The Real Fix for Retired Racehorses
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The Real Fix for Retired Racehorses
by Bob Wood, Special to Pennsylvania Equestrian - August 2010

“Racehorse Retirees Face Happier Futures” was a recent headline in the Pennsylvania Equestrian. The report of 200 racehorses saved yearly by this recent effort is a positive rescue direction. The sad truth is that the vast number of raced Thoroughbreds have no future. As great as 200 saved a year sounds, it's a drop in the bucket of abandoned Thoroughbred racehorses. Furthermore, this kind of positive news often takes the focus off the true scale of the problem.

Having retrained many TB racehorses over many years, I feel the rescue/adoption solution has never and will never address the vast number of horses raced and discarded. The practical answer to this problem is to deal with the challenge of a second career before their racing days begin, not afterward. The focus must be on the underlying first causes of their unadoptability, because there will never be enough rescue stalls to provide more than a token post-career solution. We therefore must increase their adoptability to the average person wanting to own a horse by making them easier to retrain after racing.

An inventory of the racehorse skills set reveals a horse that knows how to run fast, turn left, and stop within a half mile or so. They scare the average potential horse owner to death. Their fundamental lack of early basic training makes them unusable as riding horses later in their lives. They do not know how to stand still when mounted, they are unfamiliar with the full weight of a rider in the saddle, or the feel of a rider's leg against their barrel. Most are, as a result, ticklish when they are first mounted with a riding saddle, if you can mount them at all in any conventional sense. They end up in a second career job market with no real marketable skills, and often with the additional handicap of a minor injury, a mental scar like cribbing or weaving, or manners that few average riders can endure. All this could be made easier after race retirement, if time were taken at the beginning of their training to build the foundation of a second career skill set when they are most open to learning.

Highly Specialized
Instead, they are made into highly specialized athletes. The trainer later in their life who must make them a “normal” horse, when they are less open to training, has nothing to go back to in their experience base on which to build their future. It’s tough. I have done it for years, and these horses keep saying to me, “Bob you’re doing it wrong”. Over and over I try to tell them, “No, someone taught you wrong if you want to be a riding horse”. This conversation can go on for months, years, and sometimes it goes nowhere at all. Most believe in their race training, and some will never trust anything else. But if they were taught some basics, maybe if they had to pass a kind of test that demonstrated an average rider could mount and ride them safely just a little, like bend and balance them in a more normal and general way, it would be easier to retrain them after retirement. Perhaps if they learned to stand still when mounted, to walk, trot, canter, and track a simple straight line, then their post-racing trainer could find that training in them later, and go forward from there.

Given the obstacles left by specialized training and their lack of general skills, a rescue that can retrain/adopt 200 of these beautiful racehorses each year would be achieving an amazing goal. But why does it have to be such a challenge? If we could cut the retraining difficulty in half, the number would be 400. Also, if the retraining process were made easier and more practical by early general skill and manners training, more amateur trainers would also be willing to take a Thoroughbred directly off the track in their first training experience. Then we might get to a real and permanent solution to this old and insurmountable problem.

There are additional steps that could be implemented. The US tax structure provides a motivator toward creating a “throw away” mentality toward racehorses. In Europe this is often not the case, and owners, as a result, are motivated to consider versatility in early training in order to create residual value in their horses after their racing career for simple financial reasons.

The fact that all our US races go to the left is a small but important factor perhaps worth considering in a horse’s ability to be retrained later in life. Again, in Europe, many races go to the right. There are many small elements like these that make up a racehorse's specialization that could be addressed.

Originate Early
We have created the most difficult circumstances in an American racehorse’s early life for them to move on to a useful second career. The industry, when seeing the consequences of this, always seems to try to solve the problem at the end, not at the beginning of the horse’s career where the unadoptability problems originate. The result is thousands of horses suffer the harsh consequences of racing in obscurity, while a few lucky ones are saved.

If the Jockey Club and all those connected to racing, including the states that derive so much money from these horse’s lives, were serious about the fate of Thoroughbreds after the end of their racing career, they would require broader early training to help insure a second career. Industry PR campaigns centered in modest post racing solutions appear to be cheaper and easier, but the fact of the waste of so many of these horses remains in spite of these efforts. Cures are great, but prevention is better and usually more effective. The industry should experiment with front solutions, start pilot programs, track results, and find out what really works. I think they will find that there is more bang for the buck in laying an early training foundation for the racehorses' long term future.

Bob Wood began riding in 1953 under the instruction of a US Cavalry rider. He has retrained Thoroughbred racehorses for 30 years, and currently fox hunts Piero, a versatile former racehorse that has also won several competitions for his students at Triple Creek Farm, Carlisle, PA.