Second Careers for Racehorses
The Transition from Racetrack to Ribbons
By Barbara Sheridan, Equine Guelph
Many ex-racehorses are finding second careers once their racing days are over, thanks to the ever increasing awareness of what these multi-talented athletes can do off the track. As a result of this growing movement to retrain the racehorse, Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, and Quarter Horses have successfully been transitioning from the track to a new lifestyle as sport horses, show horses or all-around pleasure mounts.
Canadian Olympian Jessica Phoenix is a huge proponent of the “ex-racehorse” breed and has successfully worked with them for years. Two of her well-recognized horses in eventing - Exploring and Exponential - were off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTB) that successfully took Phoenix to top international levels of competition in eventing. “Exploring went to the Pam Am Games in 2007, and Exponential went to the Olympics and the World Equestrian Games in 2010 and 2012,” says the Cannington, Ontario resident. “Exponential is such a tough horse. He’s 17 now and is still competing at the four-star level.”
In June of 2014, Phoenix won the CCI3* division at the Jaguar Land Rover Bromont Three-Day Event in Quebec aboard A Little Romance. Owned by Don and Anita Leschied, the nine-year-old Canadian-bred mare is a Thoroughbred-Trakehner cross. “I believe that Thoroughbreds are so appealing to our sport because they love to run, as that’s what they’re bred to do, and I think that’s one of the biggest draws to having a Thoroughbred in our sport,” says Phoenix. “They also have such a courageous spirit and a zest for life.”
Phoenix feels that she would not have been able to get a start in this sport if it hadn’t been for her OTTB’s, Exploring and Exponential. “They were both inexpensive horses to purchase and they were both extremely talented,” she says. “They gave me a real opportunity to get into the sport of eventing, to compete at the highest level and be competitive. Starting out, I certainly wasn’t in a position where I could purchase a really expensive horse, so honestly, without having been able to start with Thoroughbreds; I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.”
As a competition coach and eventing specialist, Phoenix operates Phoenix Equestrian in Oshawa, Ontario and notes that of the 35 horses currently in their program, half of them are Thoroughbreds. Phoenix is currently training a LongRun. Thoroughbred graduate named Exultation, (aka Down By The Docks) who has been declared for the Pan American Games in 2015.
While many racehorses come off the track in fine health, a vet check is recommended to determine if the horse is clinically sound, and to identify issues that can be managed going forward. Photo: ©Shutterstock/Cheryl Ann Quigley
Finding Mr. Right
With their versatility and great work ethic, a retired racehorse can be hugely rewarding, but it’s important to do your homework in order to find the most suitable mount for you. Each year, the racing industry ensures a steady stream of horses that have found themselves at the end of their racing careers. On average, ages can run from two-year-olds (they usually begin their racing career between the age of two and three), to four-and five-year-olds, while some with steady, lucrative careers retire from the track at six years and upward. Their reasons for retirement vary, but most common is their lack of speed, while others, because of the high cost of training, may have been downsized by the owner for economic reasons.
Ex-racehorses are naturally competitive, with a willing-to-please personality. As a result, they can be easily trained to adapt to a new discipline, says Phoenix. But with their abundance of availability, how do you know which one is right for you? “I would definitely recommend that you purchase a horse with a basic vetting done, because nine times out of ten, if the horse is clinically sound, and their heart, eyes, and lungs are good, they will last the average rider a long time,” says Phoenix. “It doesn’t have to be an X-ray of every single joint, but this just gives you a bit of information so that if there is something there, you are aware of it and able to maintain it going forward.”
Some suitable ex-racehorses come off their racing careers in fine health, while others can have lower level issues that can be overcome with rest and rehabilitation. Find out ahead of time what your prospect is capable of achieving and whether or not he would be a suitable choice, whether for pleasure or as a show mount. To assist with your search, Phoenix recommends the assistance of a trainer or agent, as some ex-racers come at a bargain price for a reason. Those without access to a trainer or agent can turn to one of the many “Off the Track” rehabilitation organizations readily available across the country that retrain and place ex-racehorses for successful second careers.
“When you purchase an ex-racehorse from a reputable and established organization, you get the right history on that horse,” says Dr. Oscar Calvete, farm manager and veterinarian at Adena Springs North, based in Aurora, Ontario. Created by the Stronach Family in 2004, the Adena Retirement Program was developed as a rehabilitation and retraining program for former racehorses. “At Adena, we take care of the injuries first before we make the horse available on our website. We keep records of everything and make these records available to the public.” Calvete notes that by providing the new adoptive owners with full disclosure of each horse’s health history and their current retraining status, they’re able to ensure that the horses are matched with the right owner and home.
