Hidden Treasure: Retraining Racehorses

"A prize in every box." While that phrase refers to the little toy one finds in a box of Cracker Jacks, adopting a former racehorse is not so different: You're not quite sure what you'll get, but often the experience is fun and the horse can be a treasure for years to come. For the most part, ex-racehorses are well-trained, intelligent horses which, in the right hands, successfully move on to other disciplines. But it takes effort, sensitivity, patience, and a sense of what kind of work best suits an individual horse's body and mind to uncover that buried treasure.

Regardless of the breed, the initial handling techniques between coming off the track and going into specialized training consist of similar steps: Down time, farm adjustment, socialization, change of feed, and transitional training. Following is the input and advice from five trainers who've worked with Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, Quarter Horses, Paints, Appaloosas, and Arabians on what it takes to re-tune track horses.

Chill Out

The first step in ex-racehorse transformation is giving the horse plenty of down time. Explains Michele Oren, farm manager and trainer with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), "You don't take a horse from the track and two days later try to ride it. These horses have lots of energy and need turnout time to relax. Once you give a horse time to let down from racetrack horse to pleasure horse, you have a totally different animal."

Oren recommends giving Thoroughbreds a month or two off. Of course, horses recovering from injuries or surgeries--chips, bowed tendons, slab fractures, pulled suspensories, etc.--might need time for recuperation. Make sure your veterinarian is a part of this initial phase.

During this down time, part of becoming a "different animal" includes meeting the challenge of the new barn routine. Says Oren, "At the track, the horse is primarily out of its stall one hour a day: They're basically groomed, tacked up, sent to the track, come back, cooled out, put back in the stall, and that's it."

Most of these horses are unused to turnout and the noises, activities, and routines of a private, boarding, or show barn. Warns Dot Morgan, executive director of New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, which retrains and places Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, "These 'hot house orchids' do not instantly adapt to being ordinary horses. (At the track) the water bucket is often held to their lips; their hay hangs from the wall at eye level. Flies are minimized as stalls are meticulously picked out several times a day. Fans circulate the humid summer air, and the barn protects from mosquitoes at night."

Morgan says many of these horses are afraid of the water tank and might not know how to drink from a tank, automatic waterer, or creek. "Careful steps must be taken in the introduction to basic life skills," she says. "During the adjustment period, turnout needs to be interspersed with comfort time in the stall."

During this adjustment time, assume nothing about the horse's barn skills. Monitor every step of the way--feeding, drinking, grazing--to make sure he gets the hang of his new routine.

However, some horses will see green grass, drop their heads, and hardly come up for air. Remember, most of these horses existed on concentrates and top-quality hay, and got very little, if any, grass. Beware of too much "Mr. Green" at first--as with any other sudden diet change, more grass than the horse is accustomed to can set the stage for digestive upset and even laminitis.

Social Club

On top of adjusting to barn life, there is the whole social issue of fitting in with other resident horses, a process that can be especially difficult for a horse which has never shared turnout space. This introduction to the herd should be done on a gradual basis.

Oren starts by placing the new arrival in a stall that allows the horse to put his head out and actually touch neighboring horses--geldings with geldings, never with mares. "Some of the geldings were gelded late or recently injected with steroids," Oren notes, "so they still have stud-like behavior." (It could take up to three months for the steroids and accompanying stallion-like behavior to wear off.)

For initial turnout, Oren administers a mild sedative to the ex-racehorse, then turns him out by himself in a 50-foot by 50-foot paddock where he can see, but not come into contact with, several other horses.

"As long as the horse behaves and stays quiet, he gets to stay out," she says. "Over a few days they settle and they get to stay out longer. Most get to stay out two to three hours the first day and progress from there. Generally, by the fifth day they have settled enough to stay out five to six hours.

"Over four or five days I give them less sedative and longer time out," she explains. "They then go to a bigger paddock, still being alone, then get moved to a herd of about six when I am sure that the horse is comfortable in turnout and has settled in--usually about a two-week process before introduction to the herd."

