Riding Your Off-the-Track Thoroughbred for the First Time

Many new buyers of off-the-track Thoroughbreds are worried about what their first ride will be like.

At Bits & Bytes Farm we have been getting Thoroughbreds off-the-track for many years now. We always take a safe yet relaxed approach to the first ride. Here are a few important things to remember . . .

This is not your horse’s first ride and it shouldn’t be be a rodeo!

Thoroughbreds are used to being ridden everyday at the race track. They walk to the track, in groups or alone. They jog and canter most days and they have days when they gallop. They do not gallop or work fast every day. At The track, the horses doing their slow work ride clockwise on the outside rail in the opposite direction as the horses on the inside rail doing the fast workouts moving counter clockwise. There are also horses in the center of the track doing medium speed workouts. The morning workouts are great training for the schooling ring at a horse show – only with better riders and more organized chaos.

Gold Commander One - First Ride

Horses work in both directions at the race track – at the same time. The slow horses are ridden clockwise and the fast horses work counter clockwise. The faster horses are on the inside rail.

The horses at the track have riders that are confident and they instill that confidence in the young horses. YOU need to be confident when you get on your off-the-track Thoroughbred. I am not surprised by the OTTB Success Stories of new owner’s first rides. Many people expect OTTBs to be hot or difficult to ride when, in reality, the opposite is usually true. Sometimes you even need a crop or spurs because they are so relaxed.

Thoroughbreds are sensitive and pick up on the emotions of the people around them. It is important to relax and open your heart when working around your Thoroughbred. If you are not confident enough to train your Thoroughbreds then don’t buy one. It does not take a lot of skill but it does take patience and confidence. You can walk your horse for a year if you are not confident enough to trot or canter and that will be good for the horse as long as you can relax. Sit all stiff, fall off or scare yourself or the horse, and your training will take a big step backwards. Thoroughbreds like to have a job and they like to be ridden. If they could not be controlled by a rider, they would never make it through a race – they would run out of gas before the finish line.

The race horse waits for the rider to tell him to make the push at the end of the race to win. He is used to a rider telling him what to do and when. He needs to learn your cues when asking him to do something. Sending a Thoroughbred to a trainer will cause the horse to learn how the trainer is asking and then he will need to relearn the cues from you. The trainer can tell you how he/she taught the horse but you will not do it the same way. It is better to work with a trainer with you as the rider. The Thoroughbred needs to respect you and learn what YOU are asking him to do.

If your Thoroughbred is “up”, hot tempered or bucking out sideways on the lunge line, you might want to look for a pain issue and take care of that before trying to ride him. Many ex-racers need a few chiropractic adjustments to feel good.

Who you buy your Thoroughbred from can make a huge difference. It can be the difference between success and failure with OTTB. Horses that are racing at the low end, who have not had good care or training can have a whole different set of problems than a horse from a better track or a caring trainer/owner. Make sure your OTTB has been properly cared for and handled well. If the horse is sound for racing and he is checked out thoroughly by a vet, he will most likely be very easy to ride when you get him home. A horse that is quiet and well behaved at-the-track will be even better when you get him to the farm. Horses that are unhappy at the track can turn 180 degrees and become the biggest pet you ever had, but starting with a sound, happy horse will almost guarantee a great first ride. Check to make sure the horse is not in pain. You need to make sure he feels good if you hope to have a quiet first ride.

What should you expect for your first ride on your new OTTB?

Expect the worse and don’t be surprised when you have a quiet ride. Expect the worse? What? What will happen?

Always take safety precautions- especially with your first ride – better be safe than sorry. Wear a protective vest like the jockey’s wear under their silks. We wear a helmet and have a ground person holding the lunge line which is attached to the horse’s bridle. Take the time to lunge the horse before getting on. See if he is moving well and take the edge off of his energy. Lunging will help you to assess the soundness of the horse before getting on.

