Thoroughbred “recycling” and aftercare is a subject which I have always been passionate about. I have owned two OTTB’s (off-track Thoroughbreds) in my life, one whom is still in my possession. Never have I gotten a TB straight from the racetrack, although there have been plenty that I wanted to ride on out the stable gate and to my back yard. There are many educational avenues in which you can learn how to choose the right horse off the track to suit your needs in whatever equestrian discipline you wish to use said equine for. It’s quite easy to find your new partner even if you don’t have any experience on the racetrack itself. There are many rehoming organizations who may have already started the retraining process before adoption, as well as trainers and owners becoming more aware of the importance of finding a good home for their racehorses once their running days are behind them. A lot of us fall in love with the horses we gallop and ride, and to help ensure they have a great future, we come together and reach out to help someone looking for a horse… or a horse looking for a home.
That’s not exactly what happened in my case.
Handsomely was a horse that I knew well; I won my very first race on him. That’s not the only thing that made him memorable. He is a, shall we say, “petite”, bay gelding…so dark he is almost black with the smallest snippet of white on his forehead. My farrier actually referred to him as a “her” while working on 3 out of 4 feet before he realized that “she” was just a dainty little boy.
Handsomely was the horse you didn’t want to see under your name on the set list in the mornings. His list of tricks to make your ride miserable… I mean exciting and joyous… from the time you got on, until the time you got off was quite impressive. He was on the high-strung side and bounced around the barn while you tried to get adjusted and “tied on”. On the way to the track, he side-passed and piaffed like a 17 hand warmblood in the Olympic dressage arena, which would have been lovely had he not been a 15.1 hand Thoroughbred racehorse.
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Once you got to the racetrack it was smooth sailing. And by sailing, I mean making it around the track at warp speed with your arms and legs slowly turning to jelly until he had had plenty of fun. That was if you could manage to stay on him while he was lunging and leaping in the air, throwing his head down to the ground trying to pull you out of the saddle, and swinging his derriere from side to side like a Labrador happy to see his owner. Now it was possible to find a first gear on the way home and maybe relax a little. Until you came off the gap of the racetrack and headed back to the barn, when horses would gallop or breeze by and seemed to ignite his engine once again causing other horses and humans to scatter while you flashed your most charming, apologetic smile as a way of saying “I’m cute. He’s crazy. So sorry!”.
Now, you would think that would have been enough excitement to get some energy out of his system to be able to enjoy a calm, relaxing walk around the barn and be then happy to go back in his quiet stall once he was cooled out.
Handsomely is a cribber. If you don’t know what cribbing is or have never experienced it firsthand…you are lucky. It’s one of those things to us horse people – well, you can’t quite describe it. It’s kinda like nails on a chalkboard or listening to someone chew too loudly. It shouldn’t be so cringeworthy, but it is. And boy did Handsomely like to crib. Despite his bright blue cribbing collar, you could hear him from down the shed row, sucking air like a new born baby hippo coming to the water’s surface for the first time.
When Handsomely wasn’t latched on to the rim of his feed tub, his stall door, or the edge of his water bucket…he liked to maintain his fitness regimen by walking his stall. A few circles this way, a few circles that way, crib a couple times and repeat. The only thing that calmed…which is a term I use lightly…him down was a black and white goat named Dewey. Dewey was his buddy. Goats are a popular barn buddy at any racetrack and typically will gravitate towards the equines who need a little comfort and companionship. We made sure Dewey didn’t have to do any of the thinking himself and kept him in a pen connected to the front of Handsomely’s stall so he could never stray too far.
When I made the decision to give Handsomely his forever home after fate found him at a livestock auction in which his final destination would have been a slaughterhouse in Mexico, I knew he wasn’t the horse I would have “picked”. I knew he had his quirks. I knew he was a hard keeper and couldn’t just hang out in a big field and get fat on grass. I knew he had a club foot and some stifle problems. I knew that he hadn’t had the easiest 8 years of life.
But I also knew that Thoroughbreds are resilient and versatile and incredibly smart. I had hopes of him being so grateful to have been saved and given a new chance at life that he would turn into a sweet puppy dog who rode around on the buckle and jumped 3-foot fences like they were nothing and hauled to new places like he’d been there his whole life.
None of that has happened in the 4 years since Handsomely came to live out his life with me. He doesn’t know he’s 12 now, and he has plenty of hi-ho silver moments that include randomly deciding he’s forgotten everything he’s ever been taught.
But I’m ok with that.
He’s the horse that would stop and stand still when my 2-year-old son walked in the arena because he knew it was pony ride time. He’s the horse that let me jump on him bareback in a halter and lead rope after not being ridden for 8 months. He’s the horse that gave me one of the most amazing experiences of my life. And nobody else would love him the way I do… or probably even like him.
Handsomely may not be the “ideal” OTTB, but he’s mine. And I love him because of everything he’s taught me about owning ex-racehorses. Sure, it’s great to have a list of the things you want and the things you don’t want to go with your riding goals. It’s great to be able to find the Thoroughbred who hits all your check marks. But sometimes there’s something deeper…
…the love of the horse.