Tuesday, September 3, 2013

From Racehorse to Ranch Horse

by Natalie Keller Reinert

There are very nice people in the world who refer to me as a "horse expert." Of course, I'm not a horse expert in my eyes, I'm a person who has spent most of my life learning as much as I possibly can about horses, and that makes me an active enthusiast at best. Yes I can saddle-break a baby and inseminate a mare and remove eyelid stitches and jump a preliminary cross-country course and perform reasonable tempi changes on a well-trained horse and yes, teach a young racehorse to break from the gate.

An expert to most folks, maybe. But to the most of the readers of this blog I'm probably just... maybe a slightly above-average horsewoman? (You can tell me in the comments, if you promise to be nice.)

I got an email a few weeks ago from a reader at my site, Retired Racehorse, asking me to write about Gate to Great and Off-Track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) who are being retrained as Western horses.

It went something to the effect of: You write a lot about OTTBs competing in English disciplines, what about Western ones? They excel at everything.

At Gate to Great, they know Western OTTBs are totally a thing. Photo: Gate to Great/gatetogreat.com

And while Thoroughbreds do, obviously, excel at everything, because sheer athleticism, curiosity, drive, and intelligence are traits wanted in every discipline, I really had nothing to write about. Because I just don't know much about Western riding.

I've been in a Western saddle maybe four or five times in my life, and that probably includes pony rides as a small child. The last time I was in a Western saddle, on an Appaloosa mare, she reared up and flipped over on me. Accustomed to the relative ease of dismounting from a flat saddle (I was an exercise rider at the time, riding about ten two-year-old Thoroughbreds every morning on the racetrack) I floundered in the Western saddle's high horn and cantle, got whacked in the forehead with her solid-rock poll, and eventually found myself on the ground, out cold.

A good craftsman never blames her tools, to be sure, but in this case this wasn't my tool, it was the owner's tool, and I owed her money, so I got on her damn horse and... I guess I am a little angsty about that saddle.

I also knew a Thoroughbred who was a very successful barrel racer. His name was, fittingly, Rocket. And my first OTTB, Amarillo, learned about the Real World outside the racetrack by moving cattle from pasture to pasture in rural Florida. (One of my very few Western rides was my test ride on Amarillo. He was so awesome, despite my complete discomfort in the saddle, that I just galloped him around the arena and then told my mom he was the one. He was.)

So I looked up Gate to Great finally, because their name is starting to crop up everywhere, and I was starting to feel distinctly inexpert about the whole situation, which isn't great for a person who runs a blog called Retired Racehorse and ostensibly knows a whole lot about retired racehorses.

And you know what? It's kind of amazing. I'm starting to feel very left out of the whole Western Thoroughbred Revolution.

In this fantastic video, you get an introduction to Thoroughbreds working with cattle, and the one word that springs to my mind is fun. These horses are having so much fun. I want to be one of these horses and have as much fun as they're having. It's ridiculous.

The Gate to Great folks are even sending horses to the Retired Racehorse Training Project's Thoroughbred Makeover in October, and you won't believe what they have planned:

The event, named “Who Let the Cows Out?”, will pair celebrity jockeys with retired Thoroughbred racehorses from the Gate to Great training program of Newell, South Dakota to compete on the Pimlico track in a “team sorting” event.  Each team of two horses and riders will have a maximum of two minutes to sort a small herd of numbered cattle into a corral in numeric order.  The team with the fastest time and correct sorting order wins the competition. The event requires cow sense, teamwork and fast thinking on the part of both the horses and riders.    - Press Release from Retired Racehorse Training Project
I can't even believe that this is an actual thing. I also can't believe I'm not going to be there. The event, held on October 5-6 at Pimlico Racecourse in Maryland, is going to be amazing. I just have other plans I can't change! Oh the humanity!

So there you have it. From racehorse to ranch horse, and apparently having a blast doing it. I apologize to my original reader for having to send that letter and get my attention out of the English world and into the Western one. What can I say? For a "horse expert," I reckon I have a lot to learn.

What about you? Do you consider yourself a well-rounded equestrian, or are there elements of riding and training out there that have simply escaped you over the years? I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of  -- we all know the saying "Jack of all trades, master of none," right? But then again, I'm starting to think there are some horses out there who might laugh at that phrase. It's looking like some horses can literally do everything, and do it well!

Visit Gate to Great and see their wonderful videos and training stories at GatetoGreat.com


Linda Benson said...

