The retraining of an ex-racehorse to start a new career as a riding horse continues to gain in popularity, and there are countless success stories of these horses going on to have successful careers as competition horses, lesson horses, and even trail horses. But retraining an ex-racehorse can and does come with certain challenges. It has to be said, that a more experienced horse owner and rider would be advisable for this project of retraining a racehorse to riding horse.
Why a new career for the racehorse?
There really are many reasons why a thoroughbred may be looking for a new career, and the idea is put into practice of one becoming a riding horse.
For example, the horse has had his racing career and is now due to retire from the track, the horse may have started its training for the trainer/owners to realise that he may not be fast enough to compete with horses already racing, or perhaps, an injury that could cause the horse not to be able to race but may be fit for leisure riding, the list goes on.
Many event riders are very fond of the thoroughbred for the sport of eventing, due to their stamina and endurance and how many of them have a brave attitude. It is a great attribute for the rider to have in a horse for the show jumping and cross country disciplines. It is interesting to note how nearly all of the eventers have thoroughbred breeding in them if they are not full thoroughbreds.
Retraining a racehorse can, of course, have its difficulties. Most horses that have run on the track, truly enjoy their job. Going fast is fun and there is a very obvious reason why they are called a racehorse!
When a racehorse is in training – many trainers understand that it is important for the horse to have a balanced training plan to include flatwork and road work, however, this is not always the case in certain racing yards. And as mentioned, although re-training racehorses to become riding horses, is certainly growing in popularity, it does not come without its challenges. Prior to taking on a retiring/coming out of training horse, to begin a new career, there are some things one must consider.
Patience is vital when it comes to a racehorse moving from a racing yard into a new life – to be retrained as a riding horse. It is important to give the horse an opportunity to settle into their new home. This will depend on a number of things, the time of year, yard circumstances and whether the horse has come out straight out of training. But, if at all possible, try and give your new horse some time off and turn him into a field. This allows the animal to just ‘be a horse’, unwind, relax and become familiar with their new surroundings.
However, crucial and number one thing to remember is that the horse will have had its life turned upside down and will need time and patience to settle in to its new surroundings.
Most racing yards have a strict routine. So, it is important not to take away everything the horse is used to in one go. When a thoroughbred is in training, they are used to limited turnout, so your new horse will certainly enjoy time out in the field (depending on the time of the year). A thoroughbred has a coat that is fine and thin and will find the cold much more easily than a half-bred or a native breed of horse.
Horse owners who are used to the more traditional type of horse may be surprised by the lean, fit look of a horse that has recently come out of training and may make the error of trying to feed the horse up.
The traditional racing yard would feed their horses three meals a day – minimum – with high amounts of protein. Their metabolisms are developed to use that protein. It is important to note, that horse owners are taught that it takes up to the age of six for a horse’s muscular and skeletal system to be fully grown and developed, however, thoroughbreds mature much quicker. Especially, horses bred for the flat as their career is so short and the majority of flat horses are retired by the age of five.
It must also be noted that as a riding horse the job is not as demanding as racing and as a new racehorse now riding horse rider/owner, you need to gradually replace that protein with fibre. Sticking to the three meals a day however will help settle the horse as it means a similar feeding routine. Whilst in training, many thoroughbreds will not have the same appetite as your common hunting cob, and so, it may come as a surprise that the thoroughbred won’t be as greedy or eat every last strand of hay!
Whilst many thoroughbreds are used to a very active lifestyle with plenty going on in their training yard, many racing yards still have a couple of hours complete peace and quiet in the afternoons to be able to rest. This is the time where most horses in training will relax enough to take time to enjoy their lunchtime feed/morning hay.
Tack and Teeth
On arrival, like any new horse into a new yard, it is important to have a vet come and check the animal over, a dentist to examine their teeth and a tack fitter to ensure prior to retraining the animal is fit and comfortable to be able to start their new career. Many horse owners also use a physiotherapist to check the horse over after a few weeks into training to ensure the horse is progressing and building the correct muscles for his new discipline(s).
The musculature structure of the racehorse needs to be redeveloped and reshaped for the newly intended discipline and that takes time.
Time must also be allowed for the animal to mentally adjust to both the new training techniques and environment of his new home.
Lunging and long reining are two very beneficial ways of retraining your new racehorse to a riding horse from the ground prior to mounting.
Long reining allows the horse to learn and understand what the rider’s leg aids are for and is a great way to practice transitions (stopping and starting.) It is also a great way for the new horse to become familiar with their new surroundings before having a rider on their back.
Although many National Hunt horses would be more used to the riders leg aids, (as those jockeys would have much more leg pressure on the animals’ sides, and tend to ride out on a daily basis in longer length stirrups). Flat horses may not be, so, it is good to refresh the animals’ memory in what is the safest way for both the horse and rider – which is working from the ground up.
Hacking is also important for the horses’ mentality. Although the majority of racehorses do roadwork whilst in training, it is important for the horse to learn to enjoy his new job and hacking is a great way for horses to relax.
It is becoming much more accessible to compete the turned racehorse to riding horse. In the UK it a very popular and competitive showing class – the Racehorse to Riding horse class. It is also up and coming and growing in popularity in Ireland.
In recent years, many horse/agricultural shows host a racehorse to riding horse class. This class caters for horses who have run at least once in a point to point or on the track. It is an excellent incentive for owners to keep a thoroughbred as a riding horse.