Horowitz On OTTBs, Presented By Excel Equine: Looking Forward To 2022 With Hope For Ex-Racehorses - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Horowitz On OTTBs, Presented By Excel Equine: Looking Forward To 2022 With Hope For Ex-Racehorses

Last month, I wrote about “nature,” genetics, and how the Thoroughbred breed “has evolved over more than three centuries to be an elite sport horse, regardless of what that sport is.”

“Understanding and embracing the true nature of the Thoroughbred means that events like the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover, programs like The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program, and retired racehorses competing at horse shows can be appreciated as representations of the strengths of the breed, and not just something different that happens after a racing career ends.”

Now, I'd like to explore “nurture” and how the ability for Thoroughbreds to excel in new sports after racing is actually honed by what they learn on the racetrack.

The Thoroughbred breed was developed with the primary goal of being an elite racehorse. Certain key skills learned through racing and the racetrack serve these horses well for future endeavors. Plus, we're at the stage in the breed's evolution where racing can be seen as a first discipline in which Thoroughbreds will compete but will not necessarily be the end game.

There is still a learning curve to go from horse racing to, say, jumping or polo, but there would also be a learning curve with similar amplitude for a horse going from being a show hunter to an eventer. The foundations of being an equine athlete are similar across all disciplines, and the racetrack does a great job of instilling those foundations.

“The training that a horse gets before the track, like when they're being started under saddle, is like someone going through kindergarten and elementary school in their formative years,” said Jen Roytz, the outgoing executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project who is heavily involved in understanding and promoting the successes of Thoroughbreds both on and off the racetrack. “It's like the most basic building blocks of how to be a riding horse. Then, they get to the track, and that's kind of like their high school education. They start to do several things at once, and they're faster and responding to cues faster. Then, they get off the track where they're going to do other equestrian sports, and people have more time to hone those skills.”

By the time racehorses finish their racing careers, they will likely have travelled by trailer to multiple locations, been handled by many people, and been exposed to high-stimulation environments. They will have been ridden many times by different riders and, in the process, been asked to go through the different gaits of walk, trot, and canter and change leads.

Perhaps of most benefit, a career in horse racing instills a mindset that a horse should go forward.

“You want the horse's answer to always be forward,” Roytz said. “Like, if you're jumping, you want the horse to go forward over the jump and not spook and shy away. People try to train a 'yes' horse. I think racing does them such a benefit in that way because they come off the track eager to go forward.”

The forward-thinking nurturing of Thoroughbreds matches with their forward-thinking nature. It's worth repeating what Chris Ryan, the subject of my “nature” article about the Thoroughbred breed last month, said, “The Thoroughbred looks out into the far distance. His horizon is way out there and he feels he can get there whenever he wishes. This gives him tremendous forward thinking. A horse thinking forward is going forward. Watch his ears!”

The Thoroughbred often knows where he will go before we do. That makes the journey and the possibilities of destinations incredibly exciting.

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To be fair, there are certain areas that horse racing does not emphasize or emphasizes in a different way, but most of those things shouldn't be seen as a knock against racing. A British literature class will emphasize different material than a course in American literature. But a student going from one of these classes to the other does not need to reinvent the wheel, and neither does a Thoroughbred when going from a racehorse to a sport horse career.

Roytz gives a specific example, saying when it comes to changing leads: “Horses at the track know how to change leads, going from their right lead on straightaways to their left lead going around the turns. They learn how to do it at speed based off the riders' weight distribution and a cue on the reins usually. Then, they get off the track, and they learn to do it in a slower, more proper way, balancing themselves differently, pushing off from behind, making a much more purposeful change of lead with a more subtle, nuanced cue.”

And, yes, there are certain areas that horse racing in the United States can improve upon for the future well-being of the horse, like instilling good ground manners, offering turnout, and simply giving horses more opportunities to stand still to get used to high-stimulation settings.

However, at the end of the day, horse racing should not be seen as an outlier for Thoroughbreds nor should an appearance in another sport be a novelty for Thoroughbreds.

As we wrap up a roller coaster 2021, I'm not saying that the horse racing industry is free from criticism. This year will very well be remembered as the year that a Kentucky Derby winner tested positive for betamethasone and that prominent trainers who had made a mockery of fair play were finally brought to justice.

However, we should celebrate that, through trying to prepare horses for their racing careers, many racing connections are giving their horses the skills they need for whatever lies ahead. And that gives me hope for the Thoroughbred industry in 2022.

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