Care and Training
You have decided that you want to provide a former racehorse with a loving, caring home, but if you have not previously owned one you may find yourself in situations that you have not met with before.
A video clip on what to expect when taking on a former racehorse straight out of training, from the RoR Racing to Riding video with Yogi Breisner and Tina Cook.
- Be realistic about your ability and experience and don’t be afraid to seek advice. Our RoR Helpline is just a call or email away.
- Generally a former racehorse is good to load, clip, stands for the farrier and has good stable manners.
- The horse will not be accustomed to being tied up outside his stable so is likely to fidget and become anxious.
- Racehorses are generally not accustomed to standing still when mounted because lads and lasses are generally legged up whilst the horse is walking.
- The horse is used to being ridden but not in quite the same way as a riding horse. Some of the aids are different, indeed quite the opposite, to what he is used to and you are accustomed to applying in a given situation.
- The horse may not be used to anyone riding with long stirrups although this is much less likely these days; it is more the placement of the lower leg if initially drawn too far back that a horse can react to.
- Your braking system could well be limited; and when you shorten up the reins and undoubtedly, although probably unintentionally, incline yourself forward, you are actually giving cues to go faster!
- The horse will know little about contact in terms of how we understand it for the riding horse so when you pick up the reins, the head and neck will invariably go up and out rather than low and rounded. You may also experience head tossing and snatching at the bit.
- The horse will be used to riding out in company which means that hacking out on your own you could encounter problems in relation to insecurity. Riding in company can also present its own issues as will be associated with work ie. a training gallop.
Increasing numbers of racehorses do get turned out; however it won’t be for long so all day turnout will be a new experience. 24/7 turnout will become achievable if you wish, although not in the early stages so access to stabling is essential. Remember that thoroughbreds are thin skinned so whereas previously you may not have rugged-up a horse in the stable, this may now be likely so here starts the accumulation of a new equine wardrobe!
Life for the horse in training is based on routine. Whilst used to a very active lifestyle with plenty going on in the yard, many yards still have a couple of hours complete peace and quiet in the afternoons to enable horses to rest. Your new horse may not be used to receiving the huge amounts of affection you now wish to shower him with; he may seem a bit grumpy and want you to leave him alone but don’t take this personally – just give him time to adjust. The majority of people report how wonderfully affectionate their horses are and in fact it is often this side of their nature which spurs owners on to resolving riding issues.
The thoroughbred is very sensitive and quick minded so is often more prone to exhibiting signs of stress than other breeds of horse particularly if boredom sets in. These horses can also more easily become flustered when they do not understand what is being asked of them.
Remember the day the horse leaves the training yard its life is tipped upside down so that is when any behavioural or stress-related symptoms will kick in. So do give your new horse time to adjust to its new lifestyle.
The vast majority of ex-racehorses, or any horses in work, will be stabled through the winter months. The bedding you use in the stable will play an important part in safeguarding your former racehorse’s health and well-being.
In general terms, the key factors that you should consider when choosing a good bedding apply to all horses, but it is likely that your former racehorse comes from an environment where these factors are given more serious consideration than in other less performance-related areas of the equestrian world.
In choosing the best bedding, it helps to check:
Is it free of dust? Bedding is recognised as the principal potential source of dust and spores in the stable, which are the main cause of respiratory problems among stabled horses.
Does it provide plenty of resilience and support? A springy, resilient bed will support your horse’s hooves more effectively, protect joints (especially hocks) against impact, and provide a comfortable cushion for your horse to lie on.
Does it keep the surface layer of the bed dry? Moisture, and particularly urine, can harm your horse’s feet, and it will compromise the resilience and comfort of the bed.
Is it natural and uncontaminated? The top two choices are shavings and straw. Straw can vary widely both in quality and availability. Those who use shavings tend to choose purpose-made, dust-extracted brands that offer consistent quality and reliable supply.
Is it easy to use and maintain, practical, durable and cost effective? A bed of at least six to eight inches deep provides the best levels of support, protection, comfort and drainage.
Introducing different tack to your former racehorse
A video clip giving advice on introducing different tack to your new former racehorse, taken from the Racing to Riding video with Yogi Breisner and Tina Cook.
