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  • Writer's pictureSarah Johnson

De-Branding for Success

Updated: Sep 28, 2018

If a brand’s curated identity doesn’t give the best possible benefit to that brand, then it’s time to reconsider how this image could be redeveloped. This sounds obvious, but what if the current brand is already pretty good? The question is, what if it could be better? What if a brand could contribute to the broader conversation about the culture surrounding its use, and could even suggest new ideas for how it could be used in the future?

Equestrian culture (like everything else) is saturated with branding, even down to the horses themselves. Many horse breeds have their own stories about the breed’s historical development, temperament, and physical characteristics. These stories influence how equestrians make decisions about what kind of horse to choose for a certain task, or how to train or use their current horse. But sometimes a breed’s image can be limiting. Few people would think to purchase an Arabian horse, for example, as a jumping prospect, because jumping skill is not thought of as part of the breed’s skill set. It’s true, of course, that an Arabian would probably not be competitive at the largest international jumping competitions. But really, how many equestrians are seriously planning a future as international competitors? There is a wide audience for horses that are generally capable, who make safe and fun partners for their amateur owners.

The Thoroughbred horse is well-positioned to meet this need. Thoroughbreds are an all-around athletic breed, since they have been bred for centuries as racehorses. Even a relatively un-athletic Thoroughbred can make it through a small jump course, or carry her owner on a long trail ride. Another important thing about this breed that makes it suitable for the amateur market is the Thoroughbred’s very reasonable price. Since most racehorses don’t make it on the track, there is a steady supply of Thoroughbreds available for purchase, which keeps the price down. These ex-racehorses are known as OTTBs, or Off the Track Thoroughbreds.

So what’s not to like, from an amateur rider’s point of view? Here we have an athletic, inexpensive horse who even comes with the basic riding and handling skills he learned on the track. Despite all these positive aspects, however, there are also negative aspects that come along with the Thoroughbred’s breed image. These are the breed’s stereotypically wild temperament and the perception that they are prone to injury. Both of these aspects are related to the Thoroughbred’s association with racing. It’s a racehorse’s job to want to run, and run fast. In addition, the traumatic injuries suffered by high-profile racehorses such as Eight Belles and Barbaro tend to make riders suspicious of the breed’s durability as a whole. In its worst manifestation, the OTTB brand refers to a crazy, broken, second-class horse who flunked out of the job it was supposed to do. As an OTTB, every Thoroughbred who comes off the track is largely defined by this past.

Racehorses. 100% on-brand.

I think that disassociating non-racing Thoroughbreds from the racetrack would go a long way toward improving the breed’s image among everyday equestrians. This change would involve a departure from the acronym “OTTB,” which has become more widely used than the name of the breed itself. This wasn’t always the case. In previous decades, these horses were known simply as Thoroughbreds. It’s true that most Thoroughbreds begin life as racehorses-in-training. The racetrack is part of their history, but it doesn’t have to define the rest of their lives. My own Thoroughbred, for instance, raced only once. His previous owner quickly figured out that racing was not the career for him, so he was retrained for a different job when he was still a young horse. At this point, he's been off the track for more years than he was on it.

My horse. Some track experience, lots of treat experience.

We should think of these horses as the sum of their entire life experiences, not just what they happened to do for the first few years. I’m not at all suggesting that a given Thoroughbred’s history as a racehorse is a shameful past—but it’s not his entire identity. Even Secretariat only raced until he was three years old. If someone could ask him about his life (he lived to be 19), I’m sure he would have more to talk about than his racing days.

And so I suggest we should retire the OTTB in favor of the Thoroughbred. This could open up new avenues for horse breeders and trainers outside of the racing world, since it would de-emphasize the breed’s racing past. Thoroughbreds could even have entirely new destinies. I would be especially excited to see breeders

take an interest in developing lines of Thoroughbreds for show or pleasure horses. This is a breed capable of many careers, and I think it’s time to make this evident (again) in how we talk about the Thoroughbred.

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