I submitted this story to the SFGate pet blog. Let’s see if they publish it?
“When you call upon a Thoroughbred, he gives you all the speed, strength of heart and sinew in him. When you call on a jackass, he kicks.” Patricia Neal
Ten years ago, rescued dogs were all the rage with the tawny set. It seemed like everyone in Palo Alto and Pac Heights was toting around a mutt with a story.
“He’s most likely a pit bull/coc-a-poo cross and he was horribly abused when I got him from the local rescue. I’m working with a full time trainer to get him over his food guarding issues.”
It’s been great business for the trainers and for the dogs themselves and people were able to feel good about their dog ownership. For awhile there, being seen at a local dog park with a pure bred dog seemed selfish and terribly unfashionable.
Now that notion seems to be trickling into the horse industry. Having a rescued horse is trendy and cool and each horse has a story. With the economy still in a free fall, horses are needing homes in droves. However, in the words of my equine training mentor “All horses need owners, but not all owners need horses.”
I write this article knowing full well that those I wish would listen will most likely not and those who already know will read and understand. My very own mother in law decided to take on a two year old rescued mustang as a mount for herself and her grandchildren. When I explained to her that it was an inappropriate mount for the job she calmly dismissed my entreaty to let me know that she had paid for sixty days training with a very good trainer. Needless to say, she now has a broken hip to show for the experience.
By the same token, I was out walking our latest project, a three year old colt fresh from Santa Anita racetrack when my dear friend and our resident dressage trainer looked at his lovely, lithe body prancing at the end of the lead rope, crossed her arms across her chest, scowled at her students and proclaimed “Thoroughbred” in a tone that was clearly pejorative. Then there was an instance on an endurance ride when a woman would announce to her riding buddies every time my friend and I came near her with our ex race horses she would yell “oh no, here come the THOROUGHBREDS!” As an aside, I do believe that we crossed the finish line within two minutes of this woman and her highly bred endurance horse with our throughbreds who not only scored well in recovery rate and soundness, but each of the vets complimented on how relaxed and sweet our horses were.
It’s true that I have an ax to grind. It’s true that I love to be right. It’s also true that 100,000+ horses will go to slaughter this year in Canada and Mexico and many of those will be young race stock that either couldn’t compete or were injured or unfit for the breeding shed and couldn’t find a home. After 25 years in the horse business, I’m here to tell you that an ex race horse can be one of the most versatile and honest mounts in the equine world if you understand him and his needs.
A racing thoroughbred is bred not just for speed, but also for qualities that cannot be measured with a stopwatch; he’s bred for heart and for generosity. Without heart and generosity, he won’t strive to win, he won’t even try. For this reason, off track racehorses have proven themselves dominant in polo and three-day eventing and excellent in dressage and in the hunter jumper ranks. They have won titles in endurance, in barrel racing and in roping events.
Once you understand what a thoroughbred has been raised and trained to do, you can better understand them and make choices about their needs and care and training.
Thoroughbred horses can trace their history back 300 years to the importing of three stallions from the deserts of Arabia. These stallions were bred to the best English saddle mares to form the foundation of the modern Thoroughbred. American studbooks of the Thoroughbred breed trace back to 1730 when the stallion Bulle Rock was imported to the states. American horse racing continued to grow and the first American Stud book was produced in 1873 by Colonel Sanders Bruce of Kentucky. The selective breeding process of breeding the sires with heart and generosity to the swiftest mares has been going strong ever since.
Thoroughbreds can be identified by their tall stature, small heads, broad chests, fine bones and relatively short backs. Many people will tell you that due to their propensity to speed, they are flighty and nervous. I would argue this point to say that thorougbreds, by and large are sensitive and curious, two important traits that make them receptive to training.
At the track, a race horse is fed a diet of cooked oats and other high availabiliity energy food. His diet is geared to giving him a burst of speed to carry him for about two minutes of racing or less. If you don’t want him to act like a racehorse, don’t feed him like one. Like your rescued dog, he needs exercise and companionship – if you want him to act like a neurotic mess, then lock him in a stall at a boarding stable and visit him twice per week. If you want a dressage horse that can execute moves like Baryshnikovwith hooves, put him with the best, most consistent trainer you can afford. Otherwise, don’t expect it of him.
Meet Ocean Fury, aka: “Quincy” a 3 year old colt recently injured on the track in January. He has a sponsor who is committed to healing his injuries and paying for his retraining as a saddle horse. He’s beautiful and sweet and has a slightly naughty sense of humor. With any luck we will be riding him in the next three weeks or so and have him exploring the coastal trails by summer.
Regretfully, for every Quincy, there are several that end up in less than ideal circumstances.
A four year old thoroughbred right off the track knows a few things. He has been ridden with a saddle and a snaffle bridle. He has been around cars, trucks, bicycles and heavy equipment. He’s had daily baths and he’s ridden in horsetrailers. He’s had his feet picked, his legs wrapped with bandages and his coat brushed to a shine daily. What he hasn’t experienced are things like cross-ties, mounting blocks and leg pressure for turning from a rider. Given the proper diet and turnout and exercise and training, an off track thoroughbred can be expected to carry a rider on trails and in the arena in a reasonable amount of time. But just like the rescued dog, any adopter needs to understand that time and patience, as well as proper diet and exercise are the keys to success with these athletes.
Here’s a quick video of Square Peg kids riding a whole pack of retired and rejected racehorses. Not bad if I say so myself (except for the video editing, which is clearly not my forte).