solvable issue.

Think of all the other skills you could develop with the horse that do not involve sitting on the his back; to be a competitive show horse he or she needs to be able to load on the trailer, lunge, learn ground manners and simply transition to a new lifestyle. These skills will make for a well-rounded, confident partner.

The disappointing reality is if we do not change how we view those horses who do not fit in a pretty little box – horses who are not the trendy color, height or sex or those who may have blemishes or injuries – the kindest solution for many is going to be euthanasia. I understand the train of thought that as a serious rider I need a physically “perfect” horse, but can’t we change the definition of “perfect”?

Can we instead look for an ideal match for your personality and discipline, and look at a horse’s heart above the trivial details? When you go in search of your next prospect, keep an open mind. You might be excited by what you find.

Finding Your Next OTTB, Part 3: Planning Ahead

Sue Smith is one of the brains behind CANTER PA. Throughout the years, Sue has helped find numerous homes for horses retiring from their racing career. Many of these horses have gone on to become eventers, but what exactly does one look for in an OTTB prospect? In this three-part series, Sue imparts her knowledge on deciding whether or not an OTTB is for you and what to look for when buying off the track. Many thanks to Sue for sharing her article series with us, and thank you for reading.

CANTER PA alums Thundershock and Nkosi Reigns enjoying some down time. Photo courtesy of CANTER PA. CANTER PA alums Thundershock and Nkosi Reigns enjoying some down time. Photo courtesy of CANTER PA.

When we think about purchasing a new horse, we often focus on finding the “perfect” horse, envisioning your new partner in the career of your choice, excelling in what you enjoy most.

But wait — there is an intermediary step between buying and competing which involves a lot of hard work and preparation! This is a critical step that needs to be thought through and agreed upon before deciding whether a green horse is right for you.

Have you considered a let down period?

Each horse is an individual, and each rider has their own skill set and comfort level. Some horses leave the track and gracefully begin their sport horse career the next day, never blinking an eye at the lifestyle change. Other horses do best with a few weeks or even a few months of down time before they mentally and physically are at their best to begin retraining.

Some horses will be sore when they leave the track. You may notice a horse being tight or “stingy” moving at the racetrack or being sensitive to the touch. Other horses may look great at the track but after a week or so on the farm, they become reactive. It may be wise to include a certain amount of downtime in your transition schedule; you may need it, you may not.

Have you budgeted both time and money for training expenses?

While one of the benefits of OTTBs is that they have had consistent, formal training, race training and sport horse training are two separate concepts. Most horses right off the track do not have the finesse you expect from the average sport horse.

You may also find that acceptable track behavior is not what you want to reward in an amateur horse. It does not mean your horse is a jerk or is trying to hurt you; it simply means you need to fairly explain to him what your expectations are. Horses excel with parameters, much like children and husbands!

Are you capable of instilling life skills in your new horse? The best thing you can do for any horse is to give him marketable skills. A horse with limited training is very hard to place and are often most “at risk” for bad situations.

If you come across an issue you are uncomfortable with, do you have the funds to seek help? If you don’t have the experience to restart your horse, training is a great investment in your new horse. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of safety for both horse and rider.

CANTER PA alum Bounissimo with his owner Amie Loring. Photo courtesy of CANTER PA.

CANTER PA alum Bounissimo with his owner Amie Loring. Photo courtesy of CANTER PA.

What is your Plan B for the horse if he is not the right match for you?

Realistically, not every horse that is purchased is immediately going to his or her lifelong home. Create a fallback plan for the possibility that your horse is not the right fit and you may need to find another home for him. If the horse requires more training to make him marketable, are you prepared for that cost? If you try to sell your OTTB, have you budgeted for additional board costs until he is placed?

If you purchase a horse with a soundness problem or he develops a soundness problem, can you afford retirement? If not, are you comfortable with euthanasia? As harsh as it seems, euthanasia is a real life scenario and part of being a responsible horseman.

These are a few issues to think about before determining whether a horse directly off the track is the best option for you.

