Rescuing Off-The-Track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs)

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Friday’s Opinion

Rescues and associated off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) seem to be in the news a lot lately. Headlines abound professing the need to save the discarded, mistreated, abandoned race horses – usually with a call-to-action to send money. It’s interesting how often things that turn political turn south.

Years ago, there were people in the mix who made a buck or two (certainly not a fortune – most were in it for the rewards gained from experiencing the horse’s transformation and the new owner’s glee) helping these horses transition to a new career. Sure, they’d try to cull out the best prospects, but would then spend a good deal of time working to make these horses comfortable and able to handle new requests. As with any industry, you took your chances, but the talented had good instincts about both the horse and potential buyers. Compensation for professional training was part of the mix in finding new homes for these horses, but it made the experience positive for the horse, the trainer and the buyer.

Today, TB owners can’t give away a horse that’s no longer running competitively, rescues are over-flowing and adopters may get the warm fuzzies initially, but most are ill-prepared to transition a horse that comes with no training to help them understand the requests presented for their new career. Are the horses really better off now being dumped into a holding stall or pasture environment that provides no preparation for future demands or little stimulation during their stay? I don’t think so.

Do you think you’re helping these horses?

It’s an ironic turn that most of those screaming the loudest about the plight and need for salvation of the former race horse have little or no exposure to the breed or racing industry, and in fact, have actually fostered the demise of a system that worked. Who’s helping these horses discover, enjoy and excel at a new job now? Forget about ensuring a suitable home with someone who has the equine skills to help the horse continue on this path.

We’ve been domesticating horses for millenniums. Consequently, we’ve created a species that seems to seek jobs that are human driven (although it does take some skill to understand the needs of the horse in training and career choices). Robbing these horses of this opportunity isn’t a happy ending for most horses I’ve met.

Is the cure really causing no harm?

It troubles me to see some rescues so focused on the revenues and/or the opening stalls resulting from adoptions, they fail to pay heed to good skill and temperament matches. Most fresh OTTBs do not belong with kids or novice riders, but I’ve seen the push to convince a bleeding heart to “save” a horse. This cure presents tremendous stress on the horse and unnecessary danger to the human.  It’s sad for both the adopter and the horse.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not railing all TB adoption agencies, but would like to see a training component implemented as part of the mix – for the humans purporting to be saviours too. Few people seem to recognize that merely homing a horse doesn’t necessarily improve his quality of life.

Trainers and breeders are equally culpable. With rescues in the mix, those who are playing the numbers game without regard for the horse can now dispose of an equine easily and with a clear conscience by “donating” him to a facility designed to place the horse in “a good home.” Sadly, despite the poster children, this doesn’t happen as often as most would like to claim.

To their credit, although not TB specific, some seem to get the importance of schooling horse and rider where rescues are concerned (or sought to be avoided). According to www.thehorse.com, The Grace Foundation of Northern California is offering $10,000 in prize money through the Rescue Me Trainer’s Challenge and The Honoring Equines for Life Project (HELP) to train rescue horses. The Back In the Saddle Project (BITS) in California partners with riding instructors to offer clinics with the aim of reducing the number of horses in rescues. In Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington State, Sound Equine Options works with rescues, vets and farriers to identify and encourage experienced horse owners to provide foster homes for horses with a voucher system as an incentive. It would be wonderful to see the Northeast follow the lead of these Western facilities in adopting programs that put training back into the TB racehorse transition process.

Careful which bandwagon you join

So what’s the outcry to save our racehorses doing to the horse today? Opinions certainly differ, but I’ll share mine. The lack of re-schooling at most rescues leaves the horse to languish during his stay. The perception created by the promotional messages and rallying cry of the uninitiated concerning the plight of the racehorse has led to a fire sale price expectation for all OTTBs. Consequently, racehorse owners and trainers who used to spend considerable time seeking an appropriate home for a good horse and/or a professional to transition him can no longer afford to do so. Trainers who used to have the expertise, patience and network to transition these horses for ideal career changes and associated homes have quit buying OTTTBs or gotten out of the business entirely. The costs and hassles associated with placing a horse in many rescues makes it prudent to directly place any horse that has a future elsewhere, so the ones that tend to end up in the rescues have major issues that are not addressed at the rescues and/or cannot be handled by the adopters.

Sure, there are stories of horses being saved and placed that are true successes for both horse and human. This is great news for all involved and may be worth it for the rest who suffer. Frankly, though, I wonder how much thought goes into the horse’s needs as more rescues surface, resulting in fewer OTTBs gaining the skills and finding homes for a new career that makes them happy.

Is there a better answer?

I’m stuck a bit on a solution, but I think a great step in the right direction would be for The Jockey Club to start tracking not only TB race statistics and bloodlines, but also TB sport horse achievements with the same fastidiousness they apply to horses in the racing industry. They already have the infrastructure to do this and a great staff at the ready. I know I’d certainly be willing to pay more to register foals if the benefit included better outreach and services to those interested in TBs for a career beyond racing. I imagine they’d find a new revenue stream with breeders and buyers of TB sport horses as well if papering such horses carried benefits for these industries. Most importantly, it would help the horses find a new life with people able, ready and eager to help them transition careers.

Former TB racehorses could also benefit from promotional activities akin to NTRA initiatives to expose the public to the versatility and athleticism of this breed. Of course, a good resource bank of advice and tips on selecting and transitioning the right steed for an intended new career should be a key component of this effort.

Apparently, there’s an organization that’s been formed to help support the TB sport horse, namely the North American Thoroughbred Society (http://www.hellohorse.com/). I know little about this group, as I just found them, but will spend some time watching what they are doing.

It’s sad that good intentions have been so bad for the retired TB racehorse. Broadcasting a message that these horses are worthless has paved the road to ruin for successful re-homing. It boggles the mind that most perpetuating this downward spiral don’t see what they’re doing to hurt the horse.  Until a new mantra – and a means to identify great prospects for casual and competitive riders alike – is developed to combat the sob stories fostered by a symbiotic relationship that helps all involved, except the horse, these former racehorses will continue to suffer.

Can a little voice go a long way?

Personally, I’ve always tried to find a way to be part of the solution vs. adding to the problem. Consequently, in the next few weeks, we’ll be posting a wonderful compilation by Monique Matson to the Horse Sense and Cents and Halcyon Acres websites on TB sport horse bloodlines. The content is subjective, but useful. This is the best resource I’ve found encompassing TB sport horse progeny experiences including career skills, temperament issues, country of origin, bloodline tips, etc. She painstakingly gathered comments from a thread she started on the Chronicle of the Horse website and added some great features to make this an easy list to scan and enjoy. Monique is a gem who all should thank for her kindness and generosity in putting it together and offering it to others. We’ll be looking to you to keep this resource updated and useful.

Are you willing to challenge the popular buzz that recently retired TB racehorses are garbage? Most of these horses already have the athleticism, heart, talent and a good foundation under them to start a new career with zeal. Support rescues that include a professional training component. Call out those that are encouraging those ill-equipped to handle the care and schooling challenges of OTTBs to adopt for pity sake. Together, we can save these horses by creating a happy new reality for both the humans and equines involved in the mix.

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