Basic exercises to do with a Thoroughbred off the track
Lots of ground-work! Teach him manners & the concept of personal space, practice leading from both sides – horses in training are used to being handled from the Near side only, teach him to lead comfortably from both sides. Work in a safe round-yard but try avoid only lunging him, that is what he did every day in racing! Plan your daily exercises, every day try teaching him something new but without asking too much too soon.
TBs in training have never been tied up, do not attempt to tie him to a fence pole while you faff – if they suddenly pull back they could seriously damage their neck, head or worse, they have been known to get such a fright they can hit their head hard enough to cause severe injury & even death.
Teach him how to back up, move his forequarters & hindquarters away from you (from the ground - use the 'back' command so when you teach him the same under saddle he can associate the voice aid.
Ensure he is comfortable for you to be able to touch *everywhere* and that he will happily lift up all four feet. Check he’s ok with you fiddling with his ears, geldings around their sheath area and fillies around the udder.
Build little obstacle courses: poles on the ground, tyres & cones as markers for him to manoeuvre or weave around, walking over plywood or tarp, backing between two poles - these exercises teach him where to place his feet & help build up his confidence. Once he's got the hang of poles on the ground introduce raised poles, teach him to pick up his feet.
Show him his new numnah & saddle: racing pads & saddles will have a very different feel & smell.
If you plan to compete your horse & will need to box him on a regular basis, keep him familiar with the horse box, quietly & calmly loading & off-loading him as you are able. Making sure he leads & backs-up well on the ground will assist in easing the loading process.
Once you feel he has settled in sufficiently, start taking him places – a great way to build confidence by exposing them to different environments (as well as being in the horse-box) – keep these outings fun!
When you feel he is ready for schooling, keep your sessions short without drilling the same concept over again, keep your schooling sessions fun! Spend time training the basic aids at the walk, wait until you have the right feel for each other before asking more & teaching the next aid - spend the time building your bond, this will benefit you both long term!
Prevent health problems & unnecessary injuries in the 'let-down' period
The term ‘letting down’ refers to the transitional period of a racehorse once finished racing - the time spent acclimatising to a new routine / environment / handler / horses! Ex-racehorses will take some time to fully adjust to their new lifestyle - so be patient & give them time to really settle before applying any pressure. Keep a strict eye for any change in condition or appearance (e.g. weight loss; muscle degeneration; thickening/lengthening of the hair/coat).
Unless you are an experienced horse owner/rider & know how to adequately let an OTTB down it may be preferable to seek assistance of a qualified instructor who can advise on the suitability of an OTTB for your capabilities & requirements. Letting down is not difficult - equip yourself with an understanding of a horse's lifestyle whilst in racing so you can assist to ease him in to the demands of his/her new role.
Horses in training: adhere to & are accustomed to a strict routine; are fed a high-energy diet specifically formulated to meet the demands of racing; are exercised daily; are stabled for the majority of the day. They don't get extensive paddock time, aren't accustomed to paddock grazing, nor do they get the opportunity to 'play' or have any real physical contact with other horses.
A young horse off the track has probably not been ‘properly’ turned out into a paddock since a yearling, & as they spend the majority of their day in a racing yard standing in a stable it is not wise to initially “chuck him out” into a massive paddock with other horses as soon as you get home. Put him in a small paddock first, on his own, within view of other horses in the yard. Try give him a buddy over the fence (young horses will play over the fence & can easily injure themselves this way) ideally in proximity to each other but without being able to make damaging contact! Hand-walk him around the perimeter of the paddock so he knows his boundaries, ensure paddock fencing is sturdy, safe & secure. Once settled in his new surroundings & has made a friend you can then slowly introduce him to herd life, give him time to integrate with the other horses & establish his place in the herd.
Cannot stress enough the importance of ad lib access to (good quality!) roughage & offer different types of roughage (depending what you can get hold of e.g.: Eragrostis, Teff, Oat Hay, Red Grass, Veld Hay & of course Lucerne - a good one to feed due to its acid-buffer effect in the gut - but as with anything feed in moderation, Lucerne can make some horses (TBs in particular!) a tad fizzy! Take note of what droppings are like (colour & consistency) so you will notice if there is any change. If able to measure his weight do so on arrival & weekly thereafter to monitor for any changes. A Racing diet (commonly high-grain concentrates) can lead to a relatively acidic hind-gut, predisposing horses in training to: gastric ulcers, acidosis, colic, chronically laminitis & liver degeneration. An ulcer is an area of damaged/eroded tissue that leaves behind a painful ‘sore’, this compromise of the protective stomach lining & repeated exposure of the lining to stomach hydrochloric acid (HCl) can lead to more severe ulcer formation - requiring treatment with an effective anti-ulcer medication (which unfortunately doesn't come cheap & can only be purchased through a vet). Horse's stomachs are designed for grazing, essentially divided into two: the 'top half’ has a squamous cell lining (like the skin); the 'bottom half’ has glandular cells which produce HCl & mucous (which help protect the stomach lining from the acid). Most ulcers develop in the unprotected non-glandular squamous lining. Their stomachs produce acid continually rather than just when food is ingested, hence why horses should always have access to ad lib roughage, so there is a constant ‘trickle’ of food through the gut to aid in balancing stomach acid production & assist the gut to return to 'normal' function. The gut microbes will take some time to adjust to the new feed & extra roughage, thus an acid buffer or digestive aid (e.g. Probiotic) fed in the initial months off the track will help the gut re-establish itself that much quicker - but there is no quick-fix - time will heal all!
