Monday, August 5, 2013

Making the Transition

I had the unique advantage of working with Courage (and a whole barn full of horses) at the race track before I brought him home. I highly recommend this route to anyone looking to snatch up their own OTTB--I've spent days handling him hyped up on grain and hay and know a lot about his reactions to stimuli. That said, most people have "lives" and "real jobs" and "mortgage payments", so I realize it isn't always an option. For those of you looking at bringing home an OTTB of your own, here are some thoughts on the transition from someone going through it for the first time.

 At the Track
Typical morning routine
I met Courage at the track. He's old for a racehorse (2005), so he's pretty well set in his ways. That said, he was on a normal racing diet of INSANE amounts of grain (seriously, have to see to believe) and lots of alfalfa. This high energy diet is what it takes to fuel a high efficiency athlete like he was, but it also affect the horses personalities. 

Several of the younger horses seemed a bit nuts, but I'm pretty sure that if they ate a regular sport horse diet, they would have calmed right down. Instead of focusing on that behavior, I looked for patterns that indicated personality in the various horses. This is Courage getting ready for a morning work. He's out of his stall, but he's quietly standing while he gets ready.

His exercise rider would drop his stirrups and ride on a long rein to and from the track while Courage walked along calmly. He knew when to run and when to rest. 

Good morning fans
After a bath, his next stop was the hot walker. Due to space constraints in a racetrack environment, turnout is rarely available. This is basically the next best thing. The horses are able to cool out and dry off while getting some exercise. Some of them take the opportunity to bounce around like nutters. Some walk calmly. Most are somewhere in between.

WHOA BUDDIES. Break time.

Some think that the most fun game is to make the walker (and all the other horses on it) stop repeatedly.

It's probably passive aggressive, but it's a very calm way od expressing it.

Om nom nom
In the stall, Courage was easy to be around and respectful of people's space. The trainers, grooms, and riders have no interest in getting hurt, so they are pretty particular about manners. A very talented young horse might have more leeway, but generally the older the horse, the better they are to be around, much like horses in every other part of the world.

Another trait I liked about Courage in the stall was that he was an excellent eater. Given the massive caloric intake the horses are offered every day, they can afford to be picky. Some ate primarily grain. Some picked out only the best scraps of hay. Courage pretty well cleaned up all his hay every day. That means that he is a good eater (yay! easier to put weight on) and that his gut feels quite comfortable digesting. Perfect.

Just a photo shoot. Move along.
Even when we threw him for a loop by playing dress up and going in and out of his stall at an unusual time, he was pretty unfazed. It wasn't part of the usual routine, but he was a confident enough horse that changing the routine a bit wasn't a cause for drama, crankiness, or nerves. 

Instead, he enjoyed the attention and exhibited his social side. 

What a horse does on the actual racetrack doesn't necessarily translate to how he'll behave as a sporthorse. How he is to deal with on the ground, in the stable, and around the barn is more what I'm concerned about. 

Courage impressed me. 

At the Barn
When I introduced Courage to his new barn environment, I was aware that it was a whole new world for him. He was turned out last winter, so I know he's got some basis for understanding, but I doubt he's every lived in an average sporthorse set up with daily turnout, a stall and run, and light work. I know that he's used to a structured routine and he likes watching what is going on.

As such, I immediately got him on a routine and made sure he had a stall where he could see everything. He's used to activity (and watching the races go by) and he loves attention. The BO and I were careful to follow the routine, putting him on his drylot when the horses went out, feeding at the same time, and bringing him in with the other horses. 

It was easy to understand and he's a smart guy, so he settled right in. 

Om nom nom
Some things were all new to him, like grass pastures and social interactions and metal fences. I tried to introduce those things slowly. He picked up on pastures pretty quickly--he LOVES grass.

That said, he isn't used to eating it for long periods and he isn't sure about wide open spaces. We started out handgrazing. I'd let him go once he seemed settled and bring him in as soon as he seemed uncomfortable. Yesterday he went 2.5 hours with minimal supervision and did great.

