I grew up on the show circuit way before warmbloods were the “thing” to have. In fact, I started showing at age 5 before harnesses were even required on your helmet. In those days the only type of show horse I knew was the retired racehorse, the classic American Thoroughbred.
A Hanoverian or Selle Francaise stuck out at a hunter/jumper show back then like a … well, like a Thoroughbred does today at the Capital Challenge. There was no “back from the track hack” because every horse in every class had spent their time sprinting around the oval. When your trainer got in a collection of greenies from the dealer most of them couldn’t canter a circle but they sure were broke… and often times, broken. We didn’t know any different because that’s all there was. And I will proudly state that I love the American Thoroughbred.
I’ve ridden just about every type of hunter horse under the sun at this point in my riding career, from bratty welsh ponies to quarter horses and warmbloods. Never have I ever sat on a horse more eager to please, more willing to try than a Thoroughbred. It is in their very genetic make-up, at the core of their being. A Thoroughbred never wants to let you down, will always try to perform to the best of its training, though sometimes reverting back to its formative days on the track as you attempt a lead change through the corner. While many do not make the best trail horses early in their lives, most are not spooky or afraid of such man-made disasters like tents next to the ring, brightly colored fences or yapping dogs. They saw way too much at a very early age and have become desensitized to most of the world around them. It is for these reasons, and so many more, why the Thoroughbred will always remain my horse of choice.
I’ve never been a big fan of horse racing. I’ve seen the results up close and personal on the other side. The toll it takes on the horses. The damage it does to their physical and emotional well-being. It saddens me to no end that the racing industry has decided these are throw-away horses, like Ikea furniture. If they aren’t fast they head to the slaughter, or for the lucky ones, to a Thoroughbred rescue or rehab. It infuriates me that such noble animals are treated like used cars sent to the junkyard once they’ve been dented or crashed. As equine professionals we owe so much more to these dignified beauties and a full long life – including living out their days in a grassy pasture. I want to scream, “they tried for you, why can’t you try for them?”
But I’m conflicted about this renewed interest in the Thoroughbred.
On one hand it is wonderful – people are once again realizing that they are amazing athletes with limitless talent, containing the ability to become whatever they dream to be from world-class eventers to champion dressage mounts. It is heartening to see the ever-increasing resources through rescues and rehabs to keep them from the slaughter pens in Canada and Mexico. And as the cost of owning a horse equates to private school tuition each year, those who may not be able to afford a big fancy warmblood can look to these Thoroughbred re-homing sites for a suitable mount to bring along. A win-win situation for all parties involved.
Still I’m frustrated by what I perceive as negative hype over the Thoroughbred. Let me try to explain..
I read all these articles in the Chronicle of the Horse or other blogs and publications about the fad of retraining Thoroughbreds in new careers. At the core of the mission, I’m so very glad, it is smart and well deserved. But I find myself annoyed at the superficiality of the whole thing, the sense that these trainers and others are doing some sort of charity work for the industry and we should all be so grateful to them for taking on such a big challenge in training a Thoroughbred. There is a sense of superiority that runs through their comments, like they could have just taken the easier route and bought a warmblood (those are easier? I beg to differ!) but instead they are providing a community service and look what a good person s/he is for retraining an off the track Thoroughbred. Honestly, it makes me mad!
I find that most every article mentions how “hot” or how much of a challenge a Thoroughbred can be. I’m not looking to degrade other breeds, but let me tell you, my Paint was a much bigger challenge most days than my Thoroughbreds and I’ve found that warmbloods take sooooo looooong to develop. Sure, they can be a little finicky and may have more physical issues from the get-go due to their formative years. (Racing as a 2 year old? We wouldn’t dream of putting a saddle on a warmblood at 2) The fact remains, in my mind at least, that many feel the Thoroughbred is more trouble than it is worth – they’ve gotten a bad rap.
My 5 year old Thoroughbred never actually raced – he was too slow. He trained and has the pin-firing on both his front legs to prove it, but when I watch him tear around the pasture and get beat by his best friend who is a 14hh mule, I know why. That horse has a brilliant mind, is incredibly talented, and despite some typical bratty baby behavior, he is unflappable. I can ride him alone on a trail and he could care less. At our first horse show last weekend a woman opened a rainbow umbrella right next to the ring as we went in for a class and he didn’t blink. And while he will test me to make sure I’m paying attention from time to time, he is not afraid of a single jump I aim him at including rolltops and cross country logs.
Every Thoroughbred I’ve owned has generally had this same attitude about life and a stellar work ethic.
The Thoroughbred never went away, never changed. Tastes in hunters changed, and I understand the ever-evolving nature of the sport, as I never thought I’d own a saddle with knee rolls or give up my 2-way stretch Tailored Sportsman breeches – the latter being a necessity of getting older, to be clear! I’m glad to see a resurgence of them in the show ring, they are so pretty to watch. And fundamentally the PR being given is a good thing if it helps find more homes and new jobs for this workhorse, or if it educates people who might not have otherwise considered owning a Thoroughbred.
Which is why I’m torn. Because I’ve always known how great a Thoroughbred can be if just given the chance.
So you won’t find me commending you for your willingness to take on this supposedly troubling and challenging horse. Rather I’ll congratulate you for making such a smart decision and realizing that sometimes you can’t improve on a classic – the American Thoroughbred!