Kati Neal, who trains Appaloosas, places the fresh-from-the-track horse in a 45-foot by 50-foot run by himself for four to six weeks. "I have several runs where they can run side-by-side for a while," Neal says. "They get to know the other horses before I put them out together. If they bite and kick at each other in that run, they're not going to get along together in the pasture, so I'll find a different horse for them or turn them out by themselves."

Besides lacking social skills with other horses, some ex-racehorses are unaccustomed to close or extended contact with humans. "We get a lot of horses that shoot to the back of the stall when you come in," Oren reports, "because they're not sure of what's going to happen--a fear response. You really have to work on that people connection in order to gain their trust."

To foster a horse's trust in you, Oren recommends standing next to the horse while he's eating his grain, stroking his neck, and talking soothingly to him. She says to move slowly when you're working around the horse. If the horse is calm enough, Oren kneels in the straw and spends some time massaging his legs. "Racehorses love to have their legs massaged," she says. "All of this helps to restore their confidence. It's amazing how quickly you can do that."

The Food Makes the Horse

Part of what goes into making a high-energy racehorse is high-energy feed. At the track, racehorses commonly receive grain, alfalfa, vitamins, and minerals. Removing high-energy foods is an integral part of transforming the "hot" horse into a calmer, more manageable partner. Here is where recommendations vary a bit.

"Thoroughbreds have a higher metabolism than cold bloods and require additional calories to maintain condition," states Morgan. "Most Thoroughbreds require eight to 10 pounds of grain (about 12% concentrate) a day plus 15-20 pounds of quality hay to hold their weight. Retired racehorses often lose weight on straight grass hay unless the concentrate is increased a couple of pounds to make up the difference."

Similarly, Oren believes that Thoroughbreds benefit from a diet that consists primarily of sweet feed, as opposed to grazing, although they receive as much hay as they want. "Here, they get a basic sweet feed of 10% fat and 10% protein," she says. "The diet when they first arrive is two quarts of this high-fat, low-protein sweet feed, two times a day with hay. The last thing racehorses need is more protein--it just makes them more high. They do need the fat to keep the weight on.

"They get no supplements until all foreign substances are out of their bodies," she continues. "Then I know what I have for a horse and what they need. Once they can handle turnout, I do prefer them to be out to graze and to relax."

Standardbreds, says Morgan, do well on a diet similar to Thoroughbreds, but with less grain--about six to eight pounds--along with 15-20 pounds of good hay.

Arabians do best with a low-protein, high-fat diet, says Pamela Weidel of Boxwood Farm. A horse breeder, trainer, and consultant who primarily works with Arabian horses for racing and endurance, Weidel says that good-quality timothy or timothy/grass hay is best, with alfalfa only given during the vet check-points at endurance rides.

"The amount of feed depends on the type of feed and the horse's size, metabolic requirements, and amount of training or work the horse is doing," says Weidel. "Less work means less feed."

Appaloosas and Quarter Horses fare well on oats and bromegrass hay, notes Neal, while Paints prosper on alfalfa hay, says Vicki Belanger, a retired trainer who has won classes at the Paint and Quarter Horse Worlds and retrains racehorses.

Slow and Easy

Because racehorses generally received training just for the track, it's important not to ask for too much, too soon. The following parameters are helpful for easing the ex-racehorse into his new training:

Short sessions--Advises Oren, "Their attention spans are very short because not a lot has been asked of them. When you first train the horse, keep sessions to 10-15 minutes, once a day. If the horse accepts this, add minutes, up to a maximum of a 30-40 minute session."

Maintain patience--"Spend a lot of time just getting to know the horse," says Neal. "Let the horse become confident in you before you start anything, so they know you're not there to push them hard. You've got to bond with that horse and let him feel confident in you, or you're not going to get anything done."

