You’d think I was about to enter a lion’s cage by the looks I get for riding ex-racehorses. “I don’t know how you can ride these,” said an owner at my friend Liz’s yard as she legged me up onto one of Liz’s ex-racehorses.
But over the past few years I’ve become an ex-racehorse addict. These Thoroughbreds come out of racing aged anywhere between two and ten, if not older, and while some are, admittedly, completely unhinged — as any horse, dog, human can be — the majority are really not.
Let me state my case. I’ve owned three former racehorses of varying ages, two of which came straight out of racing, and for many years I’ve ridden out (exercised) racehorses in training in Epsom, Newmarket and Gloucestershire. I’ve also ridden in three charity flat races, during the eight years that I was news editor at Horse & Hound. So, I’ve got a little bit of experience with these beautiful creatures.
My last ex-racehorse, Porky, was more of a loyal dog than a horse.
He trusted me with his life, and would follow me or do anything I asked of him. He had an incredible sense of humour — when he’d have enough of being brushed he would pick brushes up with his teeth and throw them out of his stable. We had an amazing bond and I haven’t owned another horse since losing him to colic four years ago — the hole in my heart is still too big.
Yes, ex-racehorses can be highly strung, but on the whole they’ve seen it all and are pretty unfazed by things. Think about it: as racehorses they are travelled frequently, they are ridden out in company (in the case of Newmarket, hundreds of horses at time) and most are ridden regularly along roads — in short they are used to real life. They’re also used to being poked and prodded by vets and farriers, they’re used to being groomed and tacked up frequently and being ridden with long stirrups and a contact.
What they’re not used to, when they’re immediately out of racing, is new stabling environments, frequent turnout and general “riding horse” life. Which is why the transition has to be long, slow and gentle. You have to be patient. If you rush it, there will be problems — with some horses it can take some years, others adapt within months.
They’re highly strung when they’re in racing simply because they are being fed large quantities of energy food and racing fit. This changes when they come out of training — surely that’s just common sense.
I liken ex-racehorses to “dangerous dogs”. In the right hands, a Rottweiler or German Shepherd can be a joy — loyal, gentle and kind. In the wrong hands they can be lethal.
It’s the same with an ex-racehorse — like a child they need firm, gentle handling. They need you to understand and heed their quirks (think of the old saying “tell a gelding, ask a mare and consult a stallion” — it is often wise to consult an ex-racehorse) and, to a large extent, ignore their foibles. Like any horse, the more they feel they can trust and follow you, and rely on you, the more loyal and rewarding they will be.
Which gets me to the best bit. Racehorses are “people” horses. This is because they are generally assigned one stable lad to take care of them during training, and are often “coaxed” to the start line through careful care and attention. They respond to care and attention; they look to their owners for support and if you earn their trust an ex-racehorse will do anything for you. Porky would do anything for me.
Yes, Thoroughbreds can be sharp, but in my experience no more so than some lines of Irish Draught or some warmbloods — and unlike the latter they actually have a brain and a great sense of self-preservation.
The only real downside is that some are sadly not built to last and can have many miles on the clock before they come out of training — so pick carefully, from someone you trust and have the horse vetted before you buy.