How to retrain a racehorse (and is an ex-racehorse a good idea?)
Thoroughbred racehorses are one of the most sensitive and intelligent creatures on the face of the earth, the problems come, of course, when they turn out to be more sensitive and intelligent than their owners. It’s important that as well as assessing your future horse you also make an objective assessment of yourself, not only your ability with horses but the time and money you have available. Thoroughbreds are talented, versatile and intelligent. But realistically would you be better off with a nice reliable cob that could live out 24 hours a day and it would make no difference if he wasn’t exercised from one week to the next? Think this through carefully.
Buying or rehoming an retired racehorse is not a ‘cheap’ option, not if you want a happy time for you and your ex-racehorse. Owning any horse requires a reasonable budget and with a racehorse you would want to allow at least £3,000 (including feed but not stabling for the first year) for the start-up costs. I would advise that you never buy a horse without him being fully vetted first. Even if the problems revealed don’t put you off having the horse, at least you are fully aware what you are letting yourself in for and you are being fair on the horse by being aware of his physical capabilities. This should even apply if you are being given a horse (i.e. do look a gift horse in the mouth) you don’t want it coming as a surprise that giving him a short canter means he needs 6 months box rest.
It is particularly likely that an ex-racehorse will have developed stable vices (more correctly known as stereotypical behaviours i.e. crib biting, wind sucking, weaving or box walking. This is more common in racehorses because of their sensitivity, combined with (usually) being stabled 23 hours a day (24 on Sunday) and high starch equine diets. I’m not suggesting you have to reject a horse with vices (stereotypical behaviours) but just decide what you can live with – for instance, if you share the yard with other owners will they mind if you bring a wind sucker into the yard?
It’s a good idea that the horse have a 5 Stage vetting with you in attendance and prudent to have veterinary insurance. Other advisable equine health checks include:-
- Have a recommended equine dental technician check their teeth and again in 6 months depending on the horse’s age,
- Have your horse’s back checked by a recommended equine body worker such as an ACPAT registered equine physiotherapist
- Your racehorse’s passport will include his vaccination schedules. It’s a good idea to keep all his notes together such as worming, dental and physical checks.
- Racehorses often have backbones like razor blades. Have his first saddle correctly fitted with the equine saddle fitter and be prepared for the equine saddle fitter to come back within 6 months to retake the wither pattern which will take into account the musculature changes that should develop in this time.
In an ideal world you would buy the horse directly from the race horse trainer and at least know something about how that racehorse trainer treats his horses. Ideally you’d ask the stable lad or lass (the person who looked after the horse) about the horse’s temperament and any quirks. Visiting the racing yard (or any racing yard) if you’re unfamiliar with them could help you get a feel of the culture, yard routine, horses experiences, exercise patterns, which could help in understanding your horse. Think about what sort of racehorse you actually want; a youngster (two year old?) an older horse, will he have run on the flat or over jumps (hurdles or fences?), what is it that you would actually like to do with him? Is he suitable for the purpose and for your weight, height and experience?
Now You’ve Got Your Racehorse Back Home….. Pick a period when you’ll have time to spend with him. Never completely rely on other people, particularly in these early stages, remember if he’s your horse then he’s ultimately your responsibility, at least have plenty of time to spend with him in the first two weeks. We need to assume you have good facilities; good stabling as well as post and rail fencing around your paddocks, high railings around a schooling area or an indoor school (perfect!) and ideally an assistant or friend who understands that this horse may not have been turned out in a field since he was a weanling at his stud.
To suddenly turn your ex-racehorse out in a big field on his first day could be stressful, but worst of all dangerous if he suddenly starts running around and doesn’t understand fences. Your racehorse may need to learn herd behaviour again. They can often get themselves into trouble because in their protected environments they are no longer ‘streetwise’, and innocently go and sniff the bottom of the herd bully if they’re taking a break from trying to find a piece of wire to get caught up in. Remember your horse will not have seen electric fencing before – if he got a large shock early on he’s likely to find this very upsetting and it’s possible he may panic.
Remember your racehorse is used to the hubbub of the racing yard in the mornings and it’s not unusual for them to get depressed or agitated if they suddenly find themselves left alone. I would advise you spend time getting to know your new horse in the stable and leading him out. Remember he’ll be used to being led in a bridle or the severe chifney. You will eventually be able to teach your horse perfect manners in a Dually Halter and 20 feet lead line, but he has to be trained to understand the new rules. His first turn out and lessons will be much safer if they can be in a round pen, corral or any safe enclosed area where he can’t get away.
Probably half an hour turn out, with you nearby, twice a day, is enough for the first couple of days and then it’s very much a question of you monitoring the situation to see what your horse is comfortable with. If your aim is to turn him out with other horses, make sure he is introduced to them over a fence first of all and allowed to graze in adjacent paddocks to start with. Be aware of the herd hierarchies and idiosyncrasies at your yard to help sidestep any avoidable problems.
