Choosing An OTTB

I’ve mentioned multiple times that what a horse does with its body to be fast is very different than what the horse does to collect under a rider. That means that there are significant physical differences between the two, but there are also several, very important similarities such as good hip length, well-placed LS joint, big, clean joints and straight legs.

The differences mean that not all racing bred Thoroughbreds are well-suited to carrying riders in secondary disciplines. Indeed, I’ll go on record as saying the vast majority are not well-suited, particularly for the average owner. Yet the breed is plentiful and certainly there have been many who’ve gone on to be successful in a second career. This article will discuss the major (different) traits that make (or break) an easy transition from racehorse to riding mount.

In no particular order:

Levelness Of Build – A large percentage of racing bred TB’s are downhill built. Already this is a disadvantage in riding disciplines putting more weight on the forehand and making engagement more difficult in direct relation; the more downhill, the more of a disadvantage. Remember to look at the spine, not at the withers and croup. (See blog article:  The Up And Down Of It – Levelness Of Build) A horse doesn’t have to be downhill built to be successful on the racetrack, so look for one that is close to level built.

Neck Set – There is also a large percentage of racing bred TB’s that have low set or ewe necks. Again, this is not a requirement for a racehorse but neither is it detrimental to producing speed so it’s been allowed to perpetuate in the breed. It is, however, a fault in a riding horse making engagement significantly more difficult. Necks set on low posturally (it’s a word now) want to drop at the base (lower cervical curve deepens), this in turn lifts the head, drops the withers, hollows the back and pushes the hocks into a trailing position. (See blog article: What Is The Optimal Neck Position?)

Hind Limb Angulation – A racehorse will carry a straighter (relative) hind leg, one with less angulation. That in and of itself isn’t going to prevent the horse from being a good riding mount, but if the leg is too straight (post-legged) then there’s going to be issues. 

Hind Limb Bone Ratios – The most significant ratio is femur length to tibia length. Many racehorses will possess a tibia longer than a femur. This is contrary to what we want in a riding horse, where we like the femur to be at least as long as the tibia, but hopefully longer. A longer femur means more potential for stroke length. The racehorse takes shorter, quicker, thrustier (relative) strides, whereas we want the riding horse to take longer, slower, carrying strides.

Hock And Stifle Set – Many racehorses with have high hock and stifle sets. This tends to go hand-in-hand with a downhill build, shorter femur and longer tibia. The higher the hocks and stifles, the harder it is for the horse to ‘sit’ (lower the haunch), a requirement for engagement and collection.

Feet – Racing can be hard on the feet and the TB in North America has become known to be rather flat-soled and often possesses under run heels.  The latter can often be improved.

Let’s exam three random TB’s and see which one might best be suited for a secondary career under saddle.

Horse #1


This individual is clearly downhill.  His neck set is about as low as we’d ever want to accept for a riding horse.  Certainly its musculature and posture could be significantly improved.  It’s roughly attached and some of that would also improve with correct work.  He’s quite straight through the hind leg with a higher hock and stifle set.  On the plus size he’s got really good bone, a low knee and decent hip.  The loin currently lacks depth, but that too would improve with good riding.

Horse #2


A little less downhill than our first horse, a better neck set with the neck attaching more smoothly, significantly more angulation through the hind limb, hock set higher than our first horse, but the stifle is set lower.  This horse’s knee, though, is set quite a bit higher and is tied in a bit.  Look how that high knee adds length to the cannon bone and shortens the forearm.  Not the combination you want on a riding horse.  The high knee interferes with jumping form and the short forearm interferes with lateral movement.  His hip length is just as good as our first horse, and he has a loin that is shorter, deeper and stronger, but this horse is lighter boned – the lightest substance you want to see on a racehorse.

