Behavioural Retraining

While most former racehorse can become excellent riding horses after their racing career, there are some common less desirable behaviours that may need retraining. So what lies behind these behaviours and how can they be overcome? Stephanie Bateman finds out…

The throughbred is a versatile and intelligent breed, with many racehorses able to turn their hooves to a range of new skills in the right hands after finishing their racing careers. While a former racehorse will not be suitable for every rider and there are some situations that may initially prove challenging for these equines, with patient retraining most former racehorses can make delightful riding horses.

“Retired racehorses can make fantastic all-rounders for those who take the time and have the experience to help them transition,” says Gillian Carlisle, chief executive of the British Thoroughbred Retraining Centre. “Furthermore, they can be extremely affectionate and thrive on human interaction.”

“Ex-racehorses are truly versatile, intelligent, quick learners, very giving and stoic animals,” says Mary Frances of Moorcroft Equine Rehabilitation Centre. “It is very rewarding to give them a new life after racing, to rehabilitate their injuries and strains and to watch them grow into healthy, happy horses.”

Rowena Cook, who runs a rehabilitation and training centre, Equine Management and Training, with her husband Fred, adds: “The thoroughbred is such a versatile breed, able to turn its hoof to any discipline. Observe at any race meeting and most of the horses are extremely well-behaved and quite relaxed about proceedings. It’s when they are removed from their usual surroundings that they become anxious.

“Once a horse settles into his new life with the right management both in and out of the stable, these issues melt away and you are left with a horse that is used to working in company and in open spaces, and being tied up for the farrier; one that loads well, generally has good stable manners and of course is used to spending more time in than out. He will be athletic, easy to get fit and keep fit with great stamina.

“Thoroughbreds are quick learning, forward thinking, enthusiastic horses – they have good brains and are, in the main, extremely trainable.”

So what are the most common challenges owners of former racehorses face and what is the best way to resolve them? H&H explains…

Won’t stand still to be mounted

Reason: “When they are in training, racehorses are led around while the jockeys are legged up, so they are never taught to stand still to be mounted,” explains showing producer and retrained racehorse specialist Katie Jerram-Hunnable. “They’re not being naughty by not standing still. They simply have never been asked.”

Solution: “Start by encouraging the horse to stand by having someone at his head feeding him treats while the rider mounts at a mounting block,” advises Katie. “This will teach them to stand in a kind and positive way, because you don’t want it to turn into a negative issue that takes longer to resolve.

“Be aware that if they do go to walk forward when the rider begins to mount, don’t snatch at their heads as this can shock them and push them into rearing.

“Don’t expect them to learn in one session – gradually build it up until they have learnt that standing still is the best option for them.”

Takes off in open spaces

Reason: “Racehorses spend a lot of time on the gallops and these can be both all-weather and grass,” explains Katie. “They learn that being on the gallops means it’s time to canter and this can transfer to any open space.”

Solution: “When we take on an ex-racehorse, we start by doing lots of roadwork and controlled work, so I avoid cantering in open fields and on tracks to begin with until I have built up a suitable level of control,” says Katie. “We do a lot of schooling work to educate them to sit back and listen to the rider, rather than taking a hold and running away.

“When you do start cantering them out, make sure you have control in trot first and then slowly ask for canter. Also be careful about cantering upsides another horse as it’s their instinct to race other horses.”

Can’t bend

Reason: “Racehorses spend much of their life galloping in straight lines,” explains Mary Frances of Moorcroft Equine Rehabilitation Centre. “The only corners they see are on the racetrack, so their muscles aren’t developed for them to bend easily. When we then ask them to bend, they can feel stiff and resistant.”

Solution: “Correct basic schooling gives these weak, unmuscled horses the strength and time to develop and learn how to use themselves in a more comfortable way,” advises Mary. “Long-reining helps initially and then when ridden, we spend time on serpentines and circles to introduce these horses to bending and being more laterally supple.

“Physiotherapy is advisable as their muscles are changing significantly. Their backs also need to carry a correctly fitted GP saddle as opposed to a racing saddle, which is totally different and much lighter. Work on the long-reins with this different tack helps hugely as the horse can experience the tack before the rider gets on.

Has poor feet

Reason: “Thoroughbreds are notorious for being flat-footed, having weak, low and even underrun [collapsed] heels with cracked, crumbling horn,” says Rowena Cook, who runs a rehabilitation and training centre, Equine Management and Training, with her husband Fred. “The young Flat-bred thoroughbred goes into training at around 20 months old and invariably gets shod in front; this has the effect of lifting the frog off the ground, interfering with foot development and the digital cushion [which protects the bones and soft tissue structures], resulting in flat feet.

