It would be nice to think that when a racehorse finishes their career on the racetrack, they go off to pastures new to enjoy new activities and an easier life away from the demands of racing. Mostly, this is true, but some still slip through the net… Unfortunately, not every horse is found a loving home or new career when they retire from racing, and that needs to change! Today, I am joined by Ruby from the award-winning EquiPepper Racehorse Retraining Blog. Ruby will talk more about the issues surrounding owning ex-racehorses, and also tell us first-hand about experiences with her ex-racer.
First, let’s look at why a horse may retire in the first place, and the potential careers they could go on to.
There are several reasons a racehorse may retire; most commonly these include but are not limited to:
Age – Age catches up with everyone, and with older horses in particular, they become more prone to injuries and more fragile. Not only this, but it’s likely that they now lack the speed/stamina they once had, meaning they’re uncompetitive on the racecourse.
Injury – They may have a recurring injury or have an injury that, even when healed, would affect their ability to run. Racehorses are more prone to injury because of the high-intensity work that they do but also are heavily impacted by how they are trained. Incorrect training methods or over-training can lead to several common injuries, including bone fractures, joint injuries, ligament tears, muscle strain, and fatigue, all of which can lead to lameness. Some horses never fully recover from an injury, whether it’s physically or mentally, leading to retirement and a new career.
Ability – Despite breeding indicating that a horse could be successful, it is not always the case. Some horses may run well at 2-3 years old, but find that they are no longer competitive after a few seasons, as they simply haven't "trained on". Sometimes this is even the case from the very first time they reach the racetrack. Not all horses that are bred to race will take to racing and possess the ability to be competitive.
Cost – Many owners, particularly in the modern day with reduced prize money, are finding it increasingly difficult to continue training horses for extended periods. Whether it is through a lack of funding or a lack of returns from the horse itself, many decide that the cost of maintaining a racehorse is no longer worth it.
So now that a racehorse has retired, what careers can they fulfil? These again include, but are not limited to:
Breeding – Just because a horse has been retired, it doesn't mean that it no longer has a place in racing. Most racehorses have genetics that make them valuable enough to breed, depending on the type of horse you are trying for. For the females (broodmares), this means that they produce offspring and raise them before they go into training. Mares can only have one foal per year, having a limited impact on the gene pool, and there are more average mares than there are stallions. Despite this, thoroughbred blood is still very popular in sports horses, so mares may go into other breeding programmes outside of racing. For stallions (males that haven't been castrated), they can be retired to stud and breed the mares in the breeding shed, having lots of foals year-round. Not all stallions end up at the breeding shed, though. Some are gelded (castrated) and retired to other sectors.
Dressage – Other equestrian activities are very popular when retraining racehorses. Dressage is a form of horse riding whereby the horse and rider are expected to perform a series of predetermined moves from memory. It is popular with mature horses that don’t spook easily. The rider communicates with the horse through body language, so it is important to use a horse that is sharp and aware of its surroundings. Just because a horse is no longer competitive in racing, providing they are still athletic, have a good temperament, and good balance, then a career in dressage is a likely way forward.
Show Jumping – Show Jumping is another type of competition whereby retired horses, in particular ex-jumps horses, are effective. Again, the horse must be athletic, calm, and be a confident jumper, but show jumping bodes well for a career when the zest for racing has subsided slightly.
Eventing – Often considered the ultimate equestrian challenge, it comprises dressage, show jumping, and cross-country. Lots of ex-racehorses excel in this field, particularly at the top level, because of the thoroughbred's stamina being a big bonus for the cross-country phase.
Polo – A sport that requires a lot of the characteristics of racing and makes ex-racehorses the perfect choice. Polo requires speed, instinct, and stamina, which is why a horse that didn’t quite make it on the track would excel here. Those who retired at a younger age and are athletic would be most suited.
Hacking – Hacking is a light form of exercise that sees a horse maintain a good rising trot. Racehorses are very alert and very clever, so simply doing endless circles can lead to them becoming bored. A gentle canter/gallop and hack around is pleasant for ex-racehorses, particularly to and from the gallops, allowing them to run and exercise without the competitive aspect.
A Life at grass – Some horses are simply turned out for a life at grass. This means that they live the life of a normal horse, with free roam in a field, for example, and don’t undertake any strenuous activity. This is more popular with horses that have sustained injuries, as they can have long-term effects, with many retiring on sanctuary farms and other likenesses.