Fresh out of training your horse will have a toned body of sheer muscle but this musculature is very different to that of a riding horse. Due to the life-style change and as re-schooling progresses the horse’s body shape is going to alter – by just how much will depend entirely on the manner of and effectiveness of your schooling work. This means that in the first few months you will need the services of a reputable saddle fitter on more than one occasion as muscle development takes place.
The thoroughbred back is very sensitive so however well-fitting your saddle, the use of a numnah is recommended. This does not mean using a thick one as this actually compromises saddle fit, but one that provides good concussion absorption. Be mindful that thoroughbreds can become niggled if they get sweaty particularly in the saddle region, so using a sheepskin numnah is not for ever horse. Racehorses are also usually used to girths with elastic in.
One of the most common difficulties is finding a suitable bit as your horse may not have a proper concept of contact and coming on to the bit – you have to teach him all that!. Don’t be alarmed if you struggle to find a bit that your horse is comfortable with and responds to as it may well take several bit changes, over a period of time, until you find the right one.
Going bitless is not always an option either especially in the early days when the horse doesn’t have a comprehension of the other aids which is important when riding without a bit. Typical bitting issues are putting the tongue over the bit or poking it out which are, in the main reactions to pressure on the tongue, so when making your bitting choices make sure you fully take into account the action of the bit.
- Patience is the key. You must remain calm but confident at all times whatever behaviour is thrown at you. The sharp-minded thoroughbred will soon pick up on any deficiencies you exhibit in that department.
- Not every horse is a challenge and some adapt readily and easily whilst others just need a little more time. Unfortunately there are a few horses that never make the adjustment from racehorse to riding horse in that they always retain a degree of unpredictability – but then no horse’s behaviour can ever be 100% guaranteed can it?
- As with any horse and any situation there are no hard and fast rules and there are always exceptions, but RoR is here to help you.
- Once your new horse has settled into his new surroundings, the work really starts. It is a wonderful journey, albeit sometimes challenging, demanding and possibly with stressful moments – but no worse than with any other new horse. It is all well worth it in the end.
Care and Training
The vast majority of yards, such as those based in the main racehorse hubs of Newmarket, Lambourn, Middleham or Malton, there are communal schooling grounds to which the horses are hacked to access as it would just not feasible to take them all to the gallops by horsebox. For some yards this means crossing the vast open spaces of the moors or Downs, something which a good number of riders of non-racehorses would not elect to do on a very fit horse with a group of others, whilst for others it may mean negotiating other hazards.
Of course some training yards have private gallops but this does not mean the horses step foot out of their stables and straight onto the gallops; they have to have basic walk and trot exercise to warm and loosen up muscles prior to even the gentlest of canter work.
So whilst racehorses may not necessarily go hacking around the countryside as the rest of us view hacking to be, encountering wheelie bins, bus stops, umbrellas and pushchairs, they are well-used to very open spaces. And remember too that in many instances the gallops are completely open; few are fully fenced – a fence-line being a source of security (we are all familiar with horses wanting to hug the sides of the arena rather than working on the quarter line).
The misconception of not hacking out most probably arises from this fact of not generally hacking around the country lanes (although this is not always the case).
When homing a horse directly from a trainer’s yard if you spare a moment to think of the yard’s location you will be able to get an idea of what, in terms of hacking, your horse will and will not be used to; for example, horses trained in some Newmarket yards will be used to encountering some traffic whereas a horse trained up in Malton may not. Anyway, you can of course always ask the trainer or one of the lads/lasses to clarify.
It is not disputed that that owners can experience hacking issues of one form or another such as napping and planting but such issues are, in reality, due to lack of confidence (and often a lack of confidence in the rider, or of the rider), insecurity, lack of re-education and separation anxiety. Remember that from the moment the young racehorse is weaned he is, as a rule, always in the company of others; he does not have to do anything totally on his own. And whilst some horses are absolutely fine in the more enclosed surroundings of a village, tree-lined roads, in the woods and so on, some can become anxious once in wide-open areas even though they experienced this whilst in training, but again this is the horse looking for reassurance and companionship from others and also his natural instincts tell him that he is at risk and vulnerable.
