Written by: Alison King

Mental and Physical Rehabbing for the OTTB

Thumbnail for Off-The-Track to Over Fences

Versatile. Athletic. Willing. Affordable. There are many reasons why off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) are such a popular choice for sport horses and, in particular, with eventers. Lindsey Partridge, owner of Partridge Horse Hill in Pontypool, Ontario, and winner at the 2015 and 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky, shares her advice for preparing OTTBs for successful careers as eventers.

“OTTBs are a great choice for eventing mounts. I love how athletic they are, how willing to try they always are,” Partridge says. “They have such an amazing work ethic; they are really keen to learn and want to be busy and work. They are such quick learners and progress so quickly. They’re agile and tend to be very quick and responsive, which is essential in eventing. It also helps that they have been exposed to a lot while working on the track. They haven’t lived in a bubble and are used to new situations and experiences.”

However, making the transition from track life to successful riding mount still takes time, patience and careful training. Partridge first makes sure they are physically as comfortable as possible, which means having their teeth done, deworming, starting them on probiotics, treating for ulcers if needed, and having the saddle fitter out.

“Some horses need a let-down period when they first come off the track to recover physically,” Partridge says. “That really depends on the individual horse, but for me it doesn’t make a big difference because I don’t ride them much at all in the beginning. The important work begins on the ground and it’s never too early to start that.”

Partridge has developed a four-step Harmony Horsemanship system, which she uses on every horse she trains, regardless of breed or discipline. (To learn more about Harmony Horsemanship check out the April 2017 issue of Horse Sport).

1. Respect and Safety

“This is generally an easy step for OTTBs, as they are usually quite respectful on the ground. They are well-handled and used to being groomed, tacked up, shod, etc.”

2. Calm Connection

“I spend a lot of time on this step. OTTBs are used to being go, go, go and haven’t been trained to focus on the human handling them. We need to teach them to be calm and relaxed, and to see their human as the one with the answer to all their questions. I call this becoming the centre of your horse’s universe. This step can be worked on even if they need some physical downtime, because the exercises are mostly at the walk with a little bit of trot if you want. Investing time in this stage at the beginning will pay off in the long run. It can take a couple of months to really establish a calm connection, and that’s okay.”

A mounted exercise Partridge recommends is the One Rein Challenge. “Using one rein only helps the horse become more emotionally stable, because they need to balance and regulate themselves and also because the rider isn’t ‘closing’ them with two hands.

“It is a simple concept in that the rider chooses one rein only to use. They can still hold both reins, but commit to only using one rein. This means if the horse gets too fast they can turn on a circle to slow the horse down, or if the horse drifts off the arena wall they can circle back to the rail, etc. After you have accomplished one side, try using the other rein.

“It’s also a great exercise for the rider, because often we want to help our horse and manage every stride, but by doing this exercise you are letting go and allowing the horse to become a better partner.

“It is best to do this in a space that doesn’t have a lot of jumps or objects set up, because your steering will be limited to one direction only so you’ll be using circles for both slowing down or redirecting your horse. Start with one-rein riding at the walk, and when you feel calm and connected at the walk, try the exercise at the trot. Remember, this isn’t about refinement, so it doesn’t matter how the horse is shaped on the circle other than that you are looking for your horse to be calm and connected. This can be a great warm-up exercise and you can do it for 10-20 minutes at different speeds and directions. The length of time isn’t so important as waiting for the horse to be relaxed about the idea of only having one rein.”

3. Create a ‘yes’ horse

“In this step we want to reward the horse for being willing to try new things. I don’t worry about their frame or if they are using their back properly or any of that stuff right now. We want them to try and get rewarded so they build confidence. That is especially important for an eventing horse. You need them to be brave and trust you so that when they see a jump they’ve never seen before cross-country or they’re in a new environment, they are comfortable saying ‘yes’ to whatever you ask of them.”

A simple groundwork exercise is Touch It: “Place different items around the arena. They can be barrels, jump standards, posts, a tarp, cones, etc. Simply ask the horse to approach the object and when they are ready they will reach out and touch it. When they do (whether with their foot or nose) you can reward them with positive reinforcement (treats, rubs – something your horse enjoys). Allow them to enjoy the reward and then move on to the next object.

