Why do people insist “that horse can’t do that job because they’re a [insert breed here]”?
In my opinion, the better statement would be “that horse can’t do that job WELL (or do that job YET), because of their confirmation, conditioning, or training.”
When one thinks of a therapy horse, they most likely picture a Quarter horse, a Morgan, a Fjord, a Halflinger, a Gypsy, a Paint, or an Appaloosa. These breeds all share a common trait, they’re gentle-mannered with a calm disposition. Most often, therapy horses are geldings. Their height typically ranges from 14.2 - 15.3 hh, as the stride of these horses moves the rider’s torso and pelvis in a similar fashion to the human walking gait. What’s the one horse breed not typically pictured as a therapy horse? A Thoroughbred.
In addition to rehabbing my 3 year old OTTB, I am also helping to work with a 16 year old OTTB who has spent the last 10 years post-racetrack frolicking in a giant field in upstate NY. In October, we pulled her out of retirement and began her therapy horse training.
From her first session, it was clear that she was a natural. Her walk is cautious, but slow. Her trot is one of the smoothest in the whole barn. But her favorite part? Whoa-ing for stretches and hugs! When asked to “3-2-1 Whoa”, she stands perfectly still, almost asleep as her rider reaches forwards or backwards. Like any other horse, she has her fair share of spooky moments (she is very sensitive to background noise and other horses in the arena at the same time), but we are actively working on desensitization. At 16.2 hh, she is taller than the average therapy horse, but she is wide.
For now, the name of the game is patience and persistence. Just because she’s a Thoroughbred doesn’t mean she can’t learn how to be a great therapy horse. But because of the stigma surrounding her breed, it will just take a little longer for others to warm up to the idea…
Last night, I shared my 2022 promise to my horse. In return, I received numerous messages from others who also made a 2022 promise to their horses. Below is just a sampling of the many wonderful responses…
“I promise to be more present when in the presence of my horse”.
“I promise we’ll go out on a proper trail ride — time for some fun!”
“I promise to all three of my beauties: to listen, to treat them with respect, love and kindness, and to take more riding lessons so I can be the best rider possible for them”.
“I promise to spend more time with, to provide for, and to keep my horse safe”.
“I promise to have even more fun in 2022! I bought my mare as my Eventing prospect but she’s so chill that we’re changing things up and training in Western Dressage and Working Equitation since we can compete in those in her preferred bosal”.
“I promise to make sure that I always keep my horse’s happiness a priority and to evolve my training methods for the best”.
“I promise to get back into riding by finding a barn that is affordable and has an arena”.
“I promise to love my horses unconditionally”.
“I promise no more kill pens to my 2 rescue mares who humans have been horrific to in the past, only retirement! And to my gelding, no more going from owner to owner!”
Thank you all for sharing! I wish you and your horses the best of luck in your individual journeys.
And it’s one of my biggest weaknesses. I thrive on daily lists and often set short and long term goals. Realistically, every single list item does not get crossed out at the end of each day. Goals evolve as life circumstances change.
On Christmas Eve, the horse I was riding tripped and I slid forward, falling hard onto my right shoulder. After many x-rays and hours of waiting at the ER, it was determined that I had a hairline fracture to my right scapula (shoulder blade), which makes up less than 1% of fracture cases each year. It is almost impossible to fracture this area, as the bone is surrounded by a dense layer of muscles. So, I essentially landed on just the right spot (Merry Christmas to me!) Thankfully, no additional trauma occurred, minus minimal bruising to my back and ribs that has since healed.
Every good trainer will insist you are not a “real equestrian” until you have taken a tumble. I’m fairly certain I was bucked off a pony or two as a kid. But as an adult, I hadn’t experienced a “real” fall until last week. What hurt more than the physical pain though was my confidence, something that had been growing stronger, slowly, each passing day.
I am devastated that I can not ride, lunge, blanket, halter, or lead a horse for the next 8 weeks. “1 Step Forward, 5 Steps Backwards” feels like my own personal never-ending mantra.
However, the biggest lesson that owning a green OTTB has taught me to date is that everything happens for a reason; we do not control our own fate. My mare did not choose to live in a barn that did not offer proper shelter and depleted her of all necessary dietary nutrients. Just as I did not choose to fall and shift the timeline of my goals.