It is believed by many that all horses in training have a stable vice of some form or another due to the stresses imposed on them by training and the environment in which they are kept. Invariably reduced forage, lack of turn-out and the stresses of racing are cited as the reasons behind behaviours such as box-walking, weaving, cribbing and windsucking. And the statistics that over 90% of horses coming out of training will have gastric ulcers of one grade or another just adds fuel to the fire.
Whilst it cannot be disputed that large numbers of racehorses do have gastric ulcers, increasing numbers of non-raced horses (and ponies) also have them, so this dispels the misconception that gastric ulcers and associated issues only affect the in-training and racing thoroughbred. However the presence of ulcers is not a vice and a horse that has ulcers is more often than not, not a horse that cribs or windsucks but horses that do have these vices will invariably have ulcers.
Yes, some racehorses do crib, etc. but stable vices are not racehorse-exclusive; go into any livery yard and you will readily see horses doing likewise which illustrates that just because a horse is in training, it is not under any more duress than a horse not in [race] training. Take a look at the fencing of the fields of a livery yard and it will be clearly evident that there are some cribbers about!
Granted, years ago, when it was not at all common for racehorses to have turn-out and there was much less understanding of the workings and needs of the equine digestive system, a horse’s psychological welfare, etc. it would have been acceptable to say the training and associated management of the racehorse caused stable vices to develop. In recent years there have been significant improvements within the racing industry and it is now common for racehorses to have some turn-out and larger quantities of forage; there is also much more awareness of a horse’s requirements with greater emphasis on the needs of the individual.
New owners will invariably ask the trainer or stable staff whether their horse has any stable vices and more often than not this will be denied, because actually it is likely that the horse did not exhibit any undesirable behaviours whilst in training. But yet here are quite large numbers of ex-racehorses which do have a vice, but this will subsequently disappear or significantly reduce at a later stage.
This is because the horse can actually develop a vice after leaving training. Whatever your views may be of the training environment, it is the only way of life the horse knows so when he leaves it he is suddenly in an alien place, he is out of his security blanket, he is out of his comfort zone. Every aspect of his life is changed, his way of life is turned upside down – even his food changes! The total change to the structured daily routine the horse has been used to causes stress and with some horses this manifests in the a stable vice of some sort. As said above, with the passing of time, as the horse adjusts to its new lifestyle, vices do dissipate.
No, racehorses are not trained to favour a particular foreleg. Horses are naturally one-sided so tend to favour a particular foreleg lead; flatwork training works at removing such one-sidedness so that a horse becomes properly balanced, works from behind and is equally soft, supple and responsive on both reins.
When a horse is actually out on the gallops there can be no influence over what leg he strikes off with and in all honesty there is no reason for anyone to give consideration to this. However when working in the covered rides, indoor schools, arenas and circuitous canter tracks that many trainers have these days, attention is given to ensuring that the horses do work on each rein. In some yards there are even signs up reminding riders in which direction to work on a particular day of the week!
One of the most common problems facing riders is achieving the correct foreleg lead in a given direction and there are several reasons as to why this may be so. Often the problem lies with the rider – through incorrectly applying the aids, giving confusing signals, poor posture, etc. The unbalanced rider often bounces in the canter which the horse counters by stiffening his back so he has two-fold discomfort which can cause reluctance to canter; such riders also often have too much shoulder movement which causes the seat bones to drive down into the horse’s back preventing him from lifting. Put a more experienced, balanced rider on the horse and the canter issues disappear.
As already stated, a horse will naturally favour a foreleg lead and this is particularly true following a foreleg injury – or may be a sign that trouble is brewing in a leg/foot; it may also indicate bitting and saddle-fitting issues so these should also be ruled out. However inability or reluctance to pick up the correct foreleg lead can be due to sacroiliac/lumbar issues such as a pelvic tilt and/or rotation. And note that the pelvis can be rotated on one side but tilted on the other! Given that the pelvis affects how the horse moves his hind legs it is very important that this part of the body is kept in as efficient working order as possible.
