Commentary: Sound Advice for Future Retired Racehorses

Christine Orman, PhD, is the Resource Development Director for ReRun, a non-profit Thoroughbred adoption program.

As 2010 came to a close, so did the racing career of a highly celebrated Thoroughbred racehorse named Zenyatta. She is retired now, and after more than three years and 20 races, she walked away from the track completely sound. This fact alone should garner as much fanfare as her stunning performances.

Simply too many horses come off the racetrack for the last time because of some injury they sustained during racing. Those of us who work in the racehorse adoption field see this all too frequently. A horse comes to us with an irreversible injury that even after rehabilitation leaves its riding capacity forever limited to "trail riding" (if that) and reduces its chances of finding an adoptive home to practically nil.

This year at least 80% of the horses needing ReRun's adoption services had such injuries. A case in point is "Misty," a 7-year-old Thoroughbred mare with 37 starts and career earnings of more than $185,000 behind her. We were told she had a suspensory injury, but what she had was an ankle of bone-on-bone. No cartilage or fluid remained in the joint. This typically happens when a horse has been repeatedly injected with cortisone, which allows her to run with no pain. In ReRun's experience, this kind of treatment is the most common cause of irreversible injuries, and it is what turns potential show horses into pasture pals, like Misty.

ReRun serves tracks up and down the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic regions, so it seems fair to assume the issues we're seeing with horse soundness are representative of the sport across the country.

This is not to say that horses with certain injuries cannot go on to successful second careers. They can, if the injuries are managed correctly and given the needed rest. We recently adopted out "Saintly Sir" who had sustained a slab fracture of the knee. He is doing well in his dressage and jumper career. Even "Devil Crab" who fractured his sesamoid, but received six months of stall rest and then slow but consistent exercise, has found a permanent home and is competing in local shows.

I recognize the financial consequences of not racing a horse this one last time. I know for many owners a winning race can pay a lot of bills, especially in a poor economy. That's pressure. I get that. But please remember a horse's life is in your hands. You can determine his post-career fate from Day One of his racing career. It really can come down to you making a life-or-death decision if you repeatedly choose to put a Band-Aid over a serious injury; choosing injections into a joint rather than treating the problem properly from the get-go.

To continue racing a horse that has shown signs of injury not only is irresponsible but is essentially giving him or her a death sentence after retirement. The horse will not be able to find a home. So, where will your beautiful 4-year-old baby of a horse end up? You know where, and it isn't pretty.

In honor of Zenyatta's sound retirement and the turn of the year, I'd like to ask racehorse owners across the country to consider making the following New Year's resolution: You will try your very best to retire your horses from racing before their injuries reach the point of no return and prevent them from ever getting a second chance at a new life. Let's begin the new decade with a generation of owners who are educated in, and dedicated to, the well-being and health of their horses both during and after their racing careers.

Racetracks are beginning to implement educational seminars for new owners. So, if you're new to the "Sport of Kings" or you just want to re-dedicate yourself to the proper care of a Thoroughbred, contact your local track or its associated aftercare program (if it has one) to see if it is offering new owner seminars. If it's not, encourage management to do so.

If your track does have an aftercare program, get to know the people there. Find out what resources they'll have available for you when the time comes to make end-of-career decisions about your horses.

These programs want to help you find a good home for your horses. That's why they are there. Just keep in mind that they can't do their part if you don't do yours. Give your horses a fighting chance to find an adoptive home. Retire them sound.

Originally published in the's blog "Final Turn." To share your thoughts on this editorial, visit the blog.

About the Author

Christine Orman, PhD

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