Thoroughbred horses and retired race horses in particular, have been pigeon-holed in different ways by different folks. My perspective comes from a background as a professional trainer with a focus on the sport of three day eventing. Eventers love Thoroughbreds, and my love affair with these animals goes deeper than most. It's a story that I'll save for later. In fact it's a whole book and I can't wait to write it…someday.
I will try to avoid stereotypes, and I will ask you to do the same. There are quiet Thoroughbreds out there. Go to any foxhunt in America and you'll find some old ladies on their trusted retired racehorses that never put a foot wrong. There are show hunters still, although not as many as twenty years ago, who canter around their courses like machines, and it's not always induced by drugs. Many a backyard trail horse was a race horse in its younger days.
The retired race horses that we hear most about, however, are the ones in the Olympics. That used to include horses like Keen, who Hilda Gurney turned into the top US Grand Prix dressage horse, and Idle Dice, the Charlestown reject that Rodney Jenkins trained to be the best US show jumper of his time. They still include eventing team horses like Becky Holder's Courageous Comet, who not only takes your breath away with his jump but leaves you absolutely speechless with his extended trot.
Thoroughbreds still take the majority of top placings at our top three day events, but cross-breds are catching up. Thoroughbreds are declining in the hunter/jumper world and are very rare in FEI dressage. Why?
Top horses are most often trained by professionals. Professionals work with the horses whose owners will invest money in training. Owners of retired race horses usually are not big investors. Breeders and importers of sport horses are the ones who pay for professional training. Some of these folks in eventing do breed Thoroughbreds, which is part of the reason that they still dominate the sport, but very few people invest money in the training of their retired race horses. That puts them at an extreme disadvantage in the sport horse world.
A lot of what makes a Thoroughbred a trusting partner is good training and good riding. Those are not easy to come by, but in my view it's what we owe to these horses. I have not met a trainer who doesn't love working with Thoroughbreds. I remember Jim Wofford saying that when he rode professionally the difference between a Thoroughbred and a non-Thoroughbred was the difference between play and work. He couldn't believe people would pay him to ride a Thoroughbred. It was the other horses that made him work for his living. My favorite Thoroughbred comment came from Rebecca Langwost-Barlow, an FEI dressage trainer who I have great respect for and who rides primarily Warmbloods. She said, “When you make a mistake the Thoroughbred always thinks it's his fault. The Warmblood makes you pay for it.”