Racehorse Retraining – How to retrain a racehorse and is it a good idea?

Toscana racehorse ridden by Kelly Marks - horse training expert experienced in all horses including racehorse retraining
Toscana racehorse ridden by Kelly Marks – horse training expert experienced in all horses including racehorse retraining

HOW TO RETRAIN A RACEHORSE THE INTELLIGENT WAY

Thoroughbred racehorses are renowned for their sensitivity and intelligence, which can sometimes pose challenges for their owners. Before embarking on the journey of racehorse retraining, it’s crucial to not only evaluate the horse… But also assess your own horsemanship skills, time commitment, and budget. While these horses are undoubtedly gifted, it’s worth considering if a more low-maintenance horse may better suit your needs.


Section 2: Financial Considerations

Budgeting for Your Racehorse Retraining

Acquiring or rehoming a retired racehorse isn’t a budget-friendly option. Especially if you aim for a harmonious partnership between you and your ex-racehorse. Owning any horse involves financial commitment, and when it comes to racehorse retraining, you should allocate a budget of at least £3,000, which includes feed expenses but excludes stabling for the first year. I strongly recommend a comprehensive veterinary examination before purchasing a horse. Even if the examination reveals certain issues, it’s better to be fully aware of the horse’s condition and physical limitations. This advice applies even when receiving a horse as a gift, ensuring you’re not caught off guard by unexpected challenges.


Section 3: Health and Veterinary Care

Ensuring Your Racehorse’s Health during Retraining

During racehorse retraining ex-racers often develop stable vices. Technically referred to as stereotypical behaviors like crib biting, wind sucking, weaving, or box walking. These behaviors are more prevalent in racehorses due to their heightened sensitivity and prolonged stabling (usually 23 hours a day, 24 on Sundays), coupled with high-starch equine diets. I don’t imply that you should automatically reject a horse with vices… But it’s vital to assess what you can tolerate. Consider how your decision may impact other owners if you share a yard, especially if your horse exhibits behaviors like wind-sucking.


Section 4: Horse Health Checks

Comprehensive Health Checks for Your Retrained Racehorse

It’s crucial to prioritize the health and well-being of your horse. Consider a comprehensive 5-stage vetting with your presence and opt for veterinary insurance as a prudent measure. Additional essential equine health checks include:

  • Regular dental examinations by a recommended equine dental technician, with follow-ups every 6 months based on the horse’s age.
  • Assessment of your horse’s back by a qualified equine body worker, such as a registered equine physiotherapist.
  • Maintain your horse’s vaccination records, which are usually included in the passport. Keep organized records of worming, dental care, and physical checks.
  • Given that racehorses often have lean builds, ensure proper saddle fitting by an equine saddle fitter. Be prepared for a follow-up fitting within 6 months to accommodate musculature changes.

Section 5: Finding the Right racehorse for retraining

Choosing the Right Racehorse for Retraining

Ideally, purchasing a racehorse directly from the racehorse trainer is advantageous. It provides insights into how the horse has been treated and cared for. It’s also valuable to inquire about the horse’s temperament and any peculiarities from the stable staff who have closely attended to the horse. If you’re unfamiliar with racing yards, consider visiting one to gain an understanding of the culture, routine, and the horses’ experiences, which can aid in understanding your horse better. Reflect on your preferences for the type of racehorse you desire. Whether it’s a young prospect or an older horse, one that raced on the flat or over jumps (hurdles or fences). Ensure that the horse aligns with your intended use, taking into account your weight, height, and experience.


Section 6: Bringing Your Racehorse Home

Welcoming Your Retired Racehorse Home

Now that you have your racehorse at home, select a period when you can dedicate time to building a strong bond. Avoid heavy reliance on others, especially during the initial stages. Remember that if he’s your horse, he’s ultimately your responsibility. Ensure you have ample time to spend with him in the first two weeks. It’s important to assume that you have suitable facilities in place. This would include proper stabling, post and rail fencing in the paddocks, secure railings around schooling areas or an indoor school (if available). Ideally, have an assistant or a friend who understands that this horse may not have experienced turnout in a field since he was a weanling at his stud.


Section 7: Initial Turnout and Safety

Introducing Your Racehorse to Turnout Safely

A large part of racehorse retraining involves getting them habitated to their environment and surroundings. Especially if these are very different to the race yard they are using to being on. Avoid abruptly turning your ex-racehorse out in a large field on his first day. This can be both stressful and potentially dangerous. It’s crucial to introduce him gradually to his new environment. Epecially if he starts running around and is unfamiliar with fences. Your racehorse may need time to reacquaint himself with herd behavior, as they can sometimes get into trouble when they’re no longer “streetwise” in their protected environments. They might innocently approach the dominant horse in the herd or explore hazards like wires. Keep in mind that your horse might not be accustomed to electric fencing, and a sudden shock could greatly distress him, even leading to panic.


Section 8: Adapting to a New Routine

Adjusting to a New Routine during Racehorse Retraining

Keep in mind that your racehorse is accustomed to the bustling activity of a racing yard in the mornings, and it’s not uncommon for them to feel anxious or agitated when suddenly left alone. I recommend spending time with your new horse in the stable and leading him out initially. Be aware that he’s used to being led in a bridle or a severe chifney bit. Over time, you can transition to teaching him impeccable manners using a Dually Halter and a 20-foot lead line… But he needs training to adapt to these new rules. It’s safer to conduct his first turnouts and lessons in a round pen, corral, or any secure enclosed area where he can’t escape.


