Career Change—Off-The-Track Thoroughbreds and Eventing
Thoroughbreds that race tend to only be on the track for a few years of their youth, but what’s next? Eventers all over America have been finding that many off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) have the character and physique for their sport. U.S. Olympian Boyd Martin and Cathy Wieschoff of CW Event Team talk about their success with taking off-the-track Thoroughbreds and reconditioning them for eventing.
Picking A Mount
The first step in the formation of a new eventing partnership is, of course, finding the right horse to compete with. So what makes Thoroughbreds good for eventing? Both Cathy and Boyd share that starting off with an OTTB is a great option to start building a team of horses on a low budget. “At the end of the day, to get a horse off the track is free or for very little money,” Cathy explains. Cathy trains with an OTTB for about a year before selling the horse, while Boyd prefers to get his horses at events such as the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP) Thoroughbred Makeover, where he can see the horse’s jumping ability. One of the challenges of going right from the track, according to Boyd, is “to somehow figure out the horse’s jumping ability. Everything else you can sort of evaluate when you see the horse for the first time; its character, conformation, movement, and looks.”
When both Boyd and Cathy go to a track to find a new OTTB to start training, they look for horses that are too slow for racing, rather than lame. “It’s crucial that the Thoroughbred we pick for eventing hasn’t been driven into the ground and raced until it was completely broken,” comments Boyd. “We’d like to pick a horse off the track that’s trainer has been wise and retired the horse early in its career just due to the fact that it wasn’t competitive enough for the track.” Cathy agrees, stating, “If a horse has an old injury, a lot of the time, it’s not to say that the horse won’t be sound for life and compete, but for me, trying to sell them if they have an old injury that took them off the track will take more time.”
Whether you are going right to the track or to an event such as the Thoroughbred Makeover, there are certain things a potential eventing horse needs to have. “For the sport of eventing, the main factor is cross-country, which is a huge test of endurance, stamina, and courage, and this would be the best ingredient of a Thoroughbred,” states Boyd. “Thoroughbreds as sport horses are a great deal if you can train them right and reprogram them,” adds Cathy, who puts adequate training over good behavior. “The [horse’s] behavior I don’t hold a whole lot of stock in, because I think you can retrain any of them. Some might be more difficult, but you’ve just got to spend more time with them.”
Cathy brings up the notion of looking into OTTBs’ bloodlines before purchasing. “People have been doing this for a long time, and it was more by word of mouth that we got to know that Lemon Drop Kid and AP Indie were good jumpers,” Cathy recalls. “So somewhere in those bloodlines, a talent for jumping has been noticed and is more intense now.” When you have a number of Thoroughbreds in one spot like at the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover, “you can really see the bloodlines and who is turning out to be really great jumpers,” she adds.
Once the new horse has been selected, the training process commences. While Boyd and Cathy have different approaches, both feel the struggles that can be faced with working with OTTBs. Boyd discusses how dressage tends to be more difficult for the OTTB. “Dressage is very much designed for the big, fat, shiny European warmblood,” Boyd shares. “It’s a gymnastic floor routine, and the Thoroughbred is born to run fast and give 120% for two miles.” With this in mind, Cathy tends to “focus on their lateral supplement, and also shifting their weight to their backend, which is something to do with all horses. With a racehorse, they have spent most of their time galloping on the forehand, so by teaching them to trot with their balance shifted back, we are asking them to be weightlifters and ambidextrous.” This, of course, takes time, especially with helping the horse be ambidextrous due to the fact that most OTTBs are trained to gallop to the left. Cathy says, in regards to dressage, “if the horse has a good walk and canter, then he has a good trot, but it may take longer to develop.”
Outside the difficulties of suppleness and movement that some OTTBs may face, Cathy brings up the challenge of expectations. “I think that the hardest part is when you get them broken at home and going at home, and then you take them to a competition site,” she says. If you train too fast, and take shortcuts, Cathy shares what might happen, “They can always be a little flighty, a little strong, a little excitable; all of those things because you haven’t taken the time, in my opinion, to really take them out of that scenario.” The solution to this is simple: reintroduce them. “I’ll take my horse to competitions and not compete them,” Cathy shares. “It’s just like, let’s go hang out and watch the world go by instead of putting pressure on the horse to do something—to compete—when they haven’t taken the time to slow their brains down and realize when they get off the track and into the stall, the next thing they are going to do is not breeze down the track.” By making the chaos of a competition less distracting, the horse is able to focus more on the rider instead of the atmosphere.
With events such as the RRP’s Thoroughbred Makeover, the opportunities for OTTBs in America are steadily growing in popularity. “[In America], I think people are starting to pick up on Thoroughbreds. More of them are out there eventing, and there is more recognition in shows, like hunter/jumper shows doing classes for Thoroughbreds,” says Cathy. Continuing on that note, Boyd adds, “America needs an avenue or easy access to these horses once they are retired as a racehorse and give them a second career. I think things like the Thoroughbred Makeover is brilliant because it gives people a place to go and look at Thoroughbreds where a majority are up for sale.” The horses at this competition aren’t just eventers, Cathy giggles, “they have working cattle, foxhunters, polo players—the Thoroughbred can do anything!”