April 2016 - My Thoroughbred Makeover: Twice As Nice

Feet are first focus for two OTTBs headed to this fall’s competition in Kentucky.

by Emily Flaxman

I might be crazy. Actually, if you ask most people who know me they will confirm this fact.

Shortly after I submitted last month’s article, I received the letter of acceptance from the Retired Racehorse Project for the 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky.

However, that letter also stated: With a capacity of 500 horses and 480 accepted trainers, the space for second horses is very limited. Rather than select by lottery or first-paid, first-served, we are offering the second horse opportunity to alumni of past Thoroughbred Makeovers.

As an alumni who ticked the box saying I would like to bring two horses should the opportunity be available, I received the exclusive e-mail offer shortly after. Because I already had another eligible horse, I’ll be making the journey anyway so taking both is no big deal and because I have very persuasive friends who like to talk me into dumb ideas ... I am now entered twice!

I have already introduced Supercabras (“Merlin,” to his friends), so I’ll tell you a little about Elusive Plains, or “Louie.” He is a 7 year old gelding who ran 11 times and only won $28,855. As a foal he sold at auction for $300,000. No, that’s not a typo!

Sadly, he didn’t live up to that early promise. His race history shows that he only raced twice in 2013 and once in 2014.

That leads me to guess that he had some kind of physical issue that prevented his trainer from wanting to push him, but not something serious enough to warrant retirement.

He came to me incredibly footsore due to a bad shoeing job and, because shoes didn’t seem to be helping, I’ve pulled them to allow him to rehab barefoot. Thankfully the ground is nice and soft right now and he seems to be comfortable.

Both horses arrived at my barn in “racing plates.” These are made from aluminum to be super light. This means less weight for the horse to have to carry each stride and therefore saves energy. Every little ounce counts!

Generally, racehorses are shod normally until a few days before a race, when they will be swapped over to the lighter shoe. Race plates aren’t designed to last six to seven weeks like a normal shoe so they are generally traded in and out when needed. The extra nail holes from doing this aren’t ideal as they weaken the hoof wall. As most people know, Thoroughbreds don’t always have the best feet to begin with.

A Healthy Hooves Diet

One thing that I have found helps all my OTTB transitioners, especially with their hooves, is an improved diet. All of mine are on free choice hay, and, for grain, they get beet pulp, hay cubes and RenewGold - which is coconut based.

Removing the sugar and starchy grains from their diets is key, sugar is a hoof killer. Then I add a mineral balancer, my choice is California Trace because I’m lazy and it’s already done for me this way. Most California hay is high in Iron, which in moderate amounts is required by the horse but when the amounts get too high it starts to inhibit the intake of other minerals. The key minerals it blocks are zinc and copper, both of which are vital to build a good foot.

If you have a horse that has weak feet it is definitely worth speaking to a nutritionist about whether your diet is providing everything at the optimum amounts.

I’m letting Louie get comfortable on his feet before I start riding him, so he’s just chilling in a small paddock. I’d started lunging Merlin in side reins to build up his topline before I started serious riding and he was really getting the idea, he’s such a quick learner!

We had also been out on a few trail rides and introduced him to water. But the last few weeks he’s been brewing an abscess in his front hoof so he’s back to not doing much. It’s pretty common for horses to develop abscesses when they transition from being shod. I’d rather it happens now, while he’s letting down and we have plenty of time ahead.

I have a different approach to restarting OTTBs. Obviously this is dependent on the individual horse, so it changes slightly each time. Generally, I start with riding before lunging, mostly at a walk in the arena. I focus on suppleness - doing lots of circles, spiraling in and out, changing directions, leg yields and baby lateral work - really trying to work on loosening the haunches up and stretching each side of the ribcage so that the horse naturally learns to relax through the topline. I find this is a more organic way to teach them to work in a frame than using gadgets or force.

Once I feel secure on them in the arena I move out onto the trails. I love walking, it has so many positives. To really stride out in a walk, a horse has to swing through its back and really oscillate its neck. It’s also really hard to break a horse in walk, which allows you to build up all the tendons and ligaments before starting faster work. Back when I was growing up in England, the standard way to bring a horse up to fitness was six weeks roadwork at walk before adding in the trot and canter work.  I guess old habits die hard...

A Growing Event

This year’s Thoroughbred Makeover is going to be so much bigger than 2015. Last year 130 horses competed in the 10 disciplines, but having extended the amount of entries accepted the organizers are hoping for 350 this year.

I’m pleased to report that 18 trainers from California are on the list, compared to only three last year! That puts California in the top 10 states with the most entries, which is impressive considering the distance. The Kentucky Horse Park is the most incredible venue to drive into: it is over 1,200 acres, with beautiful wooden rail fences and immaculate facilities.

Coming from California at the end of a very dry summer, the lush green grass was a welcome sight. The atmosphere last year was almost carnival-esque with all the other competitors so friendly and helpful. Over the weekend of the competition there were seminars and discussion forums on every subject you could possibly think of to do with OTTBs. I attended as many as I could, and learned something interesting at each one.

There were also plenty of opportunities for shopping, but luckily for the bank balance my credit card got cancelled the first day I got there. My husband claims he ‘lost’ his so they both had to be stopped...


Columnist Emily Flaxman uses dressage as a foundation for training OTTBs and other breeds from her base in the East Bay Area’s Clayton. She trained Go Wheeler Go to top finishes in her first Thoroughbred Makeover last year (California Riding Magazine, January 2016) and is detailing this year’s effort regularly in our pages. To learn more about Emily, visit www.emilyflaxman.com. For more on the Thoroughbred Makeover, visit www.retiredracehorseproject.com.