Whether you’re interested in thoroughbreds that race, are considering taking on an ex-racer or are just looking to learn more about the difference between a racehorse and a ‘leisure’ horse, then this could be the blog post for you.
I’ve wanted to do something like this for a while, but the truth is, there is just so much to cover, so many angles to attack this from, and ultimately, there’s no right or wrong. It’s the thing I love and hate the most about horses; there is no text book. No two horses are the same and no two riders are the same either.
When I started to write this piece, I decided that I can’t truly showcase how different, how versatile and how special ex-racehorses are, without enlisting the help of fellow owners and asking them about their horses. I started off by sending some questions across to people with ex-racers and intended on this piece being a bit of a profile on each of them. But in that context I couldn’t put together the message I wanted to convey in a clear way. Which is essentially ‘Racehorses have heart’.
The hardest part of retraining.
‘What was the hardest part of retraining?’ was the first question I asked owners. With this I expected to find a lot of repetitive answers things such as them being bad in open spaces or wanting to go fast all the time, but that was so far from the reality.
For me the hardest part of retraining was getting Grumeti to come out of his shell and secondly, was to stop him from jumping like a hurdler. Whereas Beccy Green, with the pocket rocket hero, Fruity O’Rooney, sighted that the hardest thing for her was containing Fruity’s enthusiasm for life. Both Fruity and Grumeti were well known on the track and they could not be more different from each other, this theme then continued with answers from other owners.
Amy Biggs owner of the gorgeous Silent Warrior and Forget Bob (RIP) again encountered huge differences with her horses, with the hardest things for her being Silent Warrior lacking confidence in his jumping and Forget Bob having medical issues that meant she had to work him in a specific way to keep him sound and happy.
Other things owners mentioned were horses adjusting to turnout conditions, learning to travel in a different style of transport and needing exposure to different things such as road traffic.
After reading all these widespread and interesting answers it really hit home to me, these horses are all treated as athletes, they have a job to do, a career ladder to climb but they are all individuals. With unique life experiences and vastly different mentalities. I began thinking of them as a workforce, like the people I work alongside day to day, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, different ways of thinking and feeling, but we all have the same role and the same goal.
The best bits.
As a follow up to discussing the hardest parts of training, I asked all the owners to tell me about their horses greatest asset. For this one my answer for Grumeti would always be his honesty. He always tries his best for me, even when I royally mess things up, it’s as if he says to me ‘I’ll get us out of this mess’ and does whatever he can to protect us both.
I expected other owners to list things such as their horses, scope, athleticism or talent. Yet again I was proven wrong and this time there was a real underlying theme with all of the horses and owners that I questioned. None of the owners mentioned anything to do with physical attributes of their horses, they all listed things about their horses brain and heart. With Amy Biggs saying Silent Warrior was quick to learn and Forget Bob filled her with confidence.
American rider Amy Arzonico with her US ex-flat racer Black Spike said ‘Her biggest strength is her heart, I have never met another horse that is as willing to do anything for me as she is. Black Spike is a small mare and what she lacks in height she makes up for in attitude.’ A sentiment that was echoed by Beccy Green about the 15.2hh Fruity O’Rooney, who’s small stature doesn’t impact on his huge enthusiasm for life.
Again this theme continued with work rider for Olly Murphy, Lizelle Terblanche-Brown and her late horse, Troubletimestwo (RIP). Lizelle spoke so fondly of Trouble who she described as being incredibly brave and willing to jump anything for her.
Finally I spoke to Rebecca Hemmings of her gelding Rupert Boy, Rebecca summed up my feelings on ex-racers so well, simply saying ‘Rupert is such a people person, so loving and trusting and once you’ve built that trust he will take you anywhere’.
This seems to be something that is built into these amazing thoroughbreds, a zest for life, courage, bravery and above all, wanting to do their best for their riders. I don’t think I’ll ever know if this is bred into them, or from their racing training. In my head it’ll always be a nature vs. nurture debate. But from my experiences with these horses, it is their number one attribute and the thing that keeps people such as myself going back to ex-racers time and time again.
Match made in heaven or hell?
Now, I could sing the praises of ex-racehorses all day long, but the truth is, they’re not for everyone. Taking Grumeti on was a huge adjustment for him and for me and without help and advice from my support network, I’m not sure I would have been able to stick with him. With this in mind, I asked everyone ‘what would your top piece of advice would be, to someone looking to take on an ex-racehorse?’
Mine would be to not be too proud. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, you can always learn more and no two horses are the same, so ask for people’s help and advice. Whether that comes from your coach, your equine dental technician, your farrier, your feed rep… all of these people are experts in their fields and are normally more than happy to share their knowledge with you.
So I’ll finish up with all the owners pearls of wisdom.
Beccy Green & Fruity O’Rooney: ‘Don’t be put off by a slightly older ex-racer, Fruits didn’t retire until he was 13. He did his first one day event 6 weeks into his retraining and evented for 4 years up to BE100 level.’
Amy Arzonico & Black Spike: ‘Don’t be scared of one that is tiny. You often see people searching for the bigger horses, often missing out on the smaller ones with the biggest hearts, that will try so hard for you.’
Rebekah Hemmings & Rupert Boy: ‘Take it slow and steady, it’s not a race! It’s ok to give them time off when you first get them off the track.’
Amy Biggs & Silent Warrior/Forget Bob: ‘Listen to your horse, if you feel they are being naughty or not doing what you’re asking, it’s probably for a reason, take the time to figure out why. They’re clever creatures and when the lightbulb flicks on you’ll be grand.’
Lizelle Terblanche-Brown & Troubletimestwo: ‘Feed them correctly, don’t starve them for fear of not being able to handle them. They’re probably not the horse for a complete novice and if you are a novice owner, consider one that has been through the retraining process. You owe it to them to have their teeth and their back checked, if you take care of them they will do anything for you and give you their heart.
Resources for retraining racehorses.
There are so many useful resources online for people wanting to learn more about retraining. The RoR is a great place to start and The howtodressage book ‘Racehorse to Dressage Horse’ is a brilliant book for anyone wishing to improve their ex-racers flat work.
Thank you ladies for your helpful input and insights, I hope to do some feature pieces on you all in future, as I just love hearing about your special bonds with your horses.
And as ever thank you to everyone who reads my blog, sends kind messages and donates (through my ‘About‘ page) to help me keep doing this. It means a lot and I love spreading the message of how much these horses mean to the people that look after them in racing and after.
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