“With flat feet and collapsed heels, the workings of the foot are impaired, leading to poor horn quality and growth; the sole stops growing and becomes compressed. Couple this with frequent changes of shoes to racing plates and a tendency to leave toes too long, and the foot becomes weakened and crumbling with the horse prone to being foot sore.”

Solution: “The good news is that with remedial farriery, good nutrition and correct management, the digital cushion can repair and replenish,” says Rowena. “Discuss the issues with your vet and farrier to create a rehabilitation plan.

Suffers from ulcers

Reason: “Sadly many ex-racehorses have gastric ulcers,” says Rowena.

“‘Acid-splash’ is caused when acid is splashed up into the upper stomach chamber causing ulceration to the delicate lining. It is thought to occur because a racehorse usually only has a small cereal-based feed and not a lot of forage prior to exercise, so there is not enough content in the stomach for the acid to work on, hence when the horse starts moving around more energetically the acidic contents are washed up where they should not go.”

Solution: “Commonly prescribed treatment for gastric ulcers is pharmacologic suppression of gastric acid secretion which allow the ulcers to heal alongside the use of antacids,” says Rowena. “Hindgut buffers and digestive tract conditioners are usually given at the same time in order to reduce the risk of hindgut ulceration, followed by a course of pre- and probiotics to restore the friendly bacteria.

“Allow regular feeding throughout the day to mimic trickle feeding and feed more fibre to prolong eating time so that more saliva is produced. Alfalfa in particular is a proven acid buffer, and feeding a buffering agent is also recommended.

“Providing your horse with a fibre-based feed prior to exercise takes away the acid-splash risk.”

Stressy in a new environment

Reason: “When horses are in training, they live a structured life with a simple daily routine,” explains Gillian Carlisle, chief executive of the British Thoroughbred Retraining Centre. “These horses are generally managed as a herd and each day is clearly set out, with diet and exercise controlled. For many horses this structure provides stability and reduces any unnecessary stress while in training.

“A retired racehorse may struggle due to the unexpected void in their new routine, which can lead to confusion and stress. Exercise can also prove problematic as most racehorses are worked in the mornings, but this isn’t always possible with privately owned horses, which can cause boredom, stress and stereotypical behaviours.”

Solution: “Try to keep to a similar management and ridden schedule so that the horse has a reliable routine to follow,” advises Gillian. “Make any changes gradually and introduce new things slowly to build the horse’s confidence.”

Gets wound up at shows

Reason: “Racehorses are used to travelling as most of them are regularly off to the races from a very young age,” says Amanda Mills of Mills Stables Retraining Racehorses. “However, on arrival at the racecourse, they are unloaded straight from the horsebox into a stable. They run their race, go back to the stables and are then back on the horsebox heading home. There is no waiting around for hours standing on a horsebox.”

Solution: “Taking a friend with them can be helpful, but avoid leaving them on the box alone as they may panic. When we first take horses out competing, we will either take them alone or have three of them on the horsebox so that two are always left together. These outings should be enjoyable and as stress-free as possible.

“Be realistic about what you are asking of your ex-racehorse the first time you go to a show. Some will be absolutely fine with a collecting ring, but others will struggle to cope with horses suddenly coming at them from all directions, so give yourself plenty of space and avoid busy shows for their first outings.”

Can’t work on a contact

Reason: “When a jockey gets on, they will walk the racehorse on a relatively loose rein until they get to the gallops and then take up a strong contact for cantering, and there isn’t much contact in between,” says Katie. “They don’t go in an outline other than their natural one.”

Solution: “I do a lot of collected walk work, teaching them to walk in a round outline in the school followed by the same in trot before starting canter transitions. Working on the bit trains different muscles, so it’s tiring for them and should be done gradually.

“They need to learn what a contact is for and to sit back on their hocks, lift through their shoulder and become light in front.

“I use lots of pole work when teaching them to work in an outline, because it teaches them to balance and use their body, which also helps to build their core.”

Won’t hack out alone

Reason: “Around 80% of ex-racehorses are confident when out hacking in traffic in company, but they are not used to being hacked out alone,” says Mary. “They are used to being ridden and hacked in big strings, so putting them on their own is a very anxiety-inducing prospect for them.”

Solution: “We work with them to allow them to develop the confidence to hack on their own, which 99% of them achieve in a short space of time, but it does need a little understanding and practice,” adds Mary. “Working on their own in the school prepares them to cope better on their own when they leave the yard. We often take them out solo for a very short trot down the lane after a schooling session. We progress this as their confidence grows, and start going further afield.”


Ref Horse & Hound; 6 October 2020


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