Retraining of Racehorses figures state that around 7,000 thoroughbreds leave the racing industry every year, and other former racehorses change hands further down the chain. Therefore, there is a massive diversity of ex-racehorses, and no two horses will have had the same experiences.
A three-year-old filly from a big Flat yard will be a different animal to a 12-year-old gelding who has spent several years as a teenager’s point-to-point schoolmaster, living on a farm with an old hunter and a younger sibling’s racing pony. However, a skim of horsey forums and ex-racehorse owner groups show the same issues constantly flagged.
For anyone taking on an ex-racehorse, it is very important to have a basic understanding of racing, and if possible a good idea of your horse’s first career. If you are buying directly from a racing yard, or have contact with the trainer or stable staff, this will be easier than if you are buying a horse that is a couple of homes removed from his racing days.
Knowing what your horse has seen and done is good preparation for future training, and for settling in to a new routine. Ask about the daily timetable of the yard, vehicles used for travelling, and keep your eyes open for any other influences. For example, would your horse have had to cross a road to get to the gallops? Is there an obvious mounting block? Does the trainer have a dog, and does their website have photos of horses on the beach?
All of these things can be helpful when it comes to getting to know your horse, and what you can expect of him. If you don’t have the opportunity to see your horse at his first home, educate yourself about a typical racing yard through looking at industry and trainer websites.
It’s not possible for every ex-racehorse owner to have worked in racing, but the more knowledgeable you are about the industry the easier it is to understand why your horse behaves the way he does.
It’s also important to remember, that unless your horse was actually abused, neglected, or likely to be so, you are not “rescuing” an ex-racehorse. Your horse will have been loved by his stable lad (or lass), carefully managed by his trainer, subject to the care of professionals at the top of their fields, and owned by people who invested a lot of money in their success.
His racing life will have given him a lot of experiences which will give him an advantage over other horses the same age, but it is important to remember that a young thoroughbred is still a young horse, even if he has seen a lot of the world.
Because of this, many of the “issues” that people have with ex-racehorses are similar to the problems that you might encounter with another breed that is being introduced to a different discipline, a new home, or a novel approach to life.
If you are looking to own your first ex-racehorse, there are three popular routes to find an ex-racehorse.
“My ex-racehorse is too thin/doesn’t hold condition”
Ex racehorse groups are full of concerned new owners worried that their horse is too thin. Thoroughbreds in training are elite athletes, and as a result are lean and muscular. You wouldn’t expect a human sprinter to carry any extra weight, so why should your horse? If your horse was given some “let down” time before leaving racing, they are likely to have lost muscle mass without necessarily putting on any weight.
This can result in them looking “poor”, especially if you are used to seeing riding horses at your livery yard. With time your horse will gain weight and change shape, as they settle into a new life and work their muscles in different ways. The perfect diet for your horse is very individual, but ensure plenty of forage, and clean water.
A vet friend recommends a glug of vegetable oil for improving condition, and it has worked well for Whickr’s ex-racehorses Bluey and Woody, when recovering from colic weight loss and gaining weight after let down respectively. Retraining of Racehorses recommends micronised linseed as an oil source with the right balance of omegas.
It is also really important to remember that there is a high rate of obesity in the equine population, which can influence what riders see as “normal” and may be one of the reasons why a fellow livery keeps commenting that your ex-racehorse is thin.
“My ex-racehorse doesn’t stand to be mounted”
In general, racehorses aren’t expected to stand still at a mounting block when their lad or jockey gets on. There are exceptions, and some racing yards do use a step or block, but new owners frequently mention that their horse doesn’t understand the concept.
Even a horse that has seen a block might be fidgety when presented with one in a new home- not standing still is not a thoroughbred specific trait, and your horse is going through some big changes. Patience is key, and success is judged very much on your own expectation.
Some riders are happy for their horse to walk away once they have their leg over, while others will want their horse to stand until they have both stirrups, collected reins, and checked the girth.
Thoroughbreds are very intelligent and very fast learners, so some will understand fairly swiftly that they have to stand on one side of the block while you climb up and get on. Repeated exposure – by asking him to stand by the block without you getting on- will help this. A pocketful of treats and a reward for the desired behaviour should also work.
“My ex-racehorse doesn’t hack on his own”
There are exceptions, but horses in training generally aren’t ridden on their own. Throw in a new yard, a new rider, and a load of new expectations, and it’s not surprising that new owners sometimes have problems hacking alone.
Again, this isn’t universal, and some horses who have never been ridden outside of a string relish the peace and independence of solo hacking.
If you are retraining an ex-racehorse to hack and have company to ride, start off hacking together, and as your horse settles and you build a relationship, have the other rider leave you earlier and earlier in to the ride, until you are riding on your own.
If you don’t have riding company, you can start off by hacking very short distances- perhaps to the end of the drive- and building up the length of your ride, or replicate the first suggestion with someone walking on the ground.
Some riders also recommend walking their horse in-hand, but this doesn’t suit all horses or owners. If you do do this make sure that your horse is wearing a bridle, and that you have sensible shoes, gloves, and a hard hat.
“Is my ex-racehorse bored?”
Thoroughbreds are highly intelligent animals with curious temperaments and lots of potential to take part in a range of disciplines, for example ex-racehorses make great eventers.
Away from high level competing, with time you should find that your horse loves going to new places, and finding new routes out hacking.