Be honest with yourself. As much as we appreciate your support, if our program is not a good fit for your situation, consider one of the other CANTER programs that offer horses with after track training, or, if local to our area, please check out Mid-­Atlantic Horse Rescue.

These reputable organizations give you a chance to try the horse under saddle, spend more time with him and experience the horse in a farm environment which would more closely mimic your situation.

Most of these placement programs also offer a return contract in the event it is not a match made in heaven. Keep in mind — a great horse and a great rider do not always equate to a great partnership; there is no shame in that. But considering there are so many variables that go into buying horses, try to set yourself up for the highest likelihood of success.

[Finding Your Next OTTB, Part 1: Is Shopping at the Track Right For You?]

[Finding Your Next OTTB, Part 2: Be Smart at the Track]

Finding Your Next OTTB Part 2: Be Smart at the Track

Sue Smith is one of the brains behind the Pennsylvania CANTER chapter. Throughout the years, Sue has helped find numerous homes for horses retiring from their racing career. Many of these horses have gone on to become eventers, but what exactly does one look for in an OTTB prospect? In this three-part series, Sue imparts her knowledge on deciding whether or not an OTTB is for you and what to look for when buying off the track. Many thanks to Sue for sharing her article series with us, and thank you for reading.

Lynn Symansky and Donner. Photo by Jenni Autry. Lynn Symansky and Donner. Photo by Jenni Autry.

I dread clothes shopping, preferring to scrub toilets over trying on formal wear. I’m that person who immediately becomes disoriented when I walk in a store, paralyzed by options and disgusted by the thought of the 360-degree mirror that awaits me in the dressing room.

I may find a color I like, but the style doesn’t fit my body type, or I try on a dress that would work perfectly for a friend, but it shows my farmer’s tan. There are dresses that are stunning on the rack but not suitable for my event. And when I finally find something I like, it’s rarely in my price range.

Inevitably I become impatient, decide there’s no perfect dress and bring home something that is sort of functional but I don’t really love. While I’m sure most of you are more cultured in dress shopping than I am, I see a similar process when I watch some people horse shop.

You’ve made this long trip to the racetrack; a friend just brought home another amazing prospect and has already resold him for a profit. She assures you there will be a huge selection of horses, and you’ll find a great deal. Then you arrive. The environment is new, exciting and often intimidating.

You had your heart set on one horse from his CANTER ad, then you look at him and while he has some good points, you don’t connect; maybe you don’t like how he moves or how he acts in his stall. You move on to the next, but you’re concerned about his soundness. The next is the wrong height, etc.

Trainers see you struggling and direct you to another horse and then another, ones you never would have considered on your own. You’ll see horses above and below your price range, then you begin to doubt yourself. Everyone else finds nice horses at the track. Why can’t you find one that fits? The next thing you know, you’re buying a horse that doesn’t meet any of your requirements.

Our first installment of this article series focused on the research you should do before deciding whether or not to pursue riding prospects at the racetrack. Part two follows the same thread in terms of how to narrow your search, arriving at the track with a purpose and a plan of attack for vetting. We’ll also try to help translate some typical race chatter that will help you understand the horse’s background.

Do you have a clear idea of what you are shopping for?

Our most popular “horse wanted” request is a big, sound, clean legged, 17-hand grey gelding without any blemishes, who raced (but only lightly), who will jump 3’6”, save small children from burning buildings and is priced under $500. Sorry, folks, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Rethink what is truly important to you.

Make a list of your priorities — age, sex, cost, height, style of movement, injuries or conformation you will accept, temperament, etc. Write these traits down in order of importance and read the list before and after you look at each prospect.

Remind yourself of what you are searching for and try not to be swept away by emotion. Perhaps your budget is written in stone, but size or sex can be negotiable. Make the right compromises and only make compromises you can live with long term.

I would also ask that riders be honest about what they intend to do with their new horse and select a horse that matches their goals. There is a large segment of horses exiting the racetrack who may be suitable for a number of careers, but perhaps do not have completely clean x-rays or an injury that may require maintenance in the future.