What has been put in place to ensure ex-racehorses find forever homes?
The official charity for the BHA is RoR (Retraining of Racehorses), with whom they work closely to ensure the welfare of ex-racehorses. RoR aims to raise the profile of retired racehorses and promote their versatility to be retrained for other equestrian disciplines. Launched in 2000, the British Racing industry recognised that they had a duty of care for these horses after they retire, so support was given to re-home and re-school them. RoR has now grown to cover multiple bases, not only helping to educate people on horse welfare and the process of rehoming, but also to stage over 300 classes and competitions yearly. As of 2018, there were 13,000 racehorses registered as active in equine disciplines. Their philosophy ensures that money raised by racing (including everyone from owners to trainers to racecourses) is spent directly on looking after vulnerable horses, whilst increasing the number of approved centres nationwide. Top names of the sport are now getting involved too, with Sir A P McCoy and Clare Balding OBE appointed patrons of the charity, and jockeys, Frankie Dettori and Richard Johnson appointed ambassadors.
Many other charities have been set up, such as HEROS, A Life After Racing, and The Racehorse Sanctuary. They are working hard in re-homing and retraining ex-racehorses, particularly those that are vulnerable.
The BHA is also continuing its effort to promote welfare and track thoroughbreds that leave racing. Thoroughbred foals are microchipped within 30 days of birth, meaning they can be tracked and identified throughout their life, regardless of how long they are in racing and what they do after. This allows them to account for a staggering 90% of all horses that retire from racing, but a figure they’re still working to push even higher. In addition, they also invest some £750,000 a year into programmes to aid the re-homing and retraining of former racehorses, whilst maintaining their strict welfare standards. The Racecourse Owners Association, which represents British Racing's owners, has also agreed to increase their contribution of prize money to the funding.
Finally, not forgetting the trainers who are working harder than ever to re-home their four-legged friends safely. Extra care is taken to ensure they find the correct homes, whether it’s to a competition home or long-term loaning to a forever home. Phil Kirby, Lucinda Russell, Jo Davis, and Martin Smith, to name a few, are doing an amazing job of re-homing their ex-racers. The long-term loan process means the horse remains the property of the original trainer but is under the full care of the loan home. Checks will be carried out beforehand and during the loan, ensuring the horse is being properly treated and can be returned should circumstances change. This prevents the horse from being sold, preventing mistreatment and allowing the horse to be tracked at all times.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows…
As many of you are probably aware, Panorama aired their programme, “The Dark Side of Horse Racing” in July last year. This was met with outrage as they claimed that over 4000 racehorses had been sent to, and slaughtered in, abattoirs since 2019. The abattoir in question had been secretly filmed by Animal Aid and was found to be flouting welfare rules on numerous occasions. Whilst the focus was mainly on the specific chain of abattoirs and their inhumane methods of slaughter, there were calls for the racing industry to do more.
Around 7000 horses leave permanent training every year in the UK, often to go onto other activities like those mentioned above. 35% of these retire to stud; with others continuing racing abroad or in other disciplines, but that still leaves charities the task of finding new homes for the others. It would be foolish to deny that none of these horses end up in an abattoir, with many suffering from illnesses or injuries. Sending a horse here should not be the first or the “easy” option, but euthanasia regulations do indeed exist. That said, many of the horses being sent to these abattoirs were from Ireland, travelling long distances and being held for long periods with severe lameness and other issues. Most trainers do their utmost to prevent any horses from being euthanised and ensure they are moved on to the best prospective owner.
Lucinda Russell said: “In 26 years training racehorses, we have never put down a horse at the end of their career. Here, we either permanent-loan or sell our horses and it is the second scenario that carries the most risk. While we filter prospective owners and place the horses in their best home, we then lose control if sold on again, and this is when our horses are most at risk. It is about money. We are in the fortunate position that we can afford to take back any of our ex-racehorses that, for whatever reason, are no longer safe in their home, and this is a responsibility that we feel strongly about."
So, what more could be done?
Whilst the charities are doing an amazing job, and the BHA is continuously promoting and investing in these programmes, they are seriously overloaded and lacking funding. Many trainers also do not have the funds to keep retired horses in their yard upon retirement, or simply do not know enough about what to do with them. An increase in funding and support for retiring horses, as well as further guidelines and information available, would allow such charities to expand their reach, whilst putting more trainers and owners in a position where they can make the best decision by the horse. Of course, there will always be those that don't have the horses' welfare in their best interest, but again, we are talking about the minority. More information would help to promote already successful processes, such as long-term loaning.