Observe--Get to know each horse's strengths, flaws, and movement while he's at liberty in the pen, both tacked and untacked. Says Belanger, "I watch what they're doing, how they carry their heads, what they do with their hocks and front legs when there is no pressure on them. You can learn a lot about a horse just by watching what they do." Standing in the pen, using a small whip, Belanger clucks at the horse, then steps back toward the horse's hip to move him forward. After a bit, she'll tell the horse to whoa, coming toward his head to stop him. "They usually turn and go the other way," Belanger says. "This shows how they respond to me and how quick of a learner they'll be."

Energy release--Start each session by letting the tacked horse loose in the pen for a minute or two to blow off a little energy. "I let them buck and play a little, and then they're ready to work," states Belanger. After mounting, if the horse seems a little anxious, let him relax and settle in before starting work by walking and drifting around, Belanger recommends. "Keep your movements slow and easy."

Round pen work--"I usually start in a round pen because you don't know how they're going to react," Neal says. "There is nothing safer than that round pen for you or your horse. Some of these horses come off the track with mouths of steel, and it's difficult to stop them! A round pen is small enough that the horse cannot get too much speed up, and it's easier to get them stopped."

Rewards--Reward each success by releasing (letting the horse not have to work) and praise or treats, and end each session on a positive note. "If things start to look a little hairy and you're losing the horse's attention, do something the horse knows, and stop," Oren recommends.

First Things First

Transitional training--Prior to moving into a specific discipline, the ex-racehorse usually requires schooling in the basics--transitional training, some call it. They're used to taking the bit and taking off instead of giving to the bit, and most walk off as soon as they're mounted. With the exception of harness horses, most racehorses are accustomed to some weight on their backs. Leg pressure, leg aids, and bending are foreign to them.

Often, a horse needs to learn about the bit first before learning leg cues. "He needs confidence in giving me his nose (listening to the bit) before I lay a little leg pressure on him," Neal explains. "Sometimes I can teach both at the same time, but this can get them confused--all of a sudden they're being jabbed in the sides and at the same time their head is being pulled, and they're going, 'What do you want out of me?' "

One method to teach the horse to accept the bit is to encourage the horse to work it out himself. Tack the horse in any style of saddle, a bridle with snaffle bit and caveson, and either side reins, thin lead shanks, or a light, knotted rope with double snaps, Morgan says. "In the stall or in a round pen, snap or tie one of the side reins, lead shank, or rope to the ring on the left side of the saddle or where the girth is secured. Snap the other end to the ring in the snaffle bit. The strap should just be snug enough that the horse needs to turn its head slightly to relieve the pressure, but not so tight that the horse has to bend its neck at a right angle. Step out of the stall or round pen for about 30 minutes and let the horse work out the mechanics of 'giving its head' to relieve the pressure of the bit. Follow the same procedure on the right side for 30 minutes. At the end of this hour praise the horse and return it to its stall or pasture."

Repeat the second bitting session within one to seven days, Morgan says, following the same procedure, but tying the rein about an inch tighter. "At the end of the hour, add 30 more minutes with the horse bitted straight back. Set the side reins at equal lengths, snapping from the bit to the respective side of the saddle just snug enough that the horse must duck its nose an inch or so to get relief. Beware of bitting the horse too severely: If the horse perceives there is no escape, it may flip over in frustration! Initially, pinch the horse slightly on the nose so that he moves it away from your hand and relieves the pressure of the bit. Usually this action or manually pushing its head toward its chest will make a light bulb go off. Be sure the horse understands the concept before stepping away for another 30 minutes."

Morgan says it usually only takes two to four bitting sessions for the horse to grasp the concept of giving to the bit.