If you are shopping for a personal horse, ask yourself if this is the type of horse you would enjoy in your barn. The answer will be different for each of us, but some of these “hard-knocking” horses are one in a million.

If you do not find a horse on your first horse shopping trip, don’t settle on a horse that does not meet your criteria. I assure you there is no shortage of horses in need of quality homes!

Are you asking the right questions?

Racing and sport horse communities have many similarities, but they do have different perspectives on some issues. Soundness may be one of the most glaring deviations that we face when making a purchase. “Sound” is a vague term; most likely your definition of “sound” and a race trainer’s definition of “sound” will be two different concepts; be sure to clarify.

Instead of asking, “Is this horse sound?” Ask questions such as, “Has this horse ever had any injuries?” “Does this horse have any known bone chips, fractures or bows?” “Do you think this horse will x-ray clean?” “How does he come back after a race?” Those are specific questions that will help you gather information to determine whether or not this horse will meet your needs.

Learn the lingo. If a trainer says, “He has a knee,” he’s not trying to impress you with his understanding of anatomy; he’s saying that sometimes the knee bothers this horse. Your question should be, “Have you x-rayed it?” “What do you think is going on?” Perhaps it is a temporary soreness, but if clean x-rays are important to you, we highly recommend you investigate.

Have you budgeted for a PPE?

Please do a pre-purchase exam … PLEASE. While it may seem illogical to potentially spend more on vetting expenses than on your purchase price, view the combined cost as your total purchase price and accept it as part of the process. It is money well spent and almost always future money saved.

One of the most common reasons a track horse does not work out relates to old injuries. Fresh injuries are much easier to detect, and regardless of whether an old injury impacts the horse’s ability, there are things to consider if you are considering a horse for high end resale.

You must understand that the x-rays must be clean for the highest return on investment. Best to find out today whether a horse will pass a pre-purchase exam, not after years of training expenses.

Let’s look at how race horses are acquired to help understand why vetting a horse is important. Horses may be purchased at auction or through private sales but the majority, particularly those nearing the end of their careers, are acquired through claiming races.

Simply put, all horses entered in claiming races are “for sale” at a predetermined price (i.e. all horses in a $5000 Claiming race may be purchased for $5000).

They are not going to be vetted before being claimed; at the end of the race the new trainer will be handed the horse and if the two trainers are on good terms, they may talk briefly about some concerns the horse has, but otherwise, the horse will be purchased with absolutely no prior history. This easily happens several times over the course of that horse’s career.

He may race consistently, have no known issues when he’s retired, and it isn’t until much later, even years later, when an old injury is discovered. By exchanging hands several times during a career, the trainer who retires a horse may not have any the slightest bit of info regarding the horse’s early years.

If you find a horse you are interested in, carefully study and feel the horse’s legs. Are there any asymmetries? If one ankle is larger than the other, you may want to consider x-rays. If you feel a bump or a fluid pocket on a knee, you may want to consider x-rays. If you plan on being a serious eventer, you may want to scope your horse before purchase.

Horses aren’t just a financial investment; they are your heart and soul, so it is always best to make decisions about a future partner with as much information that you can muster.

Racing is a very demanding sport, and while we find that the majority of OTTBs can go on to have very productive secondary careers, we assure you that not every horse exiting the backside is going to be a Rolex prospect or will have clean x-rays.

Be smart about shopping; do your research, be selective, get professional help and think through your purchase. I assure you buyer’s remorse over a dress is much easier to resolve than buyer’s remorse on a living, breathing soul.

Finding Your Next OTTB, Part 1: Is Shopping At the Track Right for You?

Sue Smith is one of the brains behind the Pennsylvania CANTER chapter. Throughout the years, Sue has helped find numerous homes for horses retiring from their racing career. Many of these horses have gone on to become eventers, but what exactly does one look for in an OTTB prospect? In this three-part series, Sue imparts her knowledge on deciding whether or not an OTTB is for you and what to look for when buying off the track. Many thanks to Sue for sharing her article series with us, and thank you for reading.

