November 13, 2016

Retraining a Racehorse: Initial issues

In the first part of this feature, Fred and Rowena looked at how to select and horse and what to expect from a horse straight out of training. Here they go on to explain the over issues that need to be considered with an ex-racehorse.

Feeding and veterinary issues

Racing life itself can cause digestive/systematic problems; stomach ulcers are extremely common with a large proportion of horses in training having them. Although the change to a diet containing more fibre will help to manage the ulcers, you may well need to provide specific treatment to eliminate them so you should consult with your veterinary surgeon.

The racing diet is designed to provide quick release energy and the maximum of quality nutrients to effect rapid cell repair and replenishment. Traditionally, fibre was usually lacking in the racing diet but much as been done in recent years to address this. However, the racehorse often still does not eat the desired amounts of forage due to the fact that the hard feed constitutes a larger proportion of the diet. So don’t be alarmed in the early weeks or even months if your horse does not eat the quantities of forage you would like him to.

A change in diet obviously takes effect from day one and the ration will now need to comprise feed which will increase weight rather than provide energy, so whilst it must still be of good nutritional content (i.e. adequate vitamins and minerals) it should be more fibre based. As with any change in feeding, switches should be made gradually so as to keep the risk of digestive upsets to a minimum.

As said in the previous blog, your new horse should have a full M.O.T. to try and ensure that he is as comfortable as possible before his retraining begins. Foot wise, thoroughbreds often have poor quality horn but with an appropriate diet coupled with good foot balancing in the main, hoof condition can be much improved – although for some horses going barefoot may never be an option. As with any new horse, worming is always recommended so have a worm count done (and tapeworm test) and treat accordingly.

It is quite likely that your horse will have incurred some form of physical injury (back, pelvis and legs being the most common sites) particularly if it was a national hunt horse; such injuries may well have theoretically healed and so not cause any particular issues early on but as re-training work progresses, some niggles in the lumbar area may present as your horse adjust to using muscles he didn’t know he had and moving in a way he didn’t know he could.


The horse fresh out of training will be fit and muscled up, but the musculature will be very different to that of a riding horse. Due to the life-style change and over the coming months as re-schooling progresses, the horse’s body shape is going to alter – just by how much will depend entirely on the manner of schooling work done and how well and accurately it is executed. This means that in the first few months you will need the services of a reputable saddle fitter on more than one occasion as muscle development takes place. Thoroughbreds backs are generally on the sensitive side so however well fitted your saddle is, you will need to use a numnah underneath, not necessarily a thick one but one that provides good concussion absorption. These horses are also usually used to girths with elastic in so bear this in mind when purchasing new saddlery.

One of the most common issues is finding a suitable bit and this can be quite challenging, as most racehorses do not have a ‘mouth‘ in the same way as a riding horse. So don’t be alarmed if you struggle to find a bit that your horse is comfortable with and responds to, as it may well take several bit changes, over a period of time, until you find the right one. And of course, as retraining progresses and your horse starts to correctly propel from behind, learns to seek a contact and come on to the bit, a bit change may well be warranted anyway. Going bitless is not always an option either especially in the early days when the horse won’t have a proper comprehension of the other aids, which of course is very important when riding without a bit.

Initial re-training

Be prepared that it could be a long process, longer than that of starting a horse from scratch because you have to erase what the horse has already been taught and put in place the new, which is to use his body in a completely different way from what he has been used to. Thus, don’t go into the school trot round a few times and expect the horse to drop its head into an outline to die for!

The ex-racehorse has to learn to use its back in a completely different way – to lift and round and engage the abdominal muscles in order to carry its rider properly. This means that engagement will be completely non-existent initially with the back hollow, resulting in an even higher head carriage and a very rigid body. The hollowing won’t be helped by the fact that you may be heavier than anyone who has ridden the horse but more because you will be sitting on the horse as opposed to riding with your weight off the horse’s back; the racehorse doesn’t know how to carry weight.

Ground work including lunging and long reining are the key to success but as so few racehorses are broken or started (the preferred terminology) in anything like the way that is commonplace for other horses, even lunging can prove challenging. Not all racehorses will have experienced long rein or more particularly double lunge work, so suddenly having a line going around the hindquarters can cause quite a bit of excitement to say the least!

Getting help

Anyone deciding on re-homing an ex-racehorse should be realistic about their abilities and available time. Most people also realise that they do require outside help so it is wise to allocate a ‘training budget‘. In some cases where a specific issue need resolving – whether behavioural or schooling related – it may be preferable to send the horse away for a period of training, if it is something that cannot feasibly be corrected by fortnightly or monthly lessons. Be aware that quite a number of highly qualified, successful and renowned trainers are not well-versed enough with the ex-racehorse in that they are not suitably adaptable their training techniques or do not really have a full appreciation of just how sensitive some of them can be.

In the majority of situations, it is just a simple case of a breakdown of communication and a lack of understanding which causes a horse to seemingly shut down and refuse to co-operate. Should you find that your horse begins to exhibit any hint of non-acceptable behaviour that you are unable to reasonably attribute explanation to, remember you are most definitely not alone, and in the vast majority of cases, there is nothing that cannot be resolved, the exceptions to this being extremely rare.

So you have decided that an ex-racehorse is for you – remember:

Patience is the key. You must remain calm but confident at all times, whatever behaviour is thrown at you. The sharp-minded thoroughbred will soon pick up on any deficiencies you exhibit in that department.

Obviously not every horse is a challenge and many adapt readily and easily whilst others just need a little more time. Unfortunately it must be acknowledged that a few horses never really make the adjustment from racehorse to riding horse in that they always retain a degree of unpredictability – but then no horse’s behaviour can ever be 100% guaranteed can it?

As with any horse and any situation, there are no hard and fast rules and there are always exceptions. We advise anyone who would like to take on an ex-racehorse to talk to others that have done so, so that you enter the experience with your eyes wide open. Once you have taken delivery of your new horse, settled him into his new surroundings, the work really starts. But it is a wonderful journey, sometimes challenging, demanding and possibly with stressful moments – but no worse than with any other new horse particularly a youngster. It is all well worth it in the end!

Fred and Rowena Cook

The next part in the series will look at what to do once the horse is home.


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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