retraining off the track thoroughbreds

Race-2-Ride: Retraining and Welfare Off The Track

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There has been much in the press over the last year about the welfare of horses leaving the racing industry, raising questions about the sustainability and ethics of the current situation. In this article, Kate Fenner explains how we can all help to protect the welfare of off-the-track horses by easing their transition from racing to sporting and leisure riding homes.

Having grown up surrounded by racing and racehorses, even taking one of my father’s ‘slow’ Thoroughbreds to school with me as a young teenager, retraining off-the-track horses was always an interest of mine. However, it is not always straight forward, and we need to be mindful of certain aspects of off-the-track horses’ training history to optimize the transition process.

What’s so great about racehorses?

Both Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds retiring from racing will have been extensively handled and often habituated to working with other horses, crowds, and travelling on a truck or float. Of course, not all these experiences will have been positive ones for the horse, and we need to keep that in mind when re-training.

Ask any Thoroughbred or Standardbred owner what they think is the best thing about the breed and eight or more out of ten of them will tell you: their versatility.

You will find both breeds in a wide range of disciplines from working on the farm, to dressage, show-jumping, hacking and trail riding, and I have even seen some having a go at reining!

There is no doubt that these beautiful horses can turn their hoof to anything but their success and happiness in their new post-racing lives does depend on how we re-educate them.

Here are 7 important things to remember:

1. Has the horse been started under saddle?

This may seem obvious but when we look at the Standardbred, the answer is clearly, no. This is actually a good thing because it gives us a place to start that horse.

The Thoroughbred is rather different, and it is easy to expect too much from these horses’ previous training.

Thoroughbreds are taught precisely what they need to know to race and often extraordinarily little else. Unfortunately, what they have been taught is rarely useful for their post-racing careers.

2. What exactly did they learn?

Unlike the pleasure industry, the racing industry is profit-based and results-focused, which doesn’t always allow sufficient time for training simple responses, such as ‘head down’ for bridling or ‘stand’ for mounting. And, while twisting the ear to get the bridle on achieves the desired result in that moment, it may also set the new owner up with a behavioural problem that requires addressing.

There are a host of problems that arise whenever we, as owners or riders, have an agenda that is seen as more important than the horse’s mental wellbeing.

3. Were they desensitised to pressure?

All off-the-track horses will have been desensitized to pressure cues, particularly bit pressure. Both Thoroughbred and Standardbreds learn to race with meaningless, often unrelenting rein tension, which again, is not a desirable response for the pleasure rider.

Physical force, such as pushing horses into barriers or yanking on leads in an attempt to stop movement, can have taken the place of sensitive, horse-centric training, the shortfalls of which will be evident when rehomed.

4. Fear based training

Racing is a high adrenaline sport. Horses repeatedly practice the flight response – it is this very fear-based response that trainers and jockeys are provoking.

We know that the flight response can be difficult to extinguish, as can any response learned using fear as a motivator, which is why, as new off-the-track owners, we need to be mindful of this during re-training.

5. How do they feel about learning?

While there are exceptions to every rule, many, or probably most, racehorses will have little or no understanding of combined reinforcement. Often, off-the-track horses simply haven’t been taught how to learn (mostly as a result of the considerations outlined in points 2 and 3 earlier).

6. How many homes?

Not all off-the-track horses move on to loving and caring pleasure homes. Due to their perceived zero value, these horses often pass through the hands of unscrupulous dealers, even being sold on with fictitious histories and breed details.

Alternatively, they can find themselves changing homes often and being classified as ‘project’ horses, neither of which situation is likely to improve their welfare or training.

7. What’s their experience of trainers?

Finally, off-the-track horses are often ridden and handled more by men than women during their racing careers. We don’t yet know if this impacts behaviour but the Equine Behavior Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ) is currently looking at this possibility.

E-BARQ is examining whether horses ridden by men and boys differ in their behaviour and in certain personality traits to those ridden by women and girls.

This, as with all the E-BARQ research, promises to be remarkably interesting. If you haven’t yet assessed your horse’s behaviour using E-BARQ, then you can do so now by visiting this site: https://www.e-barq.org/

Here’s how we can help the racehorse transition to a good life:

1. Go back to basics

I would recommend taking your horse back to basics when it comes off the track and working through each of the foundation lessons, regardless of breed and experience.

Naturally, the Standardbreds, never having been under saddle, require this foundational work, but Thoroughbreds, while they have worn a saddle and carried a rider, the experience has been very different to leisure or sports riding.

