Thinking of retraining an ex-racehorse?

I love Thoroughbreds, and my Dad bred them for the local racetracks.  Quite a few ended up back with us for retraining for various disciplines including show jumping and polo, and one of the best horses I ever played polocrosse on, Silver Hills Milk, didn’t do much on the track!  Nowadays, I try to always have an ex-racehorse in for retraining and I am delighted to do work for the fantastic charity, Retraining of Racehorses

I have a 5yo mare called Raven’s Song at the moment, bought from Kylie Manser-Baines a couple of years ago.  Having ridden a lot of these horses, Raven stood out due to the following reasons, that will give you a bit of a guide to look for, should you be looking to buy an ex-racehorse to compete on in the future.

  • Temperament – she is very level headed
  • Natural Balance – she changes leads easily and holds a circle
  • Rhythm – She holds a rhythm without speeding up or slowing down
  • Soft mouth – She isn’t scared of the contact, but responds to bit pressure
  • Comfortable to ride, particularly in canter!
  • She passed a vetting and has good feet!

So, you have found your ideal ex-racehorse to retrain, what do you do now?  Firstly, you have to understand that these horses are generally racing as two or three year olds. Therefore, they have had a lot of experience at a young age, but are still not physically mature. Most of their ridden work is done in groups, and their management has followed a routine.

Think about following these steps in order to develop a great partnership.  You will notice links throughout this blog to a series we are filming on YourHorsemanshipTV, where we follow my 14yo daughter’s progress with a 5yo ex-racehorse, Pockette Road (Polly!).  Here’s an introduction!

1. Assess your horse to make a plan for future training

Using Raven as an example, I could see that she needed some time in the paddock to put weight on and mature. Before I turned her away, I rode her for a couple of weeks to find out her strengths and weaknesses, so I could make a plan for when I brought her back into work.

Does she display any behavioural problems?

Is she easy to handle on the ground?

Is she responsive to the leg?

Is she stiffer on one side than the other?

Is she responsive to bit pressure?

Can she be ridden out on her own? 

Does she show any resistances that may develop into a larger problem in the future?

2. Give your horse a true break from training

Chances are you have bought the horse straight from the trainer or from a retrainer, who may not have been able to give the horse time to really “let down”.  You need to honestly appraise the physical and mental state of your horse. Often young Thoroughbreds out of racing look fit, well muscled and mature, but when they come out of their racing routine, they often “go off” in their coat and muscle definition.  The temptation is to keep working them, but I have found they can get sour and sore. This is why I always make sure that they have a real break, not just a couple of weeks in the field.  They can truly “let down”, mature and become a horse again.  A little word of warning though; after their break, they may come back in feeling fresh as a daisy and may have a bit more “character” than previously shown!

3. Get organised

When you decide to bring the horse back into work, make sure you get a saddle, bridle and bit fitted, so you know that you aren’t going to be causing any problems or soreness. You may find that your young Thoroughbred changes shape as they grow up and gain muscle, so it is worth checking the fitting of your saddle regularly.  Make sure they are on a regular worming and dental treatment program, and that their hooves are in good order.

4. Start with work they know

Racehorses are generally ridden in groups. Therefore, start off riding with another horse, whether out hacking (they are usually good to hack and quiet in traffic), or in the school. Start by following another horse, then by leading.  If you can, ride with different horses, rather than the same one, to prevent separation issues.  If you are riding in an arena or field, have the accompanying horse stand in the centre and work your horse on the outside.  In time, and when you feel confident, start riding on your own.  One of the most common problems I see with ex-racehorses is napping, as they are so used to being in a group, but you can avoid this by slowly building a partnership before approaching more challenging situations.

5. Always ride forward

Don’t ask your horse into an outline before you have a true forward movement in walk, trot and canter, which can be held in a decent rhythm.  Encourage your horse to work “long and low” to build up the topline and back muscles.  Introducing polework in lunging and ridden work is excellent for this purpose. 

Keep an eye on your groundwork

As they become accustomed to their new routines, make sure you are seen as the leader in their new relationship.  As they will have been stabled during their racing life, they may be susceptible to habits such as weaving, box walking and kicking at the door at feed times.  You need to think about your management to avoid this.  For example, turning your horse out as much as possible will help with box walking and weaving.  Making sure your horse is respectful when feeding, will help with frustration and aggression at these times.

Feed accordingly

Lastly, remember that with their new life, they will not be working anywhere near as hard as they were when racing (unless they go on to be top competition horses!), so remember to feed accordingly.  It is tempting to think of Thoroughbreds as needing to be fed more to keep their weight on, but if you are going to feed more than roughage and a good quality mineral block, make sure it is non-heating.  The vast majority of problems occur when horses, particularly Thoroughbreds, are over-fed and under-worked! We use Saracen Horse Feeds, who have a fantastic understanding of the Thoroughbred with their excellent working relationship with the racing industry.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to retrain a racehorse? 

The timeframe to retrain a racehorse depends on his age, experience, disposition and how long he was in training for.

What does RoR mean in horses?

Retraining of Racehorses Organisation (a Charity)

How do you restart a horse that has not been ridden in years?

When you first bring a horse back into work, make sure that you have had them physically checked, their teeth attended to by an equine dentist, and their tack fitted. Start with groundwork such as lunging and longreining and reintroduce tack once they have settled in this work. When you first go to ride, do so in a safe, enclosed arena, and have your inside rein shorter, so you can control your horse by keeping a bend through their body.

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