Whenever I can I like to get up to the HEROS Racehorse Rehoming Charity at North Farm Stud which is located just outside of Wantage in Oxfordshire. The charity, which occupies 80 acres of rolling Oxfordshire countryside, is run by Grace Muir who has successfully rehomed hundreds of ex-racehorses since she set up HEROS in 2006. I like to go up and donate my time, taking photographs of the facilities and the horses themselves for HEROS to use for their publicity materials.
Living in a village just outside of Newmarket, I would watch racehorses walking past my house every morning on their way to the gallops. All beautiful. But not all of them could be winners. Up until that point, I had never thought about what happened to a horse once its racing career was over – or if it did not have one. Once I had my own horse, I connected with riders who had adopted a former racehorse and began to see what these horses were able to offer in their new life. When the opportunity arose to help publicise a racehorse rehoming program, I jumped at the chance.
Every year thousands of thoroughbreds leave racing for a variety of reasons. Sometimes this is due to injury or simply they have come to the end of their careers. Some may have even won numerous races. Others may never have raced at all being deemed too slow. None of the above reasons however prevent these horses from going on to excel at other disciplines or just be your ideal family friend or riding buddy. No matter the reason why the horse is being retired from its racing career, it is usually still relatively young. If it has been flagged as too slow to race, often it will be retired as a three or four year old. In other words, the age when we would just be thinking about backing any other horse. If it has raced and is being retired due to injury or just reaching the end of its career, it is likely to be under eight years old. In other words, these horses have years of riding ahead of them and can excel in almost any discipline. Dressage, jumping, eventing, team chasing, showing (there are special RoR classes leading to the championship at Aintree each year), and even Western riding.
In the United States there is even a reality TV show and competition called the Thoroughbred Makeover. Each year trainers and new owners compete for a prize of $100,000 plus the title of America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred. The competition is open to ex-racehorses with less than 10 months training in their new career. The 10 disciplines it covers include barrel racing, competitive trail, dressage, eventing, field hunters, freestyle, polo, show hunter, show jumper, and ranch work. Horses can compete in more than one discipline. The list alone is enough to tell any rider these horses can literally, turn a hoof to anything. As well as being bred for speed, thoroughbred horses are recognised as one of the most intelligent horse breeds. Highly sensitive and athletic, they love learning and being given a job to do. So, if you would like to give a former racehorse a home, what’s the best way to go about finding the right one for you? And just what’s involved in taking one on?
There are two main ways to source an ex-racehorse. One is through approved retraining and rehoming charities such as HEROS. You can find a list of these on the Retraining of Racehorses website. This is your best option if you have no experience of riding or owning thoroughbred horses in the past. The main advantage is that your new best friend will have already been transitioned out of racing – a process that can take many months, and have embarked on its new career. Rehoming charities spend a great deal of time, effort, money and TLC on this process during which they build a comprehensive profile of each horse. They understand its temperament and can accurately assess its suitability for your level of riding and what you want to do with the horse. Should this for any reason, not work out, most rehoming charities will take the horse back but a great deal of care is taken to match the right horse with the right rider. They want a happy ending just as much as you do! Rehoming centres will be upfront about any injuries the horse has sustained during racing and welcome vettings. They also are there for you as a support resource once your new friend comes home.
The other source of ex-racehorses is to get one directly from the trainer. Many owners ask their trainer to rehome their horse once its career in racing is over. Some may be given away to an experienced home for free while others may be for sale but usually for a token price. Again, the Retraining of Racehorses website features many thoroughbreds coming out of racing in search of loving homes and new careers. Rehoming an ex-racehorse direct from the trainer is usually very straightforward and quick. Just be aware that a horse coming out of racing usually has not had a ‘let down’ period and also will still be on a racing diet. This is a high energy diet which results in the lean, muscled look we associate with racehorses. So, don’t rush out and buy your new friend a saddle at once – it is going to change shape radically once its diet changes and it enters another discipline!
Your thoroughbred may need rehabilitation time from an injury. And whether it is recovering from injury or not, it will need several months of ‘decompression’ time before being re-trained for its new life with you – anywhere from three to six. In other words, it needs to be turned away to learn how to be a horse again. For all these reasons and more, taking on an ex-racehorse straight out of racing may not be for you if you are a novice or have no experience with thoroughbreds or in bringing on young horses. No matter the horse’s age, an ex-racehorse straight out of racing really does need to be treated like any other young horse when it comes to transitioning them for their new life. In other words, you are starting again from scratch.
Just because you are getting your horse direct from the trainer does not mean you cannot ask questions about its temperament, career, injuries, whether it has any vices, what it has done and its overall health. You can look up any horse’s racing history on line so you can easily find out how many times it ran or even won or placed. Remember when visiting a racing yard very often it is the Head Lad or Head Lass or the people who look after these horses on a daily basis who know the most about them. So talk to as many yard staff as you can. Most people in racing want only the best for these horses and want to see them going to the right forever home.
There’s a lot of misconceptions out there about racehorses. You hear people talk about ‘crazy’ or ‘psycho’ thoroughbreds. Don’t allow this to influence you. Yes, thoroughbreds are sensitive horses. But their training regimen, over-stabling and above all, the racing diet accounts for much of this misconception. Have you ever seen thoroughbred foals in fields with their mothers? They are just like any other horses. There is nothing wrong with them. Take the horse out of racing, feed it differently, allow it to be a horse and re-start it gently and a different horse emerges. That being said, some thoroughbreds in racing training are laid-back dobbins. Charlie Appleby, arguably the greatest trainer in the world said: There are horses for courses and riders for horses. Of course, when he said this he was referring to which jockey to put on a horse. But the adage applies to anyone seeking a horse – thoroughbred or other. But if you would like to re-home an ex-racehorse, the right one for you is out there. And yes, Godolphin do have their own rehoming program for anyone interested in a horse formerly trained by Charlie.
If you re-home a horse directly from a trainer you will be asked to fill in a form called a Non Racing Agreement. This is sent along with its passport to Wetherby’s where it is stamped which means the horse can never race again. This has already been done if you re-home from a rehoming centre.
Depending on what you want your ex-racehorse to do and your level of experience, you may explore both avenues in your search for your winning match. Remember as you browse through the ads for those expensive warmbloods, there’s a versatile ex racehorse out there who can take you just as far. And with time and retraining, others who can be the perfect happy hack and family friend. The RoR (Retraining of Racehorses) runs special competitions just for owners of ex-racehorses across all disciplines. Just as we may choose to adopt a cat or a dog from an animal shelter or charity, rather than buying from a breeder, re-homing an ex-racehorse comes with that extra special feel good factor of love. Your new friend may be a Group 1 winner or never have raced. But that winning feeling you’ll get knowing you’re giving a horse a second chance at a new life – priceless.
Retraining of Racehorses: www.ror.org.uk
HEROS – A New Life After Racing: www.heroscharity.org
Godolphin Rehoming: www.godolphinrehoming.co.uk
Written by Helen Watts