On a racing yard they would have had a clear routine, with their day marked by times with lots of activity and periods of quiet. Some owners make a point of having their horse adapt to a less structured life, while others are firm that maintaining a strict routine (albeit one that is different to a racing yard) is fundamental to a happy horse.
Your ex-racehorse won’t be bored or “wasted” if his new life is heavy on hacking and fun rides, but low on competitions, but he is likely to lose interest if you ride the same route or complete the same schooling exercises every day.
You’ll find a system that suits your horse; we like the “routine but with variety” recommended by an old horsewoman. This means keeping mealtimes and turnout/in to the same time every day, and doing things like brushing, tacking up, and rugging the same way every time, but mixing up ridden work through a mixture of group and solo hacking of different lengths, schooling at home and away, boxing to new trails, and trying out a range of disciplines and riding clinics.
A hunting career in a country with a mixture of farming systems and geography ticks a lot of these boxes for many ex-racehorses.
“I’m nervous about riding my ex-racehorse in an open space”
The thrill of galloping a thoroughbred is often overshadowed for new owners by the nerves of stepping into an open field or a long bridleway. Riders worry that their ex-racehorse will take it as an opportunity to relive the highlights of their former career.
The risk of this happening is very much down to the horse, and often more to do with new management than any hangover from racing (as horses in training aren’t allowed to mindlessly gallop around the place), but there are a few steps to take to increase your confidence.
Firstly, while you are getting used to your ex-racehorse, make a point of walking on non- concrete surfaces. Treat your bridleways and verges like extensions of the road, and gradually introduce trotting. Try to hack out with horses that are used to doing this- nothing will shake your nerves and wind your horse up more than being stuck behind a stable companion who has been conditioned to immediately associate any soft ground with fast work.
Apply the same logic to riding in fields, and bring in small sections of in and out as your horse gets used to the new style of riding and your application of aids. If your horse does start tossing his head or crabbing in walk, encourage him forward to trot, and (taking into consideration the landowner if it’s not your land) ride circles and turns to keep his mind busy.
Remember that racehorses are trained to lean in to a rider’s hand, and will go faster if you increase the pressure. They will also associate a forward position with a cue to move on, so it is incredibly important to not grab the reins and lean forward. Sit up, and breathe!
“My ex-racehorse has terrible feet!”
Whether it is feet that crack, shoes that spend more time in the mud than on a hoof, or rounds of abscesses, poor feet are unfortunately synonymous with thoroughbreds. The most important resource is your farrier – not just because they might have to make emergency call outs, but because you will need them to offer advice and be open minded about how to manage your horse’s feet.
The good news is that racehorses are usually very well behaved with the farrier and used to having their feet picked up – although some may not have been hot shod. Problems with growth or cracking can be addressed through diet (for example, a biotin supplement) or hoof dressings. Your farrier should be able to make recommendations.
Keeping shoes on can be a struggle for some horses – be open to your farrier trying different things, adapting your management, and having patience if your horse needs to develop better hoof condition. Some ex-racehorses, particularly young ones, do better with light steel plates rather than conventional shoes.
If your horse does have a weakness for abscesses, you will over time come to recognise the main risks and be able to spot the early clinical signs. Keep a stock of poulticing material and vet wrap, and if in doubt have your farrier or vet check your technique.
With the correct management it is perfectly possible to have a thoroughbred that wears a normal set of shoes for the standard length of time – and some even thrive without shoes- but it may take a little more thought than a native breed.
General challenges for ex-racehorses
Life after racing has lots of challenges for these horses. They have to adapt to a different style of riding, a change of saddle, and the structure of a non-racing yard, or the quiet of a private, one-horse home.
They are however still horses, and so the same rules of patience and time apply. There are things that your horse wouldn’t have needed to do in racing that may be necessary for the activities that you have planned, but the same would be the case if you bought a recently broken cob, or rehomed a retired polo pony.
Be relaxed and open minded, and with time your clever, quick-brained thoroughbred will understand the rules of his new life, and bring with him all the bonuses of his former career.
As mentioned above, your ex-racehorse will change shape considerably as he builds muscles in different places, so it is important that you regularly check the fit of his saddle. Physiological problems are often at the root of ridden issues, so rule them out first. If your horse retired from racing with an injury, keep monitoring it and make sure that your veterinary professionals are aware of his history.
We’re biased, but thoroughbreds are possibly the most versatile and intelligent of breeds. Taking one on after their racing career is over is a hugely exciting and rewarding experience, albeit not one that is suitable for all horse owners.
The key is usually patience, time, confidence, and to reflect on your horse’s racing experience without falling into the trap of thinking that “all ex-racehorses” will behave in a certain way.
There’s a lot to learn about rehoming ex-racehorses, but organisations such as Retraining of Racehorses have lots of useful resources, and can signpost you to local people who have worked with numerous horses out of training. Learn as much as you can about the racing industry, and your own horse’s career, yards, and veterinary history.
You may own a dozen ex-racehorses and never experience any of these issues (or experience a whole host of other things that we haven’t been able to cover), but if you do it’s always helpful to know that you are not on your own.
If you are already deep into retraining an ex-racehorse, what has your experience been? How has it compared to bringing on a young horse, or reschooling a horse for a new discipline?
Photo credits: Sian Broderick