Ken Whelihan: Compassion for the OTTB

A few weeks ago I came across a clinic offering by Show Jumper Ken Whelihan that took me by surprise. This professional rider designed a very low cost clinic specifically for the OTTB and rider that targets those who don’t often have access to a regular trainer. Having been one of those people myself at one time, I wanted to see exactly what he had to offer and the intention behind his offering. I messaged him on Facebook and and we set up a time to chat. I was very impressed, and honestly a bit surprised by genuine kindness of the horseman on the other end of the call.

Ken Whelihan. Photo by David Mullinax. Ken Whelihan. Photo by David Mullinax.

ET: What prompted the idea for this clinic?

KW: I live in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and often work with a grassroots group of riders that tend to develop their own horses rather than buy them ready to show. I also judge quite a bit and see Thoroughbreds in the hunter and jumper rings that seem to have the odds stacked against them because these are the ones that have not been successful at the track and sometimes have been through some sort of physical or emotional trauma there, making them very economical to purchase.

It’s hard on the horses to be asked to start a new career outside of anything they’ve ever experienced with an owner or rider that may not have the resources to give them what they need physically and nutritionally; couple that with infrequent access to mainstream guidance in training and you slant the odds even further against the horse and rider being successful. I want to offer more access to better training and education.

ET: So do you have OTTB’s in your barn and do you think they are valuable as show horses in the hunters and jumpers? Is it a positive that they are more accessible financially?

KW: Yes we ride and have some OTTB’s. You know I think it’s somewhat of an economy time warp now. The upper level professional riders and International riders are getting better and better and with that, the horses are getting better and better, but inaccessible for most everyone else.

Most people don’t have the resources to go shopping for 1 million Euro horses, and at that level of competition, that’s what you see. Even a good 1.30-1.40 meter amateur jumper horse can cost anywhere between $100,000 and $500,000. This makes the OTTB very desirable. I see most of the nice TB’s coming from event riders. You guys provide us a window to see them through from the track into the ring.

It seems much more economical to bring them up the levels of eventing than in the jumpers. If I pay $3000 for a horse off the track and then turn around and sell it for $85,000 three years later, this is a loss in the jumper ring. The eventers can take them off the track, teach them to jump and see where their talents lie and take them in whatever direction they choose- often selling them to the jumpers.

This isn’t a great sport for trial and error, if they are bought as a jumper and don’t turn out to be a good one, it’s a big loss for the rider and the horse. I think you shouldn’t buy an OTTB and just say, “He’s going to be a hunter”, you need to see what qualities the horse has and develop those.

ET: So are you seeing a resurgence in the popularity of the TB vs the WB in the show ring? As an eventer, I think they have always been the base of our sport, but seem to have fallen out of fashion a bit more in your world.

KW: There are so many more opportunities for TB’s in the show ring these days. The Warmblood is still en vogue, but the really top horses we see now have a lot of blood, and the TB is the foundation of all of that.

The European horses we see are often just mostly Thoroughbreds with a brand. You need a horse with blood now more than ever because a rail is just as detrimental as a time fault when the competition is so close.

These horses need to try harder when they are tired, and not give up, and the ones that don’t give up are the horses with blood. However, the horses with blood aren’t as forgiving of style and technique errors in the riding- they require better riding and more finesse.

ET: So the TB often requires better riding, but are often bought by those with smaller budgets and less access to mainstream training and horse management essentials like veterinary care, good farriers and a good nutritional background.

I can’t even tell you how many times a day I see posts on Facebook groups with questions like, “My OTTB is so skinny and I can’t afford to treat him for ulcers, should I just feed him lots of beet pulp?” and I cringe.  Is this a recipe for disaster?

KW: (laughs) You know that’s another aspect of what this clinic will serve to do. It’s not just to see who can jump what and how high, it’s to assess these horses and their needs. We will look at conformation, movement, talk about farrier and hoof care as it specifically relates to the OTTB, and really give the participants a window to the A Circuit view point on horse management. I see most of the OTTB owners really having a renewed sense of responsibility to the horse and a desire to increase the level of horsemanship. This is what I want to help them achieve.

ET: Ken, thanks so much for all of this info and thank you for offering this opportunity for the owners of the OTTB. Have you had a great response to it so far and tell us exactly how to get involved?

KW: We’ve had an overwhelming response! The Facebook post got over 200 comments in two days, and between that and my phone and email, I am overwhelmed not only by those who wish to participate, but also those that want to offer their services and do something similar in their area.

We’ve had calls from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Arizona etc., and everyone wants a similar clinic! I think it would be great for other trainers, vets and farriers to offer their time and make this happen. Details of the clinic are as follows:


Nov. 22&23,2014

Berkshire Equestrian Center
40 Perry’s Peak Rd
Richmond , MA

Host clinician: Ken Whelihan
[email protected]

“Merrian-Webster defines a “leg up” as a helping hand. It is my hope to offer this helping hand to the tb horses and their owners who have welcomed them as equine partners, competition mounts and future winners”

Stalls $45/ night comes with bedding and access to forks and carts. Stall fees are refundable up to ten days prior to arrival. After that fees will be refunded if stalls are filled off of the waiting list.

Workshop $55/day includes talks on conformation , health management , competition strategies, feeding and transport. Riding sessions with both flat work and jumping exercises with relevance to hunters, equitation, jumpers, combined training and basic dressage.

Inn at Richmond Bed and breakfast. Please call for reservations 413-698-2566
Special rate

Auditors welcome- small donations appreciated.

Deposit required: please send $90 stall fee to BEC at above address to reserve your spot in the workshop.
Please include a description of your horse and riding goals.

See you in November.

Note from Ken to Student

Note from Ken to Student



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