What to look for in an OTTB horse and pitfalls to avoid
By MARIA L. LEWIS
So, you want a gorgeous, athletic and, hopefully inexpensive, OTTB, but you’re afraid of spending your hard-earned money and your tender heart on a horse that might not be suitable to your intended purpose.
How do you prevent yourself from being taken advantage of, making a costly mistake, or skipping the diamond in the rough?
I think the first step is to be realistic in your goals.
You are probably a lot like me in that you love to jump a little and hack out, maybe compete a few times a year, but you’re really not looking for a 4* event horse anymore.
Most OTTB’s, even with a little bit of “jewelry” will suit your purpose.
However, if you are looking for an elite athlete, please take the steps to ensure that you get the horse that will stay the course.
Do not fall in love with ANY horse until you, or your trusted representative, has seen the horse in person.
Every veterinarian can tell you of horror stories involving purchases made solely on the basis of a few pictures in an Internet post.
Does the horse appear healthy? Is it sound at the walk? Are there any glaringly obvious lumps, bumps or swellings?
If you are going to see a horse at a racetrack you will need to be signed in, generally by the trainer whose horse you are going to see, and you’ll need identification, such as your driver’s license.
Trainers generally are happy to spend a few minutes with you after training hours are over, but before racing begins.
Unless the horse is lame at the walk, you should be able to ask to see the horse out of its stall and probably jog a few steps in the shedrow.
Ask the trainer, the groom and/or the owner why the horse is retiring from racing.
Did the horse get hurt in training or racing, or is it just too slow to be competitive?
Ask if any records such as radiographs or ultrasounds might be available to you or your vet.
These horses are an investment and generally they aren’t retired without knowing why.
Before looking deeply into the horse’s eyes and falling madly in love, have at least a physical exam done by a veterinarian.
You need to know that the horse isn’t blind in one eye, sick or otherwise unsuitable.
A brief physical examination by a qualified veterinarian can reveal many (but not all) injuries that should be further investigated.
Racing is all about high speed, and certain injuries are common with speed.
Chip fractures of the knees and ankles, condylar fractures, sesamoid fractures and injuries to the suspensory ligament or superficial digital flexor tendon are all common.
However, some horses are just too slow to justify the expense of continuing to train them.
Sharp eyes can help you decide which is the case with your potential dream horse.
Swelling of any joint, particularly the front ankles and knees, but also the hind ankles or swelling of the cannon bone region warrants investigation.
How much investigation depends on whether the connections are forthcoming about reasons for retiring the horse.
Never feel pressured to take a horse off the premises immediately.
If necessary, offer to pay for the horse to stay in the trainer’s care while you make your decision.
On the other hand, do not waste someone’s time if you really aren’t ready to commit.
This is a business and the trainer needs to fill the stall with a horse that they can train.
All those fractures sound really scary, but not every fracture is career limiting.
Condylar fractures are fractures of the bottom end of the cannon bone in either front or hind ankles.
If the condylar facture is non-displaced, and this is critical to know, there is less damage to the joint surface and less arthritis will follow.
Horses with incomplete condylar fractures may only be slightly lame and may not have much swelling.
These fractures are frequently repaired with screws and lots of OTTB owners have been surprised when, years later, routine radiographs reveal multiple screws in the cannon bone.
However, if the fracture is displaced and the articular cartilage is significantly damaged, degenerative joint disease will develop.
How severe the impact of the articular cartilage damage varies widely and you should seek the advice of your veterinarian.
Of course, if you bring home a horse with an acute condylar fracture, that horse will need to be confined to a stall until the fracture has healed.
Chip fractures in the ankle and knee are frequent causes of retirement in racehorses.
Some horses will have small fragments in the joint that can be managed at the track for a period of time with ice, anti-inflammatory medication and intra-articular steroid use.
In some horses the fragments are large and require arthroscopy to remove the fragment(s) and “clean up” the joint.
Smaller fragments that are rounded in appearance may never bother the horse.