SO: cut down amount (kg) of concentrates fed: total feed intake should be 1.5-2.5% of a horse's body weight - work-load & condition dependent of course. This equates to around 12.5 kgs of total feed for a 500kg horse - transitioning from 7-10+kgs of concentrate in racing. If you do not have access to a weight tape take it that an average sized youngster off the track weighs 440-480ish kgs. Feed less kgs of concentrate & make up the kg balance with good quality roughage. If there is no hay in the stable in the morning then he's not getting enough, feed a small section more the following night until you find a small pile left in the morning - that is how much hay to feed. Horses that have been in training for a long time may take just as long for the gut to correct itself outside of the racing environment. Feed a lower energy food; feed smaller meals three to four times during the day; allow him as much paddock-time as possible. Monitor his water intake initially so you know how much is normal for him - make sure you check water levels every day. A healthy gut will produce several piles of droppings overnight, easy to monitor in a stabled horse, keep track of droppings consistency too!
Prevention is better than cure - especially if a horse has raced extensively - arrange a consult with an equine dental technician / chiro / physio, so you can start him with a clean slate & be notified of any issues to be aware of & to work through. Horses in full competition work require a dentist more often than those used for pleasure, but preferably arrange a dental check-up every six months - once a year. Ideally run a faecal egg count prior to deworming so you know if you do need to deworm & which active to use. Check with your farrier if you can take the back shoes off, have the racing plates removed & replace with hack plates if necessary. Keep track of the condition of the hooves: if weather is dry use a good hoof dressing; if the ground is wet hoof may grow faster & your horse may be more likely to lose shoes. If your farrier suggests a type of shoe that will help your horse's conformation, movement or soundness, consider it, even if it is a costly option - it may mean the difference between a sound & unsound horse later on down the line if you are seeking to compete. Check your first aid kit is stocked & accessible should you need it in an emergency situation. Know which vet you would call in an emergency, have the number in your phone & accessible to all in the yard, ensure your yard manager knows this information should you for any reason not be contactable. Take his temperature daily for the first two weeks, check his pulse & respiration & listen to his belly for normal gut sounds, become familiar with what his normal parameters are so you are able to notice if anything should change. This will also help him settle & help get him used to being ‘faffed’ with!
Tips when selecting a horse for competitive sporting disciplines: Dressage, Show-jumping or Eventing
Generally Eventers require slightly bigger boned horses with a bold, willing & obedient nature; jumpers also require bold, but also to be agile & quick off the leg. Size 16+H is favourable for higher levels of jumping, smaller horses have to work harder to compete against the larger horses. Really large, heavy-boned horses may be more prone to stress injuries, & have to work harder to lift their weight over bigger jumps. But saying this - many horses below this do well in the competition ring as they have such BIG hearts - google "Stroller" to prove this point!
Conformation: straight clean legs considered essential for higher level jumping: faults in conformation can potentially lead to problems when the jumps get bigger & more intense pressure is applied. Over at the knee horses may battle to tuck up their legs over a jump, or be prone to stress injuries from the impact of landing. A slightly more upright shoulder is desirable allowing a horse to lift its knees that bit higher. A long humerus (bone between shoulder & forearm) can allow a horse more scope over an obstacle, & enable it to reach up & over that bit higher. The neck should be well-balanced with a good length of reign, set fairly high. Horses use their necks to balance over jumps thus a long, well-set neck will find it easier to get over fences than a heavy or low-set neck. Hindquarters provide the vuma and lift-off over obstacles. Ideally the hock angle of a jumping horse should form an almost equilateral triangle - imagine lines were drawn from the stifle joint, point of the buttock to the top point of the hip. Hocks should be well-angled & strong. Avoid horse with cow-hocks, bow-legs or too straight in the hock, as they tend to be weaker & won’t stand up to the intensity of competitive jumping.
Do not attempt to compete a horse with a serious wind problem, hoof unsoundness, tendon / ligament damage or glaring conformation fault – it is not fair on the horse!! Ask your vet for a soundness work-up!