BY LAUREN MAULDIN
Thoroughbreds are talented, budget friendly, smart and extremely willing horses… so why don’t we see more of them in the hunter ring? After all, Thoroughbreds were the original hunters far before the warmbloods that dominate the ring today were commonplace. The answer to the lack of Thoroughbreds at today’s rated shows is complicated, but there are still rising champions to be found.
Top hunter/jumper trainer Caitlin Maloney loves working with the breed. She has re-trained and piloted OTTBs to great success on the A circuit, and sat down with us to share some insight into finding and re-training the OTTB hunter.
The Plaid Horse: People have heard the negatives, but what’s your favorite thing about working with OTTBs?
Caitlin Maloney: Their innate desire to please. If you are good to them, they are good to you!
So what makes them challenging?
The sensitive nature of thoroughbreds can be a hindrance. For example, if you begin working with an OTTB who had a bad experience—whether an accident or result of poor training—it can take some time for the horse to trust you. With patience though, I find that most Thoroughbreds want to work with you as a partner once they understand what it is you’re trying to achieve.
What traits should someone look for in OTTBs when shopping directly from the track?
It depends on what you’re looking to accomplish. Thoroughbreds are very versatile. Coming directly off the track, they will need some time to “come down” (some longer than others) so that’s important to keep in mind. For a hunter, you want an attractive head and neck, and clean legs. They make great jumpers and cross country horses because of their stamina.
Do you ride or train an OTTB any differently than you do Warmbloods in your barn?
When starting a new OTTB, the first thing to determine is that the horse is safe to ride. The second is, what are his instincts when you begin to introduce him to jumping? Start with a pole on the ground or small cross-rail. Most are willing to step over it, others become easily overwhelmed. If the latter, then you need to know if there is the time, desire, and means to work with a confused and flighty horse.
Once we get to a point of establishing a training program for jumping, I really don’t differentiate between thoroughbred vs. warmblood. All green horses learn from repetition and reward. Thoroughbreds are really smart. When they figure something out, it sticks with them.
What do you think is the most important aspect to re-training these horses?
Where do you see the future for OTTBs in the hunter ring?
I think it will get more competitive. I see a lot of groups and individuals advocating for bringing the spotlight back to thoroughbred hunters, as there should be.
What do you think is most important to remember when working with OTTBs for the hunters?
For one, keep in mind the show ring is their second career. Racehorses begin training for the track very young and are expected to peak at 2 or 3 years old. The majority that don’t retire to the pasture need a second career. I find a thoroughbred will go around a ring and jump whatever you ask of it. To train a competitive hunter, take into account that he learned his first job was speed. A forward, galloping hunter can be a beautiful thing to watch. Work on developing his jumping style, a smooth lead change, and encourage a relaxed demeanor.
Caitlin Maloney works with OTTBs and many other horses at her Shamrock Show Stables in Reddick, Florida. She established herself and honed her skills while working for barns such as Balmoral (CA), Don Stewart Stables (FL), Split Rock Farm (KY), and Olde Welbourne (Chicago, IL). From winners at Devon and Indoors, to off-the-track thoroughbreds and young horses, Caitlin is able to take on and manage many types of show horses and develop their potential. She takes pride in treating every horse in the barn as her own.