How to retrain a former racehorse
Horse Training

The right way to retrain a former racehorse (OTTB)

Flat racing, is a physically demanding sport and even with the best training, many racehorses end up with career-ending injuries.

While some horses end up with injuries serious enough to require euthanasia or full pasture retirement, many horses can be retrained – with a lot of time and treatment – and be rehabilitated so that they can go on to new lives.

If you’re considering buying a former racer, you should consider some basic questions around health, behaviour and training before doling out your cash.

All racehorses are a gamble

The majority of the horses bred and raised for the sport never get to the winner’s circle because they just aren’t fast enough, they suffer injuries or have a temperament that isn’t suited to life on the track.

However, many horses that are unsuccessful at the track can become quickly rising stars in other fields from showjumping to eventing or even barrel racing.

Since many racetracks have begun implementing a zero-tolerance policy on owners shipping retired racehorses to the slaughterhouse, it has become ever more important that these horses get an opportunity to be retrained.

Charities and adoption programs worldwide are working to retrain and rehome horses coming from the racing tracks

The work these organisations do in communicating with and educating the owners and trainers is the lifeline these horses get to be trained for a second career. In some cases, they may try to persuade owners to retire horses a little earlier rather than running them to the point of exhaustion.

Retired racing horses are interesting to many people outside the racing industry itself and you may be looking for an ex-racer to give her a good home to retire in, get a project to work on or even a cheap show horse.

If you have the time, money and skills to put into retraining and working with a former racer, you can end up with a good but relatively inexpensive horse.

Hard tissue injuries

A horse that was just too slow for the track but nothing else wrong with it is probably the best kind of horse you can find. This kind of horse may not even have run a single race or at most very few races before being sold on to make space for a better runner.

It’s when you’re looking at acquiring a horse that was retired due to injury that you really have to be sharp and pay attention.

If you’re hoping to find a horse that will go on to perform well in a different discipline, minor hard tissue injuries can often be rehabilitated. These include minor ligament problems, minor bone chips without arthritic changes and minor tendonitis.

When the horse has significant damage to cartilage or has already developed degenerative joint disease, it’s unlikely that she will be able to live up to an athletically demanding career or hobby.

If you’re looking for a horse for light work, trail riding or even as a school horse, you may be able to get a horse with more significant injuries.

Sesamoid fractures are common injuries in racehorses

The sesamoid bones are found at the back of the fetlock and are a common injury for a high-performance runner.

With any type of injury, the smaller the damage is to begin with the better chances the horse has of healing.

With enough time, rest and proper treatment, injuries that are big enough to kill a career may not be big enough to kill the horse, and might even heal on their own once the horse is taken off a rigorous training regime.

Large amounts of damage to cartilage and soft tissues, such as tendons, ligaments and muscles may need more invasive treatment. Bone fragments that have gotten stuck around the joints may require arthroscopic surgery to be removed.

Your veterinarian will assess each horse and each injury individually and decide what needs to be done depending on what your goals for the horse are.

Treatment can get expensive

The cost of treatment when surgery is necessary depends widely on how complex the procedure is. You can expect to easily spend several thousand pounds for a basic arthroscopic surgery.

You may also consider symptomatic therapies to treat the horse, but these are usually only short-term solutions and it may be more cost-effective to perform the surgery in the first place.

If it’s a bone chip causing the problem, the problem will persist until the chip is removed.

A horse that’s had a bone chip removed will require at least 2-3 months of rest before you can begin rehabilitating her.

Your vet will instruct you on how long it will take to heal, how to take care of your horse while she heals as well as how to start bringing her back to activity after the period of extended rest.

Flat racing puts a lot of stress on a very young horse’s body.

Soft tissue injuries

Another common type of injury that will quickly end a horse’s racing career, is a soft tissue injury.

Depending on the extent of the damage, soft tissue injuries can often be quicker to heal than hard tissue injuries. Think of how much quicker you yourself heal from a sprained ankle than a broken bone.

The kind of soft tissue damage a retired racehorse can come with is varied both in severity and location. You can get a case of just mild tendonitis from rigorous training or you can have a complete disruption of an entire tendon or suspensory ligament.

If you’re looking to turn your racehorse into a showjumper, you should be very mindful of the condition of the suspensory ligaments, particularly in the hind legs.

Though horses in dressage, cross country and jumping aren’t running as fast as in flat racing, these activities still place a lot of stress on the legs. If a horse has significant injuries to the hind suspensory region, your red flags should be going up.

