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The Value of Ex-Racehorses as Pleasure & Competition Mounts

Published on Wednesday, March 12, 2014 in Feature Horses

From the March 2014 issue of The Stable Magazine – www.thestablemagazine.com/march 2014

The Australian racing industry ensures a steady stream of racehorses at the end of their careers at any one time. No matter the duration of their racing days, these horses are often taken in by riders of varying ages and abilities. 

Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds are all commonly seen everywhere from show rings and riding clubs to riding schools - but are they all suitable for a new lease on life as a pleasure mount? What is involved in re-training an ex-racehorse?

Retirement from racing

Each year, a huge number of horses are retired from Australian racetracks. Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds finish their racing careers for one of many reasons. Some horses are started, but fail to show speed or the competitive edge. Others may race, but may not make it into their second racing season because of injury or poor performance.

Horses of all ages are retired from the track, from two year olds, four and five year olds to horses that have raced until they are seven or eight. The condition of horses coming from the racetrack varies from horse to horse, and also depends on the treatment and care they receive once they have left the trainer’s stables.

Some racehorses are retired to successful stud careers. Others make it into mounted branches of the Police Force, depending on the horse’s suitability for the job. Others are sold off at bargain prices and filter down through sale yards, sometimes into the hands of experienced riders to retrain them, and some racing retirees - successful on the track or not, unfortunately, do make up the ‘wastage’ statistic.

An initiative by Racing Victoria, the ‘Off The Track’ program aims to assist in providing contacts and information to prospective owners of retired racehorses, while promoting the use of retired Thoroughbreds as show and competition horses.

Indeed, in Australia we are lucky to have access to young horses off the track that are often cost effective mounts suitable for a new career after racing. Many of our top eventing horses have had careers as racehorses, some making their way into their new homes after only one or two trials on the track, many of whom have a limited racing career, or who have not raced at all.

AUSTRALIAN THOROUGHBREDS: Speed, stamina and athletic ability

"The Australian Thoroughbred is really bred for the job (eventing). They’re quick, tough, they’re hardy, they’re fast, they’re quick thinkers, they’re athletic, they’re very good movers. The trainability sometimes can be a little bit of a problem, but the cross country is the thing that you win the event on and that’s what the Australian and New Zealand Thoroughbreds are very, very good at." - Gillian Rolton, 2001

A change of pace

Racehorses are trained to do the bare minimum, and to develop the skills, strength and stamina they require to be as fast as possible on the track. This technique, while cost and time effective to racehorse trainers, leaves much to be desired when the horse is to become a pleasure or show horse. Horses off the track notoriously have undeveloped muscle groups along the topline - and other muscle groups commonly used in equestrian sports. The re-training process involves more than just ridden education. It is a transition from one lifestyle to another and involves a change in diet, schedule and training.

Standardbreds who have been raced or trialled are often not used to work under saddle, as they are raced in harness. Either trotters or pacers on the track, Standardbreds are known for making wonderful trail and pleasure horses after racing - and they are now really beginning to make their mark in the show ring! Pacers and trotters must go through a similar re-training process as retired Thoroughbreds, working on building musculature, strength, establishing good gaits, movement and balance.

Breaking down stereotypes

Ex-racehorses, Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, are still unfortunately immediately discounted by many riders due to the belief that they may not make the ideal show, pleasure or competition mount. In recent times, the stereotypes are slowly being broken down. It still seems as though it is still a ‘buyer’s market’ in Australia, and riders in many disciplines may prefer a ‘purpose bred’ horse for their discipline - however, you’d be surprised at what an ex-racehorse can offer! We are fortunate to have access to these horses that have trialled and raced - and ownership of a retired racehorse has many benefits. Not only can you pick up a young, highly intelligent and trainable horse, but you also won’t be out of pocket. Many retired racehorses are sold on to their new homes at very reasonable prices.

Soundness can be a concern with horses that come off the track. They are raced primarily between the ages of two and three, and this does mean that some horses may not be sound for a career as a top level eventer, but many retired racehorses that are available might be completely sound for your purposes. It is important to consider each horse as an individual - as you would when purchasing any horse. A thorough vet check should be a step in your process regardless of where you purchase the horse, so you are not taking any unnecessary or additional risks when purchasing a horse off the track. You might even find yourself a bargain - and the money you save on the purchase price can go towards your future entry fees, lessons, or a tune up with a professional re-trainer for your promising young horse.

Ex-Racehorse to Champion Eventer

Olympian REBEL MORROW who was part of Australia’s 2004 Athens Eventing Team, purchased her Olympic mount OAKLEA GROOVER for $300 after he was no longer able to race due to blood clots in his skull. Morrow took him on as a four year old and from the moment she pointed him at a fence, Morrow said she knew she had something special - so from unwanted racehorse to Olympic mount, Oaklea Groover has proven his worth!