Section 9: Groundwork and Training

Groundwork and Training Your Retired Racehorse

For the first couple of days, limit turnout to approximately half an hour, with you in close proximity, twice a day. Subsequently, it’s essential to monitor your horse’s comfort and adapt accordingly. If your racehorse retraining goal is to integrate him with other horses. Introduce them over a fence initially and allow them to graze in adjacent paddocks. Be attentive to the herd hierarchies and unique behaviors at your facility to prevent potential issues.

During the winter months, thoroughbreds require special attention due to their thinner skin. They are more susceptible to feeling the cold and may be at higher risk of conditions like mud fever and rain scald compared to hardier breeds. While some thoroughbreds can adapt to full-time turnout, it’s advisable to use a suitable winter rug to keep them warm. However, some owners prefer to stable their horses at night. When it comes to grooming, it’s important to note that while your racehorse may have been accustomed to being tied up for saddling and grooming inside the stable, he may not be familiar with being tied up outside. Introduce this carefully to prevent panic or pulling back. Consider using safety equipment like the Idolo tether tie for added security. Baling twine is not recommended due to potential safety hazards for both the horse and handlers.


Section 10: Riding and Training Techniques

Riding and Training Your Retired Racehorse

When initially riding your racehorse, venture out with a sensible companion on a well-mannered horse. Stick to walk and trot, avoiding open grass areas and canter tracks until later stages of racehorse retraining. Gradually introduce exercises like circling or collection, starting with short sessions lasting just a few minutes. Keep in mind that some racehorses may have never been out on their own or asked to lead ‘the string,’ especially mares. It’s crucial to gradually build your horse’s confidence towards independence. This is where long reining lessons can be highly beneficial. Remember that racehorses have been conditioned to accelerate when reins are tightened. The more you move your hands to apply pressure, the faster you signal your horse to go.

Racehorses are trained to lean into the pressure of the jockey’s hands when they run. They are not accustomed to stopping promptly from a canter, as it could potentially harm their legs or send the jockey over their head. Instead, they gradually slow down, shifting their weight forward until they reach a slower canter, then trot, and finally a walk. Avoid the temptation to use severe bits at the early stages, as this can lead to more problems than solutions. If your horse doesn’t respond well to your rein aids, return to the basics. Carry out more slow work and schooling to help him understand your cues.


Section 11: Preparing for Shows

Preparing Your Retired Racehorse for Shows

Your First Horse Show: Depending on your choice of horse, there’s no reason your racehorse shouldn’t excel as a showjumper, eventer, or show horse. However, be prepared for his first show to be a bit of a shock. He won’t be accustomed to horses moving in all directions; at the racetrack, they typically follow a set path in the same direction. They canter off in single file and race together. Therefore, your horse might find it astonishing to see other horses milling around randomly at a show. It’s advisable to lead him and take him to a few shows as a spectator before considering actual competition.

The sense of accomplishment when your hard work pays off is truly rewarding. Your thoroughbred’s remarkable stride and elegance can transform him into an exceptional dressage horse, while his speed and sensitivity make him a skilled and cautious showjumper. His beauty and grace can make him a winning show horse. Most importantly, his character and intelligence will turn him into a wonderful lifelong companion – cherish the journey!

Section 12: About the Author

About the Author

This blog was written by Kelly Marks, a renowned horse behavior expert. She is the daughter of a racehorse trainer and a former leading Lady Jockey in Britain, winning the Ladies European Championship in 1995. Kelly has successfully retrained racehorses fresh off the track, with some going on to excel in BSJA Showjumping and showing, while also becoming reliable all-rounders. She continues to reside in the heart of racehorse country in ‘Lambourn Village of Racing.’ For more advice on retraining a racehorse, visit www.intelligenthorsemanship.co.uk and explore IH Trainers and IH Courses.


Safety rules for working with horses on the ground

  • Be safety conscious – a hard hat, good footwear and gloves can prevent rope burns and do take rings off to prevent a rope getting wrapped around your finger and breaking it (or worse -ouch!)
  • Keep a safe distance and for this a good length of rope is essential.
  • If you are working in an open area a lunge rein can be better still so if he really pulls away he’s able to go a little distance without jerking you and then you can reel him in.  However, working with a longer line does have it’s own problems – it’s hard to keep tangle free and NEVER WRAP A LINE AROUND YOUR HAND OR ARM
  • Keep an eye on the horse at all times.  This is not the same as looking him IN the eye.  It just means you keep an awareness of where the horse is at any given time.  Until you are completely confident in your horse you are often better off to keep your body turned slightly towards him when leading him over a scary object.
  • Look at the situation intelligently before you start.  If the horse is to get startled and jump – you don’t want him to jump on you!   Do be sure that you position yourself in the least likely place he will jump.  If you are leading him past a scary obstacle, expect him to shy away from the obstacle so stay on the same side as the obstacle so he’s going to shy away from you not right on top of you. 
  • Ensure you’re not going to get yourself trapped between anything solid i.e. fence, wall, and your horse.  Crushing comes under the ‘not good’ label.
  • Even with these precautions some insecure horses do actually aim to jump in your lap ‘Help Mother!’ which is really not advisable, keep an eye on your horse at all times, be prepared to use assertive body language i.e. square up and look him in the eye and shake the rope to keep him away from you if necessary.

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