November 11, 2016

Retraining a Racehorse: Finding the one

This article is mainly aimed at those who are less experienced with horses or have not re-homed an ex-racehorse before. It is written with the intention of providing as much information as possible on what to expect when re-homing an ex-racehorse and general pointers so you know what you may encounter, as it is quite possible you may find yourself faced with situations not previously experienced. Please note that generalisations are made for simplicity in line with the purpose of this feature and the content is by no means exhaustive.

The most important thing to remember is that you must not ever be afraid to seek help or just reassurance that you are doing the right thing, rather than soldering on, becoming more and more anxious about any given situation. As ex-racehorses are so popular, more and more people are calling themselves Racehorse Retrainers; this in itself is perfectly ok, but some may not actually have enough experience to help with certain situations. So do your homework and research people who have ‘been in the job’ that bit longer.

Before acquiring your horse

It can be very helpful to have an insight into the life of a racehorse. By having a better understanding of the way of life and routine the racehorse is used to, will help you better appreciate why some horses react and behave as they do when they come out of training.

Horses are very much individuals and you will hear that some people report a rather long list of issues they have experienced with their horse during the course of basic retraining, whilst others will say they have had a very straightforward transition from racehorse to riding horse. A variety of factors can be influential such as whether the horse was flat or NH trained, how long it was in training and where, but of course basic temperament is the most significant factor.

Bear in mind that retraining a racehorse could possibly turn out to be a more expensive than originally anticipated as you may require more help than you thought would be the case. Obviously some horses come out of training due to injury or other health issues, so as a consequence of this, there may be the need for some further or on-going veterinary treatment. After a proper period of rest and rehab, most horses go on to lead very fulfilling lives, but some may need a quieter steadier life. It is always recommended that a horse be given a full M.O.T. comprising of consultations with a farrier, Equine Dental Technician (EDT) and a practitioner trained in chiropractic, osteopathy or similar and possibly a nutritionist so these costs should also be factored in to your budget over and above routine management expenses.

Sourcing a horse

General advice for those homing an ex-racehorse for the first time would be to source your horse from a recognised (charitable) Racehorse Rehoming Centre, an RoR Approved Retrainer or from someone who has already begun the re-training process. This not only serves to eliminate or reduce some of the immediate issues that may arise but also more accurate information will be available to you in terms of temperament, behaviour and so on.

Trainers and stable staff will tell you much about a horse, his history, the reason behind why it is coming out of training and so on, as well as advising on general temperament and behaviour, which is very helpful but remember that some horses do react and behave very differently once out of training and out of their comfort zone until they have learned a new set of life skills. Bear in mind too that racing yard staff are experienced and well-used to working with highly strung, quirky, active horses and a bit of rearing up or bucking, going sideways down the road and jig-jogging is all part of every day life; however to the “new” owner, the occurrence of just one minor rear up can be extremely worrying and in many cases unnerving.

A sales-savvy person should only undertake buying from a sale; this is not the route for the inexperienced. Homing via magazine adverts and the Internet are the most common ways in which horse and new owner meet. Homing privately allows you to see how the horse is adjusting to life outside of racing and generally you can spend more time with the horse than would be the case if viewed in a racing yard. If you are new to purchasing horses, take someone with you who has experience so that the right questions are asked.

So what are the main considerations to bear in mind?