Horse #3


Real close to being level built.  Great neck, great hip, super loin, medium back length, withers and ribcage carry back really well, super low set stifle (hock higher than ideal), phenomenal pants muscling – simply screams ‘Ride me!’- UNTIL – the legs are such a disappointment; too light of bone, a bit too straight through the knee, a bit tied in, and another high knee (not as high as horse #2, but higher than #1).  If this horse is really straight-legged with minimal offsets, deviations and rotations of bones, which we can’t see from this photo, and you don’t want to pound his legs with a lot of jumping or jumping at speed, then odds become more favorable that he can stay sound.  We can’t see his feet, but they’re likely on the small side, still, he’s the individual in this bunch that could most easily transition to a ridden discipline, followed by horse #2.  Horse #1 is still capable of being a decent mount, but will require a much more skilled rider/trainer for a riding discipline.  This horse will always naturally want to plow around on his forehand.

Now that we’ve looked at physical traits, it’s time to discuss temperament, personality and retraining the racehorse. Know that the horse that walks off the track is not the ‘real’ horse. It takes a number of months for a racehorse to ‘let down’. Many right off the track are high on concentrates, experiencing chronic pain, and haven’t seen a pasture in months (or years). They’re often underweight and certainly are carrying next to no body fat, often have been allowed to have their way with humans, or have been ‘roughed up’. All are stiff and one-sided with musculature honed for speed rather than carrying a rider effectively and efficiently.

Probably the hardest part of retraining is that racehorses are taught, allowed, and encouraged to grab the bit and lean on it/pull against it.  In their secondary careers they need to learn to accept contact and yield to the slightest changes in rein pressure, learning to rebalance, slow and stop by dropping their haunches rather than throwing their weight over their point of shoulder and onto their front legs.

The other significantly tricky aspect to retrain is their inherent nature to want to race against other horses in the ring.  A good way to start the retraining process is to put them in the Dressage ring by themselves.  When enough retraining has occurred and the horse understands acceptance of contact and the half halt, and is more physically able to shift weight rearward, then slowly introduce other horses into the training arena with cooperative friends and test the new skills in this controlled environment.  Hack alone and then, again, once retraining has progressed far enough, slowly introduce other horses on the hack in a controlled manner.

Realistically, if everything goes right and the horse is relatively sound to begin with, you’re looking at a year’s time to let down, remold musculature, and retrain to a very solid Dressage training level.  This is not a process you can rush if you want what’s best for the horse.

What’s The Optimal Neck Position Of The Horse?

This questioned was posed on a bulletin board.  The OP had recently been diagnosed with abnormal curvature in her cervical vertebrae and it brought to mind for her how the horse’s neck might be affected by a rider working against the horse.  Rolkur anyone?

Jrga responded to the question and graciously agreed to have it brought over here for further discussion.  Here is the response:

There is no optimal position of the neck, as it is meant to be flexible and move in different ways to accomplish different things for the horse in nature.

That being said, just as in a human, there are positions it was never meant to hold for any length of time. What is always optimal is that the vast majority of time that the neck is not in any forced position, and that it is ‘stretched’ appropriately to the task at hand.

Mechanically, different neck vertebra are shaped differently, and trying to force movement that is limited by the bone structure will cause catastrophic injuries. The first vertebra is to move up a tiny fraction, and down when released from muscle tension, it is meant to move right or left, ie, flexion at the poll. Note, it is to move right or left, not break down or back to any great degree or to rotate, flexion is not primarily about engaging the first vertebra but releasing it. The second vertebra is the swivel, useful to a horse, not something we wish to engage as riders, ie, to cause head tilt. The infamous third vertebra and the ones behind it can give up and down movement as well as side to side movement. Since the third vertebra bends down by engaging muscles, many pulled upon horses (too much rein, tie downs, martingales used improperly, break the neck at the third vertebra incorrectly. 

If we engage the vertebra enough in ways that they aren’t meant to be engaged, use tie downs and leverage devices to force a shape, then the muscles and ligaments tend to tighten accordingly, reinforcing poor positioning of the vertebra and causing chronic ‘tightness’ and pain, etc.

Deb Bennett gave a lecture at the George Morris clinic this year on biomechanics, and she demonstrated with a skull and neck bones, there are few better demonstrations on how necks work. If they are still there, it would be worth going over the the US Equestrian site and hunting through the video links for those lectures, they are free of charge.

