The first Saturday in May is the Kentucky Derby, the most prominent date on the American Thoroughbred racing calendar. Celebrations are centered around mint juleps, outrageous hats and the hope of maybe winning a few dollars. But for those in the horse world, Thoroughbreds are worth celebrating year round.
(Read more and share your own OTTB tales over on Facebook or in the comments below.)
Lauren and Handsome
After a year of year of being chemically poisoned, surgically sliced and diced then roasted in the radiation room until well-done, I kicked breast cancer’s butt and stayed on “this side of the grass.” I remain immensely grateful and cherish my good luck because the odds of my survival were dismal at best. The toll was a steep one, however. My successful career was over, savings depleted, and my “can’t do” list filled up. So I looked into my Bucket List.
Only a single item was in it. A horse. My heart’s desire was to own and train a horse of my own. But where to begin?
I began to volunteer at a nearby horse rescue to learn everything about horses and hone my long dormant riding skills. After a week, I noticed a big, bay off-the-track Thoroughbred quietly hanging around his fellow rescues in a large corral. Handsome John was his name and his career-ending hoof injury had just finished healing. But he was always left behind when the others went out on trail. The poor boy had lost his spirit, was 200 lbs. underweight and was afraid to even walk over a crack in the dirt. I decided to take Handsome under my wing as a project horse.
There we were. Two broken down beings trying to find our “new normal.” As I cheered Handsome John on to face and overcome his hurdles we both progressed as one. When it was time to go out on trail, we lingered behind so Handsome could succeed at his own pace then catch up to the others. After a year, my beautiful boy overcame most of his issues and even enjoyed ponying other horses.
It was time to make Handsome John my own, so I officially adopted my Bucket List boy and boarded him close to my home. The stable owner, Caroline, quickly noticed that Handsome was still underweight, his coat lacked shine and luster and his demeanor was still rather dull. So after consulting with the veterinarian, we introduced a new diet and did some testing. To address his still sagging spirits, Caroline placed Handsome with one of her Quarter Horse geldings.
Under Caroline’s expert care, Handsome John has a new sparkle in his eye and gallops around the arena with ears fixed forward and tail held high. We love riding the miles of dirt roads and trails just outside the stable’s front door, taking in the beautiful scenery and stunning silence. I am now able to see my sweet boy at least three days each week with the understanding that our “new normal” has been realized. There is no need to refill my Bucket List now.
— Lauren Jackson
This is my guy Play Well TC, known to us as Chief. He is going to be 18 years old in a few days. Had a fairly short career of just 36 races, but earned $97,000. He bounced from home to home for several years before he landed in my yard 2 years ago, a neurotic basket case. But with lots of love and patience, he has turned into quite a love. Now he’s in his forever home. I love him so much!
— Susan LaFountaine
My boy Brass Run aka Killian is the sweetest, most chill OTTB ever! He toted me around with care when I was pregnant with my daughter, and he’s such a lovey dovey kind of guy. He works hard and is always eager to please. I wouldn’t trade him for the most expensive, well-trained horse in the world. I look forward to many years with him!
Samantha and Gulliver
I have Gulliver to thank for reigniting my love of riding. Although I grew up with horses, by the time I turned 16 other interests beckoned and riding was no longer part of the picture. Ten years later, I landed a job at Blazing Saddles trail rides and realized what I’d been missing. On a weekend visit to my parents, I asked Mum if she had a horse I could have a ride on. Gulliver was a 4-year-old Thoroughbred she had purchased off the track as a project to keep her occupied until her youngster was ready to break. She was dubious about letting me ride him as he could be a bit of a handful, but we seemed to click and I was hooked.
That was in June 2011. We were both very green and had a lot to learn. In November 2011 I joined Whittlesea Adult Riders Club. We were assessed at level 4 for dressage and showing in the Horse Riding Clubs Association of Victoria (HRCAV) and shortly afterwards entered our first show. It was not a very auspicious debut as I took a tumble within 30 seconds of hopping on. Nevertheless, we soldiered on and were pleased as punch with our three 4th place ribbons at the end of the day. A month later at TTT Show I hit the dirt again. Perhaps Dressage would be easier.
Our first dressage competition was in January 2012. We ended up near the bottom of the field, but at least I didn’t fall off! It was a bit touch and go and his tail was spinning like a propeller throughout the tests. At our next competition, we surprised everyone by winning the level 4 Jackpot on both days – pointing up to level 3. I may have happy cried.
At the same competition a year later we won the level 3 Jackpot and pointed up to level 2. A year after that, in February 2014, we were there again – this time for our first crack at level 1. We have been in level 1 for just over a year now and are really getting the hang if it! Next: Advanced level!
Our journey hasn’t been without its challenges and we have had to work through a variety of issues. He is talented and bright – sometimes too bright and his joy of life can translate into “yee haw” moments. Those that know him will agree that his tests are never boring. Don’t they say that the best horses are the ones with a bit of spunk? He finally seems to be maturing now and has given me some lovely tests over the past 6 months – it’s all very exciting.
