Racehorse to Riding Horse: What to Expect

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Tips and advice on transforming an ex-racehorse to a riding horse with Victoria Bax

Transforming your former racehorse into the perfect riding horse can come with some challenges. From nutritional aspects to the nitty gritty of re-educating your 500kg fine-tuned sporting machine, the experience can throw a whole load of unexpected problems and challenges your way.

In this article, event rider Victoria Bax gives a helping hand into what to expect when turning your ex-racehorse into a horse ready for the riding arena and a less intense life.

Courtesy of sponsors Golly Galoshes and Aloeride. Photos by Thoroughbred Sports Photography

Mounting your ex-racehorse

“When it comes to mounting, this could well prove to be an issue for a newly acquired ex-racehorse, especially for one that has come straight out of racing.

If you have ever watched horse racing, you’ll have no doubt seen a jockey being given a leg up while the racehorse is moving. Therein lies the problem. You can’t expect your ex-racehorse to stand still for you when it has never been taught to. It’s not what they’re use to.

Jockeys are generally legged up onto their mount as the horse walks along, so if you wish to train your horse to stand still, you will just need plenty of time, patience and a helping hand to teach the horse to understand what it is you would like them to do.”

Take a look at our tips on how to teach your horse to use a mounting block here.

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Not a nice vice

“Vices i.e. cribbing, weaving, and wind sucking can be quite common in racehorses as they spend an awful lot of time on their own in their stables, so it is no wonder that they make up activities to ease their boredom.  However, there can be other reasons why they do what they do.  

Cribbing and windsucking are quite common vices amongst racehorses
Cribbing and windsucking are quite common vices amongst racehorses

“Racehorses are generally fed an extremely high starch and high energy feed with less fibre/forage due the need for energy to enable them to race at top speed when required. However, this diet is not what the horse has evolved to eat and can cause digestive problems and health concerns if not managed correctly.”

A build-up of acid in the horse’s stomach, alongside the effects of being during this time, has been linked to Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS). This can cause pain and could be another reason why a horse may demonstrate stable vices.

Reduced grazing, restricted access to forage and stress can all contribute to health problems which can lead to unwanted behaviours. Victoria continues:

“Of course, once a horse has done something for a period of time, this may well become a habit as opposed to a need. This then proves very hard to stop and even causes the horse more stress if you try to prevent him doing it.

In order for the horse to naturally stay healthy and happy a high proportion of their diet should be based on fibre/forage. Their digestive systems are designed to take food little and often, “grazing” almost for 24 hours a day.

Hard feed can add extra nutrients, vitamins and minerals, and provide additional energy according to their workload.

Other health problems can also be present and should be carefully monitored.

“Colic is also a threat on the early days when changing your ex-racehorse’s feed, so make any alterations slowly.”

You’ll want to start by making any changes to your horse’s diet slowly. It is recommended that you seek professional help from a nutritionist prior to changing your horse’s diet so you are able to manage any side effects and minimise any unwanted consequences. Ideally, you’ll have gathered as much information from the prior owner on what your horse eats.

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Tying up your ex-racehorse

“Tying up your ex-racehorse outside their box may cause an issue as they are generally used to having everything done in their stable. The simple procedure of tying up outside the stable whilst you muck out, may take you a bit of time and patience to master.  Even farrier visits are usually completed with the racehorse inside the stable, so be aware!”

Ex-racehorses are used to being stabled for long periods so introduce him to the field slowly
Ex-racehorses are used to being stabled for long periods so introduce him to the field slowly

Me time

“It’s most likely that your ex-racehorse is not used to being turned out to grass.

He probably comes from a busy yard where turnout is not considered essential, so when you do turn your horse out he may quite simply not know what to do and may stand by the gate looking as though he is waiting to come in.  

He may not understand that he is being given the freedom to have some time to himself.  You may need to start off with small amounts of turnout and gradually build it up until he is happy and walks away to graze immediately when let go.”

Monitor the relationship with any new field companions during the initial period of turnout.

MOT Due

When any new horse arrives in your care, you’ll want to make sure there are no underlying problems. The word MOT is a popular term used to indicate a good health check is in order.

It could be that your new horse is very likely to have some issues which need addressing.

The most common issues for ex-racehorses are back, pelvis and leg injuries. His feet are also very likely to need attention as notoriously thoroughbreds have terrible feet which can become very long, narrow and very low at the heels.

