OTTBs are High-Maintenance (and so is every horse)

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Duncan (JC Name: Crafty Time) Photo © Candace Boissy

BY ALLISON HOWELL

The group OTTB Connect on Facebook has 77,000 members. The hashtag “OTTB” on Instagram results in thousands of posts. There are countless t-shirts, saddle pads, fly bonnets and coolers all branded with some kind of OTTB logo. There is perhaps no group more loyal to their breed than OTTB owners. 

Maybe that’s why we get a little outraged when our horses are described as “tightly-wound,” sensitive, high-maintenance animals that require a lot of specialized care to maintain. As a Thoroughbred Makeover participant and volunteer, I’m here to set the record straight: I think these views are absolutely, positively, almost always true

Now before you get your pitchforks out, fellow OTTB lovers, I also believe those descriptors to be applicable to almost all performance horses, regardless of breed. 

Let me explain. I am always slightly bewildered when I hear that OTTBs are high-maintenance, especially right off the track. I have ridden with some top-level professionals, and um, aren’t all sport horses high maintenance? 

DC (JC name: Mr. Uneedus) and Allison in high school

Think of all the insta-stories you see that an equestrian professional posts of a normal day around their barn: they typically include specialized feed charts, great farrier care, lessons, custom tack, meticulous grooming sessions, some kind of body-work or visit from the vet, immaculately-maintained rings, and what amounts to a turn-down service at night-check. 

Very, very few horses are going to thrive in a training program with bare minimum care. Whatever discipline or breed you’re working with, the fact remains that it takes a lot to get and keep an athlete at the top of their game. Horses coming off the track face a particularly challenging time, often going from a highly-regulated program with very specific work and feeding routines to a completely different living situation and workload. And yes, these horses are sensitive, but that’s what makes them such exceptional athletes. 

I think those that are quick to over-generalize OTTBs as sensitive and high-maintenance are trying to educate newcomers to the breed. The trials and tribulations that sometimes come with transitioning a horse off the track can be harrowing, but the seemingly sweeping generalizations made about these horses strike a nerve with OTTB owners. So let’s be clear: some horses need a lot more time and intervention coming off the track than others. And the uncomfortable truth is some of them just aren’t cut out for a sport or pleasure horse career, no matter how hard you try. 

Coffee (JC Name: Running Quietly) Photo © Brant Gamma

Thankfully we have amazing aftercare organizations to help find homes for those few who would rather just loaf in a pasture. Some—maybe even the majority of—horses come off the track, look around their new home and settle right into the routine. Then others, like my most recent OTTB Crafty Time (73 races and a total dreamboat mover with a sensitive side), take a round of intense ulcer treatment and almost six months off for a broken cannon bone to turn into the superstars they are. 

Yes, it sometimes feels like a fresh off-the-track horse is a ticking time bomb between disasters (Crafty Time broke his cannon bone at the LAST DAY at the trainers) but truly: what horse isn’t? If you think about all the people you know who have experienced heartache right before a show, clinic or big event, I think you’d find that it happens to every horseman, in every discipline, with every breed. 

I’m not going to go into all the issues that can crop up when you transition a horse off the track here; thankfully the Retired Racehorse Project has put together a wealth of information with input from nutritionists, vets, and experienced trainers to help guide you on your journey with an OTTB. In addition to the many aftercare organizations who specialize in OTTBs, there are countless resellers and professional trainers to help a new OTTB owner on their journey.

The bottom line is this: we OTTB lovers want to showcase these horses as the quick-learning, hard-working, loyal athletes that we know they are, but it doesn’t help our cause if we’re not honest about the work, patience and resources it sometimes takes to get there.

Cassie (JC Name: Cassie) was Allison’s Makeover mount and is now leased to a college student in North Carolina

We want people to experience the joys of OTTB ownership, and recognize that although sometimes the beginning can be hard and discouraging and a rollercoaster of a process, if you stick with it there is no horse that gives you his heart like an off-the-track Thoroughbred. I am routinely astonished by an OTTB’s generosity of spirit and professionalism right off the track, and I want everyone to experience that at some point in their life too. 

One thing is for sure though: getting our ire up at the acknowledgement that OTTBs take a lot of work and knowledge to transition to a new career doesn’t help the horses one bit. So please be kind to your fellow horsemen, go give your horse a carrot and a pat for being the remarkable animals they are, and don’t feel bad if that OTTB in the field just pulled her shoe for the third time this month… because we’ve all been there.


Allison Howell is a 30-something amateur who lives in Virginia with her long-suffering husband and two dogs. She has had a passion for Thoroughbreds ever since reading the “Thoroughbred” books as a child. Allison competed in the 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover with Cassie (JC name: Cassie) and has been an avid volunteer and advocate for the Retired Racehorse Project ever since.

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