I recently had an opportunity to catch up with Mike Lawrence, founder of Equus Nexus, while he was starting a young racehorse of mine. Equus Nexus has several beautiful retired Thoroughbred racehorses and warmblood horses, in various stages of training. My interest was the retraining of Thoroughbred racehorse project that I know Mike is passionate about and is a current topic of considerable importance to horse lovers and racing enthusiasts.
The re-training of retired racehorses is a highly skilled process so I was eager to hear insights from someone who has spent a long riding lifetime successfully preparing racehorses for new careers in other equestrian endeavours.
Why is retraining ex-racehorses essential to the success of the racing industry?
As a result of some courageous and long overdue journalism, the racing industry has had its ‘social licence to operate’ seriously challenged in recent years due to an increasing concern for the welfare of racehorses when their racing careers are over. In my experience with the racing industry, I have concluded that trainers and owners love their horses, and create real bonds with them during the daily work they undertake. They often go to great trouble to properly rehome the horses under their care.
However, as an industry standard, the systems required for monitoring the welfare of horses after they have finished racing have been at best inadequate, and in reality non-existent.
It is my firm belief that the racing industry must take responsibly for the whole life experience of horses bred for racing including taking a significant role in the bigger picture solution, of ensuring less horses are bred. I believe that the future of racing will be predicated on the success of the actions being taken by racing authorities to monitor and proactively drive the transition of horses from racing to the equestrian world. For my part, I am committed to, and get great satisfaction from, facilitating the re-training aspect of this process.
Why is it advantageous for racehorse owners to plan their horses’ carrers with a long-term view?
In the perfect world, we would start equestrian training for all racehorses before racing.
The number of trainers doing this is small but increasing. When we do this, we seem to also have a better racehorse outcome. This needs further evidence-based research but, in my experience, this has been the case. I’m very encouraged by the acceptance of this training amongst progressive racehorse trainers.
What is your experience riding and training ex- racehorses?’
I grew up on my parent’s cattle property in Yarra Glen next to a racehorse trainer. I started riding as a track rider for him as well as preparing horses for re-homing o retirement when I was twelve years old (that’s 50 years ago! It doesn’t sound long if you say it fast). Those early experiences developed a great love of Thoroughbreds and ever since, I’ve had ex-racehorses in the mix of horses I am training.
Why do you love thoroughbreds?
They are wonderful athletes! Their willingness to go forward and their adaptability make them a favoured breed for any serious performance trainer. They also have a unique and valuable background training history.
I am currently working with a leading racehorse trainer who is investing in developing better educated racehorses which will enable them to have a more seamless transition into an equestrian life after racing. Working in a modern racing stable you see exactly what training experiences the young horse has. By the age of two, most racehorses have been ridden, shod, rugged, washed, clipped, swam, worked in groups and individually, floated, trucked, had their teeth floated, worked in crowds, etc. All are invaluable experiences which require considerable expertise, time and effort when training any horse. My job is to ensure all the horses I work with have a much broader basic training.
Describe some of the horses you have trained?
From 15hh polo or riding club types, to 17hh professional eventing or show jumping mounts. Some have come out of racing young, others with 70-plus starts under their girth. Every horse is unique in some way. Recognising this is the key to the re-training re-homing process.
What do you do to help ex-racehorses into their new careers as equestrian horses?
Racehorses gallop. They go forward, fast. Retraining starts with teaching the horse to ‘self-carry’ or ‘cruise control’ on a light rein contact. This is the longest and most exacting part of the training, but an important foundation.
Jockeys ride with very short stirrups, so racehorses rarely feel a rider’s legs against them, let alone understand leg cues, so training ex-racehorses to understand the leg aids is essential.
What are your essential training principles?
Always supporting the use of hands, legs and seat aids with positive reinforcement (feel-good rewards). Being conscious of the balance between pressure-release (negative reinforcement) and consolidating cues with positive reinforcement is very important.
The biggest mistake trainers of any discipline make is projecting human idiosyncrasies onto the animal. Lacking the complex language capacities we humans have, horses live in the moment. This is why punishment, for example, has no place in animal training. When we accept that we, as trainers, are largely responsible for the horse’s equestrian behaviours (by default or design), we can create very positive training relationships.
What are the best possible outcomes for a retrained racehorse?
My focus is in the equestrian codes I have trained and competed in personally, including dressage, show jumping, eventing, stock work and polo, but I see thoroughbreds as capable of succeeding in every discipline.
How do you find new homes and or equestrian riders for these ex-racehorses?
Awareness is the key. So often, people buy former racehorses and have little or no experience in what is required to retrain the horse as a safe equestrian horse. However, with patience and a good training strategy ex-racehorses, with their innate athleticism and trainability, can readily adapt into successful partnerships with their riders.
These successes need to be promoted and encouraged. The prize money racing authorities are putting into equestrian competitions is an excellent concept. The prize for a fourth placed Thoroughbred, for example, needs to be greater than the first placed code specific bred horse receives.
I understand Equus Nexus currently provide a free online course to thoroughbred racehorse owners?
Yes, it seemed to me that many racehorse owners had little information and confidence regarding re-homing of their horses and who might do this work successfully, so we created a free course, which is an overview of the course we provide to trainers. The feedback has been extremely encouraging and this only further improves the outcome for horses.”
The course is in 10 modules, the first being the assessment and career planning. The next 4 modules are concerned with the basic training all horses need as a foundation to code specific training, which is the focus of modules 6 to 10.
Mike Lawrence, and the Equus Nexus team care and are committed to promoting ethical and evidenced-based training and coaching services worldwide.
They further facilitate finding your perfect equine partner and understand the care and attention to detail required to successfully make this happen.
Mike can be contacted on 0428 446 717 or email: mike@equusnexus,com