There were a variety of factors that contributed to this accident, but I truly believe that this was the Universe’s way of telling me to slow down. I have been far too focused on getting my mare ready to be ridden again. Horses are not bred to be machines whose only job is to cart us humans around. They are our soul-animals, our closest companions on the good days and the bad days.
I have never been one to make New Year’s Resolutions. Instead, I am making a 2022 promise to my horse.
Dear Heart Horse,
Next year, I promise to learn to embrace every aspect of our partnership, including the days when only a 5 minute stall visit is feasible. While I am itching to ride you, I know that when the time is right, we will both be ready.
Thank you so much to all who are following my journey of H.O.P.E.
In honor of #NationalHorseDay, I am sharing (in no particular order), my favorite equine businesses, all of whom inspired me to launch Horses Offering People Education.
The HERD Institute, dedicated to creating a diverse, equal, and inclusive environment for those seeking a career in Equine-Facilitated Learning (EFL) or Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP). I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of The HERD!
Horse & Therapy Connections, the most knowledgeable Occupational Therapist utilizing Hippotherapy as a treatment strategy in a patient’s overall plan of care that I know. Grateful for our shared love of all things rainbow-colored and endless joy we’ve spread to others alongside the Wu Zoo equines and dogs.
Equi Evolution, the EFL program that inspired me to begin my own EFL certification journey after an immersive shadowing experience last year. Sam and her equine co-facilitators are the epitome of what I dream H.O.P.E. will one day be.
Turner Hill Equestrian LLC, run by a reputable New England OTTB rehab trainer who always puts her 2 and 4-legged client’s needs before her own. Family-friendly, supportive environment that any equestrian would be lucky to call their home-away-from-home.
Reins for Rescues, the only place I will ever buy reins and lead ropes from, as 100% of proceeds support their family-operated equine rescue in Pennsylvania. Their customer service is top-notch and I have never had any issues with my orders.
Freedom Rider Tack Shop, my go-to small business for any adaptive riding tack and arena aids such as cones, balls, rings, etc. (Stay tuned for a NEW product coming soon that I had some input on!)
Teaching Aids for Adaptive Riding Instructors, creator of a voluminous library of beautiful educational visual aids for horseback riding instructors of any discipline. If what you’re looking for doesn’t currently exist, artist Chrissy can design it specifically for you!
"Meet DeeDees Sweet Dream aka ‘Cupcake’. This 5 year old OTTB ran a 3rd and a 4th at Prairie Meadows Casino, Racetrack & Hotel (PRM). Cupcake is a super sweet, athletic mare with lots of potential. She is currently in her 8th week of training in her new job as a dressage mount. Here she is all decked out for the holidays!”
~Simat W. (Iowa)
”Barn Name = Chase, Jockey Club Name = Sir Whinesalot (very fitting because he squeals when annoyed).
Chase is 22 (turns 23 in February) and he lives in Pembroke, MA. He had 65 starts, raced until he was 7, had a bunch of chips taken out of his knees, then was retrained as a hunter. Did that for a few years then basically retired until he was 16, which is when I got him.
Since I've had him, Chase has done a lot of hunter paces and trail rides, fox hunted, shown in the hunters and jumpers, started team sorting and penning 2 years ago, started showing in dressage this year, and last winter we did a mounted shooting clinic just to say I did it.
I love OTTBs, people need to know they can do anything and everything!”
~Kate C. (Massachusetts)
"Cinnabar came into my life in 2012 when I started spending time at the New Mexico Horse Rescue at Walkin N Circles Ranch - WNCR. She was living there, looking for a forever home. I was there searching for horses to help me start my therapeutic riding business. I was not looking for a tall, beautiful OTTB. I was looking for a calm, quiet Quarter Horse or sweet Paint, who would be working with kids and adults with disabilities.
One day I went into the paddock at the rescue to halter a different horse, but Cinnabar was having none of that. She followed me around the paddock and then she followed me down the fence line anytime I walked by. She was stunning; long legs, gorgeous bay coat and the softest eye, pleading with me to take her home. Of course, I had to say yes! That was nine years ago.
Cinnabar had multiple challenges that we needed to conquer. Like ulcers, back pain, thin soles, kissing spine, and arthritis. So, we took our time, getting her chiropractic adjustments, ulcer meds, and doing workouts to help build her topline. It has not been an easy road, but she was well worth it!
