The Thoroughbred Horse: Heart isn’t Enough Anymore

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Though the Thoroughbred horse has been a strong force in the sport horse industry for decades, their presence in the Hunter/Jumper ring has given way to the stylish Warmbloods over the past 10 years or so. Outside of Hunter/Jumpers, Thoroughbred horses are also seen less and less in Eventing and lower level Dressage as well (Thoroughbreds never had much of a stronghold on upper level Dressage).

The Thoroughbred horse has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. At one time, most off-the-track Thoroughbreds were guaranteed to make excellent performance horses, as long as their racing career wasn’t ended due to a major injury. Today, Thoroughbreds aren’t bred to withstand the long term effects of racing, let alone Jumping, Eventing, or Dressage. Modern Thoroughbreds are merely built to (hopefully) win a few races and then are considered disposable.

A Thoroughbred has more heart than any other horse breed.

The average, off-the-track Thoroughbred 20-30 years ago was around 16hh-17+hh average height, came with a refined head, long neck, high withers, short back, good hindquarters, lean body, deep chest, long legs, and ample bone for their size in addition to a very uphill build, a nice long stride at all gaits, and were generally, very athletic.

The average off-the-track Thoroughbred of today is smaller in height, 15hh-16.2hh, has a decent head, is often built downhill with a lean body, narrow chest, average to long back, and very small bone for the build. All in all, the average ex-race horse today is not built for performance of any kind, thus explaining their frequent breakdowns on the track.

Simply put, the Thoroughbred horse has been severely overbred. Thoroughbred breeding is a science, but not the kind of science seen in German Warmbloods. Thoroughbred breeders do not reference generations of successful crosses, nor do they breed with the overall picture and conformation of each individual horse in mind. Thoroughbred horse breeders use theories, from statistical analyses to superstitions and, well voodoo, to determine sire and mare combinations. The average Thoroughbred horse breeder is dreaming of breeding the next Kentucky Derby Winner, and it’s not just the possible financial reward of such a win, they seek the prestige of having their name attached to such a winning horse.

Because of the recent media revolving around Eight Belles tragic injury and subsequent euthanasia, there has been a sudden “interest” in the injury statistics in the Thoroughbred Racing Industry. A new report covering catastrophic horse racing injury research has been made public, but only loopholes and excuses are found in the many articles, research, and surveys available. Without EVERY horse race track reporting injuries and having those injuries tracked and recorded by unbiased participants, the macro statistics on horse racing injuries are questionable at best. The racehorse industry cannot be responsible for accurately reporting their own problems (*more on horse racing injury statistics).

More importantly than faulty injury statistics, the Thoroughbred breed itself needs a serious evaluation. With all the conformational faults contained on the average Thoroughbred racehorse, it’s no wonder they break down so easily. Even non-catastrophic injuries need to be examined.

If a horse breaks down due to soundness issues related to conformation, is it really a good idea to retire that horse to breed? No matter how many races a horse has won, or how lightning fast the horse is, if the horse has soundness issues by and large, and absolutely is not conformationally sound, why are these horses being bred? Bloodlines and heart don’t cut it, and they certainly are not improving the Thoroughbred breed.

Thoroughbreds often get a bad rap because of their temperament. Although Thoroughbreds are definitely sensitive and “hot”, they need a job, they need consistency, and generally, they need confidence. Once a Thoroughbred has an owner or trainer that can provide a clear path to expectations, a Thoroughbred is not only willing, but genuinely wants to please. A Thoroughbred has more heart than any other breed of horse. Tapping the Thoroughbred heart is the key to unlocking their sport horse potential.

The Thoroughbred’s heart can also be it’s downfall in that self preservation often takes a backseat to unquestionable effort (e.g. Eight Belles). Eight Belle’s jockey never asked the horse to run on broken legs, and whether the jockey knew it or not, Eight Belles’ heart wanted to win, and nothing was going to stop her.

Moreover, here is a list of today’s Thoroughbred strengths and weaknesses

Thoroughbred Horse Strong Points:

  • Incredible Stamina
  • Powerful Speed
  • Great Agility
  • Often “Pretty”
  • Heart for their Job
  • Temperament can be perfect for rider and the job at hand

Thoroughbred Horse Weak Points:

  • Terrible Feet (small, thin soles and hoof walls)
  • Orthopedic Problems (DOD Developmental Orthopedic Disease)
  • Weak Legs (stress fractures, bone chips, etc.)
  • Temperament too “high” for average horse owner
  • Often has vices if off the track (weaving, cribbing)
  • Often more susceptible to ulcers (especially if off the track)
  • Hard Keepers

There are still, even today, nice looking Thoroughbreds that don’t have all the above problems, but they are getting harder and harder to find. On top of Thoroughbred breeding weaknesses, their look is now even inconsistent. Thoroughbreds have, by and large, lost their once tall, long legged, uphill, and noble stature. There used to be a time one could look at a horse and know if it was a Thoroughbred or not, but now, Quarter Horses look like Thoroughbreds sometimes, and often, Thoroughbreds just look like your average, generic horse.

Additionally, Thoroughbred horse breeders DO NOT take into account conformation, soundness, temperament, or anything else important to breeding sound, solid performance sport horses. The dosage index used in mathematical Thoroughbred horse breeding produces unsound, conformationally poor horses to say the least. Considering horse racing is one of the more physically demanding equestrian sports (for the horse), one would think producing sound, solid performance sport horses would be fundamentally prudent.

As with many aspects of the horse racing industry, their breeding practices alone incite much rage and head-scratching from sport horse equestrians, enthusiasts, and horse activists alike.

Simply put, the Thoroughbred horse has been severely overbred.

After acquiring a sound (or semi-sound) off-the-track Thoroughbred, re-starting an ex-race horse is a science unto itself. A proper “let down” period is necessary before an off-the-track TB can begin moving past his/her life on the track. There are many drugs and high protein feeds that all need to flush from their system so they can begin acting like horses. Turnout is something that many racehorses have never experienced. Since the majority of Thoroughbred owners acquired their TB’s off the track (or at least the TB was once on the track), a good un-training and re-training are, and were, essential to a Thoroughbred’s success in another career.

It’s unfortunate many people are not suited to handle and re-train ex-racehorses for sport horse disciplines. Seeing as the Thoroughbred temperament gets a semi-deserved bad rap, much of their demeanor and temperament is influenced by the environment in which they were raised. Many equestrians do not posses the personality needed to ride off-the-track Thoroughbreds and end up competing with the their “hot” temperament. Too many people have had bad experiences on Thoroughbreds that don’t have anything to do with the horse’s soundness. The Thoroughbred’s flightiness, spookiness, and nervous demeanor has made many a beginner and intermediate rider scared of the breed.

thoroughbreds off-the-track detox in a pasture

Despite modern Thoroughbred breeding practice failures, the Thoroughbred horse will always be an important icon to the performance and sport horse industry. Without the Thoroughbred, many equestrians could not have afforded to buy their own horse. Ex-race horses tend to be economical, though their possible health problems might outweigh discounts received in the purchase price.

All in all, I used to be a hardcore Thoroughbred lover. Hooked by their “do anything” for you heart, my loyalty has faded by the mis-handling from their human creators. Sure, there may be a few solid, sound, and great performing Thoroughbred sport horses still remaining, but heart just isn’t enough anymore to overlook the breed’s faults, some of which (bad feet) have always been issues.

Looking back at the Thoroughbred from 20-30 years ago, and then again today, I can say I will probably never own another Thoroughbred.

It pains me to admit that.

And unfortunately for the Thoroughbred horse, the future of the breed is quite dim, to say the least.