Retired Racehorses: Transitioning from Racetrack to Ribbons
Ex-racehorses are naturally competitive, with a willing-to-please personality. As a result, they can be easily trained to adapt to a new discipline.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse
By Barbara Sheridan
Many ex-racehorses are finding second careers once their racing days are over, thanks to the ever increasing awareness of what these multi-talented athletes can also do off the track. As a result of this growing movement to retrain the racehorse, Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, Quarter Horses and other breeds have successfully been transitioning from the track to a new lifestyle as sport horses, show horses, or all-around pleasure mounts.
Canadian Olympian Jessica Phoenix is a huge proponent of the “ex-racehorse” breed and has successfully worked with them for years. Two of her top horses—Exploring and Exponential—were off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) that successfully took Phoenix to top international levels in eventing.
“Exploring went to the Pam Am Games in 2007, and Exponential went to the Olympics and the Word Equestrian Games in 2010 and 2012,” says the Cannington, Ontario resident. “Exponential is such a tough horse. He’s 17 now and is still competing at the four-star level.
“I believe that Thoroughbreds are so appealing to our sport because they love to run, as that’s what they’re bred to do, and I think that’s one of the biggest draws to having a Thoroughbred in our sport,” says Phoenix. “They also have such a courageous spirit and a zest for life.”
Phoenix feels that she would not have been able to get a start in this sport if it hadn’t been for Exploring and Exponential: “They were both inexpensive horses to purchase and they were both extremely talented,” she says. “They gave me a real opportunity to get into the sport of eventing, to compete at the highest level and be competitive. Starting out, I certainly wasn’t in a position where I could purchase a really expensive horse, so honestly, without having been able to start with Thoroughbreds; I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Finding Mr. Right
With their versatility and great work ethic, a retired racehorse can be hugely rewarding. But it’s important to do your homework in order to find the most suitable mount for you.
Each year, the racing industry ensures a steady stream of horses that have found themselves at the end of their racing careers. On average, ages can run from 2-year-olds (they usually begin their racing career between the age of two and three), to 4- and 5-year-olds, while some with steady, lucrative careers retire from the track at 6 years and upward. Their reasons for retirement vary, but come common ones include a lack of speed or owners downsizing for economic reasons.
Ex-racehorses are naturally competitive, with a willing-to-please personality. As a result, they can be easily trained to adapt to a new discipline, says Phoenix. But how do you know which one is right for you?
“I would definitely recommend that you purchase a horse with a basic vetting done, because nine times out of ten, if the horse is clinically sound, and their heart, eyes, and lungs are good, they will last the average rider a long time,” says Phoenix. “It doesn’t have to be an X ray of every single joint, but this just gives you a bit of information so that if there is something there, you are aware of it and able to maintain it going forward.”
Some suitable ex-racehorses come off their racing career in fine health, while others can have minor issues that can be overcome with rest and rehab. Find out ahead of time what your prospect is capable of achieving and whether or not he would a suitable choice, whether for pleasure or as a show mount. To assist with your search, Phoenix recommends the assistance of a trainer or agent, as some ex-racers come at a bargain price for a reason.
Those without access to a trainer or agent can turn to one of the many rehabilitation organizations readily available across the country that retrain and place ex-racehorses for successful second careers.
“When you purchase an ex-racehorse from a reputable and established organization, you get the right history on that horse,” says Oscar Calvete, DVM, farm manager and veterinarian at Adena Springs North, based in Aurora, Ontario. Created by the Stronach family in 2004, the Adena Retirement Program was developed as a rehabilitation and retraining program for former racehorses. “At Adena, we take care of the injuries first before we make the horse available on our website. We keep records of everything and make these records available to the public.”
Calvete notes that by providing the new adoptive owners with full disclosure of each horse’s health history and their current retraining status, they’re able to ensure that the horses are matched with the right owner and home.
The Right Choice
Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few prospects, Phoenix recommends using one’s “horse sense” and good judgment to decide on the right prospect.