The transition from track to arena

Re-training retired racehorses as pleasure mounts takes experience and dedication, and is generally something that should only be attempted by experienced riders and trainers.

Horses who finish their racing careers are accustomed to an entirely different way of life than a pleasure horse or show mount, and a transition period is essential.

A horse straight off the track does need to have a change in diet, as energy-rich grains are the most efficient way for trainers to meet the nutritional demands of a highly athletic racehorse. The life of a pleasure or show mount generally includes much more turnout time, (and therefore grazing time), and less intensive and less strenuous work under saddle.

Racehorses are taught the minimum required for their work on the track. Although they are used to the excitement and noise of the racetrack, crowds, and regular travelling, they have often never experienced many things that a pleasure horse is often exposed to, not to mention a completely different saddle, and way of riding.

Racehorses are naturally competitive and respond as they have been taught in a group situation. They are young horses on high grain diets, in peak physical condition - however are often only ridden for very short periods with very light riders. Turning a racehorse into a pleasure mount is a process for both horse and rider, and the horse must learn an entirely new way of thinking, moving, and carrying himself. Basically, he is being assigned a new job that is completely different from his former lifestyle!

Thoroughbreds - talented and athletic

There are many riders who have poor opinions of Thoroughbreds, particularly those that are ‘off the track’. Some riders find them to be too ‘hot’, sensitive or flighty, but Thoroughbreds make wonderful mounts for riders of all ages - after they are correctly re-trained and educated. The Thoroughbred as a breed is very versatile. You need only take a look into many classes at local shows - and a glimpse at some of Australia’s top event horses to see that Thoroughbreds feature among breeds favoured by show and competition riders. Many Thoroughbreds have temperaments that allow them to be handled easily by children - and generalising that a horse is unsuitable based on breed alone is a ridiculous notion, as is judging a horse by his colour!

Finding a suitable retired racehorse

Although there are many ex-racehorses that have finished their racing careers, not every horse that retires is suitable to be re-trained as a pleasure or show mount. There are some that have developed vices, that are unsound physically, some that are unsound mentally, others that may be in poor physical condition having been turned out after retirement. Some mares are earmarked for stud, but others of less notable bloodlines are often sold on.

As all riders know, finding the right horse for a pleasure or show mount can be difficult and time consuming, and there are a lot of different factors to consider. So too when choosing an ex-racehorse. As mentioned previously, the re-training of an ex-racehorse should only ever be attempted by an experienced rider and handler. It is often more difficult than breaking in a young horse, as racehorses may need to ‘unlearn’ many of the habits and responses they have been taught from an early age. They may have picked up bad habits, some may have bad manners - and generally, they are very young horses with many holes in their basic education (from an equestrian point of view) as far as breaking in a pleasure horse goes.

Show Ring Success

Both Thoroughbred and Standardbred retired horses have been making their mark in the show ring of recent times. Racing Victoria’s Off The Track Series has just come to a close, crowning teenage rider Samantha McMaster and DP Destiny the inaugural winners.

The Stable was lucky enough to be in attendance to see the first feature breed exhibited at the Royal Melbourne Horse Show - the Racing Victoria Thoroughbred. The turnout was spectacular, and Thoroughbreds in the ring competed in led and ridden classes, showing the versatility, athleticism and temperament of the breed.

Not to be outdone, an appearance by Standardbred cult hero, MF Hollywood with rider Kathleen Mullan was a highlight. Mullan and her chestnut gelding, known affectionately as James around the stable, competed in the Garryowen, the most prestigious class for lady riders, at the 2013 Royal Melbourne Show. You can follow James and Kathleen at the Facebook page: Road to the Garryowen: A Standardbred Journey

Purchase price

Ex-racehorses can go for as little as a couple of hundred dollars. Some of our country’s favourite champion eventers and show horses were sold to their new owners for as little as one or two thousand dollars. While a very cheap horse might be appealing, it is important to remember that horses off the track are not yet educated for your purpose, so you should seek the advice of your instructor or a trainer before taking the plunge! A lot of work needs to be done in order to mould a sound, educated and well balanced mount.

Common problems in ex-racehorses

  • Joint problems
  • Stress fractures
  • Respiratory problems
  • Gastric ulcers

Some of the common soundness issues that ex-racehorses might have are not career ending racing injuries. They will not always prevent the ex-racehorse from being a sound pleasure mount or show ring success - but you do need to have a thorough vet check performed on any potential purchase - particularly if a horse you are looking at buying had a stint on the track - no matter how brief his racing career! Many soundness issues found in racehorses occur over a period of time - one example being joint problems that are caused by the degeneration of bones or joints. Often the horse will finish racing and be sound, but joint problems can be revealed using scans to find areas of weakness or stress fractures. A large number of horses are retired from the track due to poor performance as a direct result of lameness, joint problems or tendon and ligament problems.

