I have always loved Thoroughbred horses. They are athletic, elegant and intelligent, and they have a super work ethic. They are versatile, brave, kind and willing. A quiet, well-trained Thoroughbred can also be an excellent beginner horse. Even though warmbloods currently dominate the show horse world, the right Thoroughbred still can be competitive.
In the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to own and train wonderful Thoroughbreds. At some of the shows where they competed and did well, judges actually came up to tell me what amazing horses I had and how much they liked them. Even though I currently have some lovely warmblood horses to ride and compete, showing my Thoroughbred gives me the greatest pleasure. He is an ex-hurdle horse that has learned to jump as round and soft as any warmblood.
Thoroughbreds reward correct and proper riding style, which is another reason I love riding and showing them. I may have re-trained my current Thoroughbred from trying to land from a jump and run—something he excelled at—to jumping and landing slow and soft, but he gives me a lesson every time I enter the ring. If I stay in balance and in the center, he is soft and canters to the jump with a loose contact, jumping soft and round. If I lean too far forward, he goes faster down the line or on the landing. If I lie on his neck at takeoff, he may have a rub. If my position is good at takeoff, he rewards me with a spectacular jump. If I give when he responds to a half-halt, he stays soft. If I pull too much and don’t give he pulls harder. Riding him helps me ride all the other horses better and helps me teach my students as well.
The good Thoroughbreds in my life were easy to train because they were so willing and sensitive. They become easily adjustable and accommodating to ride. Competing them when they learn their job is like meditation. When I breathe, visualize, look where I am going, they follow my eye, seeming to read my mind as I go around the course. It does not take any physical exertion on my part; I just have to keep my focus, eyes up and heels down, stay in balance, and stay out of the horse’s way. They reward me by putting in a superior effort at the jumps and giving me the feeling of synchronicity, a joining of spirits.
Thinking about how my Thoroughbred teaches me reminds me of current riding issues: posting the canter, belly bands, and spur marks, to name a few. These were unheard of 20 years ago and don’t apply to riding a Thoroughbred. Thoroughbreds do learn to accept your leg, and many do not need spurs. Because they are naturally forward thinking, posting the canter—a practice that I have a hard time watching—is never needed to get them to go forward. A rider with a loose leg is not a good fit for a Thoroughbred (and can lead to unwanted spur marks or lost hair behind the girth on warmblood horses). Most Thoroughbreds do not respond well to conflicting aids, such as loose leg kicking while pulling or balancing on the reins. They appreciate a more tactful, educated, finessed ride.
Good Thoroughbred horses are very brave yet careful. They don’t need to see the jumps or be ridden in the ring in the morning so they won’t spook later in the day when showing. Some OTTBs may take a little time and prep to “get to the ring” as a show hunter, but I have found that when they figure it out, prepping becomes easier in most cases. One that I had a few years ago needed less prep than any other horse I trained. We did not even need to ride him in the morning; we just went to the schooling area, jumped five jumps or fewer, and then went into the ring. I know this is rare, and while it is true some don’t settle as hunters, these horses can benefit from the hunter training and go on to be jumpers, foxhunters or event horses if they thrive on speed. They will tell you which discipline they are best suited for, if you listen.
Thoroughbreds that have raced and retired sound can hold up well as show horses, event horses or fieldhunters. Some have even excelled at dressage. Track winners usually have heart and the desire to win, qualities that transfer to the show ring, even though they may not be competing head-to-head with another horse. They are athletes and seem to know that they are in it to win it.
No horse is better than a Thoroughbred with a good mind. When my now husband, Hunt Lyman, was learning to ride years ago, he bought a 3-year-old filly off the track named Lynzy’s Flight. This filly did not seem to have any interest in running. She was trained on the track but never raced. “Lynzy” was a perfect fit for my beginner boyfriend. She was dead quiet hacking out. The two of them learned to jump and foxhunt together. In a year, they were both able to hunt safely first flight with Orange County Hunt (Virginia) in the days when Melvin Poe was the huntsman, and the going was fast, and the jumps were big.
A year later, Hunt got busy with school and did not have enough time to ride. A customer of mine, who was also new to riding and foxhunting, purchased Lynzy, and the mare took great care of her for a few years in the field. She was sold a few years later to Bud Gosnel who hunted her for years first flight with Piedmont Fox Hounds (Virginia) until her retirement at Virginia Tech’s Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center as a broodmare. Lynzy was not successful getting in foal, but she was taken in by the veterinarian’s wife there as her personal riding horse. When the vet’s tenure at the center ended, Lynzy, now in her 20s, found her way to a therapeutic riding program. This mare gave the gift of an enjoyable ride to many people, mostly inexperienced riders, her entire life.
Having a fancy warmblood is in vogue now, but good ones are very expensive. Thoroughbreds are reasonably priced. It may take time to find a special one, but it is worth the effort. There are so many good programs now to show Thoroughbreds that make it affordable to bring them along, such as Take2, the Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program, Retired Racehorse Project, and so on. Great prize money is awarded. For a young trainer, bringing a Thoroughbred along and participating in these programs is an opportunity to get noticed. Having a Thoroughbred as the underdog who might compete and best the expensive warmbloods is fun as well. Besides all that, buying a Thoroughbred and giving him a chance at a second career is satisfying and kind. These horses give so much, and they have earned a chance for a good home.
I’m surprised when I see ISO ads from people online looking for a horse, noting, “No Thoroughbreds, please!” Last year a trainer told me that none of his students would look at a Thoroughbred. Maybe I love Thoroughbreds because it was Simbalu, a speedy OTTB, who was my horse of a lifetime. That horse had the best mind. Even when he was a fit 4-year-old and in training as a race horse, he was as quiet to ride out in the field as an old trail horse. He had class. He was the first horse that I showed in the professional hunter divisions from baby green to the regular working hunter divisions. He was also champion in the adult hunter division with groom and braider Caren Brouse. In between shows and breeding, he hacked out cross-country with my husband and others. I also used him as a lesson horse. He supported me and my horse business for years, and he put me on the map. Through him, I was able to meet and work with some of the best professional horsemen in the country.
A few years ago, a different trainer told me that “Thoroughbred” was a bad word. Not in my dictionary, where I remember the great Thoroughbreds, horses that were top hunters and jumpers: Bonne Nuit, Centerfold, Whadyasay!, Tindle, Stocking Stuffer, Gozzi, Idle Dice, Untouchable, Bold Minstrel, Good Twist, Balbuco, Snowbound, Jet Run, Touch Of Class, Gem Twist, The Jones Boy, For The Moment, Chase The Clouds, and so many more. There are others out there waiting to be taken on to become a super horse. I hope some readers will find one, give it a try, and enjoy the ride.
Sue Lyman has been riding, training and showing hunters in the Middleburg, Virginia, area since 1985. During this time she broke, started, retrained and competed many successful horses, including Simbalu, Rox Dene, Irregardless, Townsend and All In One. Sue served on the USHJA Professionals Committee from 2008-2012. She has served on the USHJA Horse And Rider Advocates Committee since 2013 and became chair of that committee in 2021.
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our May 23-June 6, 2022, Issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.