“When considering a purchase, make sure that you really enjoy the horse. Not that you just like the looks of it, but that you really like the horse’s personality,” she says. “And sometimes, that means you have to spend some time with it. Horses are just like people. They all have different personalities; and sometimes you get along well with them, and sometimes you don’t. I would also say knowing their history is helpful, including if they’ve had any vet-related incidents.”
A career in equine sport can put a horse at risk for training-related injuries. However, the past decade has seen tremendous advances in the field of equine sports medicine in both identification and treatment of these injuries.
“The most common ailments that you will find in retired racehorses are mainly soft tissue issues such as tendons and ligaments, as well as joint problems in the front limbs,” Calvete notes. “This would be followed by hind limbs, hocks, stifle, hip, and back problems, mostly in that order.”
Many of the more common ailments, such as soft tissue injuries, can easily be overcome with treatment and rest. A vet check can assist in identifying any possible issues that could affect the horse during its second career, as well as advise if the injury is recoverable to allow him to return to full athletic function.
“We recommend a program that goes in a slow and consistent manner, always having in mind the horse’s temperament and conformation,” adds Calvete.
Patience is Key
Racehorses are worked differently than the average riding horse, as their training mostly involves fitness and speed work. While the transitioning process from racehorse to retraining can vary depending on the horse, most recommend some type of down time before beginning the retraining process.
“When they’ve just come off the track, they are really fit, as they’ve been galloping every single day,” says Phoenix. “Often times when people give them a break, it’s more to just let their fitness down and their bodies relax to allow them to be more like an average horse, instead of a finely tuned athlete.
"But each horse is different. We’ve acquired horses straight from the track, and two weeks later they’ve happily competed in their first show. Others, we’ve given them two months in order to allow them to relax their bodies after coming off the track. You really have to look at each horse as an individual so that every plan is made different.”
Because Thoroughbreds are sensitive and have a quick mind, Phoenix says her training techniques involve getting their mind to work for her, to keep it really fun for them, but also to keep them engaged.
“We do a lot of ground work with them,” says Phoenix. “We apply a lot of games so that they learn how to follow us and look for us, and then read our movements. Often times we do that every day before we even get on them so that they’re really thinking about the rider and working with you. Because they’re just very playful in their minds, you have to make sure that they’re ready to work when you get on them, otherwise you’re just going to fight with them.”
Off-The-Track Feeding Checkup
As with any horse, an ex-racehorse’s feeding program should be based on its individual needs and level of training. Because of their high-energy needs during their racing careers, they would typically receive three to four feedings a day of a calorie-dense diet made up of energy-rich grains in order to meet their nutritional needs for optimum performance. While in training, most are offered roughage in the form of hay throughout the day, but often times concentrate can make up a very high portion of their diet.
Once he’s being retrained as a riding horse, Calvete recommends reducing the level of carbohydrates in his diet to reflect his new workload. “We recommend a feeding program based on roughage, grain, and beet pulp, in addition to a lot of turnout.”
Achieving that correct balance of roughage and nutrients to meet your horse’s needs can be easily achieved with the advice of a qualified feed specialist. Most major feed manufacturers have a nutritionist available on staff that would be able to come out to the farm and assess your horse to help you decide which the best product is for him. Many times, this service is offered for free.
The Sweet Reward
Ownership of an ex-racehorse can be an incredibly rewarding experience, whether they’re purchased directly off the track, through a trainer, or from a retired racehorse organization. There are plenty to choose from and can be quite affordable. Taking the time to assist with his new way of life will make the transition a positive experience for both horse and rider.
“I love working with my Thoroughbreds every day,” says Phoenix. “I love their attitude, and I love the excitement that they bring. It actually excites me to get up in the morning and see what they’re going to do that day. I definitely owe them a lot.”
About the Author
Equine Guelph is the horse owners' and caretakers' center at the University of Guelph, supported and overseen by equine industry groups, and dedicated to improving the health and well-being of horses.
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