Retraining Racehorses

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

For those who are contemplating giving a home to an ex-racehorse, here are some health, behavior, and training issues to consider.

Raising a racehorse is a gamble, and the majority of horses bred for the sport never reach the winner's circle due to lack of speed, injury, or a temperament not suited for track life. But many of these horses that are lackluster at the track become stars in other disciplines, from eventing to barrel racing. And with many racetracks now implementing a zero tolerance policy on owners shipping ex-racehorses for slaughter, rehabilitating these animals for second careers is becoming even more important.

"We try to educate owners and trainers to maybe retire a horse a little bit early, sell them, and make some money. Don't run them to the end when there's nothing left of them," says Laurie Lane, executive director of ReRun Inc., a nonprofit Thoroughbred adoption program.

But racing is a physically demanding sport, and even with the best intentions many racehorses end up with an injury that forces them into retirement from the track. And while some horses have serious enough injuries to warrant euthanasia or full pasture retirement, many horses, with proper treatment and time, can be rehabilitated and go on to second careers.

It's these horses that interest many outside the racing world who are looking for a special project, a cheap show horse, or just to give a comfortable retirement home to an equine that has literally been around the track a few times.

"We've seen a spike in adoptions, and I believe it's because people can't afford a $15,000 show jumper anymore," says Lane. "If you're willing to put the time into these horses, it's a very good decision to go with adoption."

For those who are contemplating giving a home to an ex-racehorse, here are some health, behavior, and training issues to consider.

Chips and Fractures

"Ideally you want the horse that was just too slow for the track, but has nothing else wrong with it," says Alan Ruggles, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky.

But if you are considering a racehorse that was retired due to injury, it's important to think about your future athletic plans for the animal. For owners who are looking for a horse to function well in another athletically demanding sport, such as show jumping or eventing, Ruggles says minor bone chips without arthritic changes, minor ligament problems, and minor tendonitis are injuries where it is realistic to expect the horse can be rehabbed.

But if the animal has significant cartilage damage or has already developed degenerative joint disease, the chances of that horse coming back as an eventer or jumper are low, says Ruggles.

"Logic says that the less you plan to do with the horse, the more likely it will be successful," he adds. "So if you're looking for a school horse or trail horse, you can get away with more significant injuries."

Sesamoid (bones found at the back of the fetlock) fractures are the most common injury that Lane sees in horses admitted to the ReRun program. Ruggles says for this or any type of injury, the best outcomes are in the horses that have smaller fractures or bone chips that aren't associated with large amounts of damage to the cartilage or significant soft tissue injuries.

Given time and rest, some of these racing career-ending injuries might heal on their own. In some cases, however, surgery might be necessary, says Ruggles.

Certain cases are best treated with arthroscopic surgery, a minimally invasive procedure in which the surgeon inserts a small scope through an incision to visualize and perform the procedure. Using this type of surgery, bone fragments can be removed from around the joint.

"Not every chip has to be removed, though," says Ruggles. "You have to judge each case individually and base it on what you want to do with the horse in a secondary career."

If there is a lot of cartilage damage, this type of surgery might not even be successful, according to Ruggles. "In those cases, when you take out the chip, you help the situation, but you may not solve the problem because the cartilage damage is so extensive," he says.

Costs of this type of procedure vary widely based on the complexity of the surgery and the veterinarian performing it, but Ruggles says typical arthroscopic surgery will run between $1,800 and $2,500.

Another option is to treat the injury symptomatically with intra-articular injectable treatments such as polysulfated glyco-saminoglycan (Adequan), although Ruggles says this is just a short-term solution. "Symptomatic therapies make the least sense, in my opinion, because when you're in it for the long haul, it may be more cost-effective to remove the chip that's causing the problem."

Horses with bone chips generally need eight to 16 weeks of rest, says Ruggles. After this time, and pending an all-clear from a veterinarian, they can resume work. "After they've healed, you bring them back into work just like you would any other horse that has been laid off for an extended period of time," he says.

Soft Tissue Problems

Soft tissue damage is another common career-ending injury for racehorses. However, depending on the area and extent of the damage, horses with these injuries can be rehabilitated into secondary careers.

"You see a wide breadth of problems and severities when it comes to tendon injuries," says Ruggles. "You could have a minor tendonitis to a complete disruption of one of the tendons or suspensory ligaments. The prognosis varies on the location of the injury and the degree of damage."

