Dressage is an equestrian sport and art that involves a series of movements to create a balanced and ride-able horse. The first writings of dressage date back to Xenophon around 400 BC. Dressage today has evolved into a highly competitive sport with expensive, well bred horses competing for titles worldwide. When most people consider a suitable dressage mount, a warmblood or warmblood cross is the first choice. However, off track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) make willing, suitable dressage partners. We will look at some of the considerations necessary in retraining an OTTB for dressage sport.Every year, the racing industry has tens of thousands of off track Thoroughbreds looking for new homes when their racing careers were not lucrative. With the broad availability of off track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs), their inexpensive purchase price, and their proven athleticism, these off track Thoroughbreds can be retrained for second careers in many sports, including dressage. Retraining these Thoroughbreds takes time, patience, and understanding.Click here to find more about Richard Schibell.
Career Thoroughbreds have lived a relatively narrow existence on the racetrack. Their days are very repetitive and they do not have opportunity to spend much time just “being a horse”. When you first start working with an OTTB, it is important to give them several months of let-down time so they can reacquire some of their natural activities, such as grazing with pasture mates. Many Thoroughbreds have various drugs or hormones in their system, and it is important for their body to flush these out before serious training can begin.As with any green horse, building a solid foundation from the basics is critical. We do most of the initial work from the longe. This allows the trainer to develop herd dominance over the horse and allows the horse to begin learning his new balance without the weight of a rider. Thoroughbreds are bred to run, and generally this is their first inclination when faced with conflict or stress. For this reason, it is best to begin your longe work in an enclosed area such as a round pen. An enclosure will help prevent injury for the trainer or the horse.
Thoroughbreds on the track only have to possess a few physical skills: break from the gate fast, run fast and straight, come to a slow stop eventually. In contrast, the sport of dressage requires much more in the way of longitudinal and lateral flexibility, concentration, and obedience. Most Thoroughbreds on the track spend little time trotting, and this gait will need development in your dressage partner. The Thoroughbred’s naturally balanced canter is an asset, and the trot is the easiest gait to improve.Initial work under saddle should consist of the same activities any green horse would need. Because Thoroughbreds tend to be very sensitive, and at times, high strung, it is important to keep work sessions low key and without tension. Thoroughbreds learn rapidly and retain lessons well, but they stop thinking clearly when stressed. They begin looking for a flight path. It is important to switch off exercises when this tension builds. Be sure your aids are not conflicting, as their sensitivity will pick up on a rider’s inconsistencies. Each horse learns differently, and it is important to discover how your individual horse learns best. One OTTB we retrained could not figure out how to trot. We began trotting him out with another horse, and he readily picked it up. Thoroughbreds on the track often work with another horse, and this method proved useful for this horse. We have worked with others that did not like the distraction of another horse close to them. It is important to help the horse transition the work on the longe to work under saddle. Kicking a horse in the ribs is not the universal horse code for “go”. It is a learned response. Because OTTBs are not ever ridden with leg aids, they must learn how to react to the leg and seat. They do, however, have a sensitivity to weight aids, as that is the main aid a jockey uses to communicate with them.