Basically, the combine system of neck bones and muscles work correctly, ie, optimal for horses generally, when the appropriate muscles are engage to stretch the neck out of its resting S curve shape to a flatter shape, which shape actually starts to arch as it stretches to its fullest extent. As the stretch becomes more pronounced and the curves behind the poll and at the base of the neck flatten, the top line (nuchal ligament and muscles) stretch and relax. This produces the greatest flexibilty and strength for the neck, relaxed muscles don’t tear, they move easily. A by product is that the short muscles around the poll release allowing the nose to drop towards vertical. The end result is the base of the neck is raised, flattening the horse’s spine from shoulder to rump as much as possible within the limits of the horse’s conformation, and the neck arches, poll approaches the highest point, there is a hollow gullet below the neck and the nose drops towards the vertical. Raising the back, arching the neck through stretching the top line, is one of the most important aspects of collecting a horse. The single and foremost step is engagement of the hindquarters at the SI, ie, engaging the musculature of the power center to lift its side of the back as well as bring the rear legs under the horse, relaxing the neck so that the base of the neck may raise and the S curve stretch and flatten out, is the second step.

If you pull the nose in, the horse will generally tighten the base of the neck, using the large muscle under the neck, drop the base of the skeletal structure,increasing any tendency to be down hill that already exists in the horse, and hollow the back and make it impossible for collection to occur. The front legs are also affected negatively by this, they can’t swing freely, and the horse drags itself along with its front feet, tightening chest muscles, losing flexibility for lateral work, and stressing tendons and ligaments meant to stabilize the leg by forcing them to function in place of the big butt and thigh muscles in the rear that were meant for locomotion.

No horse was meant to have its neck all arched up in collection all the time, nor pulled back by restrainig hand or devices, if you want to take the do no harm position, long and level is good, but it doesn’t help a horse to counteract the weight of a rider nor exhibit particularly athletic movement.

First link is a skeleton drawing that show the upper and lower curves, an Arab would probably have a more pronounced and longer upper curve in the S, the much desired mitbah that contributes to their swan neck look, an ewe necked horse would have a lower and deeper and longer part to the lower S curve, which is why they bulge out in the under neck and tend to stargaze: 

The second link is a skeletal drawing where the neck has stretched, forming an arch and spine is made level (not all horses will be level even with properly engaging the neck, it depends on how downhill or uphill their conformation is:

Relaxed long and low:

A horse carrying its neck this way is going to be hammer-headed, note there is no turnover at the upper S curve, the spine meets the head like the handle of the hammer meets the head of a hammer:

Relaxed long and low in a real horse, but also note that the rider still hasn’t fully released the neck and note the reflection along the top line, it drops at the withers, by holding the nose too much, the base of the neck has dropped too much given that the horse is in long and low, this is not yet optimal:

A horse similar to the hammer headed look, dropping in the base of the neck, also notice how short the neck looks, it isn’t stretched, this horse looks ‘ewe necked’ but I don’t think in his case it is a natural part of his conformation but a result of how he is typically handled, either way, ths is far from optimal:

This looks like an actual long low base of the neck, honest to goodness ewe neck to me, YMMV, whoever posted the picture captioned it as such, as well:

A nicely built neck, showing long and straight stretch, follow the reflection of light along the top line, ignore the crest, and see that it does not drop from the withers, there is a gullet below (base of neck raised) and a fairly smooth column of muscle at mid neck, showing even without the horse being engaged, note honest flexion, nose to inside but not tilted or nose held in in any way:

Fully stretched and arched neck (on a horse with ‘baroque characteristics”, ie, heavy and muscular with a deep neck, broad back and large haunch, note this is levade not rear, a highly collected movement, hindquarter engaged, neck stretched and handler’s head is in the way, but the nose would actually be slightly in front of the vertical:

This is just ugly, a beautifully built neck being abused for no reason, and won’t create collection, this is pulling that is so beyond not optimal:

I haven’t shown you a nicely optimal neck in a highly collected ridden horse yet, I’m still looking, which is kind of sad. There are some out there, but you have to kiss a lot of frogs first.