When evaluating an ex-racehorse for any kind of career in jumping, hind suspensory ligament injuries are something to be wary of, says Ruggles. "Horses used for jumping, dressage, or cross country, although not traveling as fast as they are racing, place high stresses on their hind limbs," he notes. "Significant injury to the hind suspensory region should be a red flag for these endeavors. At least a prospective owner should be aware that rehabilitation time may be extensive."

For minor bowed tendons or other low-grade forms of tendonitis, a six month to yearlong layoff is often enough to bring an ex-racehorse back for another job.

Rehabilitating an ex-racehorse from a bowed tendon is something that Elizabeth MacDonald has experience with. MacDonald, the director of the North Carolina chapter of ReRun, owns two Thoroughbreds that came from Monmouth Park racetrack in New Jersey with bowed tendons. To rehabilitate both she limited their turnout and hand walked them. Her first horse, named Echo, had a more severe bow and needed a year to recuperate, while her second, Colonial Times, had six months off before she started training him.

"I just let them have a small paddock during the day and brought them in at night; they really didn't need much else," she says. Today, both horses have made full recoveries and MacDonald uses them for foxhunting.

While time and rest can help many tendon injuries, some need more aggressive treatments if the horse is to compete in a demanding sport, such as eventing. Treatments including check ligament desmotomy, platelet-rich plasma injections, extracorporeal shock wave therapy, or stem cell therapy are available options to consider and discuss with your veterinarian.

"The general idea is to improve the quality of the repair tissue," says Ruggles. "These types of therapies are aimed at preventing re-injury."

In check ligament desmotomy, a veterinarian cuts the ligament that attaches to the bowed tendon. This allows the muscle and tendon to relax more, as the injured tendon is less elastic than one that has not been injured. Allowing the tendon more flexibility helps prevent re-injury, according to Ruggles. "This may be an appropriate treatment for horses that are to be used for some other purpose," he says.

Platelet-rich plasma injections are another option, in which blood platelets are injected into the injured area to promote tissue regeneration.

Extracorporeal shock wave therapy also aims to aid tissue repair through the use of high-pressure sound waves.

Stem cell therapy can be used to promote healing, but it can cost several thousand dollars and might not be practical or affordable for some potential owners.

Prepurchase/Pre-Adoption Exam?

While the old saying is you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, horse owners need to know what they are getting ¬into when adopting or purchasing a retired racehorse.

Before taking on any retired racehorse, Ruggles recommends a thorough prepurchase exam that includes, at minimum, a careful physical examination and perhaps some radiographs.

"People tend to think of what they spend on their prepurchase exam in relation to the value of the horse, but that's penny-wise and pound-foolish," he says. "They're trying to save money because the horse is inexpensive and they have plans of turning these horses into show horses, but you have to make sure the raw material is there, otherwise any expenditure is a waste of money.

"If you're diligent, you'll save yourself heartache and money by making the right decision for you and the horse," he adds.


Both of MacDonald's Thoroughbreds were only three years old when they arrived at her farm, and as a result she was able to take their training slowly. "I didn't have a deadline, so I took my time," she says.

When MacDonald's horses were ready, she began lunging them to build a training foundation slowly. "Because they are raced in one direction, they tend to be a bit one-sided, so lunging in both directions gets them thinking about bending and just putting their feet in the right place," she says.

MacDonald would also ride her horses along a fenceline to encourage straightness and practice basic dressage movements, such as leg yielding.

While MacDonald had few difficulties retraining her horses, she stresses that people looking to start an ex-racehorse in a new career need to take their time with retraining. "These horses are very sensitive and need time to develop; rushing them into something they're not ready for can really blow their minds," she says.

And although Lane is an ardent supporter of Thoroughbreds, she admits the breed isn't for everybody. "I've steered some people in a different direction. These horses aren't for your kid who's been taking lessons for two years," she says.

For those individuals looking to obtain an ex-racehorse through an adoption agency or directly from the track, Lane says honesty and patience are key. "I always tell people, 'If you're not in a big hurry, the right horse will come,' " she says.

"Most adoptions that go sour, we find out later there were a lot of mistruths. Be brutally honest about your abilities, and if there isn't a horse to suit your needs, move on or wait for a suitable match to come along," she says.

Take-Home Message

Careful evaluation of an ex-racehorse for a second career is essential to ensure a good match. A thorough prepurchase exam, complete with basic radiographs, will help determine if the horse will be able to perform in another athletic endeavor. With injured racehorses, rehabilitation can take a significant amount of time and finances; however, the rewards can be great.

About the Author

Liz Brown

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