The idea of going barefoot will very likely not be a consideration for a thoroughbred because of this fact. Physically your new horse may also be very rigid throughout his body rather than supple so all he has so far been asked to do is run in a straight line as fast as he can. Therefore, help from a good physio to assist in unlocking very parts of the body in order that you can start to work them and help them become stronger is a must.”

Another area to have looked at is the horse’s teeth. Often, following retirement, racehorses can be left uncared for during a period of rest. A stark comparison to the life they have been accustomed to.

Pay attention to your TB's feet.
Pay attention to your TB’s feet.

Back to Basics

Before climbing on board, it is strongly recommended you consider how your horse may react to a number of different tasks you’ll be asking him to do:

“Remember that your ex-racehorse may well need to be partially backed again. Although he will have had a jockey on board before, he will not be used to weight being carried on his back by sitting in the saddle neither will he know why your legs are hanging down by his side!  

He will also not be used to a conventional saddle, which of course is very different to a racing saddle and much heavier in contrast. Your saddle will also need checking regularly because as the horse will change shape, quite dramatically and therefore the saddle must be altered to mirror the new muscle otherwise this will cause other problems including pressure sores etc.”

Another important aspect to consider is the bit, and how differently riders use these compared to jockeys:

“Maintaining a contact and finding the right bit can also be an issue for some racehorses who have “no mouths” and will never have known a “contact” do not be surprised that when you take up the reins on your new ex-racehorse that he takes that as being ‘go’!!  

You may well have to try a number of different bits before you find one that both the horse and rider accept. Going bitless will probably not be viable either, as the horse will not be aware of other aids needed to do this.”

To help your horse accept and understand this ‘new contact’, lunging and long reining can be introduced to get your horse used to it without a rider on his back.

“Jockeys generally run racehorses with little or no contact until such time as they take up the reins towards the end of the race to indicate to the horse that the “turbo power” needs to kick in and he needs to listen up as he is going to be asked something. This is where lunging and long reining your new horse can be incredibly beneficial and educational, as it introduces the horse to the concept of the bit in their mouths actually doing something.

I use an EquiAmi training aid with my team to help introduce consistent contact and to help encourage the horse to start working in the correct way, whereby muscle can be built in the correct places. We also use our TB GG Golly Galoshes both out hacking, but also for lunging as they help highlight the horse’s paces enabling us to help focus on developing his paces further (Great for lessons too!) They are specifically cut to fit the longer slimmer TB leg and are breathable and washable, making them ideal for all year use.

It is also likely that you will experience a lot of head raising and mouthing of the bit, much like you would expect with a youngster being introduced to the bit.  It is important that you at consistent with the contact in order that they learn that this will be maintained at all times during the much part of their retraining.”

Venturing Out Alone

If you intend to hack out on your ex-racehorse, you could wonder how he or she may react. Victoria explains:

“Your new horse may not be very willing to hack out alone when you first get him, as whilst in race training they do not venture out alone.  

Racehorses are often seen hacking in groups up to the gallops and then hacking home in the same fashion, so going out alone may cause him stress and he may not be very willing to do this, simply because his instincts tell him that going alone is not safe to do so.  

Once you are able to hack out, do not be surprised if as soon as your ex-racehorse’s hooves hit grass or good going he wants to run, after all this is what he has been trained to do and thinks he is doing the right thing! Again time and patience will help to overcome all of this.”

Travelling Tips

Although racehorses are used to travelling extensively, it is likely to have only been travelled in a lorry which may cause you problems on the first instances if you are looking to use a trailer, so again time and training is required!”

Placing a trailer on the yard and practising loading and unloading without actually leaving will pay dividends. On entering the trailer stand the horse still and reward. Repeat this on many occasions and when comfortable, take the horse around the block. Take your time, and be patient. It could even prove a good bonding time as you both get use to being around eachother.

To conclude

Buying and bringing on an ex-racehorse can be extremely rewarding and give you enormous fulfilment and enjoyment.

Whilst they may appear to be a cheap option on the outset, remember that Thoroughbreds can be generally more expensive to keep and maintain than other breeds of horses, from feeding, to stabling, to rugging, to training, through to their general overall well being so be prepared for this.

Good luck with your horse!”

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