Thousands of Thoroughbreds are retired from the racetrack every year. Many go off to the breeding sheds, while others transition rapidly to a sport horse career.
I know this because I stand somewhere in the limbo between the two. As a scientist, I study equine reproduction. As a pensioned farm manager, I find myself tracking all of “my” progeny with at times overly enthusiastic intent. And as an OTTB enthusiast and former Retired Racehorse Project dressage champion, I pay my bills by finding these sound athletes and repurposing them into second careers.
So it came as no shock to anyone around me when I got too attached to yet another bay (very soon to be gelded) Thoroughbred that was born on a farm my fiancé managed. A precocious foal, an expensive yearling, and yet a dud in the races — what other ingredients do you need for success in my repurposing recipe?
So in came Bode, and yet out fell my normal training plans.
Because with his arrival, it became quickly apparent that an injury would set us back months, if not years. And with that, my path was rerouted. Bode was diagnosed with an older yet unhealed fracture in the distal P1 bone within hours of arriving from Utah.
My dreams of kicking around a Beginner Novice cross country course in April were dashed. My hopes of doing Training Level Test 2 in May were drowned. And even my desires to swing a leg over were scratched.
But in that devastation, I quickly realized that an injury needing rehab doesn't mean a lack of forward progress in training, nor a horse abandoned.
My surgeon, Dr. Dwayne Rodgerson, told me that there would be good days and bad days. And my sport horse veterinarian, Dr. Heather Woodruff, told me to do mounted training on the good, play on the average, and provide TLC on the bad.
So with that information, my training plan was set off, albeit in totally different direction.
I decided quickly that if this young horse would never be sound enough for the big leagues, then he needed to be calm enough for the most beginner of amateurs. A child. An older equestrian of less ability. Or even as a therapy horse.
And for a 5-year-old, 16.3-hand OTTB, that meant we had to get to work. This would require acceptance of even the most minute detail. And those tiny details are where the training began.
On days where he is unsound, we work on grooming. A lot of positive reinforcement for the food-motivated man has led to a horse who will stand in cross ties or tied to the trailer for hours. He is desensitized to everything from having his mane pulled to his body clipped. Moreso, Bode has gotten to learn to enjoy his daily interactions with humans again as they are positive on a daily basis. He truly enjoys his long grooming sessions and the rewards that come with, leaving a brighter and happier horse.
On more moderate days, we do ground work. Bode happily walks in hand over poles, flower boxes, small logs, and through water. We step over ditches and up small banks. We explore around the farm, step onto tarps, and adventure through the mundane. We have begun some liberty training and have also begun working on “tricks” such as bowing, ground tying, and lying down on command.
And on good days, we tack up, albeit only for a walk. This began by ponying him off of my more experienced mounts, and progressed to road hacks off of the “pony”. He learned how to react to cars, cyclists, joggers, sheep, and cows. He has learned that signage offers no reason for a spook, and that other horses are allowed to run while he maintains a walk. It has been so beneficial to join him up to my ever-faithful herd of other brave OTTBs, including graded stakes winners Called to Serve and Marilyn's Guys. These horses who know so much and can therefore pass so much knowledge down to the next generation.
And this progressed even further to under tack work on exceptionally good days. We are blessed in Lexington, Ky., with a local equestrian park, and Bode has gotten to lead an exploration around its perimeter with his older brothers in tow.
It is truly amazing what can be accomplished at the walk that I know will correlate with a trot, a canter, or even a gallop. We have already begun instilling moving off of my leg, acceptance of rein contact, leg yields, and shoulder-fore. We have established being in front of my leg and response to the cues “whoa” and “go.” We have learned that water is fun, ditches are cool, and logs are to be gone over, not around. So much of this was installed on the track, but can be expanded upon at a leisurely pace — literally.
Every day, whether it is under tack or not, this horse develops. We have unlimited time to rehab his body, and there is absolutely no need to not develop his brain at the same time. Skills that often go overlooked in our desperation for that next big milestone or that first big competition. Things like standing at a mounting block, walking calmly over unknown terrain, or just loading onto a trailer.
All of these things can be done while a horse is healing. All of these things can be done while a horse is on the mend.
And while I “train” Bode, the process is training me. To slow down. To reinstall the basics. To enjoy the everyday minutiae of the process. To appreciate a horse's want to be loved even if his purpose is limited.
I am sure Bode came into my life to remind me of these things. To take every horse as an individual, and create a training plan based on those individual reasons. Each horse retires off of the racetrack with a different story. A different history, a different vet record. And because of that, they need to be treated as such.
Cater your program to them, and not the other way around. Learn to love the one you're with, and progress at the speed needed for most optimal forward progress. For some, this might mean galloping around a novice a month after retiring. For others, this might mean a year of flat work before ever stepping over a crossrail.
And for Bode? This means a lot of walk hacks, long grooms, and trailer rides. Letting his brain develop while his body heals. Forward progress, albeit in a detoured direction. But; still forward.
Dr. Carleigh Fedorka is a researcher at the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center who has worked in all aspects of the Thoroughbred industry. She is an avid eventer, RRP Dressage Champion, and the keeper of a rotating cast of OTTBs. You can follow her OTTB adventures at her popular blog, A Yankee in Paris.
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