5 Tips for starting to retrain an ex-racehorse

For those of you who don’t know me, I am Ruby from the EquiPepper blog. I love thoroughbreds and ex racehorses, for the past ten years I have ridden almost exclusively ex-racehorses and when finishing my Equine Science degree, they were the focus of my dissertation. EquiPepper started as a bit of a personal journal retraining my ex racehorse and first horse Scottie. Seven years later, I feel like I have learnt so much and believe that most of the “facts” about ex-racehorses are complete myths.

Today I wanted to share with you my top 5 tips for retraining an ex-racehorse.

1. Fibre, fibre, fibre!

When people bring their new thoroughbred home, especially those fresh out of racing, they often put them straight onto high calorie conditioning feeds. Not only do they usually have a high starch content, which can send lots of thoroughbreds a bit fizzy, but not all thoroughbreds need a conditioning feed.

My advice for anyone bringing home a new thoroughbred is to start simple and focus on high fibre, low starch. While many thoroughbreds aren’t good doers, they all benefit from a high fibre based diet. They should always have access to forage. This means good quality hay in the stable and when there isn’t much grass, hay in the field too.

Hard feed wise, keep it simple. If they are coming to you straight off the track, they may look skinny – new owners sometimes think their ex-racehorse is too thin, but in reality they are just super fit. You don’t need to give them lots of energy in their feed, in fact since they are most likely doing a lot less work with you, you might be creating problems for yourself.

A great starting point for feed is a balancer and low sugar or low starch chaff. A balancer should give them everything they need nutrition wise without extra calories. Adding a chaff bulks out the feed, encouraging them to chew their food and eat a bit slower. You can then slowly add in extra calories if they need them.

Scottie is a very good doer. Even when he is in full work he looks fantastic on a low calorie balancer and an alfalfa free chaff.

2. Keep tack simple

Lots of people assume that ex racehorses will be strong and prone to bolting, so they start with strong bits and bridles. But most of the time this just isn’t the case. Most racehorses race and train in a snaffle in a simple caverson or grackle, many don’t wear a noseband at all.

If coming straight from the trainer, they most likely won’t come with any tack. I would ask the trainer what they usually wear for training and racing and why. You can then try and replicate this at home. If they didn’t wear a noseband but you are aiming to compete, I would add a loose caverson as most competitions require you to have a noseband.

When choosing what tack to put them in, keep it simple. I would nearly always choose a double jointed snaffle, my favourite is a French link. I would pair this with a cavesson noseband. A neck strap or loose running martingale is always a good idea too, to give you a bit more security as much as anything else.

Saddles should always be fitted by a saddler. I would get one out who stocks second hand or at least adjustable saddles as your horse will change shape. Race and work saddles tend to be quite flat and lightweight. No matter what discipline you are hoping to take them into, I think it is always worth starting with a General Purpose saddle.

3. Learn about race riding

There are a few key differences in riding racehorses and your typical riding horse. Fiddling or shortening the reins on a racehorse often means it’s time to go. They will often be walked/jogged to the gallops on a long rein, sometimes with feet out of the stirrups. When they get to the gallops they pick up the reins, only loosening them again when they get to the end and it’s time to stop.

This is important to remember as when your horse gets heated up, a bit fizzy, you picking up the reins to check them is actually signalling them to go. As hard as it is, most ex racehorse owners would advise not to pick up the reins. Keep them loose only checking if you really need to. You might also find that letting them trot on for a bit and then bringing them back might work best.

4. Treat them like a youngster

Most racehorses spend a lot of time being walked in hand before and after a race. So they often have very good manners on the ground, which can make it easy to forget that a lot of what we ask them is completely new.

Whether it’s riding or handling, you should treat them as a youngster and expect that everything is new to them. Some of it won’t be, and they will pick it up straight away, but some of it will be completely alien. For example, many won’t know how to stand at a mounting block, be tied up on the yard or work in an outline.

5. Expect wonkiness

A racehorse spends the vast majority of their career going fast in a straight line. Many will have a favoured canter lead, left or right, which also influences what tracks they like to run on. This can cause them to favour one leg more and more, which in turn can lead to their body becoming wonky.

You will likely interpret lots of small issues related to wonkiness when you first start schooling your ex racehorse. Don’t let it worry you. Instead just make sure you focus on going back to basics with the scales of training. Straightness is one of the last things to perfect, so as long as you work away at everything else, it will come.

It’s not uncommon for ex racehorses to have a slightly rotated pelvis. This can make it harder for them to work on two tracks, pick up canter leads or bend evenly on both reins. But this is all fixable with correct schooling and the help of a good physio.

Scottie had a rotated pelvis when I got him. He was ever so slightly on 3 tracks and struggled to pick up his right canter lead. We struggled for ages to get the right canter lead, but I never worried about it until his pelvis leveled out. Once this happened he started to pick it up out hacking, lunging and over jumps. We were then able to build it up so he could build up the strength to do it all the time.

Following these 5 tips should put you on the right path for successfully retraining your racehorse. Please remember that if you ever have any problems to ask for help from your instructor you have riding lessons with, vet and physio. All these people will be able to help you iron out any bugs.