A few Friday nights ago, I set up my office in what looked a lot like a Central Kentucky Thoroughbred farm, with picturesque fields, pristine barns, and top-pedigree racehorses.

Not a bad place to spend a few hours working, right?

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

But this was neither a Thoroughbred nursery nor a race training facility. It was West Wind Farm, a boarding and sport horse facility, and I was attending Thoroughbreds for All, an event that New Vocations Racehorse Adoption and the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP) hold annually in Kentucky the weekend of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. New Vocations, a program that rehab, retrains, and rehomes retired racehorses in several states, currently bases its Kentucky operations at West Wind; building at its permanent location is in progress. The RRP is an organization that works to facilitate placement of Thoroughbred ex-racehorses in second careers by increasing demand for them. The event centered on assessments of several retired racehorses by professionals experienced in selecting and training Thoroughbreds for second careers (off-track Thoroughbreds, or OTTBs). In addition, three clinicians gave mini-lessons to retired racehorses and/or their riders: dressage trainer and rider Reese Koffler-Stanfield; eventer Laine Ashker; and reiner Dan James of Double Dan Horsemanship (who also did a liberty demonstration with his pair of palominos).

Three hours seemed like it might be a long time to be seated and learning about this subject, but I ended up completely spellbound at the rail the entire time. I was most riveted by the panelists’ evaluation of the Thoroughbred prospects, probably because recently I purchased my own retired racehorse—9-year-old chestnut gelding, Happy. I’m not in the market for another OTTB, but I found the insight helpful for assessing Happy and his progress toward a new career as a lower-level eventer.

The panel included Stuart Brown, DVM, of Hagyard Equine Medical Institute; Steuart Pittman, president of the RRP; and Nuno Santos, a former jockey and current owner of Santos Sport Horses. Some of the information they shared reminded me of my 4-H horse judging days—useful conformational tips that can apply to any prospect of any breed or discipline—but a lot of the information was specific to Thoroughbreds. Here’s are some insights Mr. Santos and the St(e)uarts shared:

  • Watch for symmetry and good balance; asymmetry and imbalance are a clue for potential issues with how they’ll carry themselves.
  • The hock angle should be neither excessive nor too straight. Sickle hocks (excessive angle) can lead to curbs and excessive flexion and soft tissue issues, said Brown. If hocks are too straight (post-legged), these horses are often more uncomfortable to ride and the pressure on the front of the joint can lead to spavin issues.
  • Note how the horse places his or her feet and with how much overstep, which describes how the horse’s hind foot reaches ahead of where the front foot left the ground during the same stride (more is better, because it makes collection easier for the horse).
  • Seek horses with fluid movement and a springy gait.
  • Select horses with clean bone and good heels (not severely underrun) and feet.
  • Watch for a “solid” horse with a good brain—one that appears confident as he takes in his surroundings (especially new environments) and not “worrying” much.
  • Look for a “sweet” eye.
  • Some trainers gravitate toward selecting a coarser horse with more substantial bone—others like a bit of a lighter horse. At the end of the day, it’s personal preference.
  • The horse’s pastern angles should match the shoulder angles; this suggests a more sound individual that will be equally aligned in his suspensory apparatus which is remarkably important for avoiding lameness issues.
  • Greater depth of hip and a longer back usually mean a more comfortable horse to ride (again, it’s personal preference).

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

Be sure to have a veterinarian conduct a soundness examination. Here are some things to keep in mind about Thoroughbred soundness:

  • Flexion tests are important during soundness checks for all horses, but especially off-track Thoroughbreds who’ve exercised rigorously.
  • Remember that a horse with back issues might also have issues with the hocks.
  • Don’t let a history of a suspensory injury scare you off: A horse with no significant core lesions or tears evident on ultrasound examination can go on to be a successful athlete.
  • Pittman said people used to say to avoid horses with bowed tendons, but he pointed out that many successful eventing horses have bowed in the past and that modern protocols for rehab can mean a better recovery than what was seen historically.
  • Similar to suspensory injuries, Brown said, horses with bowed tendons that are strains that can be rehabilitated and have minimal core lesions can be useful performers if introduced to training in a planned and disciplined manner.
  • He also noted that sesamoid fractures don’t necessarily preclude athletic potential. “There are four different types of sesamoid fractures,” he explained. “The apical sesamoid fractures (defined as occurring in the upper one-third of the sesamoid bone) can carry a better prognosis for healing, especially if cared for such that they are not proliferative in remodeling. Often then they involve the soft tissue insertions of the suspensory ligament.”
  • Racehorses are trained on the forehand and often need a lot of flatwork to help with carriage of the hind limbs.

Brown mentioned that you’ll want to pick a durable horse, and the Jockey Club and Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation have compiled stallion statistics related to soundness numbers, including starts and length of careers. “These (statistics) should be useful to consider, in my opinion, when selecting the OTTB and gaining the insight of distance performers on this list on various surfaces, such as turf form when choosing an eventer,” he said.

I recognize that this information would’ve been super handy when I was looking for my OTTB last fall, but it looks like great horsemen/women, decent instinct, and a little bit of luck have matched me with a wonderful prospect. My favorite take-home from the event came from Ashker and her mom: The trot you can fix, but the canter is the most important gait in these prospects.

When I look back to Icy Edge, my veteran OTTB eventer and “horse of a lifetime,” I remember his standout canter. So, how’s Happy’s canter? Dreamy (my assessment) and balanced (my trainer’s). Just the confirmation I needed that I’m on the right track with my new OTTB.

If you’re an off-track Thoroughbred owner (or anyone getting a horse started in their second career), what characteristics did you look for in your prospect?