Regarding abattoirs, horses will always end up here, so it is most important foremost that these enforced welfare standards are met. The British Racing industry’s guidelines for euthanasia have been introduced to assist owners and veterinarians when faced with end-of-life decisions. I believe that if a horse should be euthanised after recommendations from a vet, then it should be at the trainer's premises. This would ensure that the procedure is carried out professionally and humanely, and would only be on the back of sufficient veterinary evidence. The long-term welfare of a horse is paramount, not just during their racing days, so attempting to provide a suitable alternative role on retirement should be the number one priority.
The BHA has also furthered its equine welfare strategy to improve the traceability of racehorses through the use of digital passports. Doing so makes it easier to track cross-border movements and allows them to build significant amounts of data to identify and prevent any inhumane transportation. The funding of the aftercare sector is also continuously being reviewed.
I am now pleased to introduce Ruby from EquiPepper to talk more about her own experience in looking after ex-racehorses.
“I have been riding horses for over 20 years, and for the past 12 years, have almost exclusively ridden thoroughbreds and ex-racehorses. I bought my first ex-racehorse, Highland Rain, while I was studying Equine Science at University after having fallen in love with the breed. I’ve always found them to be fantastic riding horses. They are athletic after centuries of selective breeding and have a fantastic work ethic. Despite these qualities, they have long had a reputation for being difficult, injury-prone, and unsuitable for many sports.
Not long into my journey of retraining my racehorse, I wanted to do more to help these horses find suitable homes after racing. I created my blog EquiPepper to demonstrate how versatile these horses can be, and give owners advice on how to manage and retrain their horses. I used my dissertation to research key factors in a horse’s racing career which might make it better suited to other careers once they retired. The more I investigated why these horses had such a poor reputation, the more I realised the horses weren’t the problem, the owners were.
Life in a racing yard differs from the life of your average riding horse. Things many horse owners take for granted, such as a horse standing still at a mounting block or being tied up outside the stable, are completely alien to racehorses. There are also subtle differences in riding styles too. Jockeys will shorten their reins when it is time to go and often drop them when the race is over. The average rider will do the opposite, relaxing the reins slightly to go forward and pull to stop. When the horse’s new owners aren’t aware of these differences, the horse can quickly get labelled as naughty or even dangerous.
People who are not experienced with them often buy these horses cheaply. When they begin to struggle with them, they end up getting sold on cheaply again. They often get stuck in this cycle where they are labelled a "problem horse" when simply they haven't been able to adjust to life out of racing due to poor management. I believe it is this cycle that causes their bad reputation.
Racing is an incredibly hard sport, and it puts a lot of strain on the body, so, understandably, ex-racehorses may have a little more wear than another horse of a similar age. On the whole, though, if they retire from racing sound, there is no reason they couldn’t cope with a new career. This includes horses that have an injury, recover, return to the racecourse, and then retire. Due to how most racehorses are worked, they are likely to be a bit “wonky”, preferring to work on one rein. They are likely to have less topline across their backs to support themselves and they might even suffer from stiffness. These things can, however, improve with the correct exercise and after working closely with a physio.
I think it is important that the racing industry continues to improve the lives and opportunities for horses once they retire from racing. There are so many owners, trainers, and retraining organisations doing great work to find suitable homes for these horses. I think RoR has done a good job of making owning an ex-racehorse more appealing, with special training sessions and competitions. But there is still more to be done to stop horses from falling into loving, but often inexperienced hands. I have known plenty of ex-racehorses who are suitable for novice handlers and riders, but I would never recommend one for a novice. Maybe more needs to be done to discourage novices from seeing them as the cheap option.”
Racehorses are perhaps quirky compared to the average riding horse, and I think people need to understand this. There are a multitude of careers they could pursue after racing; they just need to be handled and cared for correctly. The British Racing industry is doing a good job so far of helping to re-home our four-legged friends, but of course, there is always more that could be done. I'd like to thank Ruby for sharing her experiences and her input on this piece. It's been a pleasure, and I wish her all the best for the future!
Check out her blog here: www.equipepper.com