  • Generally the horse out of training is good load, stands for the farrier and has good stable manners. Usually they are good to clip but some may be a bit fidgety or more ticklish than you are used to a horse being; this is mainly due to the thoroughbred being thin-skinned and more sensitive.
  • Your new acquisition probably won’t stand still for you to mount; some horses will rear up a little if you try and stop them from walking away. This is because lads/lasses and jockeys are more often than not legged up whilst the horse is walking.
  • These days, staff in racing do often ride with longer stirrups than used to be the case but this can still be shorter than the length at which you would ride; rider posture is so different too. This means that your leg may lie in a different place than the horse is used to so initial caution is required when first ‘applying the leg‘, especially if you have the tendency to draw your leg too far back.
  • There is always the possibility too that the horse has not experienced a conventional (general purpose) saddle on its back before so such a saddle will feel very different particularly in terms of weight and length on the back.
  • Your braking system could well be limited or even non-existent especially in open spaces; and when you shorten up the reins and undoubtedly, although probably unintentionally, incline yourself forward, you are actually giving cues to go faster!
  • Racehorses are not ridden with a contact down the rein to the bit in the same way as a riding horse so when you pick up the reins, the head/neck will invariably go up and out rather than low and rounded. You may also experience head tossing and snatching at the bit. Many horses may well grind their teeth too.
  • Whilst a racehorse is used to a squeeze (or kick) from the rider’s leg and a pull on the reins, he is not used to the aid applications that are used in general riding so initially you may appear to own a horse that seems a bit wooden because he is unresponsive to the aids. Cries of having a lazy ex-racehorse usually equate to one that has not been properly taught to move away from the leg – and that is down to the quality of the retraining.
  • A racehorse has no need to be laterally supple so when you first get on board your horse will feel rather rigid; some walk and many trot with shorter, less fluent strides than you might expect but this corrects as retraining progresses and different muscles are built up.
  • Generally racehorses are used to riding out in company, which means that when venturing out alone, you could encounter problems in relation to insecurity and nervousness. Riding in company can also present its own issues, as being in a group will be associated with work i.e. a training gallop, it is a myth that racehorses do not hack out!
  • Your new horse will not have travelled in a trailer before and once familiarised most readily accept this mode of transport.
  • Something that is generally taken for granted as often causes great consternation to a new owner, is the fact that racehorses are not accustomed to being tied up outside of their stables so can become a little anxious and even try to break free until they have adjusted to this new experience.

Further management considerations

  • Whilst turnout is much more common within racing these days, your new charge may not be used to the extended hours you may wish him to now have, so keep an eye on him for the first few days as he may ask to come back in. The horse that is not used to individual turnout may fence walk whilst others not used to being in a group may feel intimidated. 24/7 turnout will become achievable if you so wish, though obviously not in the early stages so access to stabling is essential.
  • Remember that thoroughbreds are thin skinned so whereas previously you may not have to have considered rugging a horse in the stable, this may now be needed so here starts the accumulation of a new equine wardrobe!
  • Life for the horse in training is based on routine and regime. And whilst used to a very active lifestyle with plenty going on in the yard, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a noisy environment; thoroughbreds can be that bit more sensitive to noises. Many yards still try and have the traditional couple of hours of complete peace and quiet in the afternoons to enable horses to rest.
  • Racing yards are busy places and often time can be short particularly on race days or in the larger yards. So whilst racehorses are used to receiving their cuddles, your new charge may not be used receiving quite the huge amounts of affection you now wish to shower him with. Initially some may shun you to start with but this is just due to the change of environment and routine, just give him time to adjust. The vast majority of people report how wonderfully affectionate and loving their horses are and in fact it is often that side of their nature which spurs owners on to resolving riding issues which, in other circumstances, would result in the horse being passed/sold on.
  • The thoroughbred is very sensitive and quick minded, so is often more prone to exhibiting signs of stress than other breeds of horse particularly if boredom sets in. These horses can also more easily become flustered when they do not understand what is being asked of them.
  • Remember that the day the horse leaves the training yard its life is tipped upside down so that is when any behavioural or stress-related symptoms will kick in. So do give your new horse time to adjust to its new lifestyle.

Fred and Rowena Cook

The next feature will take into consideration the initial feeding and veterinary needs, as well as saddlery and basic re-training that can be expected.

Thoroughbred Training Consultants – Equine Management and Training
Inc Rehoming Racehorses – A Life After Racing
RoR Approved Racehorse Retrainers
Retraining Consultants to Greatwood Charity
UK Agents: Ardall Equine & Rider Safety System
Authors: “Re-Educating Racehorses – A Life After Racing”

To find your own ex-racehorse, please visit Source an Ex-Racehorse

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