If an ankle (mostly front ankles) or knee has significant soft swelling, further investigation is warranted.
If you really like the horse, it may be worth investing the money for arthroscopy in order to prevent further joint damage and to help maintain the horse’s soundness for years to come.
Although it is far less common due to improvements in veterinary medicine, there are still horses that have severe, chronic arthritis in a knee or ankle due to repeated intra-articular steroid use (“tapping”) in an attempt to manage these chips without surgery.
These horses are generally not suitable for athletic use due to loss of the articular cartilage and often need to be retired.
Recent steroid injection can mask the symptoms of arthritis, so ask if a suspicious joint has recently been injected.
The sesamoid bones are part of the suspensory apparatus that supports the horse’s ankle during weightbearing.
Injuries to one portion of the suspensory apparatus will often result in injury to the other portions of it.
These structures include the suspensory ligament body and branches, the sesamoid bones and the distal sesamoidean ligaments.
Most fractures of the apex or base of the sesamoid will generally involves tearing of the associated ligaments and the horse’s prognosis may rely more on the degree of ligament damage than the fracture itself.
If radiographs show a sesamoid fracture an ultrasonographic examination should be done.
Mid-body fractures with ankle drop are severe injuries that generally preclude an athletic career.
However, many small fractures will generally heal well, but significant soft tissue injury will alter the horse’s prognosis.
The other consideration is whether the fragment involves the joint surface or not.
This is another situation where it may be worth investing money in arthroscopy to remove the fracture fragments before they cause damage to the articular cartilage.
As far as the soft tissue component, the percentage of injury is important to the horse’s prognosis.
Severe injuries result in a greater percentage of scar tissue within the ligament that tends to be less elastic than the normal ligament which may make the ligament vulnerable to re-injury at a higher level of sport.
Also, be aware that an injury to the suspensory ligament takes a long time to heal completely.
Although the tear will fill in within a few months, it can take many months for the ligament to regain its strength.
These horses often need stall confinement with only walking exercise for months.
However, if you want a horse that can compete at Preliminary level eventing, 3’6” hunters, amateur jumpers and dressage, do not be afraid to rehabilitate a moderate suspensory injury as long as you have the time.
Look for thickening of any portion of the suspensory ligament including any swelling on the sides of the ankle, particularly asymmetry between the inside and outside of the ankle when viewed from the front or back.
If there is swelling or thickening, squeeze the leg in that spot and see if the horse reacts. Old, healed injuries frequently remain enlarged, but tend to not be painful.
Last, but not least, are injuries to the superficial digital flexor tendon, commonly referred to as a “bow”.
Tearing of the tendon occurs at high speed and the larger the injury, the slower the horse should go in the future.
The “average” bowed tendon is a tear of about 30% of the total cross-sectional area of the tendon over a length of 10 to 12cm, usually in the middle third of the cannon bone region.
These injuries heal well and these horses, once rehabilitated, can generally compete at Preliminary level eventing, amateur jumpers or 3’6” hunters as well as dressage to any level.
Injuries in the upper or lower thirds of the cannon bone region tend to be more significant as do severe injuries that are 50 % or more of the total cross-sectional area.
Even these so called “banana bows” may be still suitable for fox-hunting and competing at lower levels, such as local hunters or Training level eventing.
Palpating the tendon for heat, pain, swelling and texture can reveal a lot, but ultrasonographic examination, preferably several days after the injury, will reveal how significant the injury is and what career path is best for that horse.
This is another situation where you’ll need to invest a lot of time before the tendon has reached its full healing potential.
Be prepared for months of stall confinement and walking exercise, followed by months of jogging exercise before you can turn out these horses.
Although these are the injuries that are frequently the cause of retirement for racehorses, there are many others.
Don’t be afraid to ask a few questions and then take the first steps to retraining one or more of these exceptional athletes for your use.
Thoroughbreds can be silly and spooky, but they are also brave and kind, making them perfect partners for a lifetime.