In the winter, special care is needed with the thoroughbred with his thinner skin, not only because he’s likely to feel the cold but he may be more liable to mud fever and rain scald than the hardier breeds. Some thoroughbreds seem able to adapt to full time turn out, although a suitable winter rug is necessary, whilst other owners prefer to keep their horses in at night. Grooming, although he will have always been tied for saddling and grooming inside his stable, he will never have been tied up outside his stable and needs a very careful introduction to this* if he is not to panic and pull back.
*The Idolo tether tie is the best little gadget to ensure safety here. I don’t recommend baling twine, a horse or human would get injured before it actually broke.
Some racehorses may have had their legs hosed (usually if they’ve had problems there) but it’s fair to assume your horse will be frightened by the hosepipe initially so approach very carefully. Also remember your horse has sensitive skin so don’t start brushing him with a dandy brush. In fact, it would be far better to just start stroking him with a stable rubber (cloth) as you find out just how sensitive he is. You don’t want him to feel he has to bite you to tell you where his ticklish spots are! See the chapter on tying up in ‘Perfect Manners – How You Should Behave so Your Horse Does Too’.
Getting on – if we’re talking about literally ‘getting on’ a racehorse do remember he will never have had someone put their foot in the stirrup and heave themselves on in his life! In racing yards the lads and jockeys always have a ‘leg up’, often as the horse is walking along. Bearing this in mind makes you aware that if you want a horse that will stand still to mount there is a fair bit of ‘re- training’ to do. It is not just letting him know that your expectations of what he should be doing when he goes out with you are different from his previous yard. I’m assuming here your aim is not to have him run distances of up to 2 miles (4 miles for jumpers) as fast as he possibly can. It is also necessary that he physically develops in such a way that he can meet the new expectations i.e. most horse owners take trotting and cantering their horse in small circles for granted, this is something the average racehorse is very unlikely to have done before, as is backing up (for the flat racer) or the movements necessary to open a gate and they may never have even walked over poles on the ground.
All these things can be taught, of course, but it is necessary to understand your new horse is going to need time and clear training for these movements to become natural to him and he finds his balance. It is important to start off doing some ground work exercises with your racehorse. This enables you to start to build of bond of trust and respect in relative safety and also starts to develop him physically and mentally in these areas which are strange to him. I lay out the suitable foundation exercises in my book ‘Perfect Manners – How You Should Behave so Your Horse Does Too’ that you would find very helpful. If you can continue working in a safe, enclosed area long reining is another useful exercise that you could progress to that will help your horse’s development. Keep yourself and your horse in a safe environment in these early stages, remember these horses are very sensitive, they can be exceptionally quick to react and unsure of people’s intentions. You will need to be patient, consistent and very understanding.
Initially when riding go out with a sensible companion on a sensible companion horse, keep to a walk and trot, avoid open grass and canter tracks until much later. Introduce work such as circling or any collection slowly and carefully and initially in short (a few minutes) sessions. Some racehorses will never have been out on their own or asked to lead ‘the string’ (particularly mares) so gradually build your horse’s confidence up to be more independent and this is where the long reining lessons can pay dividends as well. Remember – racehorses are taught to go faster when you tighten the reins! The more you move your hands to tighten your grip the faster you are signalling your horse to go! Racehorses have been taught to lean into the pressure of the jockey’s hands when they run. They are never asked to stop promptly from a canter (it could damage their legs apart from sending the jockey standing in his stirrups straight over his head) they just steady up gradually with their weight concentrated to the front of their body (none of this ‘hocks underneath’) until they’re at a slower canter, then a trot then a walk. Don’t be tempted to go into severe bits at the early stage as this is likely to cause more problems than it solves. If your horse doesn’t understand your rein aids it’s back to the drawing board with lots more slow work and schooling to help him understand.
Don’t forget you need to go right back to the beginning to teach your racehorse all about leg, seat and rein aids. Remember your ex-racehorse may never have even felt legs down his sides (some lads and jockeys ride with very short stirrups so their leg doesn’t touch the horse’s sides) they have no idea what your leg movements mean.
Your First Horse Show: there is no reason your racehorse (depending on your choice of horse) shouldn’t make a wonderful showjumper, eventer or show horse, however you need to appreciate his first show may come as rather a shock. He won’t be used to horses going in all directions, in their own yards and at the races the horses are all led round the ‘paddock’ in the same direction, they canter off in single file and race along together. Be prepared that your horse will be somewhat astounded when he sees all the other horses milling around randomly! It’s wise to lead him and hack him around a couple of shows first before you think of actually competing him.
What a great feeling though when all your hard work starts to pay off, your thoroughbred’s length of stride and elegance makes him a wonderful dressage horse, his speed and sensitivity makes him a fast and careful showjumper, his beauty and grace make him a winning show horse, best of all his character and intelligence make him a wonderful companion for life – enjoy!
Written by horse behaviour expert, Kelly Marks, is the daughter of a racehorse trainer and was one of Britain’s leading Lady Jockeys until she retired after winning the Ladies European Championship in 1995. She has retrained racehorses straight off the track that have gone on to win BSJA Showjumping and showing as well as being good safe all rounders. She still lives in the heart of racehorse country ‘Lambourn Village of Racing’. If you’d like advice on retraining a racehorse go to www.intelligenthorsemanship.co.uk and look up IH Trainers and IH Courses