If you’re still committed, remember that even with extensive treatment and rehabilitation, your horse may never recover enough to perform as you had hoped.

Healing from strained tendons

If your horse has minor tendon problems or low-grade tendonitis, you’re most likely looking at six months to a year of rest and rehabilitation before you can put your horse to work again.

With a bowed tendon your horse will require limited turnout and hand walking in order to heal completely.

Moving your horse between a small paddock and the stall won’t give her much to do, so you can really go all out on the basic stuff, such as touching your horse everywhere, rubbing her down, massaging her, picking up her feet (mindful of any injuries) and playing all kinds of brain games to keep her curious.

Time and rest can and will cure a whole host of minor injuries, but if you want the horse for competing in a demanding sport, you may need more aggressive treatments.

You can discuss with your vet what kind of therapies are available to help improve the quality of the repair tissue which will support preventing re-injury.

These treatments include things like:

  • Platelet-rich plasma injections in which blood platelets are injected into the injured area.
  • Shock wave therapy uses high-pressure sound waves to promote tissue repair.
  • Check ligament desmotomy (cutting) is a treatment where your vet will cut the ligament that attaches to the bowed tendon. This allows for more length to the deep flexor tendon unit releasing the toe out and the heel down.
  • Stem cell therapy can be used to promote healing but may also cost several thousand pounds and isn’t always practical or affordable.

Do a pre-purchase exam before buying

Before buying any horse, you need to inspect the horse to know what you’re getting. This applies to both buying, adopting and leasing a horse.

Before you decide to take on a retired racer, you should have a thorough vetting done before purchasing. Ideally, this would include a 5 stage vetting including x-rays.

Especially when you’re buying a former racehorse, you shouldn’t be thinking about what the vetting is going to cost relative to the price of the horse.

Saving money on an inexpensive horse may end up costing you a lot more in the long run.

Use the pre-purchase vetting to establish if the raw material is there so that you can work off of a solid foundation (even if that includes treatments and rehabilitation).

By being diligent before buying, you’ll save money as well as heartache in the long run.

Training your former racehorse

Once you’ve brought your horse home and had the vet create a treatment plan for any injuries, you should start slowly.

Remember that racehorses are fed a high-energy diet that isn’t suitable for a horse in recovery, so the first thing is to begin transitioning her to a new diet.

As she settles into her new feed routine over the next months, her energy levels should also settle into a new pattern.

As the training racehorses receive has a very narrow focus, a good starting point is to treat your horse like the baby she is. Assume that she knows nothing and train her as you would any other youngster.

If she picks up the training quickly, you’ll be able to confidently move on to more complex tasks knowing that she’s got a good grasp of the basics.

Don’t rush and take your time – it may be a good idea to plan out what a realistic timeline of rehabilitation looks like, but be prepared to be flexible and don’t set hard deadlines.

Because racehorses only race in one direction, lunging your horse on both sides will help her to develop both sides equally. It’ll give her a chance to think about how to become soft in her body, bending both left and right as well as where to place her feet.

You can ride along fence-lines or walls to encourage straightness in her body and practice basic dressage, such as leg yielding.

An ex-racehorse is a very sensitive animal and you need to be aware of that her GO-button has been trained to be very sensitive. Give her time to develop and teach her how to relax both her mind and her body.

Rushing into something your horse isn’t ready for can really blow her mind, and set you back quite a lot. Keep in mind that setbacks are a part of training and don’t be discouraged. Give her time, don’t try to do too many things at once and keep the sessions short enough.

Don’t let beginners ride or inexperienced people handle your retired racer until you’re 120% sure that she’s able to calmly deal with the mistakes novices make.

The takeaway

Buying or adopting a horse that isn’t suitable to you in terms of skill and temperament can really take the fun out of owning a horse.

Be brutally honest with yourself about your own abilities and get a horse that you feel confident you can manage. If there isn’t a suitable horse available right now, move on and wait for a little while.

When you’re not in a hurry, the perfect horse will turn up.

With racehorses, the treatment of injuries and rehabilitation to recover from those injuries as well as learning a new sport will take time. Don’t expect to get a horse that is ready to ride straight off the trailer.

Realistically you’re looking at months or retraining and readjusting before you’ll have an easily rideable horse. Treatment can also cost a lot of money.

If you enjoy the process of building up the horse gradually over months and years, then a racehorse may be a good project and eventually a great horse for you.

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