Our main man on the trail was Fly, our chestnut thoroughbred gelding. As a result, we copped a bit of flack for our poor choice in equines at the beginning of our trek.
“You’ll never make it on the trail with that horse.”
“Why take a thoroughbred? Everyone knows they make terrible trekking horses”.
But we gave it a shot and before we knew it, we were, well, at the end of trail. As a result, a few people have ‘eaten their crow pie’ as such and admitted that perhaps thoroughbreds do have a place on the trail after all. But Fly boy finished the trail DESPITE being a thoroughbred, not because of it. And despite us successfully completing the BNT with an ex-racehorse, I wouldn’t really recommend taking one. Here’s why…
1. They’re poor doers
Yep, I know Fly boy looks pretty good, having come off the trail and all. Heaps of people have complimented us on his condition, which is of course really very nice and flattering. But being a thoroughbred, he IS a poor doer by nature. While our donkeys can subsist on the smell of an oily rag, Fly boy ploughs through a whole bag of feed every 5-7 days or so (of course, this varies widely due to availability of hard feed).
Luckily, we had an on-off support vehicle to grab extra bags of grain to fatten him when we could, and other times we stopped in towns for longer than we normally would have so that we could pour a bag or three of feed into him. When helpful ‘trail angels’ we met along the way asked whether we might need anything form town, horse feed for Fly was ALWAYS top of the list.
In other words, he ate A LOT on the trail.In fact, I was quite envious of our friend Alienor when I saw her brumbies eat between three the same amount of hard feed that Fly has all to himself. And the only reason this was really viable was because we only had him and two little donkeys who needed to eat next to nothing. And really, there are plenty of times on the trail when there is quite literally next to nothing for them to eat.
2. They tend to be tall and ‘klutzy’
All mountain horsemen say that the smaller the horse, the better built it is for the trail. I always thought this was a load of crock. All due respect and all. After all, bigger horses have a longer stride, and are probably tougher and stronger to go along with it, right?
Nah. I soon learned that smaller horses tend to be more sure-footed and hardy, and find it easier to skirt around obstacles and manage steeper slopes or rougher country. Having said this, to Fly/s credit, he became absolutely PRO at negotiating ridiculously steep slopes- the sort I wouldn’t even attempt back home. But it didn’t exactly come naturally to him, bless his soul.
3. They are often ‘thin-skinned’ and not as hardy
Back home, Fly was never rugged and following his racing career, he lived a fairly rough and rugged lifestyle. He was turned out in a huge paddock with a herd of horses in our wet and windy little corner of Australia, without a rug in sight. But out on the trail, as soon as the temperature dropped (and boy did it drop), so did his waistline. Despite his previously fuss-free existence, his genetics mean that his coat will never be as thick and insulating as that of hardier breeds. In addition, he often had an exaggerated reaction to insect/ tick bites, often displaying hive-like swellings after a bad episode. The ‘thin-skinned’ tendency also means they are more susceptible to saddle rubs and pressure sores.
4. Their hooves can be problematic
Thoroughbreds are notorious for growing marvelously splayed hooves with a creative assortment alf cracks and chips. On gravel or uneven surfaces, they tend to walk as though they have just been asked to traverse a bed of broken glass, tip-toeing and hobbling their way along. Just ask any farrier about thoroughbred feet and you are sure to be on the receiving end of a passionate barrage of complaints.
Now, to be fair to Fly, he has always had pretty decent feet. Until our last few weeks on the trail, he had never been shod in all the time I have had him and never once had a stone bruise or been lame. But he NEEDS his boots- no brumby-esque barefoot antics for this guy. And funnily enough, despite being booted most of the time, his feet actually IMPROVED during his time on the trail. The soles calloused up nicely, hoof capsule seemed to improve in shape, and frogs grew larger and tougher. In Nanango, the farrier trimming him commented that Fly had the best feet that he’d ever seen on a thoroughbred. But luckily for us, its a bit of a fluke.
5. Injuries or imbalances from racing can come back to haunt them
By the time they are three, most thoroughbreds are well into a racing career and engaged in heavy, fast work. They are usually kept yarded or stabled and on a high grain diet. They are broken in young and fast, giving their skeletal system little chance to harden and mature healthily. In a nutshell, they are quite literally ‘run into the ground’ by the time they are only a few years old, giving them little chance of sustaining a long, injury-free life.
Trail horses need to be stayers, not sprinters, so all of this doesn’t bode well for a successful long-term trek. Although Fly didn’t have so many racing starts or even any previous injuries that we were aware of, by the time we got to Canberra he started having a niggle in his left shoulder. The equine body worker was sure that it was an old racing injury causing a few niggles- even after all these years.
In addition, while no horse is perfectly symmetrical, thoroughbreds tend to be more one-sided or afflicted with uneven muscle development as a result of being raced in only one direction. In addition, their high, narrow withers can make saddle fitting a nightmare. On the trail, a saddle that fits 100% perfectly is an absolute necessity, but it is very hard to achieve this ideal when you re working with an muscularly uneven horse.
So, in conclusion, do I regret taking Fly on the trail?
Not at all. He has a great ‘can-do’ attitude, a calm demeanor, and loves being out and about. And the fact that he was able to work through and even overcome some of the above weaknesses made us love and trust him even more. He is a one-in-a-million horse and when you have one of those, the breed doesn’t really matter so much, as long as you are willing and ABLE to compromise and take those factors into account.
But would I take another thoroughbred on the trail?
Not a chance!