Common OTTB Behavior Traits

Most ex-racehorses are very tolerant of tasks such as grooming and bathing.

Photo: iStock

Q. I’m considering purchasing an ex-racehorse. Are there any common behavior problems seen in off-the-track horses I should be aware of?

Sarah, via email

A. Off-the-track horses probably have many common behavior tendencies that, contrary to our perception, are actually not unique to racehorses. One that makes perfect sense for a horse coming straight off the track or from training stables is the tendency to get wound up whenever taken out for work. We can attribute this to some racing programs’ rigid and/or rushed daily training schedules, where the emphasis is on going fast for short periods. 

Another interesting behavior stems from these horses being allowed to circle around the handler when excited—usually to the left or counterclockwise. We commonly see this in young stallions transitioning from racing to breeding.

Many young Thoroughbreds are allowed to circle around their handler when excited--a behavior that's undesirable once these horses move into second careers.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/

Similarly, they tend to not turn to the right or to back up well. They also might initially have trouble working clockwise or up and down hills or doing much of anything at the walk. And many racehorses, especially those living for long periods without turnout and/or in the track environment, have a high incidence of the classic equine behavior problems related to the stress of confinement and poor socialization, including stereotypies (e.g., cribbing, weaving, etc.), panic disorders, and wood chewing. 

On the positive side, in my experience I’ve observed that racehorses have fewer behavior problems than other similar-aged horses during everyday activities, such as loading and transporting, having their legs wrapped and feet lifted, being groomed or bathed, as well as being injected or medicated. Keep in mind, however, that these are all gross generalizations, and there are plenty of exceptions. I hear from as many folks who are pleasantly surprised as are challenged by OTTB projects.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

comments powered by Disqus
Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More