By Lynn Stevens
Can an off-track Thoroughbred make it to the upper levels of dressage?
Dressage trainer Emily O’Neill thinks so, and her off-track Thoroughbred (“OTTB”) Honestly Tru has the ribbons to prove it. “Tru,” a 15-year-old, 15.3 hand OTTB, has spent the last four years working his way up the dressage levels, competing last season at Prix St. Georges. He is currently learning piaffe and passage, with the ultimate goal of Grand Prix.
O’Neill, based at Peace by Piece Farm in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, started riding Tru in the Spring of 2015. “He had a measly 3 starts and zero earnings,” laughs O’Neill. “Clearly he needed a new career.”
Before working with Tru, O’Neill had little experience training OTTBs, but she had worked with many other breeds, including warmbloods, Andulsians, Friesans, and Connemara ponies. Her first impression of the little Thoroughbred was that he had a kind eye and sweet attitude. Despite being built a little downhill, he was a nice mover with a great hind leg. She took him on as a project, with no great expectations other than to build his muscle and fitness. She thought she might try to take Tru to some local dressage schooling shows at Training Level, possibly even First level.
“Tru surprised me,” said O’Neill. “Like many OTTBs, he has an excellent work ethic. He convinced me he could move up the dressage levels. We’ve taken it a step at a time, focusing on correct dressage foundations at each step.”
Should dressage riders consider OTTBs for their partners?
“Absolutely!” says O’Neill. She notes that although many OTTBs go on to have second careers as eventers, there are fewer OTTBs competing at the higher levels of dressage. Indeed, in the FEI Test of Choice class at the 2019 Dressage at Devon, she thinks Tru was the only OTTB in the division. She hopes Tru can be an ambassador for OTTBs in this respect, and she would love to see more Thoroughbred and OTTB awards at dressage shows.
O’Neill notes that OTTBs have tremendous athleticism and stamina. “Both traits are critical in a good dressage horse, especially at the higher levels where the tests are longer and the movements come up very quickly.” She also says that OTTBs may carry more tension than a warmblood, but such tension should not be equated with spookiness, and it is not a negative. “It is simply the horse’s desire to do well. A rider wanting to move an OTTB into dressage will just need to focus more on finding ways to promote relaxation. You will need to find a place where your OTTB can be relaxed in his or her work, and remember that your OTTB will always be thinking two steps ahead of you.”
O’Neill has not found that there has been any bias against Tru as an OTTB in their dressage competitions. Most people are shocked when they hear he came off the track.
For dressage riders considering an OTTB, O’Neill has a few tips. First and foremost, look for a good mind. Confirm that the horse can accept pressure and is not overly reactive to its surroundings. Look for a free shoulder and a good hind leg.
O’Neill advises openness about an OTTB’s build. “They don’t have to be built perfectly. Look at Tru; while he stands 15.3 hands at his withers, his hind end measures 16 hands. A clinician once looked at him from the ground and said, ‘He’s just high behind because his heart is so big that it weighs his chest down.’”
“To me, that captures the beauty of an OTTB dressage horse.”