He still eats all the hay we give him (though he prefers to eat at night) and has adjusted very well to having a complete feed instead of oats every day. I don't have him on any supplements, but if/when I decide to add them, I don't think it will be a problem.

Not so sure

Other things were harder. He did ok the first day with having the retirees over the fence and learned about how to say hello and make friends. It's something he's done before, but it's not an encouraged behavior at the track.

Of course, it can't all be smooth sailing. He managed to find the one sharp place on the fence (that we can't find again, of course), and cut his leg up impressively.

It's important to remember that he's used to being handled every single day and he's used to minding his manners. My BO was able to catch him and cold hose and wrap without the benefit of cross ties, all by herself. He's used to being taken care of and he's used to behaving. To him, there was nothing weird about the situation other than that the fence bit him. 

 Taking care of his cuts and scrapes was as good a time as any to introduce him to crossties. I needed him to quit playing with the shampoo in the wash rack and I knew his clever mind and quiet personality were on my side.  The first day I used one cross tie and reminded him not to walk forward in the three sided wash rack. The second day I used both ties and kept the lead rope handy. He never made so much as a peep and now cross ties very well.

What's not to love?
After just a little more than a week as an OTTB, Courage is doing very well in his new life. I'd say his manners at the new barn have very accurately reflected how he behaved at the track. Because he was handled well, he's had a very easy time adjusting to the sport horse life.

I want to do more with him under saddle before I say too much there, but let's just start by mentioning that his reputation as a runaway on the track has absolutely nothing to do with the chilled out, mellow guy I see every morning.


  1. Gosh, he's so KYOOT! Glad he's adjusting well to his new life. :)

  2. One of my favorite racetrack sights is the horses who nap while on the hotwalker. I'm glad you are enjoying your first horse straight from the track, its always an interesting experience. :)

  3. This was a very insightful post. It will be interesting to hear more about his reputation as a runaway but from the sound of things you guys are well on the right track.

  4. Very interesting! Love the photo of Courage in his track attire too :)

  5. My first real horse experiences were when I worked three summers as a groom at a local private Thoroughbred training and racing stable. It's so eye-opening to see how they're handled, and you really see their ingrained behaviors differently once you've been there. I agree with you, anyone who owns an OTTB should have a thorough understanding of their horse's former life on the backside. Good post!

  6. So cool you got to see and interact with him at the track before you brought him home!

  7. I'd love to spend time on the backside, I think its great experience, and definitely helps to choose a good horse. Courage is beautiful, and it seems like he will settle into his new routine easily.

  8. I think if people saw what racehorses eat at the track, they would really re-think their own feeding programs and how they affect OTTB's specifically.

  9. Ah sounds like you found a winner! I've been very lucky to get some great horses from the track that were handled well and taught right like it sounds like Courage was! :)

  10. Very interesting. Keep on keeping us posted. :0)

  11. Sounds as if you got a really good one there. I'm enjoying the story.

  12. Very interesting. Great that you were able to know him so well before "adoption".

  13. He is just so cute... I can't get over that face ;-)

  14. You're so lucky that you were able to work the horses on the track and hand pick out such a solid citizen.

  15. Loved this post, it's such a nice look at how coming from the track to a private facility can be really stressful for some horses. I don't think enough people really take into account how much the strict routine of the track is comforting to a horse.

    Congrats on acquiring Courage. He's absolutely lovely!

  16. This is a great post. Very informative. I'm glad that things really seem to be working out for you.

  17. So happy for you and your new boy! I wish more people acknowledged, as you do, that many, many race horses are treated very well, and the track has expectations for behavior as every other sport does. It's a very different environment, sure, but not necessarily better or worse than how we provide for our horses. If anything, I think it makes some of them real sweethearts - they rely on humans, not other horses, for all their experience and interaction and entertainment outside the stall. The very good trainers make very good TBs, and ultimately OTTBs, who LOVE people. :) Again, congrats! I can't wait to hear about his runaway rep. :)

  18. He is so super gorgeous!!! Can't wait to hear more about him. Love this post!!


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