Over the years, Cinnabar has helped many of my clients at Enchanted Equine Adventures, LLC overcome anxiety and learn about the life of a racehorse after the track. She loves kids and to have her butt scratched! Everyone who meets her, falls in love with her. Never judge a book by its cover, because they might just surprise you!”
~Kendra L. (New Mexico)
”Mystical Vision aka ‘Leo’ (13 years old) competed in the 2018 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover in Competitive Trail and Hunters. Leo has a fantastic brain, but unfortunately we didn't have a ton of time to prepare due to my own life schedule. We went and competed anyway just for the fun of it! I don't show my horses, so for me it was a once in a lifetime thing.
Leo's new job (hopefully next year) will be endurance and competitive trail rides. He has completed one 15 mile CDR and came in first place and also received the best condition award. He's finished three hunter paces all in second place and a handful of judged obstacle trail rides.
Unfortunately, he's been sitting the past couple of years again due to my life schedule, but I have plans to get him out to a couple rides next year”.
~Bry D. (Pennsylvania)
”Quillotano (barn name Boo), is a 14 year old OTTB. He raced for 6 years and was a stud before being gelded and retired. I purchased him from a family friend earlier this year. He has arthritis in his rear hocks and his right rear fetlock. He got cortisone injections in his hocks, which helped a lot. We are currently working towards being trail riding partners.
I volunteer at a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that helps those with emotional and developmental challenges called the The R I D E Foundation- Recovery In Deserving Equine. The founder/CEO restarted Boo (and restarted me, if we’re being honest). Boo is now sometimes used in our at risk youth programs, as he is very skittish and anxious at times (hence the name Boo). He teaches the kids how to create a strong partnership and how to work in tandem to overcome emotional issues, both for him and the participants”.
~Cari S. (California)
Unlike other breeds, Thoroughbreds do not often get the credit that is truly deserved. Most horses only have one lifetime career, let alone two or three. Because they are raced and subsequently retired at such a young age, an OTTB’s first career ends sooner than most other horses’ careers even begin.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed sharing the lessons learned from re-training my OTTB for her second career. I've also received quite a few messages from fellow OTTB owners who shared their story after following my journey. I now realize that our story is not the only one that justifies itself to be told. This week, I decided to change it up by highlighting the various second careers that OTTBs around the country hold. So, for the next seven days, Horses Offering People Education will feature a different Story of H.O.P.E. Here is today’s…
#1: “Holy Boly aka ‘Dexter’ is a 5 year old OTTB currently living in New York. We are planning on attending the 2022 Retired Racehorse Project TB Makeover for trail and freestyle. I’ve slowly been working on introducing him to mounted archery. It’s taken me years to find the perfect equine that I’m confident will let me shoot things off them.
Dexter retired with some chips but he has one of the best brains I’ve worked with. His first post-track ride was a month later bareback in his pasture. This dude is truly one of a kind and I’m most proud of him for doing the only job I will ever require him to do forever — be the best friend to my son!”
~Meagan H. (New York)
The horse ownership journey is similar to being part of a sports team.
There’s the main trainer, or head coach, in charge of designing daily workouts and keeping goals in check.
There’s the vet, or athletic trainer, in charge of managing any medical emergencies and keeping all medical records up to date.
There’s the farrier, or equipment personnel, in charge of maintaining proper hoof care to ensure workouts can be performed.
There’s the supporters, or spectators, various friends and family who are invested in every single aspect of the journey.
And finally, there’s the owner, or main investor, who dedicates 150% of their energy into growing a partnership with a special four-legged friend.
In short, the horse ownership journey is one that can not be done alone. It quite literally takes a village. Over the past few months, we’ve suffered some pretty big losses, which led to even bigger wins.
This Thanksgiving, Horses Offering People Education is thankful for all of those on our journey. From our trainer to our vet, to our farrier to our barn family, to our weekly blog readers, THANK YOU!!
I am a kinesthetic learner. Due to my lifelong visual and recent auditory impairments, hands-on learning has always been more practical. I am also fiercely stubborn and independent. However, this week I learned an important lesson about knowing when to back off and let your trainer take over for the day.
