The Ex-Racehorse

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Initial Considerations

No-one will question your wonderful intention of providing an ex-racehorse with a loving, caring home, but you may find yourself in situations that you have not met with before. We have outlined below some key points to help you with your ex-racehorse.

 

  • Be realistic about your ability and experience and don't be afraid to seek help and advice rather than become anxious and upset if something occurs you are not sure about.
  • Take the time to read the section about the life of a horse in training so you can gain a better understanding of why you may encounter certain difficulties at some point.
  • Generally an ex-racehorse is good to load, stands for the farrier and has good stable manners. Usually they are also very good to clip but some may be a bit fidgety, mainly due to the thoroughbred being thin skinned and more sensitive. 
  • Although the horse is used to being ridden it will not really have any idea about conventional riding techniques.
  • It probably won't stand still for you to mount; some 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. Some will stand provided someone holds them. 
  • The horse may not be used to anyone riding with long stirrups so legs draped around its sides is something it will have to become accustomed to.  
  • The horse may not have experienced a conventional (general purpose) saddle on its back before so such a saddle will feel very different particularly in terms of weight.
  • 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!
  • The horse will not know anything about contact 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 teeth grind too.
  • Physically the horse will be "rigid" – not supple - but this is only because of the type of work a racehorse receives.  
  • The horse will be 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 unlikely the horse will have travelled in a trailer before.
  • The horse will not be accustomed to being tied up outside his stable so is likely to fidget, become anxious and even try to break free.
  • The horse is unlikely to understand aids be it hands, leg, seat, weight. Whilst horses do naturally respond to the shift in weight of a rider, bear in mind that when in training most of the time the rider has taken their weight out of the saddle completely. 
  • The horse shown in the bottom photograph is typical of ex-racehorses who do not understand the aids to lower their heads coupled with the fact that tight underside of neck muscles make it harder for the horse to comply so the horse doesn't think he can lower his head in an attempt to comply with the rider's request. However before progressing in cases like this one where the horse is clearly being that bit more obstinate, it is important to rule out any reasons which may be the cause or contributing to such head carriage (i.e hollowing) such as an ill-fitting saddle, inappropriate bit or a physical problem with the horse such as a sore back.  This horse had a pelvic rotation, painful sacroiliac joint coupled with a generally weak frame. He needs more ground work to develop his strength before ridden work is progressed.

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Management Considerations

 

  • Whilst an increasing number of racehorses do now get turned out, it won't be for hours at a time so all day turnout will be a new experience. 24/7 turnout will become achievable if you so wish, though not in the early stages so access to stabling is essential. That also means that kitting out your new charge with a cosy, warm, waterproof turnout rug complete with snuggy neck cover could actually alarm him as he adjusts to the restrictions such rugs impose. Remember that thoroughbreds are thin skinned so whereas previously you may not have rugged-up a horse in the stable, this may now be likely so here starts the accumulation of a new equine wardrobe!
  • Life for the horse in training is based on strict 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.  Many yards still have a couple of hours complete peace and quiet in the afternoons to enable horses to rest.
  • Remember that life in a racing yard is invariably busy and time is short especially in the larger ones, so your new horse may not be used to receiving the huge amounts of affection you now wish to shower it with and may well actually shun you to start with. Don't take this personally - 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 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.

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Saddlery

 

Saddle

 

Although the horse newly out of training will be fit and muscled up, the musculature will be very different to that of a riding horse. Due to the life-style change and as re-schooling progresses the horse's body shape is going to alter - by just how much will depend entirely on the manner of schooling work done. 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 very sensitive so however well fitted your saddle is, you will need to use a numnah underneath, not a thick one but one that provides good concussion absorption. Be mindful that thoroughbreds can become niggled if they get sweaty particularly in the saddle region, so using sheepskin numnahs is not always an option for every horse. These horses are also usually used to girths with elastic in.

 

Bit

 

One of the most common difficulties is finding a suitable bit and this can be quite challenging as the racehorse doesn't often have a "mouth". 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. Most racehorses have been ridden in just a loose ring snaffle whilst in training (pictured).

 

Remember your horse probably doesn't have a concept of contact and coming on to the bit - you have to teach him all that! Going bitless is not always an option either especially in the early days when the horse doesn't have a comprehension of the other aids which of course is very important when riding without a bit.

 

 

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So you have decided that an ex-racehorse is for your - 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.
  • Not every horse is a challenge and some 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 is 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 and listen to their experiences so that you are fully versed in what to expect.
  • Once your new horse has settled into his new surroundings, the work really starts. 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. Have fun!! And we look forward to hearing news of what you all get up to.
  • Visit the Training section for advice on re-training your ex-racehorse.

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Fred Cook lunging with side reinsRowena Cook riding the ex-racehorse Bombie on parade at Sandown



Written by: Fred and Rowena Cook, Equine Management & Training, www.equinetraining.co.uk, RoR Training Consultants.

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