Reschooling the Thoroughbred

Thoroughbred horse off the track

This begins one trainer's journey reschooling a Thoroughbred race horse for eventing. 

Just as buying him was a gamble, writing this series is also a gamble since, of course, I don't know how it will turn out.

But please join me for a ride that will be exciting and educational for all of us and that I believe will be an Xcellent Adventure!


Chapter 1: The Adventure Begins

I had absolutely no intention of buying another horse. I already had four horses and two little mules, but on the second Saturday in May, 2002 after attending a seminar on feeding and caring for older horses at the Middleburg Agricultural Research (MARE) Center, I found myself at the Fauquier Livestock Exchange monthly horse auction near my home in Marshall, Virginia. I often make it a point to go. As a volunteer for the Middleburg Humane Foundation, I often help scout for any animals in desperate shape that the MHF would be interested in saving from the "kill" buyers. At this sale there were no animals in such shape, just a few who were thin. Intending to have a quick look, then go home and ride a couple of my horses.


I zipped around the labyrinth of holding pens and was a bit surprised to see a good looking, but quite thin, Thoroughbred gelding.

It was a little hard to get a good look at him because he was in the back of a pen with two other horses. I managed to make my way around the back via another pen. He was a smallish dark bay. He had three white socks and a small head with a narrow white stripe. His coat was shiny, his eye was bright and he stood very squarely, but his ribs showed clearly. It was obvious to me that he was a racehorse and was probably in training. He had the tucked up "greyhound" appearance of a very fit horse, but I thought it odd that he lacked the muscling I had seen in most racehorses. I needed another horse like a hole in my head, but I just had a feeling about this horse that I could not shake. Maybe he would make a nice event horse, though I already had a young horse coming along. Maybe I could just get him going nicely and sell him, though I have never been in the habit of buying horses to resell.


After a while, the horse's trainer appeared. I asked him when the horse had last raced.

"Thursday night, at Charlestown," he said.

That was just two days before the sale. 

"He ran like a dog, finished last."


That I could believe. I didn't see how a horse with so little muscling could run very fast. He handed me the horse's Jockey Club registration papers. The gelding was five years old. His name was "Staked Claim" by Miner's Mark out of Sovereign Dancer. I don't know very much about Thoroughbred bloodlines, but I recognized his dam to be probably from the Northern Dancer line. It was close to being time for "Staked Claim" to go to the sale ring.


The man asked me if I wanted to see him go. I said I did and watched with some amusement as he tacked up the dark bay, climbed up the side of the pen to mount him, then casually rode him through the maze of pens, out to the parking lot filled with trailers, people and horses to a grassy area. He then walked, trotted and cantered the bay, then trotted him over a small jump a couple of times.

The horse did all the right things and was very sane about being in such a busy, frantic area. I just hoped he was not drugged. Luckily, I ran into someone I knew who said the trainer could be trusted and if he said the horse was sound, he was sound and if he said he was not drugged, he was not drugged. The man said he was sound and had not been drugged. I crossed my fingers anyway.


I would never recommend someone buy a horse at this type of auction unless they had some disposable income, a lot of experience with horses and a sense of adventure. Buying anything at this type of auction is a big gamble! There are no rules and no guarantees. Horses are not necessarily sound, sane or drug free. All sales are final. One could bring a vet along to look over a horse before one purchases it, but vets are usually busy and I don't think anyone bothers.


I don't know if I was nervous or just excited when the bidding started. Horses weren't bringing very much money that day though I had seen a nice palomino quarter horse go for about $2500. I doubted anyone would spend that much for a Thoroughbred fresh from the track. The people who frequent this sale usually wouldn't want to try to reschool one even if they knew how. I entered the bidding late so as not to drive the price any higher than necessary. I ended up paying just $1300. I had to go home to pick up my horse trailer and bed down a stall, but that evening I brought my new purchase home.


I put him in a stall separated from the other horses and would keep him quarantined for ten days to make sure that he did not have a virus or had not picked one up at the sale. I had already contacted my veterinarian, Dr. Jeannie Waldron, and the next day she sent her associate, Dr. Fiona McClellan to check out my new horse. By the time she arrived I had already given him a new name: "Xcellent Adventure," after a very silly movie called, "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." I always like to give my horses names that are good to live up to.


Fiona checked "Xcel's" eyes, heart and lungs and watched him jog. She noticed a little stiffness in one hind leg and said it was something to watch. Fiona is Scottish and has been in the US less than a year. She has evented through intermediate level, and was intrigued with my new horse. We both were glad to see that he was quite clean-legged but noted that he is a bit straighter in his front pasterns and shoulder than we would like and a bit too straight in his hind leg as well.


He has a small eye but it has a lovely look about it, brimming with enthusiasm and intelligence. Fiona agreed that he lacked muscle as well as fat and drew enough blood for several blood tests. Xcel would be checked for Lyme disease, which is prevalent in this area, selenium deficiency, and would have a CBC (complete blood count). She congratulated me on my new purchase.

Though I planned to give my new horse a couple months off before putting him into work, I thought I might at least sit on him just to see how he went. I quickly changed my mind when I checked over his body. As a TTEAM practitioner, I've had lots of experience checking horses' bodies for pain and sensitivity. One of the first things I did with Xcel was to quietly run my hands all over his body to check his response to being touched all over. I do not consider a horse to be safe to handle unless it is willing to be touched everywhere. He was fine, but very fidgety.


So far, I had found much of Xcel's behavior typical of many racehorses I had handled. He had very bad manners! He was very mouthy, trying to chew on the halter, lead shank, human or anything else he could get a hold of. When asked to stand still for more than a second, he began pawing and even kicking out with his hind legs. He just didn't know how to calm down when attached to a human. I could see a great deal of promise in this young horse but he would have a lot of things to unlearn as well as learn.

The thing with race horses, is that the people who handle them often want them to be "on the muscle" and "on their toes" as opposed to quiet and relaxed. By not discouraging inappropriate behavior, like biting and kicking, they actually train them to behave like maniacs. By nature I didn't think Xcel was a mean horse, but he acted like a maniac. Many racehorses hold a lot of tension in their bodies. This is counter-productive. They cannot relax and the tension actually shortens their galloping stride which makes them slower. It also increases their chances of injury. Some horses are so tense before a race that they "wash out" using up all their energy before the starting gate opens. 

When I probed Xcel's body deeper, I found that he had a great deal of tension and pain in his body. He was very sore in his neck, back and hindquarters. In fact, I stopped my probing quite quickly because he was so very reactive. I was not really surprised to find him sore considering he had just run a race without the appropriate muscle mass to be able to do so. I decided it was counter-productive to try to ride him when he was so sore.


The next day Jeannie had a look at him too when she was out to see one of my other horses. She very much liked the look of Xcel. It is nice to have veterinarians who are also good competitive riders. Jeannie is a top endurance rider and recognizes a good performance horse when she sees one. She said the blood test results had come in but she had not read them and that I should call her in the morning.


"He has a liver problem, which explains why he couldn't run." Dr. Waldron said when I called her early the next morning.

She said it was due to a toxin and that the problem was not terribly unusual. It was very treatable. Fiona arrived once again and sewed a catheter into Xcel's jugular vein and gave me Gentocin to give him 35 cc's once a day for two weeks. She also put him on B vitamins. These would help with his appetite as he had refused to eat any grain at all though happily ate hay and grass. I really hate dealing with catheters. They make me very nervous. I've always been afraid a horse will try to rub it off and rip their vein open doing so. My horse, Magic, once had to have one in when he was on IV penicillin for a month (he was very sick!) Magic did just fine so I figured Xcel could deal with one for two weeks.