Looking back, a cheeky, chestnut OTTB was probably not the best choice for someone who had no idea what bend, impulsion or a half halt meant—let alone felt like—but we have learned so much together and it has been so rewarding.
— Samantha Mizzi
When I met my OTTB on a cold and rainy day in a racetrack in Argentina, nobody would have guessed that a gelding with high chances of ending up being sold to the horse meat market would end up competing in dressage three years later. He is always willing to please, come heat, cold or rain. His story is proof that everyone deserves a second opportunity in life.
— Barbara Suarez
My OTTB, Desert Leader, cost me $1 from a friend. Leader is the most gentle, easy to ride horse. He can be the school horse for my friend when she needed some confidence or the show horse who makes me look good. He is 23 years old and still going strong. My trainer still says she can’t believe that he is 23. He is my good friend and makes me happy when I have a bad day. I never thought I would own and ride a “nervous OTTB.” There isn’t a nervous bone in his body; he is lovey and takes care of this older rider!
— Annette Carosella
Catherine and Ruyoun
I have rescued a few OTTBs in the last few years, including some really nice ones that I turned around and rehomed. The one who truly stole my heart is my Ruyoun. Despite how badly he was treated, this horse has overcome so much. Before I had him, he was chained to a nonfunctional hot walker by himself, supposedly to teach him patience. Needless to say, he fractured his medial metacarpal bone, which ossified. My veterinarian and a colleague of his removed the compromised bone. I rehabbed him for a year with several casts and a lot of hand walking. He never once got ugly with me during this long process. Several months later, he was diagnosed with grade four ulcers, both foregut and hind.
I cannot say enough about how this horse communicates with me. He is always happy to have fun and play games. He loves his toys and life. He has taught me to be stronger and to be more patient. Plus he is drop dead gorgeous. I am so blessed to have him.
I had a double mastectomy a year ago. He is the one who kept me going and helped me not feel sorry for myself. Without him I would have had no goals. Runyon came through his health issues with grace and heart he was not going to give up. I’m happy to say he is doing great.
— Catherine Enright
I got my OTTB, Whatsontap, right off the track. He had a number of things wrong with him, a lot mentally. He has come a long way and is now my children’s favorite. He soaks up all their love and is the most gentle horse around children. He may never have a full time job, but he’s blessed us in a billion ways.
— Lorrie Doucette
MJ and Prince
One night I was at home and I was surfing the Internet looking at horse tack. I happened to browse past an ad that said, “Thoroughbred gelding free to good home.” I sent an email and made a date to see the horse. I was not planning on taking him for myself but thought that he might be a nice horse for a friend of mine.
When I arrived at the barn there were horses everywhere. The owner ran a rescue and had over 66 horses, but there was one in particular that caught my eye. He was tall and brown, wearing a tattered green blanket. Something about the look in his eye caught my attention. I said to my daughter, “Look at that horse. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was that one?”
We went to talk to the owner, and she told us the story of the horse that she was giving away. He had had great potential as a racehorse. He was strong and fast and willing to please, but he got injured. His owners did not want to put the time and money into fixing a broken horse, so he was going to be sent to slaughter. In an instant, this magnificent racehorse with great potential went from glorious to garbage.
But as luck would have it, the rescue agency was told about him and went to retrieve him. He lived happily at the rescue for three years as a companion horse to a little pony that he adored, but soon that agency had to reduce their herd so that they could save more precious lives.
After we heard the story of this horse, we were escorted toward the field with the big beautiful horse with the kind eyes and the tattered blanket that I had seen when we first arrived. I was excited and really hoped that he was the horse we were going out to the field to see, but I doubted it. Who would give a beautiful horse like that away for free?
When we walked into the field we were still chatting and the big beautiful horse walked right up to us. He placed his head on my shoulder like he was giving me a big horsey hug.
“Jeez, this horse is really nice,” I said to the owner. “I like him.”
“Well that’s good,” she replied. “He’s the horse that you were coming to see.”
My heart skipped a beat with excitement, I tried to act cool and calm and pretend that I was still considering this beautiful beast, but my heart and mind were already made up. I drove as fast as I could to the barn where I board my daughter’s horse and asked if there was room for him and made plans for his arrival. Now he is my best friend and I am his.
It makes me sad to think that he was so close to death. He was a faithful friend to someone and he tried so hard to please his owners that he was injured in the process, then tossed out like trash. But in a way I’m glad that he was tossed away, because if he wasn’t then I might not have found my handsome Prince. Although I don’t usually believe in fate, I feel that fate was on our side that night and I am thankful for it because now I cannot imagine my life without him. He is part of my heart and he always will be.
— MJ Napier
Brandon and Karazan
Editor’s Note: MJ also sent us a link to the story of her son, Brandon, and his OTTB, Karazan, who he adopted with his birthday money. Definitely take a minute to read it. It’s a great story!
Liked this article? Here are others on Thoroughbreds:
Off-Track Thoroughbred Resources
Behind-the-Scenes at the Makers Mark Secretariat Center