Learning how to ride an OTTB

What is your perception of a horse who has raced? Would you buy one? Do you think all Tb’s are crazy? Have you ever ridden a horse right off the track? If you have ridden Tb’s who are within the first year of retraining off the track what do you find the biggest struggles to deal with as a rider?

I think of these questions because as a seller I struggle to explain my horses to buyers and I sometimes think buyers are surprisedhow difficult it may be to ride a horse I describe as being really quiet. Who is right and who is wrong or is it just a difference in experience levels? I am going to write about my journey into the world of Tb’s 🙂

I started riding as a 3yr and had a pony named Quicksilver. She didn’t canter but she sure could trot really fast. I did barrel racings and all the western events.

 We always either had our own farm or managed farms full of racehorses. My mom ran the barn at home where we did the layups and raised the babies. I got to help break the young horses and transitions the horses who weren’t making $$ at the track into new homes. I started out riding a really tough pony that my mom had picked up cheap somewhere in Maryland. He was barely broke and all he knew how to do well was buck.   Needless to say I learned to ride the tough one’s early on.

I thought I was ready for my first TB once I outgrew Beau Dandy.  I begged and begged for a horse named, Lost Crop. He was a 15.1 h 4yr who just wasn’t making money and I had to have him. Finally, my parents gave in and he was mine. I have a horrible memory but the intial rides were going pretty well. I had really solid basics and had been riding some tougher types of horses. We headed off the farm to ride at the local pony club grounds around the corner. I was 10yrs old at the time and this was a big deal. We were warming up in the ring and then headed out around the ring. We believe he got stung by bees that were underneath a water trough but let me just say our pony club was wide open with two rings in the middle but then all open land around the rings. We went from zero to sixty in 2 seconds. I could vaguely remember everybody screaming. He was running so fast around and around and around again. I was stuck up there tight but I kept shortening my reins and taking another hold and another hold and each time he would go faster. Basically I was riding him like a jockey and he was reacting like a racehorse. I was running out of air and looking for a place to bail. I turned him b/w two rings and we headed towards the chain dressage ring which he jumped and I went off. He then ran across the road and got tangled up in somebody’s clothesline. I was scared to death and my parents knew I wasn’t going to be riding him anytime soon.

Funny story but he was shipped to Charlestown, WV race track that week and won his next two races based off that work I had given him. I have a picture somewhere but I can not find it.

After that experience I did not want to go fast. We found a lovely morgan in somebody’s backyard who I competed in straight dressage. Sirus was a really cool older horse who knew way more than his owner realized. We got a super deal and I competed him in dressage for a year or two before his ringbone/sidebone made him to uncomfortable for the straight dressage work. He was way to much horse for me over fences..quick and had one of the roundest jumps.

Sirus was not a jumper I could handle so I borrowed my mom’s Appendix TB named Brandy. He was a bit bigger and oh boy was he strong as could be. I I remember a clinic with Jane Sleeper at our pony club when he ran through this swamp area and she was yelling at me to pull him up. Yes, really I was trying. I might have been 11 or 12yrs old.

I had a few years in between my experience with Lost Crop and had gained confidence and more skills both on the flat and over fences. The story basically repeats itself when my mom gets another pony clubber’s horse in for training. His named was Jonesy and he was a 4yr ottb who had steeplechased and was deemed unrideable. He went every which way expect forward. His mind had been blown and he clearly was not going to work for his inexperienced teenage owner.

My mom hated him..wanted him gone but said I could give him a shot because he was there for training and she thought he was an idiot. I loved him because he did go any which way but forward. I was scared to ride a forward horse and he either ran backwards or sideways so I could deal with that. I got him when I was 12yrs old and I still have him. I have had many horses in between but I will say I really learned how to ride horses off the track from my experience with Joe.

I think this was our first event ever. A friend of the family actually had to give him a bit of Ace b/c we could not even handle him on the ground. Yes, I have always been a litle nuts.

I started riding ottb’s early on so I never turn down anybody to come look at the horses I have for sale. Several of the people who have bought horses from me are gutsy teenagers who love riding the Tb’s and get along wonderful with them. I actually believe teenagers do better with Tb’s than some adults do simply because they do not have as many fears which allows them to relax and the horse relaxes with them.

What types of things do you need to know to ride an ottb:

How to set a posting rhythm. This is #1 in my book because most of these horses are green and you have to be able to relax and dictate the tempo of the trot with your seat and not rely on the reins. This sounds really simple but even I can struggle with this at times. These horses come off the track knowing fast trot and gallop. You have to teach them how to maintain a steady trot. Allie nicknamed Indy sirtrotalot because he was like a nascar horse. 100mph trot full speed ahead. He didn’t know any better.

No reliance on the reins for your balance. Tb’s typically hate people in their mouth. It gets them anxious and they often go faster. You need to know how to use the reins combined with half halts to balance them. At the same time you can’t have loopy reins either. They need some sort of direction.