I think questions such as these would be a great addition to the blog.  If you have a question, or you have an answer to a question, email to:

Update – Western Dressage Association Of America

Without rehashing everything I find wrong with the idea of creating a specified discipline called Western Dressage – seriously, why can’t they just simply have Dressage classes (tests) at Western Shows and call it a day? – I cringed just a little bit more when a good friend came across a tiny article in this month’s edition of Quarter Horse News.

Apparently, the “WDAA has submitted an application petitioning the USEF for affiliate association status for the discipline of Western dressage.”  They site that the motivation for such an affiliation is multi-fold, and specifically mention “to provide a platform and resources for USEF breeds to offer classes in the discipline of Western dressage.”  They also want such competitions “to be bound by the USEF mission of horse welfare, in particular to the drug and medication rules.”  *sarcasm on* (But not the definition of Dressage gaits?) *sarcasm off*

I suppose becoming affiliated with USEF might add credibility to the sport and a certain set of rules, *sarcasm back on* if you afford the USEF credibility in terms of enforcing the rule book?  *sarcasm back off*

Yeah, I’m still not convinced.


*Note:  I’ve extended my visit an additional week, so new articles (of substance) are likely to cease to exist until such time.  🙂 

AC4H Update

Thanks to *Samantha* for sending in another update on this sleazy organization.  As you probably all remember, shortly after I posted the picture of a roach backed Clydesdale gelding in obvious pain being ridden and offered for ‘adoption’ by AC4H, that organization was raided by the FBI.

Here’s a link to an early May update:

Upon going to FB, I see that they are still in business.  WTH!?  How naïve of me to think being raided would be the end of them.  Any time now I’d be happy for Justice (Karma) to move its ass.  Feel free to spread the word and potentially help the FBI gather evidence if you want to see this organization shut down once and for all, and its participants punished. 

Book Of The Summer Club – Tao, Part 2

Though just a couple of people chose to read The Tao Of Equus along with me, a vibrant conversation ensued anyway.  I want to thank those who particpated in that discussion, along with everyone else who takes the time to post their thoughts on other topics.  Without interaction the blog is nothing more than me seeing myself in print.  And while I find myself entertaining (insert *smirk* here), it’s infinitely better when others express their thoughts and opinions.  Part 2 of Tao is a much larger section of the book, covering about half its entirety.  I’ve picked just a few points to discuss.

‘Joy’ is a client and begins the ‘equine therapy’ program that the author runs.  On Joy’s first day she’s shown to a paddock of four horses and is asked to assess each horse’s personality and placement in the herd, then to pick the most appropriate one to work with based on her assessment (and including her own limited equine experience and personality).  She is immediately attracted to the horse which approaches her boldly and nibbles at her clothing.  She thinks the horse is cute, friendly.  She’s wrong.  As it turns out the horse is the bully in the herd and was just recently saved from slaughter because he was too aggressive and dangerous.  To make a long story short, Joy also picks the same kind of men in her life and it’s one of the reasons she begins the program.

How many of us know (or have heard of) someone who’s picked the wrong animal?  Be it dog, cat, horse, doesn’t matter.  They quickly find themselves in over their heads and unable to deal with an animal that has taken over their lives.  It’s why animal trainers/behaviorists like Caesar Millan and Jackson Galaxy have successful businesses and TV shows, and why *equine gurus* have become all the rage.  The inability to correctly assess temperament, personality, emotion etc… in an animal is a huge barrier for many to overcome.  And that’s not even considering the knowledge required to train the animal.

The author believes it starts with (and goes back to) incongruence in people, in ourselves.  If you don’t know who you are (particularly in the moment), you can’t know who anyone else is (in that same moment).  You also can’t correctly identify what’s behind those big, almond shaped eyes.  It’s not necessarily *our* fault.  Many times we grow up not knowing, having learned incongruence from our parents and later experiencing it in our peers, co-workers, authority figures.