A method favored by Neal is to saddle the horse in the round pen and work him off the longe line (hooked to the halter) with the bit in his mouth. "Then I'll bit them to the stirrups and longe and turn them loose to get used to the pressure on their mouth for about 10-15 minutes each way. I'll gradually take that bit up a little bit to get them to back off the bridle. Then when I ride them, we'll do a lot of walking, stopping, backing up and pushing them into that bit, letting them know they can break at that poll. For most horses, I'll usually ride them in the round pen after a couple of bitting sessions. I don't bit them up too much, because I want them to learn to respond to me."

Saddle Work--"The first ride should immediately follow the end of the third or fourth bitting session," advises Morgan, who thinks the action of flexing the poll and bending the neck during the bitting process releases endorphins that calm the horse. "In most cases, riding a horse that has just been bitted for an hour is the equivalent of giving it a half cc of acepromazine (tranquilizer). This is an ideal point to initiate the first ride since leaving the track," she says.

Have an experienced person hold the horse--preferably with his head against the barn, gate, or a fence--and calm him while the rider is mounting, Morgan says. "Once the horse is settled, the rider should lean both to the left and right so the horse sees her out of both eyes. The rider should run her hands over the horse's shoulders and hips to soothe the horse and let him get accustomed to movement on his back. It's safer to use a solid barrier while mounting the first time and a round pen to avoid the potential of the horse spooking and bolting." This regimen is especially important for the Standardbred, she says, which is unfamiliar with having a rider on his back, but works well for other breeds, too.

Next, working in a paddock or arena, quietly ask the horse to walk with a verbal command and a tap to the rump. "It's easier to carry a crop, but usually not necessary," she says. "The rider can carry a crop or use a hand. I just reach around and tap the horse on the rump with my fingers. The Standardbreds are very accustomed to seeing a whip--every time they go to the track, the driver is carrying a whip, even if the horse is just going for a relaxing jog. Most of the time the horse is going to go forward in response to the 'kiss.'

"Today I was asking a Standardbred to move into a rack. I short-cutted things and didn't do all the transitional training steps I recommend," she continues. "I had to repeatedly smack him on the butt with my hand. I finally resorted to a switch off a tree. He understood that real well."

Punctuate the walk with intermittent stopping and standing. "This is a time to reinforce the bitting lessons and teach the horse to yield to leg pressure," says Morgan. "Keep the pace slow, but be creative: Go over and around obstacles and execute patterns around pylons and over ground poles. This focus on leg and hand aids speeds up the learning curve and breaks the monotony. As the horse progresses--usually about three sessions--try taking him around the farm, maneuvering through gates and around trees or vehicles. This helps establish a foundation for riding that is built on 'quiet and easy.' At least three to four sessions should be spent in this manner before moving into the trot for the first time."

Try to keep the horse's back straight, Belanger says, by letting him hold his head naturally; employ light reins, pushing with legs hanging naturally to lift the horse's back. "Their heads will come down," she says. "This helps them to balance, lift their backs, and use their hind ends."

Leg pressure--"Basically, all ex-racehorses know is to go in a straight line," explains Oren. "The big thing is to get them used to feeling the pressures, to learn the leg yield and leg aids, so the first couple of lessons are just walking, doing circles, doing serpentines, asking them to whoa."

Work at a walk or slow trot; keep asking until you get a response, then release. Says Belanger, "It's just constant repetition. I push on them until they move over, then I let them have their head and step forward."

To trot, relax pressure on the reins and "kiss" until the horse moves out, Morgan says. "This could mean multiple 'kissing' or 'clucking,' and occasionally a tap on the rump since these horses are still learning to move forward to leg pressure."

Because Standardbreds tend to have a rough trot, some owners prefer to teach them to rack, says Morgan. "The rack is a single-foot gait that is much smoother than a trot. Most Standardbred saddle horse owners prefer it. Once the horse is responding well to the bit and to leg aids, hold the horse in the bridle, and drive him forward with legs and verbal encouragement. Many will move right into a smooth rack. Others might take some practice or a heavier shoe behind to help them swing over. At this point, switching to a short leverage bit with a snaffle mouthpiece will help the horse collect and use its hindquarters to generate the desired rack.