When asked to canter a horse does so by lifting up through the withers and back allowing the outside hind leg to swing through and take up the canter – the outside hindleg being the leg that the horse actually strikes off with first when asked to canter; the desired leading foreleg is the last leg to ground before the suspension phase. Thus if you riding on the right rein and you have asked for a right foreleg lead in canter, the horse moves his left hindleg first followed by the right hind and left foreleg and then the right foreleg, after which is a moment of suspension before the sequence starts again. Bearing this in mind it logically follows that if a horse has any issues in his back his ability to lift and swing through with his hind legs is comprised due not only to pain but the fact that muscles will be tight and restrictive, possibly even in spasm.
Correct schooling supples the horse so that his hindlegs come more underneath him and active – engagement; in the canter horses can evade using their backs and hence engaging the hindlegs by pulling themselves along with the fore legs. This lack of engagement also has a knock-on effect in achieving the correct foreleg strike-off.
So if you are experiencing any issues with your canter work, eliminate dental, bitting and saddle fitting issues, have a equine chiropractor check your horse and also have a lesson to check that your applying the aids correctly and sitting correctly.
Many people say or believe that these horses are spooky but in reality the thoroughbred as a breed is no more predisposed to being spooky than any other breed of horse.
Any horse, however well trained, has the capacity to spook when he sees something he has not seen before which unnerves him or something catches him by surprise. Granted some horses will seemingly over-react to certain objects whilst others will not bat an eyelid. A horse may encounter the same object 6 days a week but on the 7th the devil is suddenly within that object but that is just the unpredictability of a live animal; it must never be forgotten that a horse, as a flight animal, can suddenly to something it has never done before – and indeed may never do again. Some horses do not react when a pheasant flies out but will dive across the road because there is a crisp packet in the gutter!
Spooking often goes hand in glove with a horse that tends to be sharp or one that is more highly strung and tends to live off its nerves at times. In both instances this means that the horse may react much more quickly to things so in a split second you can be at the other side of the road and not have a clue why. Just because a horse is spooky. As these horses get fitter then do often become sharper to ride so a secure seat is required!
Generally a horse that spooks is not focusing on the rider; his mind is elsewhere so he is not concentrating on what is going on and gets caught by surprise. We have all experienced the situation in the school when a horse will dive about for the first few minutes but once his mind in on the job in hand, such behaviour ceases.
Just as a horse that is deemed as sharp by one person is described as “a donkey” by another, what is termed as spooky horse by one rider will not be by another – and this is purely due to rider experience and confidence. Magazines and forums are filled with “Questions and Answers” and articles about spooky or nappy behaviour (the two can be closely connected). In most instances the advice given will be along the lines about the rider not being so experienced or nervousness of the rider, the aids not being applied positively enough or the horse on the aids, etc. and most commonly that the horse lacks confidence – and that can its own lack of confidence, lack of confidence in the rider and lack of confidence in a given situation.
Granted some former racehorses are indeed very spooky especially in the early days of retraining whilst they are adjusting to a new lifestyle. The whole life-changing experience can cause horses to behave in a way that has not been normal for them, hence previous owners saying the typically heard comment “he’s never done that before”; in some instances this is indeed true. Remember that in training horses have the comfort of group therapy; even if horses are not actually working upsides or similar, there are other horses around. They very rarely, if at all, leave the yard on their own.
So yes, whilst some horses can indeed be spooky characters, this is not the preserve of the ex-racehorse and it is not correct to label them as being so per say. Each horse has to be considered individually and if your horse is spooky then all the possible reasons should be investigated until the cause is found.
If it proves to be the case that your horse is spooky due to temperament, then management and diet should be looked at as changes can see significant improvements. Temporary use of a “calmer” can be of benefit to some horses. Whilst magnesium based calmers are generally those advocated, you may see better results with anon-magnesium based calmer as if your horse has no requirement for magnesium, such a calmer will not work.
Please note that certain behaviours can be discomfort/pain related so you should rule out any possible causes such as feet, teeth, bit, saddle fit, as well as a physical reasons such as gastric ulcers, back pain, suspensory issues, etc.