The Right Choice
Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few prospects, Phoenix recommends using one’s “horse sense” and good judgment to decide on the right prospect. “When considering a purchase, make sure that you really enjoy the horse. Not that you just like the looks of it, but that you really like the horse’s personality,” she says. “And sometimes, that means you have to spend some time with it. Horses are just like people. They have different personalities; and sometimes you get along well with them, and sometimes you don’t. I would also say knowing their history is helpful, including if they’ve had any vet-related incidents.”
A career in equine sport, for both racehorses and sport horses, can put them at risk for training-related injuries. However, the past decade has seen tremendous advances in the field of equine sports medicine in both identification and treatment of these injuries. “The most common ailments that you will find in retired racehorses are mainly soft tissue issues such as tendons and ligaments, as well as joint problems in the front limbs,” Calvete notes. “This would be followed by hind limbs, hocks, stifle, hip and back problems, mostly in that order.”
Many of the more common ailments, such as soft tissue injuries, can easily be overcome with treatment and rest. A vet check can assist in identifying any possible issues that may affect the horse during its second career, as well as advise if the injury is recoverable to allow him to return to full athletic function. “We recommend a program that goes in a slow and consistent manner, always having in mind the horse’s temperament and conformation,” adds Calvete.
Patience is Key
Racehorses are worked differently than the average riding horse, as their training mostly involves fitness and speed work. While the transitioning process from racehorse to retraining can vary depending on the horse, most recommend some type of down time before beginning the retraining process. “When they’ve just come off the track, they are really fit, as they’ve been galloping every single day,” says Phoenix. “Often times when people give them a break, it’s more to just let their fitness down and their bodies relax to allow them to be more like an average horse, instead of a finely tuned athlete. But each horse is different. We’ve acquired horses straight from the track, and two weeks later they’ve happily competed in their first show. Others, we’ve given them two months in order to allow them to relax their bodies after coming off the track. You really have to look at each horse as an individual so that every plan is different.”
Because Thoroughbreds are sensitive and have a quick mind, Phoenix says her training techniques involve getting the horse’s mind to work for her, keeping it fun, and keeping the horse engaged. “We do a lot of ground work with them,” says Phoenix. She explains that they play a lot of games so that the horse learns how to follow them and look for them, and then read their movements. With many horses, this is done every day before the rider even gets on so the horse is really thinking and working with the rider. “Because they’re just very playful in their minds, you have to make sure that they’re ready to work when you get on them, otherwise you’re just going to fight with them.”
The feeding program for an ex-racehorse should be developed with the assistance of an equine nutritionist who will determine the correct balance of roughage and nutrients. Photo: Barbara Sheridan Photography
Off-The-Track Feeding Checkup
As with any horse, an ex-racehorse’s feeding program should be based on its individual needs and level of training. Because of their high-energy needs during their racing careers, these horses would typically receive three to four feedings a day of a calorie-dense diet made up of energy-rich grains in order to meet their nutritional needs for optimum performance. While in training, most are offered roughage in the form of hay throughout the day, but often concentrate can make up a very high portion of their diet. When the horse is being re-trained as a riding horse, Calvete recommends reducing the level of carbohydrates in his diet to reflect his new workload. “We recommend a feeding program based on roughage, grain and beet pulp, in addition to a lot of turnout.”
Achieving that correct balance of roughage and nutrients to meet your horse’s needs can be easily done with the advice of a qualified feed specialist. Most major feed manufacturers have a nutritionist on staff that would be able to come out to the farm and assess the horse to help the owner decide the best product for him. Often, this service is offered for free.
The Sweet Reward
Ownership of an ex-racehorse can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Whether they’re purchased directly off the track, through a trainer, or from a retired racehorse organization. There are plenty to choose from and can be quite affordable. Taking the time to assist with his new way of life will make the transition a positive experience for both horse and rider.
“I love working with my Thoroughbreds every day,” says Phoenix. “I love their attitude, and I love the excitement that they bring. It actually excites me to get up in the morning and see what they’re going to do that day. I definitely owe them a lot.”
Printed with the kind permission of Equine Guelph www.EquineGuelph.ca.
Main Photo: Canadian Olympian Jessica Phoenix has two off-the-track Thoroughbreds that have gone to top international levels of competition in eventing. Credit: Andrew Bailini