“The exercise will help your horse learn to follow your focus, become curious, and become interested in your ideas. It can also help to create motivation in the lazy horse. If you have a horse that gets quick, you can do circles on the way to the next object.

“Be careful not to repeat the same object over and over, otherwise your horse might think they are doing something wrong. Once your horse has relaxed understanding, it is time to move on to another object or different exercise.” This exercise can eventually become part of your ridden warm-up at the walk, trot, and canter.

4. Refinement

“This is the stage where I start to focus on the smaller details. I introduce shoulder-in [see more details about teaching shoulder-in on page 34] and haunches-in from the ground, making sure they are always tracking up and using their bodies correctly. There’s no point in starting this step, however, until the other pieces are solidly in place.

“Until this stage I really don’t put any pressure on them. It creates anxiety in the horse if they are constantly being corrected. Once the horse trusts you and tries their heart out for you, then you can start refining.”

Fit for eventing

Partridge doesn’t have a hard timeline for when her OTTBs are ready to begin under-saddle work, but says it’s usually two to three months. Even then, she continues to focus mainly on groundwork. “I’m a bit of an oddball, because I really don’t ride them that often – once a week at the beginning and then a bit more once their backs get stronger. I like to mix up their training and focus on different things every day. Each ride is then so much better, softer, and more balanced, because the horse is learning from the ground without me on his back interfering.”

Once those four steps are firmly established, Partridge suggests eventing riders begin to focus on the horse’s fitness. Although OTTBs have a strenuous training regimen, it usually consists of very short workouts with lightweight riders, and they lack the back strength and cardio endurance required to safely complete all three phases in eventing.

“I typically start the fitness work four or five months into training. First, I want to be certain I have created a ‘yes’ horse who trusts me. This is important in every phase of eventing. You need that relaxation in the dressage ring, and that bravery for cross-country and stadium. Tension causes lower marks in dressage, and refusals, runouts and poor spots over fences – dangerous situations. You want a thinking horse who will find a safe way to get over the fence for you, even if the distance is awkward or it’s a type of jump he’s never seen.

“We have to focus on two areas of fitness: cardio and muscle strength. For cardio, the best thing is getting out of the ring. Long-distance trails and riding in hayfields is fun and mentally stimulating for them, while gradually increasing their fitness and endurance. Use hills and slopes whenever you can find them to add a muscle-building component. I often do groundwork on slopes as well, working on their posture exercises, shoulder-in, haunches-in, etc.”

Try this at home: The Question Pattern

To build muscle strength while also teaching the horse to wait and listen to you for direction, Partridge likes to do exercises over poles. These can be done both from the ground and under saddle, with the poles flat, raised on one end, or raised on both sides to increase the level of difficulty.

One of her favourites is the Question Pattern. She calls it that because there is a question for the horse at every set of poles: What am I going to do this time?

Set two to six poles in a row at trot distance (4-5 feet apart) in three locations around the ring: one set on each long side and one set across the diagonal. Start with two poles in each group initially and gradually work up to sets of six poles.

Go large around the ring at the trot with frequent changes of direction across the diagonal. Use the sections of the ring without poles to rebalance the horse and re-establish the rhythm that may have been disrupted while going over the poles.

Add a question for the horse at each set of poles:

  • Add a walk transition before and/or after the poles
  • Halt in the middle of the poles, then continue in trot
  • Halt in the middle of the poles, then back up (a great way to build hind-end strength)
  • Halt in the middle of the poles and move sideways over them to the rail or towards the centre of the ring
  • Reset the poles to a bounce stride distance (9 feet apart) and repeat the exercises in canter when the horse is ready.

Selecting an OTTB

Partridge advises the key to making the right choice when looking for an eventing partner is having a really good vet and deferring to their expertise as to what to look for and what to avoid, which includes:

What to look for:

  • Soundness
  • Good bone – measuring no less than 8.25cm

What to avoid:

  • Bowed tendons
  • Stifle injuries

What to ignore:

  • Minor injuries which have been properly rehabbed
  • Cribbing
  • Behaviour issues such as stall walking or weaving

Tips for success:

  • Set a realistic goal before starting and end the session as soon as the goal is achieved
  • Avoid “drilling” the horse. Never repeat the same question more than twice
  • Keep the conversation going and reward the horse for trying
  • Return to the calm connection work if the horse becomes anxious or frustrated
  • End on relaxation work