No temper. I learned early on that having a temper on a Tb is one of the worst possible things you can do. Tb’s are sensitive and I swear they remember and will pay you back 🙂 Some Tb’s are very tolerant but most can’t handle somebody yelling at them or getting really tough. A kind hand will get you a long way in gaining the trust and working with ottb’s.

Confidence- I suppose this is any horse but I believe that if you can project yourself as a confident rider a Tb would do anything for you. They are very trusting animals so if you are the leader and show them it is okay they will believe you. I believe this is the area where those riders who have had bad experiences struggle to ride the Tb’s. Tb’s are almost like mind readers. They know when you are thinking oh crap this is scary and then they start thinking there is something to be scared of. It is a downward spiral in some cases.

A relaxed seat- some people have what I call the electric seat. Electric seats and Tb’s typically don’t mix. The softer you can sit and the softer you can be with your aids the better. This can take a long time for a rider to become this soft. It is one of the biggest issues I see with people who are not used to riding Tb’s. Often I think about just whispering with my leg or just sponging with my hand. Anything more and they are ready to go.

A sense of humor- Tb’s have big personalities but they can be silly at times. If you can just laugh it off and take a deep breathe and relax they relax.

Ability to think ahead- This is a hard one as well and requires a good sense of feel. I know what situations are likely to set my horses off and I try to make sure I have a plan to keep their attention. Can you feel something before it happens? This is so tough to teach but the ability to feel and think on your feet will allow you to have success riding horses that can be sensitive.

I once was terrified to ride Tb’s because of one bad experience but that experience pushed me to further my education and gain the skills needed to specialize in helping these horses transition from racehorses to show horses.


6 responses to “Learning how to ride an OTTB

  1. I think you’ve covered the key points about this issue really well. You obviously understand TB’s! Personally I am more of a QH girl, but I have ridden some TB’s that I really liked, including one off the track. She was a mare named Bridget. I really think that they can be great horses, especially if people follow the guidelines you mentioned here. Looking forward to reading more posts here! Check out my site, http://www.horsetrainingquestions.com.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences!! I check the Canter sites often and look for any info I can find on rehabbing OTTBs.

    I am an just getting back to riding after raising my children as a single parent…..the OTTBs have definately caught my attention and heart…..I have never owned a TB, as I am also really a QH girl myself.
    I was a Very experience rider some 20yrs ago and things have changed quite a bit in the world of horses, but I have good common “horse sense” and truly believe in bonding with animals….all animals…horses are no excetion and really I think they need to trust more than dogs & cats…..they have the basic instincts of herd animals and you are right, you have to think ahead.
    I raised a QH Colt and it was the most wonderful experience of my life….I was 17 and he was 9 mos old. He taught me as much as I taught him. We knew each other better than most old married couples. It was a bond of trust and love.

    I question my abilities with OTTBs only because I have never had the opportunity to be around them. But I would like to make a difference in ONE horse’s life and the more I see them, the more I want it to be an OTTB. There are many wonderful success stories and my hope is to be one of those in the future.

    When I was married, we had 30 acres……it was 20+yrs ago and at that time I didn’t know I was running my own little rescue……I would go to the local auction and buy horses so the dog food man couldn’t…..I brought them home and for the most part we all lived together pretty well….but then the big divorce came and I could not afford to keep them…..they all went to good homes, but it was hard to part with them.

    So keep posting and I will keep reading and researching!!

    Keep up the Great work!

  3. Very nice writing and story telling. You should expand on this and write a book.

    All the best,


  4. Very to the point!

    I too have a lot of experience with OTTBs.. REAL OTTBs, when they raced on Tuesday and you’re retraining them on Sat. 😉

    My first trainer was an ex-jockey, so we shipped in horses from the Philly racetrack all the time. They used to call me ‘Crash’–at 16 years old, having only a few months of riding under my belt EVER, I was somehow utterly fearless. I rode everything, and I fell off of everything, every time. Couldn’t tell you how many times I hit the dirt on her horses, or my own crazy TB! Couldn’t tell you how many times I got back on, either… lol!!

    Somehow I didn’t die, ended up showing Paint pleasure horses, and now I’m back in the dressage/english/jumping scene with my TB and eventually my colt. The only thing I would add to your list is something we didn’t do, and it showed–ride with a lot of leg. Leg yielding, shoulder-ins, etc. We used to ride ALL rein and it was just really ugly, because man, can race horses travel crooked! (and like you mentioned… they have sensitive mouths!)

    Enjoying your blog immensely! Keep up the good work. 🙂

  5. Love this article, thank you! Great advice and love the anecdotes–makes me feel better that there are other crazy people out there who just keep climbing back on and trying again.

  6. Thanks! I’m in the process of getting a new horse, and am going to try out a 4 yr old OTTB mare. But I’ve already had an Arabian who has a sensitive mouth and doesn’t like me taking too much of a feel, so it shouldn’t be that much of a difference!

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