Meghan O'Donoghue and Pirate. Photo by Jenni Autry. Meghan O'Donoghue and Pirate. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Without fail, every Saturday when I’m on my way to the racetrack there is that moment when the track comes into view, I can see the horses training … and my heart flutters. The allure of the racetrack can draw you in, but the question arises, “Is this the right    environment for you to be horse shopping?”

Making a purchase directly off the track is tricky. You may receive limited history about the horse, you will not be able to ride or see him be lunged before purchase and instead may have to make a decision based on watching a horse walk and jog down an uneven  horse path. A few moments to evaluate the horse’s personality, conformation and movement – this is not for the faint of heart!

It’s hard not to get caught up in the beauty of a fit, well-muscled runner or the “deal of a century” approach to horse shopping, but the challenge is not to fall for the emotional aspects and to evaluate the horse in front of you, determining whether he’ll be the horse you need today or want in the future.

Here is a list of questions that we hope may help you decide whether shopping at the race track is the right fit for you and if it is, how to make a well-informed decision:

1. What is your experience and comfort level with off track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) and “green” horses?

Do  you enjoy the process of retraining? Do you have the time to be dedicated to retraining? Can you safely navigate through an evaluation of a horse who has an unknown history? If not, do you work with someone who does and can help you fill in any    gaps you may come across?

If you’ve never ridden a Thoroughbred or a green horse, track horses may not be a good fit for you at this time. There are always exceptions to the rules and a lot of these horses have fabulous minds, but generally speaking a horse directly off the racetrack is not suitable for beginner riders and they may not even feel “broke” compared to most sport or pleasure horses you’ve ridden.

2. Do you have a safe setup for an OTTB and a safe area to ride and train?

Depending  on each individual horse’s history, your new OTTB may have not been turned out in pasture since he started his training as a two year old. He will be fit, on the muscle and busting at the seams; as fun as it may seem to allow him the freedom to gallop as fast as his legs can carry him…this is not a good idea!

Please start your horse’s turnout in a small paddock with safe, solid fencing so he gets his squeals out gradually. Work up to more grass time (your horse may not have had grass in his diet while at the racetrack and should be introduced slowly) in larger areas, over time. Also be cautious introducing him into your existing herd, safety is your number one objective as no one enjoys unexpected vet bills. Make the transition a low key experience.

Take the same approach to riding. It’s ideal to start your OTTB in a secure area like a fenced arena or round pen. Use a methodical, low key approach just as you did with turnout. Keep both horse and rider calm and confident; their racing careers are over, training isn’t a speed contest!

3. Are you familiar with soundness and conformation issues?

Read, study, observe! You want to know how to find a steal at the racetrack? Understand what you are looking at.

Often you’ll see horses at the racetrack move stingy, up and down like a sewing machine; it’s your job to gauge by how they are built whether this is a temporary issue or whether this horse might permanently move like a camel. There are numerous books written regarding these topics, take the time to read them. Personally, I recommend anything by Dr. Deb Bennett, but the internet is full of free resources, check them out.

Study common lameness in ex-racehorses. Become familiar with these issues so you can identify the ones that are visual on inspection, comprehend the risks involved with each, the available treatments and costs, as well as basic prognoses. Most    commonly you may come across bucked shins, “bowed” tendons or suspensory injuries, osselets, bone chips, slab fractures and condylar fractures.

Know before you go to the racetrack whether any of these issues are deal breakers for you or which severity of the above is suitable for your use. While there is no replacement for the expertise of a vet, be informed before you go so you can have an educated opinion on your purchase and  so you can avoid the expense of vetting a horse which blatantly has one of the issues on your “deal breaker” list.

Take  your time in selecting a horse, whether on the track or off the track, and make an educated decision. Perhaps dedicate one hour each night this week to research; pick a new topic every night and become that much more of a horseman.

Stayed tuned for our next segment which will focus on the pre-purchase exam, initial post-track training and your “dream horse” shopping list.