Selecting, owning and managing an ex-racehorse
Owning an ex racehorse can be a thoroughly rewarding experience for both you and the horse. The thoroughbred can be athletic, nimble and willing. We see this presented in the shape of many successful ex racehorses such as Gemma Tattersall’s Artic Soul, who came a respectable third at this year’s Badminton Horse Trials and Pippa Funnel’s Ensign, who won Burnham Market International 2005 and South of England International in 2007. Major success in their new career is not essential, and for some ex-racers, and their riders, happy hacking will provide pleasure for both.
Anyone who is involved with racehorses will tell you that it is the ultimate hope that all racehorses will, one day, end up in a caring and knowledgeable home. With the ultimate goal allowing them to enjoy what they do and be able to benefit from one-to-one care and attention.
Unfortunately being able acquire ex-racehorses at minimal expense, normally shortly after finishing their racing careers, often results in them falling into unknowledgeable and inexperienced hands. This can lead to the thoroughbred being handled incorrectly, being fed an unsuitable diet which, in turn, can impact on their overall mental state.
In order to fully achieve the most out of your ex-racehorse, people must hold in regard that Thoroughbreds are not a native breed. They have not originated from rocky scrub-lands like the Welsh mountain pony or the Shetland, and therefore they can’t adapt to harsh conditions so easily. Their diet must be stringently monitored; there is a common misconception that to prevent an ex-racehorse becoming ‘fizzy or hot’ you should reduce its feed dramatically. This is where we see thoroughbreds losing condition across their top lines and can appear ‘ribbey’, this is not natural or ‘just the breed’. You should make sure that you adjust your horse’s feed in accordance to its workload. Slowly introduce any new feed over a period of 2-4 weeks, so that no sudden dietary changes are made.
Tracey Hammond, an equine nutritionist for Dengie horse feeds, recommends for the diet of an ex racehorse: “Ensuring sufficient energy and quality protein in the ration is vital”, In regards to the amount of forage she advises “As a rough guide, a horse that is stabled 24/7 will eat between 2-2.5% of their body weight in dry matter every day – for a 500kg horse this is 10-12.5kg”. She suggests “For horses that need to gain weight, select more digestible fibre sources such as sugar beet and alfalfa and feed with oil for extra calories”.
Tracey also warns that:
“Gastric ulcers are a common problem in racehorses and can be a reason for horses not ‘thriving’ or putting on weight in their new home – they may also cause the horse to be picky and have a limited appetite. Don’t be afraid to seek veterinary treatment if ulcers are suspected.”
Shelter and warmth
Thoroughbreds are notoriously thin-skinned, therefore if you are feeding your ex racehorse correctly yet they are not gaining condition, then your horse could be struggling to keep itself warm. The majority of racehorses do not ‘do well’ when left to fend for themselves and you will often end up with a staring coat and other pointers, that indicate, condition is poor. Nearly all racehorses are stabled when in training, although many are let out in fields in the daytime, they rarely live out especially in winter. They are not as hardy as other natural breeds and need adequate shelter and warmth. If living out is unavoidable for your ex-racehorse then try to ensure that their paddock is dry and that they have a thick waterproof rug.
Choosing the right horse for you
Racehorses have been bred specifically for speed and athletic purposes, which can of course be utilized for racehorses to excel in other sports such as team chasing, hunting and eventing. There is nothing in a racehorses breeding requirement that makes sensibility or a placid nature requisite. Of course this does not mean some ex racehorses are of a placid nature, many are. It is however kinder on the horse and the rider, to choose a breed that aligns with your requirements and your abilities, to prevent problems further down the line.
Ex-Racehorses will benefit from regular work to keep their intelligent minds engaged, prevent boredom and therefore decrease the potential of behavioural problems. Slow and steady work, such as lots of trotting will help to keep your horse muscled but also helps your horse make the transition from racing to other disciplines. Although as always there will be exceptions, generally ex-racehorses will not be a suitable breed for children, novice riders or first time buyers.
Thoroughbreds are flight animals with and ingrained herd instinct that has been utilised in the horse’s career as a racehorse. Not all thoroughbreds are ‘nuts’ and obviously as with every other breed, each horse has its own individual personality. The breed does, however, fit in line with the famous cliché ‘handsome is as handsome does’ and with such a natural speed and agility; a degree of patience confidence and experience is usually required.
It is encouraged that after they have finished from their racing careers, you give your newly acquired ex racehorse a break allowing it to mentally unwind. After a suitable period of time you can go on and begin your retraining, almost from scratch.
It is strongly advised to get your ex-racehorse checked by a vet, some horses may have old injuries or weaknesses. If discovered early on, these can be treated to prevent long-term difficulties or aggravation. It is important to keep old injuries in mind when selecting and ex-racehorse; for example a horse who suffered with a tendon injury would not be suitable for strenuous disciplines, such as hunting and team chasing, whereas it could make a nice gentle hacker after some time off. It is important to again emphasise that, this is not applicable to all ex-racehorses. Many do not have any injuries or some have old injuries which no longer affect them.
Thoroughbreds are used to having precise routines, which they rely on; a healthy routine maintains a relaxed state of mind. It is important to try to maintain a routine, such as attempting to set specific times every day to go and care for your horse in order to ensure they do not get stressed or worried.
When re-schooling racehorses the flatwork is a fundamental part of this process and should ideally be focused on first and foremost, before proceeding onto jumping. Ex-racehorses have not done much, or if indeed anything, in their previous careers that involved or required flatwork training. In order to maintain balance and a horse that is receptive to your aids, flat work is encouraged. Though flatwork may be deemed as boring and uninspiring to some, remember that it is a general rule with horses, as it is in life, that ‘you get out what you put in’ and a strong foundation of flatwork with your ex-racer should see you reaping rewards in later years.
Thoroughbreds are often very intelligent despite their reputation and will learn quickly, however a certain level of patience is still required. It is important to remember that this will be almost completely new concept to an ex-racehorse. We saw this when talking to Royal Windsor Champion ROR rider, Clare Cowen, when she spoke to us about her retraining of Mokum. Clare emphasised how she mainly focused on flatwork and she is now moving on to jumping to “let him have a bit of fun”.
Riding your racehorse
When racehorses are exercised they are nearly always in a ‘string’ with several other racehorses, they are also stabled with other horses. They may therefore experience separation anxiety when hacked out alone or stabled away from other horses. This should be remembered and either ensured that gradually the horse should get used to being alone or they may need to be provided with companionship. Racehorses are often not exposed to traffic, or if any, just very light traffic on village roads. Ensure that if you do ride your ex-racehorse on the roads that you are accompanied by another responsible adult on a sensible, road trustworthy horse at first.
Overall ex-racehorses can definitely make wonderful horses in the right hands. It is a fantastic opportunity to provide these horses with loving, caring and knowledgeable home to live out the rest of their lives. This dream is fully attainable, as long as the pairing of rider and racehorse matches each other’s requirements and suitability.
With thanks to Dengie equine nutritionist, Tracey Hammond M.Sc (Dist).