"All Standardbreds carry the gaited gene," Morgan adds. "Both trotters and pacers can be taught to rack. Though it's easier to initially hit a 'gait' with a pacer, the serious racking horse riders prefer the trotters, because the rack is more distinct and less pacey."

Halting--"It takes a while for a horse to understand that taking back on the reins means to stop," Belanger says. "You apply leg pressure to make them go forward, then take back the reins until they stop." Reinforcing the halt with a verbal cue ("whoa") while doing longe or groundwork helps.

Quicker gaits--Before advancing into faster gaits, the horse should know how to stand quietly, yield to the bit, give to leg pressure, have a collected trot, understand the halt, and come back to the rider. "Sometimes the canter can be a little fast," warns Oren. "Once we get them to canter, getting them to pick up the right lead can be challenging: Coming from the racetrack, the left lead is always stronger."

If the horse doesn't pick up the correct lead, start over. "Wait until you are on a corner, pull the head to the outside, and give pressure with your outside leg and push him forward into a canter; this forces him to lead with the inside leg," says Oren.

Suggests Morgan, "Work through the lessons the horse already knows. Then when the horse is calm and attentive, collect him and ask for a canter with a squeeze and a kiss sound."

Cantering is not initially easy for most Standardbreds, Morgan notes. "Ask for the canter from a state of collection. These horses will also pick up a canter if pushed over an obstacle up a hill or taken over an obstacle."

Minding manners--Two bad habits typical of racehorses are walking off while a rider is being boosted into the saddle, and leading instead of following the handler.

"Walking off should not be allowed," Morgan states. "Teach the horse to stand quietly. Say, 'Whoa,' and keep steady rein pressure until the horse stops, then immediately release. If the horse steps out, repeat the commands. Always release the pressure as soon as the horse complies. It usually only takes one or two short 10-minute lessons to accomplish this goal."

When a horse tries to lead his handler, force him to circle around the handler, come back, stop, and start again, Neal recommends.

Onward and Upward

Learning the basics can take, on average, about 60-90 days. From that point, most horses are ready to go on to different work.

Arabians are well known for dressage, competitive trail, and endurance capabilities. Appaloosas, Quarter Horses, and Paints lend themselves to traditional Western sports such as barrel racing, endurance, pleasure, equitation, trail, cattle events, roping, cutting, halter, ranch work, or kids' horses.

Thoroughbreds excel in hunting, jumping, dressage, and many do well with polo, eventing, barrel racing, trail, and Western sports. Standardbreds are well suited for trail, most driving disciplines, police work, and historical re-enactment.

Remember to tend to any physical problems early in the transformation process. Continue to apply patience, calm repetition, and reward for the good work your ex-racehorse does in retraining for new work, and you can turn your unknown prize into real treasure.


Champion Kona Gold Returns to the Track--As a Stable Pony

Champion Thoroughbred Kona Gold has returned to trainer Bruce Headley's Santa Anita shed row where he has taken up his new duties as a stable pony. The 9-year-old gelding spent several months in rodeo training with bloodstock agent Julie Adair at a nearby Southern California farm following his retirement this past July.

"He's been back (at Santa Anita) for about a week," Headley said. "He looks good, doesn't he? Julie (Adair) does such a great job."

Headley credits Adair with converting Son of a Pistol, a multiple grade II winner who earned more than $850,000, into another one of his stable ponies.

Kona Gold was retired in late July after a fifth-place finish in the Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) at Del Mar. The son of Java Gold won the 2000 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) and the Eclipse Award that year as the country's top sprinter. Overall, he won 14 of 30 starts, with seven seconds and two thirds, for earnings of $2,293,384. In his Breeders' Cup triumph he established a track record of 1:07.77 at Churchill Downs for the six-furlong distance.--Margaret Ransom

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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