Many injuries that mean the horse is unsound for racing does not mean that the horse is not suitable for a pleasure or show mount - or even that it will be unsound for strenuous exercise after the injury has been treated appropriately and given time to heal. If you are seriously considering re-training a racehorse, you need to have it thoroughly examined by a vet, who will be able to tell you whether the horse is suitable for what you have in mind, what is wrong with the horse if it is unsound, and can help you devise a treatment plan if you are to choose a horse that does have a health problem.

Temperament and mental health

While thoroughbreds are often willing workers, the life of a show or pleasure mount is a completely different world from racing, and is something that the horse must adapt to. Generally, thoroughbreds are known to be ‘hot’ and athletic horses, although as with all breeds, the temperament of the horse varies greatly from horse to horse.

There are some thoroughbreds who are very quiet - although working with the horse and training go a long way to achieving a sensible and well mannered horse. Some horses develop stable vices, due to the typically isolated life of a racehorse. Often, they are stabled for long periods and develop vices such as cribbing or windsucking, weaving, or pacing.

The re-training process

Re-training a racehorse takes a lot of time and patience. It also takes an experienced, knowledgeable, and confident handler, and one who understands that the ex-racehorse behaves as it does because of it’s previous training - or lack of it, in terms of training the horse for equestrian pursuits!

Before training is commenced, some owners like to turn the horse out. Many thoroughbreds often haven’t had the opportunity of regular turnout, and so aren’t used to life as a ‘regular horse’. It is said that horses straight off the track generally take about three months to adjust to a new diet, environment, and to rid his body of any drugs that may have been in his system. Depending on the horse, some horses are started under saddle as soon as the horse is comfortable in his surroundings. Some are spelled for months. It depends on the opinions of the trainer as to what’s best for the horse, which should be decided according to the individual horse’s condition and health.

One thing is a must: a slow start. Horses off the track should be handled regularly and become accustomed to your routine. A calm, quiet and peaceful environment is best for any lessons, and ensure that good groundwork is established, and that the horse is fit for beginning his training before you saddle up! If the horse is fit to begin, start out slowly, and get to know the horse by alking him in hand, or starting out in very large circles on the lunge. Teaching voice aids can make the re-training process very easy, and the horse will need to get used to a new and heavier saddle, his new life - and his new owner!

When it comes time to ride the ex-racehorse, it is important to take the following into consideration:

  • Racehorses are not ridden for long periods at a time, and so carrying a much heavier saddle and rider than normal may be strenuous, as the horse does not have the necessary muscle development that is required.
  • Racehorses are not required to turn tight corners or be flexible on the racetrack. In fact, most racehorses are like straight boards. Often they don’t bend well at all - and should not be asked to flex or bend until they are comfortable.
  • Circle work is very difficult for horses that are not accustomed to it. Starting out on straight lines with large, sweeping turns will help the horse feel more comfortable under saddle.
  • Lunge and teach voice commands so you can tie them in with aids. Always lunge on large circles - smaller ones will only make the stiff and inflexible horse very sore.
  • Racehorses are not ridden with any kind of leg aids. The concept of your legs down by the horse’s sides may make him uncomfortable, or even very nervous.
  • A racehorse from the track can not be expected to work in any kind of frame at any point in his early training. Don’t push too hard early on, otherwise you will end up with a horse that is sore and uncomfortable.
  • Ensure the horse is comfortable before starting circle work. You are aiming for the horse to move forward, build up muscles slowly, and gain balance and rhythm when under saddle.
  • If any problems are encountered, including behavioural changes, take into consideration that the horse’s lifestyle has changed dramatically. Always call a professional to check that the horse’s back and muscles are not sore.
  • Keep in mind that ex-racehorses do not understand your aids, and must learn what you are asking them for. They don’t automatically know, and are not misbehaving if they can’t understand the aids you have given!
  • Good handling practices apply when handling all horses - especially ex-racehorses!

From racetrack to arena

Training the horse for equestrian sports can not be rushed. The horse must learn to change his thinking, be taught new aids, become accustomed to an entirely different riding style - and remodel his body and carriage and develop muscle groups he’s never used before!

Ex-racehorses can make wonderful pleasure mounts!

They are also capable of being successful show horses for riders of all ages and skill levels. Both thoroughbreds and standardbreds are capable of excelling in many horse sports and disciplines, and once re-trained can even be suitable pony club mounts, depending on the horse and it’s temperament.

Quick Links

Thank you to The Stable Magazine for this article, which was originally published in their March 2014 issue. Check out The Stable Magazine online now for FREE. Read this article and many more at www.thestablemagazine.com


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