In full disclosure, I got kicked in the hand by my mare on Wednesday when I began to lunge her. Despite not feeling it, my trainer immediately made me pull her up and took over. Recently, she had been learning a couple of bad habits, including kicking out towards the lunger, not in a vicious way, but rather, in an excited, playful way.
While some might get angry at this behavior change, I was actually proud of my horse, since she was feeling so much better than her previously emaciated condition. In 2 months, we were able to make significant improvements to her diet, bringing her up to a healthier weight and gaining back lost muscle tone. Her “kicking out” was a way to express her glee when exercising, her second favorite activity after eating. Horses cannot speak so this action was her using her “voice”. However, it was still very naughty behavior that could not continue.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m fiercely stubborn and independent, so it was difficult to sit back and watch my trainer take over for the day. At first, I was frustrated that I could not handle my own horse and be able to correct bad behaviors on my own. Yet, that is precisely why I am working with a trainer who specializes in OTTB rehabs. I don’t know everything. My trainer does not know everything. We both have strengths and weaknesses, and can learn from each other. I know far more about the field of Equine Assisted Services through my years of experience as a volunteer in various adaptive riding lessons and OT/PT sessions incorporating hippotherapy as a treatment strategy whereas my trainer knows much more about equine first aid and how to properly fix naughty behaviors through her many years in the equine training industry.
As horse owners, we have to admit what we don’t know and outsource help in order to avoid further injury. If I had continued to work with my mare post-kick, she would have learned that this naughty behavior was okay and continued to do it. There were a lot of factors that contributed to this incident, but the biggest one was my lack of focus. I let my mind wander for 2 seconds and in turn, got kicked. While it was thankfully only a superficial kick and I bounced back right away, we are dealing with a 1100lb live animal who could have done so much more damage, not intentionally, but because she is still a baby and does not know any better.
So while I was extremely frustrated and felt powerless in the moment, I had to take a step back and hand the reins over to a professional who not only corrected bad behavior, but gave me tips to avoid it from happening again. (Of course, my mare was a perfect angel for our lunge lesson the following day). This incident also gave me insight that I will not always be in control every single training session. In fact, some sessions I may just sit back and watch my trainer work her magic on my unicorn.
Last weekend, I was feeling a little under the weather. With symptoms ranging from low-grade fever to dizziness to chills to sore throat to loss of taste and smell, I spent much of Saturday - Monday recuperating in my bed. Despite these symptoms, my COVID test came back negative — thankfully, it was only a nasty cold. Most likely brought on by stress and mental over-exhaustion. My body finally caught up to the toil I had been taking on it for 7 weeks.
For the first time since moving to our new barn (other than when we were out of town for a few days about a month ago), I did not go to the barn for 3 days in a row. And I felt extremely guilty. Given our prior boarding situation, I have been going to the barn every day, often twice a day for hours at a time. Though we are full board, it took me a long time to learn to trust again. To understand that not all equine professionals have ulterior motives. To (briefly) let go of my Type-A personality and try to accept that everything cannot always be perfect. To prioritize the important issues, and attempt not to worry about the not-so-important ones (the last two are still a work in progress!).
The rational, logical part of my brain knows that my horse will not even notice if I don’t come by for a day or two, since she is still getting fed, turnout, and exercised by my parents or trainer. But the irrational, emotional part of my brain worries that she is sad and will forget all about the connection we have grown little by little with each passing day. Deep down, I know that we are in a much better place now. And I know that my mare knows this too.
I also know that I am not the only horse owner who feels guilty when not at the barn. Any pet owner feels a sense of remorse when they go on vacation and cannot take their dog, cat, fish, bird, hamster, etc. with them. So what do we do when we see our beloved pets again after a few days of not seeing them? Give them some extra love to make up for lost time of course!
Despite being saddled at 18 months and racing for 1 year, my mare has NOT been ridden since her retirement from the track. As stated in a previous post, she is in the midst of a physical and emotional rehab journey. But even once she is a proper healthy weight and has a clear mind, I am not quite ready to ride her yet.
I do not have much experience riding thoroughbreds, let alone one that is freshly off the track. Though I began taking riding lessons at an early age at a friend’s backyard barn, I had to stop soon after due to health issues. When I picked up riding a few years later, I spent so much time bouncing from stable to stable in pursuit of the “perfect” instructor and lesson program that I didn’t retain many riding skills in each move.
