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When Whoa Means Go–Working With Off The Track Thoroughbreds

These days, seems like I am seeing more and more rescue horses in my clinics and on the TV show. I guess it is a sign of our times and a trend that will only be increasing in the coming years. Weve also had quite a few OTTBs (horse slang for Off The Track Thoroughbred) apply to be on the TV show and this weeks show features one such horse and rider. Be sure to watch “Back Stretch to Backyard, Episode 208

Andrea bought her TB gelding after he had been turned out to pasture for a couple years following his 8- year stint on the track. She was hoping to make a family horse out of him, for her kids and husband to accompany her on occasional rides. But from what I could see, he was a long way from that. He wouldnt stand still at all and would start kicking randomly when you tried to make himtypical of a race horse. They are prone to having tempers and standing still is just not something that is required of race horses very often because they do best when they are moving. Often, race horses are saddled, mounted and dismounted while in motion. So that was one problem that needed addressing before he qualified as a husband horse.”

When being ridden, Andreas horse would keep his head very high and launch impulsively into a trot whenever he wanted and in her effort to make him walk, she ended up programming the horse to jig (a bouncy, prancing trot that is quite uncomfortable to ride). Many people have this problem with OTTBsas do many owners of pleasure horses as well. Its a question that comes up a lot, How do I stop my horse from jigging?

While any horse can be inadvertently taught to jig by their riders, race horses are particularly prone to this problem and as with many horse problems, the issue is actually the rider. On the track, horses are galloped on very heavy contact and when you want them to stop, you loosen the reins. So, they have learned that loose reins mean stop and tight reins mean go. Believe it or not, most horses have inadvertently learned this, although to a lesser degree, because when you hold the reins tight, horses tend to be poised for action and when you are not going to ask anything of them, youll usually loosen the reins and sit very casually.

The problem that Andrea was having with her OTTB was that she was so sure that he was going to take off at any moment, that she held the reins tight and was perched forward, ready for action. To any horse, this can become a cue for them to get jazzed up and jiggy. This is almost always the cause of jigging and the solution is to stop the horse abruptly when he trots, but then drop the reins and ride on a loose rein. Pick them up again for correction if he breaks, but dont hang onto the reins or hell be poised for action and begin jigging. For race horses, this is because how they are ridding on the track, but almost any horse, when faced with unyielding and meaningless pressure on the mouth, will become antsy and even begin to run through the bridle (the more you pull, the faster he goes).

Many times it is hard to know which came first, the chicken or the egg. Is the horse jigging because the reins are too tight or are the reins too tight because the horse is jigging? It really doesnt matterhorses and riders develop this kind of co-dependency all the time. I see it at every clinic I do; sometimes with the ground work and sometimes in the mounted work. If you micro-manage your horse too much he becomes dependent on you to constantly tell him to slow down, speed up, or whatever, instead of trusting him to do his job correctly. If you try to prevent him from making mistakes (like breaking gait), he will never learn from making a mistake and then getting corrected for it. The same could be said for childrenyouve got to let them make decisions, right or wrong, and learn what the consequences of their actions are.

In this episode with Andrea, she did a great job of breaking the co-dependent cycle and with the exercises I showed her, the horse make tremendous progress in just one day. Do you have a tendency toward co-dependency with your horse? Do you ever get the feeling that the horse is cueing you instead of the other way around? Or that he is controlling your actions? I find that most people dont recognize the co-dependency, even when its there.

And what is it about OTTBs that people like so much anyway? Is it that they are cheap and readily available if you live near a race track? Or maybe that the need is so great and people want to do the right thing and give a home to an unwanted horse? Id love to hear from you if you have an OTTB.

Having grown up riding OTTBs converted to hunter/jumpers and after riding on the race track through college (its a great college job), I have a great deal of appreciation for the breed, but they tend to be a lot of horse for the average rider and probably not a good choice for a novice. Whats your opinion?

Enjoy the ride!


