Some may argue when the "restart" process really begins. If you have worked with OTTBs before, or are new to OTTB care but have done some research, you will probably have heard of "let down" time. While this phrase, and process, is not unique to OTTBs, it is certainly a common consideration among most owners/trainers. Track life is extremely stressful for horses. In addition, they have been bred, trained and worked to do only one thing their entire life thus far, run. Presumably, at their new home their life will consist of a much different daily routine and environment. Imagine doing nothing but one thing for years and then suddenly that one thing comes to an end, either because you reach your goal or you can no longer continue. Suddenly you find yourself immersed in a whole new life, one that is completely foreign to you because you have only lived one way for so long. You would need some transition time, or let down time, in order to become comfortable and familiar with normal life again. Next, imagine that one thing you spent years doing was something highly intense, that required a lot of energy and a lot of focus, like training for a marathon or climbing a mountain. Your body soon becomes used to and adapted to the amount of energy required and therefore the amount of fuel required to sustain that energy level. You start to release major amounts of endorphins and cortisol in order for your body to keep up with the demands you have placed on it, and consume high amounts of calories to sustain your energy level. You are living on a natural high, even though you may not feel like that or see it that way. You have outlets daily, or at least regularly to release these hormones and therefore you are able to continue functioning. Now imagine being in that same state of mind with that level of energy and intensity and having no outlet to release it any longer, either locked in a room or confined to a bed, and how you would begin to feel after a few days or weeks. You would be ready to explode! Welcome to the life and mind of an OTTB! They come off the track, often straight after a race, still on that same "high" you would experience, with a body full of endorphins and cortisol and built up energy from not releasing it, add to it the stress they have been under since being a race horse and you need no further explanation for the reason for "let down" time. This is where I believe the restart process begins, though some may disagree that this is part of rehab (which it is) but it serves a bigger purpose in preparing your OTTB for their new life and next career.
While let down time in of itself is probably universally accepted as necessary by most OTTB owners/trainers, the definition and extent of let down time varies widely among each person. Some people will tell you that an OTTB needs a least a full year off to "just be a horse" in order to fully recover from track life. Others will say a few days is all that is needed to adjust to their new life. I wouldn't say I agree with either, but I don't disagree. I feel like let down time is unique and personal to each situation, each OTTB and each new circumstance. I don't think you can put into a box the specific amount of time required for all OTTBs to be both mentally and physically ready to move on. Personally, in my experience, all 3 of my OTTBs transition to off track life have been very different. I think what let down time should be considered, more than just put out to pasture, is a time to start creating that bond between you and your horse that is bound to determine the future of all things to come. During let down time, while you begin the early stages of your partnership, you will begin to observe your horses behavior and personality and through this you can determine what level of "let down" your unique horse needs. As I said, some may need a year, while others seem to transition with little to no time off just fine, but this is only determined by watching and listening to your horse in those early days and weeks after they arrive home. Clearly, any known history of injury or recent injury will change drastically how you handle let down time, again because you have to take the horse into consideration. Regardless of the circumstances, and regardless of the duration, let down time can be a great opportunity to introduce ground work and partnership building skills as the early stages of your restart process.
Let down time is often more than just letting a horse be alone in field, especially if you have plans for a new career for you and your partner. Here are some great things to consider incorporating into your let down time:
This is where a horse can be a horse. It may be that your OTTB has never had the opportunity to graze in field, at least not usually for any great length of time. Being aware of this is important because you do not want to introduce your horse to rich grass for long periods of time if they are not used to it. Doing so can cause problems, including serious ones like founder. It will be good to speak with your vet about what to do if you have mature pasture where your horse will be living. Some things to consider are limiting daily turn out to only a short amount of time at first and gradually increasing. Another option is to use a grazing muzzle to help reduce the amount of grass your horse consumes.
Up until now grooming has been treated as work, a step in the process in preparing to run. It is highly unlikely that your horses experience with grooming until now has been just for fun, or more importantly just for touch. Grooming is an opportunity to give back to your horse everything they give to you and as an owner of an OTTB you probably have the opportunity to do this for them for the first time in their life! Spend time with just you and your horse, rubbing all over their body, feeling them between your fingers, learning every inch of them and allowing them to learn the feel of your hands on their body. It may not be met with appreciation or even respect at first, after all they may not have had a good experience with grooming in the past, but this is where you can shine by showing them positive touch and respecting their boundaries. It is important to avoid the tendency to rush things or expect them to respond the way other horses may have. Also, it may be a process of trial and error to find grooming tools that your horse likes.
This is just what it sounds like, walking your horse by hand. It can be in the pasture/arena or out on the trails, but the purpose is to just spend time walking, responding to each other, building trust in each other. It may not go perfectly at first, but the more you do it the more comfortable it will become for both of you. Hand walking also provides an opportunity to practice basic ground work which will help develop a strong relationship.
While hand walking is meant to be a leisurely activity that incorporates ground work basics, actual time devoted to ground work is essential to building a trusting relationship with your equine partner and to establishing the foundation for training done under saddle (or bareback if that is your preference). Learning how to communicate with each other takes time and regular ground work helps develop these communication skills and introduce basic leadership.
OTTBs frequently retire with bodies that have been overworked and under-recovered which has left their body broken down, hence the reason for let down in the first place. While everything you do during let down plays a vital role in your OTTBs recovery, none more so than actual body work including things like massage therapy. While not a requirement to your horses future success, massage therapy can certainly help speed up recovery time off the track, identify areas of major body soreness that might effect training and provide your horse with an opportunity to experience positive healing touch. Your horse may not respond initially or may not seem to enjoy it, but unless they have other underlying causes of pain, they will eventually realize how good it feels, especially once the pain starts to subside and they can enjoy the soft manipulation of their muscles.
Another additional powerful tool to utilize during let down time is chiropractor and/or acupuncture treatments, especially when coupled with a massage therapy program. These modalities also help identify and treat various causes of body soreness issues, including things like misalignment, arthritis, scar tissue and many other underlying causes of ongoing pain in our horses. What good would your next phase of restart be if the horse is suffering from pain due to untreated issues so it may be wise to take the time and investment to have your horse evaluated by one of these practitioners.
Going back to that scenario of only knowing one way of life for many years, along with that comes only knowing one way to move for many years and for an OTTB that is RUN, more specifically RUN TO THE LEFT! They don't receive much additional training on basics of horsemanship or physical ability, all that matters is their little legs can move forward as quick as possible. Little time is devoted to learning simple skills like leg aides, yielding to pressure, bending or collecting. These are not highly sought after skills of a race horse whose only objective is to run as fast as they can around a circle in one direction. This means that when restarting an OTTB you may find yourself needing to begin with basics, even if they don't appear "green" under saddle, it will become more evident as you ask them to do things. Now, some will respond rather naturally, and quickly be able to learn new concepts, after all these incredible horses are not in high demand for being stupid, they are extremely intelligent and desire to please us. But if you find yourself struggling with a horse who seems to not speak the language you do remember to go back to their level and start slowly introducing new concepts, and with time and patience, soon you will start to see your horse transform into everything you had imagined.
When it comes to choosing a path for your restart approach, your previous riding experience may play a role in your training choice, or you may choose to do something entirely different this time, either way there are many options available to choose from when it comes to training methods. We will discuss a few here below, but these are by no means intended to represent the entire array of horse training options and in no way indicate that they are superior to any other.
*Check back soon for more details