retired racehorse

How one adoption organization is working to find forever homes for retired horses.

Anita TenBruggencate was keeping a couple of retired Standardbreds at a farm she and her husband had leased. She was inspired by how wonderful these horses were to ride and handle. And working as a groom in the Standardbred industry, she saw a great need for other career options for horses that were retired or just did not make it to the races.

An Idea is Brewing

After spending a winter in Florida as a groom with Artandi Stables, Anita learned about the Standardbred Retirement Foundation and felt that Ontario should have something similar to offer. So in 1996, she founded the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society (OSAS). Supportive and enthusiastic board members assisted in the start-up, including Laura Barker, Don McNiven of Killean Acres, Garry Phillips and Paula Wellwood of Wellwood Stables. The Ontario Harness Horse Association was also instrumental in the organization’s launch, providing office space, mailing and financial support.

The Myth of the Racehorse

OSAS horses are fostered in approved foster homes. “Horses accepted into the program must be completely sound, healthy and well behaved,” says Anita. “All our horses have ‘downtime’ from the track. This allows us to retrain them for riding when they are in our foster homes.”

When people hear the terms “off the track”, or “racehorse”, an image of a hot, unruly performance athlete often seems to come to mind. This is not typically the case with Standardbreds, Anita explains. “Anyone who has ever worked with or ridden a Standardbred will know they are not a “hot” breed. On the contrary, they are known for their level-headedness, patience with learning, and willingness to please.”

A Bright Future

Retraining these horses for riding can be fairly straightforward, though it can also present with some unique challenges along the way, due to the animals’ main working gait being a trot or pace up to that point. “Standardbreds are most often quite accepting of a saddle and generally accept a rider calmly during their initial rides,” says Anita. “All Standardbreds can naturally trot and canter, they just need to be taught that it is okay to do so when working in their new jobs. They are not allowed to go into a run when racing, unlike Thoroughbreds. Time spent on collecting the horse, teaching leg aids, and working on transitions is very similar to starting other breeds as riding horses. Some pacers are apt to still fall back into that familiar gait, but it is generally easy enough to get them to switch over to a comfortable trot with a little retraining. Working on getting Standardbreds to drop their head and engage their hind end is an important key to a comfortable ride.”

Standardbreds can be popular as family and pleasure horses, due to their often calm and patient demeanour. Many OSAS horses are placed with families who have small pleasure farms and want to do some trail riding or 4-H. Retired Standardbreds have also gone to mounted police units, therapeutic riding/ driving, English and Western pleasure and showing, dressage, endurance and even jumping. They can also make great pleasure carriage horses, as they are used to the harness and generally comfortable with vehicular traffic.

How You Can Help

With many small town racetracks struggling financially, many more Standardbreds will be needing new careers. OSAS is currently looking for adoptive homes and sponsors. “Right now we have an abundance of companion/senior horses who need to be placed into permanent homes so we can open up more spots in foster care to the younger, rideable horses on our waiting list,” says Anita. “Over the past 16 years, we have had to take a number of adopted horses back into our care due to financial or health related concerns of adoptive owners. Monthly sponsorship is also very helpful in assisting with foster expenses for over 45 horses.”