Do you know what you like in a horse and why?  Do you know what you don’t like in a horse and why?  Can you identify those traits in an individual even if they’ve come from a trying situation and therefore unlikely to be their true selves in the moment?  Do you know that the horse that cowers in the corner and trembles is more likely to hurt you when you aren’t looking than the one who aggressively comes at your face with teeth bared?  Can you tell the difference between the horse that acts out because of insecurity and fear over the one that acts out because it wants you to cease to exist?

Which brings me back to the incredible popularity of *equine gurus*.  The author talks at great length about this phenomenon (and not always in a positive light). The seemingly instant miracles, the extensive marketing and promotion of specialized tack (required of course to get desired results), videos, books and of course the ‘apprenticeship’ model whereby a student can rise through the levels and ranks to become a clone of the guru himself.  She discusses how participants in clinics fork over wads of money and go home with arms full of product and a head full of ideas only to find that implementation of the methods isn’t nearly as easy as the guru made it look.  There’s a lot wrong with the entire process, but it boils down to the fact you can’t teach someone how to effectively communicate (long term) with a horse by having them spend gobs of money on specialized tack and a few minutes imitating you.  It takes years to develop the unspoken nuances of horse training, the ability to assess a situation and adjust your approach on the fly, and the humility to accept that today might not be the day the horse allows you to ask that of it.

The author also talks of laying down a horse and how it can induce a form of disassociation which changes the horse’s personality instantly, and is akin to the survival ‘freeze’ response that happens to prey animals just before they die.  I posted a video of just such an occurance not too long ago in another blog entry.  If you recall, I’m against laying down a horse.  Very against it.  It makes me physically ill every time I see it done.  Asking a horse to lay down because you’ve introduced a series of cues in a systematic way so you can perform it on command is a different story; the horse always has the option of saying, no.  Forcing an animal into a position of pure submission against its will is despicable and speaks to the person’s (at the very least) ignorance and (at the very worst) their cruel nature.  The author claims to have witnessed a way to lay down a horse in the moment and to prevent disassociation, but you’ll have to read the book to get the nitty gritty details.  I’m inclined to agree with her, especially the point she makes about it requiring a skilled horseman, but I’m still against it.

Other ways to create disassociation in a horse and change its personality;

  • Tying the head tightly, often times for extended periods of time
  • Application of conflicting aids, over and over again causing confusion and frustration until the horse can no longer stand it and checks out
  • Drilling exercises, especially if conflicting aids are also utilized
  • Unfair and/or inconsistent treatment
  • Repeated abuses
  • Poor management practises that rob the horse of its very nature; lack of social experiences, lack of adequate movement

When I think of all that I’ve seen done to horses, it makes me wonder why they ever trusted us in the first place and I’m equally amazed they’re ever willing to particpate in human therapy programs (of all kinds, not just the author’s) to help us.  Do we really deserve that kind of generosity?


Note:  I’m taking off in a few days for a week’s time and there’s likely not going to be a blog entry until I return, unless someone drops me a line ( with their own contribution, which of course I encourage you all to consider doing. 

The Good: When Equines Are Confused

I have a cat.  (I know, right?)  Anyway, I often think he’s confused about the fact he’s a cat.  He regularly brings me toys and drops them at my feet in anticipation of me throwing them for him.  If I don’t respond within milliseconds he will talk at me (not to me – there’s a difference) until I comply.  It’s almost as annoying as a dog giving those pathetic *please, pleaseeeeeee, PLEASEEEEEEEEE* eyes and then resorting to barking happily until the ball is thrown, except that I find it way funnier when my cat does it. 

Obviously I’m super well-trained and it never takes more than a meow or two of ‘Hey, stupid human! ’ before I pick up the toy and throw it.  And I giggle every damn time he runs after it and watch him bring it back to me to rinse and repeat.

So, what’s this got to do with horses?  This: Tracking Horses  (Thank you, Quill).  I had no idea people were doing that with horses, but here is another  I found with far more in depth information.  There’s even a training booklet available.

But if that wasn’t enough, I’m almost finished Part 2 of Tao and there was mention of this.  How cool is that?  I almost want one just to see the looks on people’s faces as I walk down the street.