By treating the horse as a blank canvas, you give it the benefit of calm, controlled, organized training and you are sure to create a safer and happier horse in the process.

2. Give them your time

Time is something we, as ex-racehorse owners, often have more of than their previous trainers/owners. Couple that with a desire to spend as much of it as possible with our gorgeous off-the-track companions, and you have a recipe for great things.

Never underestimate the benefits of simply spending time with your horse to both, get to know him or her and to teach those little responses, such as tying up or bridling with the head down, that may seem trivial but can make the difference between an ordinary start to the day and a relaxed and happy start.

Start with this simple ‘Head Down’ lesson, which you can find on the Horses and People website or by following this link: https://bit.ly/3aeG4mT

3. Re-sensitising pressure cues

As off-the-track horses have been desensitized to pressure cues, particularly bridle responses, it is necessary to be mindful of this and begin to engage the horse with learning.

Consider the simplest of cues, such as leading your horse. Always remember the sequence of pressure-release-reward and be sure not to be holding pressure if the horse is responding correctly.

This will help re-sensitize the horse to pressure cues, meaning you will need less pressure to elicit the same response over time, as the horse learns that you always release when he or she responds with the correct movement.

Give to the bit is an excellent place to start re-sensitising your horse to light pressure cues. You can find a step-by-step explanation of the process here.

4. Keep it low key

It is important to only practice those responses that you want your horse to repeat, so be careful not to encourage the flight response by chasing the horse in the round pen or on a lunge line.

Because this response was reinforced during the horse’s racing career, we now need to establish alternative, safer responses for the horse. This is a great time to get to know your horse and really understand his or her emotional level – learning to recognize those signs of changes in the emotional level and begin to engage your horse with learning.

To learn more about how to get your horse engaged in learning read The Engagement Zone article.

5. Re-learning to learn

Learning how to learn is probably the biggest and most important obstacle to a successful post-racing career.

By taking the time to engage your horse with learning and teach him or her about combined reinforcement you breathe life into the horse and into your relationship with them. This is my favourite part of re-training off-the-track horses, watching them engage with learning and realizing how clever they are!

6. How experienced are you?

Off-the-track horses are not for everyone, despite being an inexpensive route to horse ownership.

They require an experienced, calm, and knowledgeable owner that is prepared to spend the time re-training the horse. If you’re that person – fabulous, because what a treat they are!

7. Where do I start?

If you get a horse straight from the racetrack, remember it will be full of high-quality feed and will need some time to ‘come down’ and get that out of their system. Change the diet gradually and carefully so that not everything changes at once for the horse.

Your new off-the-track horse may not be well socialised. This will depend on its history, but it is not uncommon for these horses to have been kept isolated since they started pre-training.

Introduce your horse carefully, to one new herd member at a time and always allowing them to ‘meet’ over a safe fence.

Some horses will have been stabled most of their lives and can panic if released into a large field. Again, break this down into easy steps for the horse, ensuring your enclosures are safe and secure.

Securing their future

Even when an off-the-track horse is fortunate enough to be placed with a reputable re-trainer and then rehomed, their training is unlikely to persist if the new owner does not know how the horse learned the responses.

Horses quickly revert to old behaviours when their riders are unclear or inconsistent with cues and rewards so, if you are taking on a horse off-the-track make sure their is ongoing training support available for horse and rider.

Kandoo Equine offers an OTT Training Passport for racehorses. The passport allows their new owners to access ethical, sustainable training, tailor-made for the off-the-track horse, together with a supportive community to help them through the journey.

Training Passports belong to the horse and, in the event the horse changes home, the new owner then benefits from access to the training and community.

Training Passports are now available with a 10% discount for Horses and People readers. Simply type H&P into the coupon code section on checkout.

Dr Kate Fenner, BEqSc (Hons), PhD

Kate is an equine scientist with a PhD in horse behaviour and training from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science. She is also an equestrian coach (Equestrian Australia and British Horse Society) and horse trainer (John and Josh Lyons Certified Trainer). Kate has ridden, trained and competed in Dressage, Jumping, Western and Polo in Australia, Europe, the United States and Asia.

After years of experience starting horses for clients, Kate feels strongly that owners are best served by learning to train their own horses. As a result, she founded Kandoo Equine and has developed a series of ethical, easy to follow, step-by-step guides that are suitable for horses and riders of all levels.

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