We have all seen horses at racecourses cantering who are clearly giving their jockey a hard time and those that effectively appear to “bolt” at the start of a race. Of course there are some strong horses but take a look on any hunting field and you will see quite a few riders hanging on for grim death with all manner of bits and nosebands fitted in an attempt to retain control. Horses are not necessarily mouth-strong but they can use the strength in their neck and shoulders against the rider particularly those that lack good schooling.
The horse that pulls going to the start or “bolts” during the early stages of his race is not necessarily a strong horse generally, but under race conditions, with adrenalin flowing and the anticipation of what lies ahead, horses can run a bit free but this does not mean that you are going to have this problem when you rehome him.
Horses are naturally on the forehand and racing training does nothing to improve on this. During early retraining the horse has to learn about carrying weight and balancing himself in a totally different way to that which he has been used to and then of course start learning about taking weight behind. Strength must not be confused with leaning: It can seem that the horse is strong in the hand but he is actually leaning on the hand until he learns to carry himself.
Nor must strength be confused with a horse properly moving forward into the contact or impulsion. After a period of retraining, especially if carried out on your behalf by someone else, the change in his way of going can take a little getting used to; it is not that he has become mouth strong but altogether a much fitter more balanced horse with the power coming through from behind.
Remember that a horse will also lean on a bit as a way of evasion whether evasion of the bit because the action or fit of the bit does not suit him, or to avoid using his back because he does not know to or because he hurts somewhere. A horse also leans if the rider is not sitting up or using the leg effectively. Poor riding generally can result in a horse trying to “run away” -from a rider that bounces in the saddle (particularly when cantering), from the rider with unforgiving hands, from the rider who constantly has their heels turned into onto the horse’s sides.
Of course once out on a cross country course horses can and indeed do take a hold; control is vital for today’s modern, twisty and technical courses hence it is not at all uncommon for riders to change the bit they use for the cross country phase of a one-day or three-day events; yet these same horses perform a calm dressage test in a mild bit.
If your horse does seem strong the answer does not lie in a harsher bit; the stronger the bit used the stronger the horse becomes. Try a bit that offers a different action or just use a grakle or Mexican noseband – this can work wonders. If you are no sure about bitting, then seek advice.
It is assumed that every ex-racehorse is going to be like a ticking bomb just waiting to explode. As a breed it is accepted that the thoroughbred is sharper than many but just look at Welsh D’s – they are notoriously sharp, well the successful in-hand ones certainly are and the sharper the better!
However, think about this: In training the racehorse has a very high concentrate diet, he is fit, he is focused on his job; yet each morning large groups of often young horses head out into vast open spaces ready for their cantering or fast work, yet in the main, the exercise is uneventful – no hi-jinks, riders on the floor, no loose horses. Go to a race meeting and whilst a few horses may be on their tippy-toes in the paddock (but they are not trying to drag their lads and lasses all over the place) most of walking around quite happily.
It is when a horse is removed from its comfort zone that changes in behaviour manifest and a horse that was very laid back in training can become anxious and tense. And, yes, granted, this does present an issue for many new owners. It has to be said that more people than care to admit are quite nervous around horses that show any kind of freshness such as jig-jogging when being led or having a buck on the lunge, etc. But nervousness around a horse can make a horse nervous too. And often this goes hand-in-glove with an inexperienced rider; an experienced handler/rider imparts confidence to a horse hence why a horse can seemingly misbehave with one person and instantly be an angel with someone else. There is no criticism being aimed here, but more encouraging a person to admit if they are unsure or not confident so that they seek help rather than trying to soldier on and things worsen with the relationship between horse and owner/rider deteriorating rather than building positively. Everyone has a wobbly moment at some point or other – it is nothing to be embarrassed by.
Unsuitable feeding often lies behind undesirable behaviours with too many carbs being fed for the work done. Lack of turnout is often blamed for horses getting above themselves but with a correct diet and exercise regime this need not be the case at all. There are many reasons why a horse cannot have turnout but this does not mean he will become a lunatic the moment he steps outside of his stable.
