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Balancing an Off-Track Thoroughbred

Q: I recently bought an off-track Thoroughbred, and he’s had time to let down as well as a saddle fitter and vet out to check him, and all is fine. He goes pretty well in one direction, but he won’t bend at all going the other way. Can you offer any advice on why he does this and how to get him to bend in his bad direction?

A: While most horses tend to favor one side over the other (similar to how people are right- or left-handed), it is possible to create a horse that tracks evenly on both the right and the left rein. First, it’s important to understand what your horse was asked to do while on the track. The vast majority of horses who are trained to race are held back almost every time they set foot on the track; they are rarely able to have a loose rein except while they work at speed, which is about once a week. Additionally, some horses never jog to the right; they are taught to jog straight lines and then canter to the left.

Some exercise riders, in an effort to hold their mounts in check, will crank their horse’s head around to make sure they are not run off with.

It will take time and patience to teach your horse his new job. I put all the horses that come through New Vocations in snaffle bits (either steel or rubber) as they learn to move their shoulders independently and to bend. If I get a horse that really is having trouble understanding the concept of bending, I’ll put him on the longeline wearing a surcingle with properly adjusted side reins and work him in the harder direction. I tighten the inside side rein a bit more so his head tips to the inside, which gives him the feeling of a correct bend.

Additionally, I teach all our horses to leg-yield correctly; this, in turn, will teach them to bend. I’ll ask them to leg-yield off and on the long side of the arena twice before making the turn on the short side, but how many times you can do it will depend on how large your arena is. We also do lots of serpentines, focusing on bending in the direction of travel and then changing the bend as the horse changes direction.

A final note: While we as riders tend to focus on the horse’s bad side, it’s very important to remember to work his good direction too.

See all of our off-track Thoroughbred resources at

MELISSA KING is the Thoroughbred trainer for New Vocations Racehorse Program in Lexington, Ky.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Horse Illustrated

Horse Illustrated is the magazine for people who are passionate about horses. Each issue offers advice on horse health and care, plus user-friendly training tips for both English and western riders and engaging lifestyle features for horse lovers.

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