Monday, September 9, 2013

Breed Du Jour?

There has been a lot of talk about the increasing popularity of the Off the Track Thoroughbred (OTTB).  It seems that there are now numerous programs for rehoming and retraining ex-racehorses, where 10 years ago they did not exist, or simply were not known.  There is SO much talk now that some folks are going to far as to call the OTTB the "breed du jour" - meaning, they're the popular or fashionable item in the horse world right now.  I can't say I disagree.

For your reading pleasure, a beautifully written and spot on article by the founder of Three Plain Bays Farm:
OTTB's: A Cautionary Tale on the Breed Du Jour

I have spent the last four years or so having very little to do with horses, I admit.  Two years were spent completely removed from the horse world, and the last two I spent riding casually, paying only the occasional bit of attention to recent trends.  When I got back into horse ownership this summer, I realized exactly how much more popular the OTTB had become, and I was frankly pretty surprised.  The power of the internet and social media has been a catalyst for spreading the good word about the Thoroughbred horse (whether off the track or not) and what they have to offer.  For me, this was wonderful to see!  I had long loved the Thoroughbred, and always thought it was a bit sad that the galloping Thoroughbred hunters of the 1960's and 70's were gone, and in the 1990's the imported European warmbloods (WB) took over as the fashionable horse in the show rings.  Don't get me wrong - I LOVE a good WB, and have enjoyed many WB horses over the years of various breeding.  However, the Thoroughbred seemed to be a second class citizen after awhile; its good traits outshone by the brilliance of the fancy WBs, and the bad stereotypes taking precedence ("crazy," "hot," "flaky," etc).

I had my heart set on an OTTB for the last year or so, after a couple of TB/WB cross horses fell through for potential purchase.  I decided that taking one off the track was what I needed right now.  I needed something inexpensive, with no expectations.  Whatever the horse turned into (hunter, jumper, eventer, field hunter, etc) we would do.  I just needed a horse with a great personality, one that I could have fun with, and not take things too seriously.  I didn't need to spend a ton of money on a big, fancy horse when I didn't even know what discipline I wanted to call home.  And because of my old mare and several other great TBs I knew, I felt like taking in an OTTB and giving it a second career was truly the right thing for me at this time in my life.  It made me feel good.

So my tale was one that was decided on my own, without the increasing pressure and popularity of the OTTB movement.  I suppose I'm explaining that so I don't seem like one caught up in the movement, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Again, the TB is a fantastic horse!  Each horse is an individual, and each individual is different, but the TB breed in general has so much to offer, that has been sadly overlooked in the last decade or two.  So YES, I am very excited that the OTTB, and Thoroughbreds in general, are enjoying a little bit of the spotlight these days.  I am glad for the programs like CANTER, Re-Run, and all the other great OTTB placement programs.  I am grateful for the Retired Racehorse Training Project (RRTP), Thoroughbred breed shows, and other public expos of the TB breed and retraining of the ex-racehorse.  I am glad that the educational material is starting to get out there.  However, popularity always has a price.

The critics of the OTTB movement state that the OTTB is being marketed too broadly.  Examples of OTTBs with small children are thought to be dangerous and misleading (giving the layman the idea that they can buy a horse straight off the track for their young rider...generally always a BAD idea).  There was a rather long discussion on the COTH forums regarding this issue and whether or not the OTTB movement was getting out of hand.  Personally, I feel that the marketing and presentation of the Thoroughbred as a breed needs to be to all aspects of the horse world.  I truly believe there is a Thoroughbred horse out there for just about every type of rider.  However, the folks behind these OTTB placement programs, retraining programs, indeed all OTTB owners and advocates, need to reinforce that not everyone can handle an OTTB.  No, little Susie who has been riding for two whole months but just loves horses so much should not get a 4 year old straight off the track because his $750 price tag was in Daddy's budget.

Or maybe that low level dressage (or hunter, or event) rider doesn't need that brilliant and extremely affordable OTTB mare.  Perhaps the right TB for that particular rider is the one that has been off the track for several years, and has plenty of mileage already in that chosen discipline.  Again, I believe there's a TB out there for everyone, but not every rider can take one off the track.  I thought the RRTP does a good job of hosting retraining challenges with riders of various experience levels (mostly pros, but several seasoned amateurs, even some talented teenagers), while also explaining the need for access to a knowledgeable, capable trainer for those that don't have all the experience themselves.  Previous demonstrations such as the Dressage for Ex-Racehorses and Jumping for Ex-Racehorses demos by Steuart Pittman at the PA Horse Expo had TBs from various levels of experience (directly off the track to several years in their competitive disciplines), as well as various levels of riders (professionals and amateurs).  These demos and the levels of horses/riders within them illustrate the journey of the ex-racehorse in its new career, and help show how much work and training can be involved.  The RRTP, as well as many of the OTTB placement programs, offer educational resources for prospective owners to review prior to getting a Thoroughbred.  However, just because you put the info out there, doesn't mean people will read it.

There will always be people that see a demo like one of the ones above, and rush out to the local track two weeks later, whether they have the training resources or not.  There will always be people that buy a completely unsuitable horse because it's "pretty," or "sweet," or perhaps just the fashionable breed (ie. Gypsy Vanners or Friesians).  There always have been and always will be people who make poor decisions when purchasing a horse (seriously, does that 5'1" little old lady REALLY need that 17.3h 5 year old brilliant moving Hanoverian when she can't sit his trot or handle his canter?).  What the OTTB advocates need to be careful is which message they put out.  Yes, there might be a TB out there for every type of rider, but we need to ensure that folks know how to find those older, more experienced TB horses that have so much to offer.  They, too, can benefit from the current popularity of the OTTB movement.  OTTB advocates need to continue to be open and honest about the type of training and resources are required by taking a horse off the track, and be realistic about expectations

There was an interesting comment on that COTH forum thread that someone made, in response to a somewhat elitist attitude of some OTTB owners and the apparent disdain they had for such widespread marketing of the OTTB.  The comment basically said that it seemed that some OTTB owners were upset that their fashionable little club was going to expand.  To me, I think that is a great thing.  I think Thoroughbreds should be just as celebrated as any other breed out there.  There is no OTTB club.  It should just be horse owners enjoying their well matched, very capable and fun equine partners, and reveling in the joy that is horsemanship with one of the greatest breeds in the world.  Everyone should get to experience the heart of a Thoroughbred at one point in their lives.

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