Always be safe

AT the track the Thoroughbred is used to a rider getting a leg up – sometimes from within the stall and sometimes while walking to the track. Use a mounting block if you are not agile enough to take a leg up. Kick the mounting block, stomp on it and throw it around in front of the horse before getting on. Make sure your horse is not scared of the mounting block. If the horse will not stand when you climb up on the block, get down and back him up while carrying the mounting block. Try again when he is willing to stand quietly. If he does not stand, repeat the process until your horse stands quietly. You may have to do this each time you mount for several days but eventually he will learn that is it easier to just stand and let you get on. Make sure to stay towards the center of the arena away from the fence in case you have problems.

Another good thing is to have a ground person with the lunge line attached to your horse’s bridle as your safety line. Stand on the mounting block and lean on the saddle. Put your foot in the stirrup and add weight but don’t get on. If he stands quietly you can proceed to get on. If he moves, repeat the above steps until he stands quietly for you to mount.

Ready, Set, Mount!

If the horse is standing quietly it is time for you to really get on – do it quickly and quietly. Hold the reins and mane and put your leg over his back quickly and gently put your weight on his back. Now your heart is racing. You are sitting on a Thoroughbred RACE horse!

Stay calm and breathe. Stroke your horse’s neck. Have your ground person with the lunge line lead you around in the center of the arena. Within a short amount of time you will know what to expect. 95% of the time the horse is unconcerned and ready to work – unless you are making HIM scared. Have your helper lead you around the arena until YOU are calm. Extend your circle out on the lunge line. When you feel safe and have a calm horse under you then trot. If you feel the horse is not going to explode under you and you are not making him scared, then you can come off the lunge line and enjoy riding your newly off-the-track Thoroughbred. If the horse seems too up, get off and lunge him some more. If you are nervous, do not get on. You will scare the horse with your fears and tense body. A scared horse will run. He is a prey animal and that is what they do!

You may or may not canter on the first ride. Let the horse guide you. Sometimes it will take a few rides or even longer before you will feel safe enough to ask your horse to canter. Many times you may feel safe enough to canter on your first ride.

Remember that your horse is not used to cantering on tight circles or having a rider sitting on his back. Jockeys are usually up in the irons with little or no weight on the horse’s back. Ex race horses can get back sore easily which could lead to bucking if you move to quickly with his training and make him back sore. Don’t do sitting trots or canter circles until you have built up the top line muscles with lunging and hill work.

Hill Work? Ride My Thoroughbred Outside of the Ring?

YES! Get your horse out-of-the-ring as soon as you feel you can safe. Thoroughbreds love going for walks in the woods and working up and down hills. Riding out of the ring in the woods is so different than a wide open, flat track. OTTB’s back ends are weak when they come off-the-track and the hill work is good for their minds and their bodies.

Walk and trot your horse until you feel safe enough to canter.

Hill work and walk,/trot transitions are excellent training. Teach your horse to respond from your seat with half halts before a transition. You can do this on the trails as well. Look in the direction you wish your horse to go and you will find you hardly need to apply rein. When you turn your head and shoulders, the weight in your hips signals the horse to move in the direction you are looking. You will also be applying legs in the proper manner if you are turning with your head AND shoulders. When trotting do not tip forward or post too fast. Your horse will automatically match your tempo. If you wish him to slow down, slow down your posting and bring your shoulders and chest back. Breathe. Your horse will slow down. Jockey’s lean forward and take hold of the reins. The Thoroughbred race horse leans into the reins and balances on the Jockey’s hands. When they cross the finish line the jockey sits up and lets go of the rein pressure. The horse slows down and starts to jog.

Think about walking and do a half halt and your horse will be walking. Off-the-track Thoroughbreds are very sensitive and learn quickly because they want to please their person. Reward your horse by lightening your hands and talking to him with your voice.

You can never go too slow with the training but you can go too fast.

Never do anything that will scare your horse or yourself. Develop a partnership unequaled by any other breeds by taking it slow and steady. Be confident and your horse will be too. A confident horse is a safe horse.