Oh gosh, Natalie, I LOVE this post. Thank you for shedding light on this organization which is finding new uses for Off The Track horses. I've ridden Western almost all my life (except for some brief moments trying some hunter-jumper classes, but we won't go there.) And I have to say that I've always enjoyed riding, and admired looking at, something with long legs, a good set of withers, and some TB blood. And let's not forget what was infused into the quarter horse ranch breeding in the first place - some thoroughbred. I can't wait for this competition in October, and I hope TVG or HRTV will televise it, because it should be a kick. Team-sorting takes a whole nuther set of skills and cow sense. By the way, if you ever get a chance to ride deep into a good quality western saddle that fits you, you'll grow to love it. (Wish we could ride together some time!)

Laura Crum said...

Interesting post. As it happens training a horse to work cattle is the one aspect of horsemanship that I know a LOT about, having done it for over twenty years. I certainly don't claim to know much of anything about dressage, jumping, racehorses or a whole lot of other disciplines you might care to mention. But I do know about cowhorses.

So first off, if you are interested in the cowhorse events, including sorting, your best bet is to find a cowhorse bred QH. They excel at cowhorse events and are bred to do this work. There is a reason why most people involved in working cattle ride QHs of cowhorse bloodlines. I know that you love TBs, but cowhorse bred QHs are THE breed of choice for working cattle.

That said, if your goal is not so much to be competitive in cowhorse events, but to have fun with your OTTB (and you are determined to have an OTTB), then working cattle on such a horse can be great fun for both rider and horse. There are very few horses of any breed that won't eventually enjoy working cattle. (Some won't take to it immediately, but time and patience will usually do the trick.)

There is a lot of TB in QHs as Linda pointed out. However, I have trained quite a few mostly TB horses and been around a fair number of others, and in my experience the TBs tend to be hotter overall. There are certainly exceptions to this rule. I have no problem believing that the occasional OTTB can be a great cowhorse. But again, if a cowhorse is what you are interested in, you will have far better luck overall if you look for that cowhorse bred QH. (And these horses need good homes, too--just like the OTTBs.)

lmel said...

I've been following Dale on the OTTB makeover and can't wait to see the videos of this. I wish I could get to Pimlico just to watch Duck and his friends sort cattle. I think it's wonderful that these horses can really show the world all the talent they have, especially since we see so little of retraining OTTBs for western disciplines. Go Team Duck! Great post.

SandyInMarin said...

Awesome story Natalie, thanks for letting folks know that OTTBs have many uses/jobs available after their racing career is over. Way to go! Sandy in Marin

Angela Blackburn said...

It's fabulous to see ex Racehorses going on to another useful career, even thinking of going down the ex-racer purchasing route myself! Great posts by the way
Angela - author of http://160kminoneday.blogspot.co.uk

Anonymous said...

Good post! I think Thoroughbreds are a truly natural horse, second to maybe Exmoor ponies, and Arabs - which haven't changed in thousands of years. They're doing what horses do naturally - and their good conformation shows it.

Thoroughbreds are bred to be balanced and athletic, and on top of it they're intelligent and playful. I find they might be "hot" (sensitive, responsive), but they're less likely to explode out of the blue in the way that warmbloods and sometimes Qhorses can do. You know they're sensitive so they keep you on your toes which is where you should be when you're riding, not sitting on a chair. It's a really annoying, repetitive mythology that Tbreds are "hot" and can't be used for work other than racing. I would say that they don't suffer fools easily, and so they won't get along with a rider who has a narrow mind and pre-judges them. A horse that spooks is a problem, but we've got two Tbreds who had bad handlers, and neither of them spook, no matter what it is. They're focused on the rider, and their work. Period.

If you're a good rider, in touch with your horse, the high spirits are not a problem. Alberta is cattle and horse country, and I was told by an old farrier that the horse to have prior to the 60s or so was Anglo Arabs, (half Tbred, half Arab) because of their intelligence and their endurance. Quarterhorses were marketed up from the US, in the same way that warmbloods are now being marketed - and out went the Tbreds, and Anglo-Arabs. There is no reason why Tbreds and Standardbreds too can't be used for ranch work. Quarterhorses and Warmbloods are for equine entertainment, and Thoroughbreds fell through the cracks, right into the slaughter yard.

We have 2 of them, plus an Anglo Arab, and we had one of the Tbreds spend a month with a cowboy trainer, who had him around cattle and loose horses - told us he will not bolt, he doesn't buck, he's kind, and in spite of his rough start with a bad trainer, he's a good horse.

No Quarterhorse can go the distance that these "hot" horses can go, because they're not built for distance. And that, after all, is what we originally domesticated them for. Travel, and work.