For the love of a Thoroughbred

I had my first horse riding lesson when I was 10 years old and got my first horse when I was 14. He was a beautiful, dapple grey Thoroughbred.. And yes he was an OTTB! Most people would probably call my family crazy for buying a 14 year old an OTTB. The horse world generally seems to categorise off the track Thoroughbreds as ‘hot’ and ‘sensitive’, sometimes ‘too much horse’ for the average equestrian. But that didn’t stop me from getting my next OTTB (Nigel) at 31 years old, a year and a half after getting back into riding (I stopped riding at 15 years old when my horse was injured). It turns out that owning an ex-racehorse can actually teach you a lot about life.

Naughty Baby (Aus) aka Nigel racing in Hong Kong 3 years ago.

Horses teach you about patience and perseverance, especially an incredibly intelligent Thoroughbred like Nigel who likes to keep his mind occupied. At times I’ve felt intimidated, in over my head and definitely had my patience tested! I would have to say that taking Nigel out to compete has been the most challenging – I don’t have the safety net of my coach or the familiarity of home. The very first outing I took Nigel to since he retired from racing really put me in my place! I didn’t change anything in lead up to our first outing. I also allowed myself to be mislead by Nigel’s extreme calmness while floating and being tied up close to around 30 unfamiliar horses.  And when you think about it, why wouldn’t he be calm? This horse had travelled to Hong Kong and raced 42 times, of course he is used to the hustle and bustle! What I should of been more prepared for, was the anticipation of racing once I jumped on to ride – The jigging, the whinnying, the scooting and the bolting attempts. It was hard to sign up for our first official dressage competition after this experience, but I knew Nigel had it in him to do better and so did I!

Horses teach you about responsibility. Leading up to our first competition and second outing since retiring from racing, I knew I needed to be more prepared and ready for the ‘racehorse’ to come out. I put Nigel onto a calming supplement 2 weeks out from the competition, I increased the level of work he was doing and I arranged for him to have a couple of professional schooling sessions from my coach. On competition day, we arrived super early, had a big lunge for warm up and I used lots of transitions, leg yields and shoulder in to try and keep his mind busy before our test. I couldn’t believe the changed horse I had! We even got a 5th place ribbon. But now that I look back, it is really clear to me that taking more responsibility to put in the extra time and effort makes a huge difference. I am also incredibly blessed to have an extremely willing and good natured horse (it makes a difference!).

Our first Dressage Competition in July 2018. 5th Place.

Horses teach you discipline. After our first competition, I kept saying “I want to get that first place ribbon”. My coach gave me some wise advice that the only person I should try to beat is myself. Since starting to retrain an ex-racehorse, I’ve found myself constantly setting little goals of things I want to achieve. Things like improving balance in transitions, removing tension and having a relaxed warm up, getting a nice canter strike off.. The list goes on. And even though I knew I just needed to beat my last test score at our next comp, I still really wanted the blue ribbon! So I did all the same preparation, I trained hard and we did our best to be focused. Not only did we achieve 75.75% on one test (9.5% improvement from the last time) we also scored 1st Place! Hard work and discipline definitely pays off.

Our second Dressage Competition in September 2018. 1st and 2nd Place.

Horses teach you appreciation. Compared to a show horse, a racehorse has been taught very little – But what they have been taught is very specific. Thoroughbreds are athletes. They are bred and trained to run. Speed comes easily to them, but speed is very different to the balanced, forward impulsion desired in other equestrian disciplines. Retraining an ex-racehorse has pushed my horsemanship to new levels. Not only do you have to completely train a horse from scratch into a new discipline, you have to erase everything they know about racing. It’s not easy and it has definitely helped me to appreciate what an amazing horse Nigel is and what a good, sane mind he has. How do you really know the mind of an OTTB until you start working with them? I definitely consider myself lucky and appreciate every second, minute and hour with my boy!

The heart of a Thoroughbred is unlike any other breed. They are intelligent with great sensitivity to their surroundings – This is often why people label them as ‘hot’ or ‘hard to handle’, but in the heart of a Thoroughbred is the desire to understand your expectations and to please you. They try so hard. This is why OTTB’s are my passion!

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