Making a purchase directly off the track is tricky. You may receive limited history about the horse, you will not be able to ride or see him be lunged before purchase and instead may have to make a decision based on watching a horse walk and jog down an uneven horse path. A few moments to evaluate the horse’s personality, conformation and movement – this is not for the faint of heart!
It’s hard not to get caught up in the beauty of a fit, well-muscled runner or the “deal of a century” approach to horse shopping, but the challenge is not to fall for the emotional aspects and to evaluate the horse in front of you, determining whether he’ll be the horse you need today or want in the future.
Here is a list of questions that we hope may help you decide whether shopping at the race track is the right fit for you and if it is, how to make a well-informed decision:
1. What is your experience and comfort level with off track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) and “green” horses?
Do you enjoy the process of retraining? Do you have the time to be dedicated to retraining? Can you safely navigate through an evaluation of a horse who has an unknown history? If not, do you work with someone who does and can help you fill in any gaps you may come across?
If you’ve never ridden a Thoroughbred or a green horse, track horses may not be a good fit for you at this time. There are always exceptions to the rules and a lot of these horses have fabulous minds, but generally speaking a horse directly off the racetrack is not suitable for beginner riders and they may not even feel “broke” compared to most sport or pleasure horses you’ve ridden.
2. Do you have a safe setup for an OTTB and a safe area to ride and train?
Depending on each individual horse’s history, your new OTTB may have not been turned out in pasture since he started his training as a two year old. He will be fit, on the muscle and busting at the seams; as fun as it may seem to allow him the freedom to gallop as fast as his legs can carry him…this is not a good idea!
Please start your horse’s turnout in a small paddock with safe, solid fencing so he gets his squeals out gradually. Work up to more grass time (your horse may not have had grass in his diet while at the racetrack and should be introduced slowly) in larger areas, over time. Also be cautious introducing him into your existing herd, safety is your number one objective as no one enjoys unexpected vet bills. Make the transition a low key experience.
Take the same approach to riding. It’s ideal to start your OTTB in a secure area like a fenced arena or round pen. Use a methodical, low key approach just as you did with turnout. Keep both horse and rider calm and confident; their racing careers are over, training isn’t a speed contest!
3. Are you familiar with soundness and conformation issues?
Read, study, observe! You want to know how to find a steal at the racetrack? Understand what you are looking at.
Often you’ll see horses at the racetrack move stingy, up and down like a sewing machine; it’s your job to gauge by how they are built whether this is a temporary issue or whether this horse might permanently move like a camel. There are numerous books written regarding these topics, take the time to read them. Personally, I recommend anything by Dr. Deb Bennett, but the internet is full of free resources, check them out.
Study common lameness in ex-racehorses. Become familiar with these issues so you can identify the ones that are visual on inspection, comprehend the risks involved with each, the available treatments and costs, as well as basic prognoses. Most commonly you may come across bucked shins, “bowed” tendons or suspensory injuries, osselets, bone chips, slab fractures and condylar fractures.
Know before you go to the racetrack whether any of these issues are deal breakers for you or which severity of the above is suitable for your use. While there is no replacement for the expertise of a vet, be informed before you go so you can have an educated opinion on your purchase and so you can avoid the expense of vetting a horse which blatantly has one of the issues on your “deal breaker” list.
Take your time in selecting a horse, whether on the track or off the track, and make an educated decision. Perhaps dedicate one hour each night this week to research; pick a new topic every night and become that much more of a horseman.
You’ve made this long trip to the racetrack; a friend just brought home another amazing prospect and has already resold him for a profit. She assures you there will be a huge selection of horses, and you’ll find a great deal. Then you arrive. The environment is new, exciting and often intimidating.
You had your heart set on one horse from his CANTER ad, then you look at him and while he has some good points, you don’t connect; maybe you don’t like how he moves or how he acts in his stall. You move on to the next, but you’re concerned about his soundness. The next is the wrong height, etc.
Trainers see you struggling and direct you to another horse and then another, ones you never would have considered on your own. You’ll see horses above and below your price range, then you begin to doubt yourself. Everyone else finds nice horses at the track. Why can’t you find one that fits? The next thing you know, you’re buying a horse that doesn’t meet any of your requirements.
Do you have a clear idea of what you are shopping for?
Our most popular “horse wanted” request is a big, sound, clean legged, 17-hand grey gelding without any blemishes, who raced (but only lightly), who will jump 3’6”, save small children from burning buildings and is priced under $500. Sorry, folks, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Rethink what is truly important to you.
Make a list of your priorities — age, sex, cost, height, style of movement, injuries or conformation you will accept, temperament, etc. Write these traits down in order of importance and read the list before and after you look at each prospect.
Remind yourself of what you are searching for and try not to be swept away by emotion. Perhaps your budget is written in stone, but size or sex can be negotiable. Make the right compromises and only make compromises you can live with long term.
I would also ask that riders be honest about what they intend to do with their new horse and select a horse that matches their goals. There is a large segment of horses exiting the racetrack who may be suitable for a number of careers, but perhaps do not have completely clean x-rays or an injury that may require maintenance in the future.
If you are shopping for a personal horse, ask yourself if this is the type of horse you would enjoy in your barn. The answer will be different for each of us, but some of these “hard-knocking” horses are one in a million.
If you do not find a horse on your first horse shopping trip, don’t settle on a horse that does not meet your criteria. I assure you there is no shortage of horses in need of quality homes!
Are you asking the right questions?
Racing and sport horse communities have many similarities, but they do have different perspectives on some issues. Soundness may be one of the most glaring deviations that we face when making a purchase. “Sound” is a vague term; most likely your definition of “sound” and a race trainer’s definition of “sound” will be two different concepts; be sure to clarify.
