The American Association of Equine Practioners has just published guidelines to help owners transition their race horse to a happy and, hopefully, useful retirement. Here’s the link to the guidelines:
Adoption groups such as Re-Run, Canter, and TRF have much experience in evaluating physical problems horses may bring with them into retirement. For these guidelines, the vet group consulted with CANTER.
For most people, owning a thoroughbred is so exciting that they may not even give a thought as to what happens to the horse when it shouldn’t or can’t race anymore. Because there are so many good options for off-track thoroughbreds that retire sound or with a minor injury that will heal over time, discussing the issue doesn’t have to be a downer. And it’s best discussed before a crisis such as a career-ending injury happens or a partner decides to stop paying his share of the bills.
Ask other owners how they’ve handled retirement. One NY breeder I spoke with told me she planned for her baby’s retirement when she first started racing by essentially starting a savings account for the filly. The woman was able to buy back the mare when her race form started going downhill but before she developed any critical physical ailments.
Here’s my personal experience.
I’ve retrained three of my homebreds for show careers. Two are successful, the third is in a forever home with a woman who loves him and finds his laid-back personality perfect for light riding. Several others became trail horses, and I’ve taken back more fillies for the broodmare band than is sensible. I always ask the owners of horses I sell to contact me if they can’t or won’t provide for the animal’s retirement. In one case, an owner took me up on the offer and, trusting the recommendation of a horseman I know, he gave the horse to a rider in the Hudson Valley region. Unfortunately, that rider and his wife split up and they did not contact me about placement. The story has a happy ending, though, as the colt ended up at Little Brook Farm horse rescue in Chatham where he was gelded and is now living the life of Riley.
My favorite retiree, however, was a homebred whose mother died when he was just two weeks old. He did make it to the track and earned 60K in 4 starts (4-2-1-0) for me. When he bowed a tendon, Prince (a/k/a Soverign Address) came home for rest, relaxation, and a career as my teaser gelding. With the exception of teasing, a task he took to with no training, he did no work for almost a year to allow the tendon to heal.
I then sent him off to be re-trained. A month passed and the trainer told me to come on over and go ridin’. I’d expected to be presented with a bill, but the trainer said there was no charge because “he didn’t need no re-training.” And he didn’t. Sometimes other riders would express the opinion that they didn’t want to be on a trail ride with a thoroughbred. Invariably, Prince would change their mind. If any of them disagreed with my assessment that Prince was “the best horse in the world,” they never said so. For me, he certainly was.
Most of the time I would ride him at home. (I consider a “home” ride to be a ride when I mount him at my barn, then traverse the neighboring apple orchards, fields, and forests. I love my neighbors!) Occasionally we would do a “hunter pace” in which we would pay little attention to our speed, as we preferred to pay attention to the view, a gurgling stream, or a nice patch of clover.
It was facing the unexpected on trail rides or on the camping trips we’d take in the Adirondacks that made Prince such a good example of what an off-track thoroughbred can be. For instance, I’m afraid of heights but he would carry me safely across bridges that spanned deep ravines. At rivers, he’d pause for only a moment to shift his weight before plunging into the rushing water and carrying me safely to the other side.
I remember how my good-natured Prince was thoroughly tested once when we were taking part in a trail ride to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. The horses ahead of us had stirred up a nest of ground hornets. We came around a bend at a decent canter and rode into a scene of mayhem. One horse was whirling rapidly in an attempt to dodge the hornets. Some horses were bucking and others had already dropped their riders in their frantic attempt to escape the countless stings. The tossed riders were now on their feet, waving arms and hats and trying to outrun the pests. I realized what was going on too late to avoid it. Prince’s response to the chaos, curses, and pain was to bow his head and prance across the ground as the dastardly hornets came at us. The horses behind us copied his behavior and avoided the worst of it. I was never more proud of my friend.
Sadly, Prince died after an episode of colic last fall. I hope his story will serve as a reminder to you that off-track thoroughbreds can be someone’s dream horse in the show ring, broodmare band, out on the trail, or standing under a canopy of stars high in the Adirondacks.