A clip of Andrea’s episode:

Clips from other OTTB shows:


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  1. I have an OTTB 10 year old mare, wouldn’t trade her for anything. When she is calm, she is the calmest horse there is, you can throw anything at her or on her, nothing affects her. We still have improvement to make on when she is pumped up or nervous. Things I love about her are that her canter and gallop are so smooth and balanced; that she has such a personality and yet is so willing, that she is so curious and active, and so responsive.

  2. I had a great conversation with Dale Myler about OTTB’s. He’s bitted many OTTB’s over the years, most recently 2 weeks ago. The most common problem he sees is that OTTB’s are trained to run into the bit and many riders don’t understand this. It’s unfair, he says, to get mad at a horse for doing what he’s been taught to do. The best way to approach bitting an OTTB is to use nose pressure first, without mouth pressure. The nose pressure confuses the horse and makes him stop and think about what the rider is asking, whereas a bit triggers his training, making him anticipate something that isn’t what the rider wants. The rider ends up struggling against an ingrained behavior. Dale uses the combination bit for OTTB’s to teach the horse to work from nose/chin/poll pressure first, then the mouthpiece can be brought into play when the horse more fully understands what the rider is actually asking. The combination bit asks from the nose first, not the mouth, and gives the rider better lateral and vertical control. The rider can gradually transition to riding more off the mouthpiece as the horse comes along in his understanding of what the rider is asking.

  3. I thought this episode was great! I think many novices make their own version of a race horse themselves, and this episode can apply to off track or not!
    (Like when folks get on their horses while it is walking off and they just go with it rather than make it sit with them on their back after mounting!)
    I would love to find an ex race horse (appendix quarter horse gelding) that my 13 year old daughter could ride and have trained to jump for her hunter shows.
    Where do you guys find them???

  4. I have an OTTB. He only raced a couple years, but I do see the bad habbits he has from being on the track. He has a problem with standing still, and stopping. I have worked on the when whoa means whoa, and he is doing much better. I also have a question about what type of bit I should use to help, the right feed to help him gain weight, and suppliments. I grew up showing QH’s and having a OTTB is totally different than what i’m use to. If you have any tips, and advice for me I would love to hear them. 🙂


  5. Hi Julie,

    I wanted to say thank you again for a great clinic experience in Wisconsin! I’ve also been enjoying your Horsemaster episodes lately and the blog entry about the bit experiment. Bitting is an interesting topic and it’s amazing to see what a difference another bit makes at times!

    On the subject of this blog entry: we have a 7-year-old OTTB that was raced at 2, 3 & 4. Since retiring her, we have just been trail riding her and I’ve taken a couple dressage lessons with her. She, like many OTTBs, has great ground manners and a willing, “workmanlike” personality–with some character! As you mentioned of other OTTBs, she can be a lot of horse at times and wouldn’t be a good fit for a beginner at this point. I’ve started using the groundwork and other techniques I learned at your clinic to help control “those movin’ feet” and teach her to relax on cue. They do require a whole different level or horsemanship, I think, but OTTBs are well worth the time it takes to retrain them for a second career!

    Do you have any general comments about “bitting issues” when retraining an OTTB? I assume our mare is not the only one that likes to mouth the bit a lot and hang her tongue out the side of her mouth. She’ll do this on a loose rein or with contact; she doesn’t really seem “resistant” or uncomfortable about it. The bit seems to be more of a pacifier than an aid at times if you know what I mean. In your experience, is there a certain type of bit or placement in the mouth that helps with this?

    I enjoy your teaching and always look forward to the next new topic. Thanks!

  6. I love my OTTB! He is retired now, but he was given to me years ago because he was deemed a “dangerous horse”. Reading your blog just made me realize that inadvertently I trained my race horse the right away. I have found in like that when a horse gets nervous if you get more and more calm and trusting they will calm down. So when my horse Gen came along and would get upset I would loosen the reins and my seat to get him to calm. Who knew I was training him the right way! I was just doing what I thought was best. He was a lovely dressage horse while in work, and now he is a wonderful bit of lawn art 😛

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