Instead of asking, “Is this horse sound?” Ask questions such as, “Has this horse ever had any injuries?” “Does this horse have any known bone chips, fractures or bows?” “Do you think this horse will x-ray clean?” “How does he come back after a race?” Those are specific questions that will help you gather information to determine whether or not this horse will meet your needs.
Learn the lingo. If a trainer says, “He has a knee,” he’s not trying to impress you with his understanding of anatomy; he’s saying that sometimes the knee bothers this horse. Your question should be, “Have you x-rayed it?” “What do you think is going on?” Perhaps it is a temporary soreness, but if clean x-rays are important to you, we highly recommend you investigate.
Have you budgeted for a PPE?
Please do a pre-purchase exam … PLEASE. While it may seem illogical to potentially spend more on vetting expenses than on your purchase price, view the combined cost as your total purchase price and accept it as part of the process. It is money well spent and almost always future money saved.
One of the most common reasons a track horse does not work out relates to old injuries. Fresh injuries are much easier to detect, and regardless of whether an old injury impacts the horse’s ability, there are things to consider if you are considering a horse for high end resale.
You must understand that the x-rays must be clean for the highest return on investment. Best to find out today whether a horse will pass a pre-purchase exam, not after years of training expenses.
Let’s look at how race horses are acquired to help understand why vetting a horse is important. Horses may be purchased at auction or through private sales but the majority, particularly those nearing the end of their careers, are acquired through claiming races.
Simply put, all horses entered in claiming races are “for sale” at a predetermined price (i.e. all horses in a $5000 Claiming race may be purchased for $5000).
They are not going to be vetted before being claimed; at the end of the race the new trainer will be handed the horse and if the two trainers are on good terms, they may talk briefly about some concerns the horse has, but otherwise, the horse will be purchased with absolutely no prior history. This easily happens several times over the course of that horse’s career.
He may race consistently, have no known issues when he’s retired, and it isn’t until much later, even years later, when an old injury is discovered. By exchanging hands several times during a career, the trainer who retires a horse may not have any the slightest bit of info regarding the horse’s early years.
If you find a horse you are interested in, carefully study and feel the horse’s legs. Are there any asymmetries? If one ankle is larger than the other, you may want to consider x-rays. If you feel a bump or a fluid pocket on a knee, you may want to consider x-rays. If you plan on being a serious eventer, you may want to scope your horse before purchase.
Horses aren’t just a financial investment; they are your heart and soul, so it is always best to make decisions about a future partner with as much information that you can muster.
Racing is a very demanding sport, and while we find that the majority of OTTBs can go on to have very productive secondary careers, we assure you that not every horse exiting the backside is going to be a Rolex prospect or will have clean x-rays.
Be smart about shopping; do your research, be selective, get professional help and think through your purchase. I assure you buyer’s remorse over a dress is much easier to resolve than buyer’s remorse on a living, breathing soul.
But wait — there is an intermediary step between buying and competing which involves a lot of hard work and preparation! This is a critical step that needs to be thought through and agreed upon before deciding whether a green horse is right for you.
Have you considered a let down period?
Each horse is an individual, and each rider has their own skill set and comfort level. Some horses leave the track and gracefully begin their sport horse career the next day, never blinking an eye at the lifestyle change. Other horses do best with a few weeks or even a few months of down time before they mentally and physically are at their best to begin retraining.
Some horses will be sore when they leave the track. You may notice a horse being tight or “stingy” moving at the racetrack or being sensitive to the touch. Other horses may look great at the track but after a week or so on the farm, they become reactive. It may be wise to include a certain amount of downtime in your transition schedule; you may need it, you may not.
Have you budgeted both time and money for training expenses?
While one of the benefits of OTTBs is that they have had consistent, formal training, race training and sport horse training are two separate concepts. Most horses right off the track do not have the finesse you expect from the average sport horse.
You may also find that acceptable track behavior is not what you want to reward in an amateur horse. It does not mean your horse is a jerk or is trying to hurt you; it simply means you need to fairly explain to him what your expectations are. Horses excel with parameters, much like children and husbands!
Are you capable of instilling life skills in your new horse? The best thing you can do for any horse is to give him marketable skills. A horse with limited training is very hard to place and are often most “at risk” for bad situations.
If you come across an issue you are uncomfortable with, do you have the funds to seek help? If you don’t have the experience to restart your horse, training is a great investment in your new horse. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of safety for both horse and rider.
What is your Plan B for the horse if he is not the right match for you?
Realistically, not every horse that is purchased is immediately going to his or her lifelong home. Create a fallback plan for the possibility that your horse is not the right fit and you may need to find another home for him. If the horse requires more training to make him marketable, are you prepared for that cost? If you try to sell your OTTB, have you budgeted for additional board costs until he is placed?
If you purchase a horse with a soundness problem or he develops a soundness problem, can you afford retirement? If not, are you comfortable with euthanasia? As harsh as it seems, euthanasia is a real life scenario and part of being a responsible horseman.
These are a few issues to think about before determining whether a horse directly off the track is the best option for you.
Be honest with yourself. As much as we appreciate your support, if our program is not a good fit for your situation, consider one of the other CANTER programs that offer horses with after track training.
These reputable organizations give you a chance to try the horse under saddle, spend more time with him and experience the horse in a farm environment which would more closely mimic your situation.
Most of these placement programs also offer a return contract in the event it is not a match made in heaven. Keep in mind — a great horse and a great rider do not always equate to a great partnership; there is no shame in that. But considering there are so many variables that go into buying horses, try to set yourself up for the highest likelihood of success.