However, my mare is still getting exercise through lunging. A foreign concept to both of us, we picked up this new skill pretty quickly. Below is a peek into a recent lunging session.
A few things to note: the rainbow colored cones act as both a physical boundary as well as a visual marker for both horse and owner. The poles are placed strategically to allow my mare to learn to engage her hindquarters, as racehorses tend to favor the front 2 hooves. It’s difficult to distinguish in this photo; however, the lunge line contains sections of neon colored duct tape to act as a visual aid for me to know where to place my fingers. The line itself is lightweight, so it rests comfortably in my hands. To prepare her body again for eventual riding, my mare is tacked up in a schooling saddle and a bridle with a 5 ¼” d-ring snaffle bit.
Please note that while these tack and equipment adaptations work for us, they may not work for others. As I have stated previously, you have to adapt to you and your horse’s INDIVIDUAL needs.
What are some of your favorite tack and/or equipment hacks?
Horses, like all living creatures, require 3 basic needs for survival: food, shelter, water. Unfortunately, not all people in the equine industry understand this concept.
After retiring from the racetrack in the Spring, my mare was boarded at a local “rescue” barn for 2 1/2 months. During that time, she lost a significant amount of weight, muscle, and most importantly, her personality.
On the racing circuit, track horses spend up to 23 hours per day in a stall. Post-track, my mare lived outside 24/7 with no access to shelter even during storms, literally fighting for access to hay and water among 6 geldings, most of whom were mustangs. Her diet contained no grain or supplements. In short, we were living every horse owner’s worst nightmare.
As a result, we moved to a new barn and began the long rehabilitation process. After 6 weeks, we are just now starting to see significant positive changes in weight, muscle tone, coat color/thickness, and most importantly, personality.
As horse owners, we have to accept the harsh reality that we may not always live out our expectations. We have to adapt to our horse’s individual needs, despite whether it is something that we as owners “want”. This can include diet regime, turnout schedule, and shod vs. barefoot, among other things.
As for rehab? This isn’t just a process we deal with post-injury. This can occur after a traumatic event, an emotional journey in addition to physical (for both horse and human owner). Almost every equestrian I know has a sour apple boarding or former trainer story. “Perfect” barns don’t exist. And rehab is a frustratingly long process. But, you have to celebrate the small victories along the way, such as a recent positive all-day turnout experience in a group herd setting.
If someone had told me a year ago that my first horse would be a 3 year old OTTB mare, I would have laughed and said “no way!”
Young, fresh off the race track, AND a female?!?! These are all negative stereotypes in the horse industry. I can count on two hands and two feet the number of local stables that refused to board my mare due to one or more of these three factors.
In reality, this mare is a sweetheart. (Ask anyone at our boarding barn!) Does she have idiosyncrasies? Absolutely. All horses do. Some of these include the desire to be on half day turnout (she starts chewing the fence when she wants in). Her skin is extra sensitive and sore in many spots, so she can be a bit nippy when being blanketed or groomed. Due to recent past trauma, she will not fall asleep for more than ten minutes at a time, completely disoriented when she wakes herself up.
Despite this, I don’t love her any less. I do not hold her idiosyncrasies against her because I have my own. All horse people do (though most will not admit it!). Some of mine include a visual impairment, thus, I adapt training and riding equipment in a more colorful manner to suit my individual needs. Anxiety, a decade-old condition that I deal with EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I didn’t follow the typical post high school graduation route of college. Instead, I am currently enrolled at The HERD Institute working towards my Level 1 Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) practitioner status.
However, my mare does not love me any less. She does not hold these idiosyncrasies against me. We are on the magical journey of learning TOGETHER. We are both young and inexperienced. Are there days that I wish I had a more unique equine, such as a fjord or a gypsy? Not anymore. As a horse industry, we need to STOP holding long withstanding negative stereotypes around certain breeds, genders, ages, etc.
Despite typical equestrian social media posts, horses and their human owners are NOT perfect. We don’t spend all day galloping bareback in a field of grass. 110% of our energy is put into managing our horses’ diet, exercise routine, physical health and emotional well-being. And when we are not at the barn with them? We constantly think of them and what they are doing at that specific moment.
This week, I challenge you to think about some of your horse(s)’ OR your own idiosyncrasies. How can you utilize these in your training to become a better equestrian?