Anne Walker, National Coordinator for British Horseracing’s official charity Retraining of Racehorses (ROR), tells Julie Harding why ex-racers make great sport horses, hunters and hacks — given time and the right regime. So what do you need to know about racehorse rehoming?
If you are a competent rider, Thoroughbred ex-racehorses are versatile and can make top class sport horses. Many enjoy successful careers at riding club and unaffiliated level, too, but if competing isn’t your bag, they can also become great hunters and hacks. Many, especially the ones who have been trained in racing centres like Newmarket, will have seen a lot of traffic.
You need to be a reasonably competent rider, or a confident Pony Clubber with experience of riding a competition horse. An ex-racehorse may not be ideal for a first-time horse owner, but there are always exceptions to any rule and there are some incredibly quiet, uncomplicated horses who come out of racing.
Ex-racehorses tend to receive a bad press because they aren’t always easy to retrain and they can sometimes fall into the wrong hands. There is no doubt that Thoroughbreds are more sensitive and sharp than some breeds, but they are also forgiving and, in the right hands and with time and patience, they can really flourish.
Consider beforehand whether you want a gelding or mare, which discipline you are aiming at and what height horse will match your weight and stature. If you are a short, lightweight rider a horse off the flat is probably going to suit you better than a 17.2hh jumper who will be a better fit for someone of 6ft-plus.
In terms of temperament, jump horses tend to be older and, on the whole, quieter and more sensible by the time they quit racing because of their age and life experiences.
When you view the horse, bear in mind that one with a good walk should be both a good ride and trainable as it is free in its shoulders and behind.
Research the subject beforehand. Read up about the breed, the industry and the pros and cons of rehoming.
Plenty of websites feature ex-racehorses for sale; many trainers sell (or give) direct to the public; you can attend a sale, at Ascot or Doncaster, for example, or you could approach a charity, such as the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre, New Beginnings Horses, HEROS or Godolphin Rehoming and Retraining. More details can be found on the RoR website (www.ror.org.uk). There is also an advice line for prospective rehomers and the charity is preparing to publish a list of ‘approved’ trainers in the new year.
If you can, take a knowledgeable friend or trainer with you when you go to view a prospective purchase. They may know what suits you better than you do.
On the whole, trainers care where their horses go, so if you can offer a good and knowledgeable home, they will want to hear from you. If they don’t have anything suitable straight away, they may add you to a waiting list. However, don’t hand them an impossible shopping list. Be flexible with your requirements.
Most trainers will give a ‘warts and all’ description — such as whether the horse is good to clip, travel and handle — and this is invaluable as you will know what you are getting from the start. They should also tell you if it has any health issues or past injuries, but it is always advisable to get it checked over by your own vet as well.
Going to a horse sale is a bit like walking into a sweet shop — there is so much to choose from it can be a bit daunting, but also exciting at the same time. Always take an expert with you and take advantage of the vetting facilities at the venue because your horse will be sold as seen.
Take things slowly and prepare to turn the horse away, even for a few months if it is a real youngster. Some ex-racehorses may be only two or three years old, so they still have some growing to do and they really will need some down time before their new back-to-basics training regime commences. Some, by contrast, will be happy to begin their new career straight away.
They overfeed their ex-racehorse — the cause of many problems. If you have access to good grazing and quality hay and haylage, it won’t need any hard feed. Also consider giving it some downtime just to get the ‘rocket fuel’ out of its system.
Many ex-racehorses will have lived their whole lives as part of a herd. Therefore think about getting a quiet companion (who is kept barefoot) to prevent separation anxiety.
Some people rush to ride their new ex-racehorse, which isn’t always a good idea. If you expect your new horse to stand still as you attempt to mount from the ground, you may be in for a nasty surprise. Most horses coming out of training won’t be used to this way of getting on, let alone anything other than a light racing saddle.
Many ex-racers will also have been ridden in a snaffle and may not take kindly to a harsh new bit or a tight noseband. Bear this in mind before trying any new equipment. Also never ride without a neck strap and a running martingale. Treat your new horse like a baby unless the trainer has assured you that he’s a plod.
ROR provides subsidised training clinics as well as performance rewards for registered horses competing at either affiliated, unaffiliated or riding club level.
Many riders get a feeling of personal achievement merely from successfully retraining an ex-racehorse. Some may get pleasure from adding to their rosette collection, while others will want to sell on the horse when the retraining is finished. If you stay openminded you increase your chances of being rewarded.
A charity will take the horse back if it isn’t suitable. They also offer support systems online and on the phone and they have field officers who will visit you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if things aren’t going as planned.
If you buy from a trainer, they will no doubt be sympathetic but they will probably not have the room to take your horse back. That will leave you with no option but to sell, loan or give him away — and finding the right home and rider may not be easy.