The actual stable environment can be a cause of tension so this is why thinking about your horse’s stable is so important; how would you feel being put in a dark room, or one with no view from the window, or one that was draughty? A horse with gastric ulcers or a worm burden can be tetchy and tense and so appear highly strung. And obviously any discomfort anywhere else in the body or that caused by an ill-fitting saddle, ill-fitting or inappropriate bit or poor riding manifests in a horse not behaving or going as it should.
A horse that is highly strung should not be confused with a horse that is excited because he’s feeling well, is pleased to be out, is off to a party and so on. If your horse is prone to an energy build-up, give him a few minutes on the lunge before you get on. The highly strung horse tends to be one that frets, does not hold weight easily, sweats up more easily or may exhibit a stable vice; the excitable horse – granted may be overfed and that is why he has more energy – is generally a happy horse that loves life and just wants to get on with his job. But just because a horse is very fit, feels very well and so on does not mean he has to be a handful to ride; again think of the racehorses out in groups being ridden quite happily on the buckle end. People also associate the highly strung or excitable horse with one that is then spooky or nappy. Spooking and nappiness come from a lack of confidence on the part of the horse, the rider or both, or a lack of training.
Yes, former racehorses can travel in a trailer but it must be pointed out that there are some horses which will not travel in one. However, this is not specific to the former racehorse as there are horses which are just not happy to trailer travel even if they will load into one; each horse must be assessed individually.
Generally, loading problems can be overcome with patience and practise but actually getting a horse to accept being closed in to a moving trailer can be more difficult – and in some cases it has to be accepted that the horse is not safe to be in a trailer; we have seen instances of horses kicking their way out, diving at the front window in an attempt to get out and rearing up and smashing the roof – situations that are highly dangerous, even life threatening, for the horse and those around him.
The idea that a horse will not travel in a trailer comes from flat horses and the associated issues of them being loaded into starting stalls. These stalls are extremely narrow and it is not uncommon for horses to bang themselves, particularly their hips, on entering or exiting the stalls so it not at all surprising that trainers have to spend time on stall practise with some horses having to wear blindfolds or a special rug for loading.
Racehorses are generally travelled in horseboxes albeit much more commonly these days in the smaller 2–horse boxes which does help horses get used to going into a smaller space than offered by a larger wagon.
These days trailers are much more sturdy than they used to be and thus more stable when in motion, particularly the Equitrek trailer which are like little horseboxes and horses do seem to travel very well in them. Some makes of trailer are lighter and sway a bit when being towed which can unnerve some horses.
Loading practise for an ex-racehorse is no different to teaching a young horse load for the first time – you need lots of time and lots of patience. There is no special technique for these horses than for any others.
It is when the ramp is closed up behind that more serious issues can arise as this is when sometimes a horse will panic. Usually once the trailer starts to move a fractious horse will settle but occasionally he will not and he may well try and get himself out whether by kicking, rearing or barging. On the rare occasions this occurs, a little bit of sedation may do the trick, but there is no guarantee that this is a situation that can be overcome.
Sometimes a horse will be fine travelling until a larger vehicle comes up behind the trailer but closing the top doors of the trailer usually solves any problems this causes.
With a new horse, we advocate arranging his collection or delivery via horsebox as your new charge will have enough to contend without having to travel in a manner which he has quite likely not ever experienced. As part of his retraining, trailer loading and trailer travel practise can be done. Travel practice is not as crazy as it may sound as far better to accustom your horse to trailer travel on a few short journeys than to ask him to cope with a longer journey first time out. Remember than he will have to learn to balance himself a little differently than he would when travelling in a horsebox so allow him time to learn this most important new skill.
More often than not there are absolutely no issues whatsoever other than possibly a little bit of initial hesitation on loading as the space in a trailer is much narrower and sometimes darker than when going into a horsebox. Also just be mindful if travelling a second horse in the trailer when you bring that horse in alongside, and initially always unload the former racehorse first. And as some of your are bound to say, there are indeed horses that actually do load better into a trailer than a horsebox – but this is actually usually due to the lack of steepness of the ramp; a steeper ramp finds out any back or hamstring issues a horse may have!