The Retired Racehorse Projects helps thoroughbred ex-racehorses launch successful second careers.
In an effort to help curb the unwanted horse population in North America, many people are coming up with creative options and opportunities to help horses find homes. One rapidly-growing organization is the Retired Racehorse Project. Its mission is to help Thoroughbred ex-racehorses find second homes and careers through retraining, education and awareness.
Filling a need
Steuart Pittman, the organization’s founder, and a group of friends who believe strongly in the abilities of off-the-track Thoroughbreds as performance horses, came together in 2009 to host the Retired Racehorse Training Symposium. The event not only promoted these horses for riding and performance, but offered much-needed insight and information on their care and training needs.
“We filed for nonprofit status in 2010 after the symposium drew 350 people from ten states, with very little marketing,” says Steuart. “We realized that the demand for information about transitioning these horses from racing was huge!” Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles for people taking horses from the track for riding is likely a lack of experience, knowledge, and resources, in addition to the negative stereotypes. The Retired Racehorse Project is working to fill that gap and dispel many ex-racehorse myths.
A need for speed
The need for homes for these horses is huge. “Fifteen thousand or so Thoroughbreds are retired from racing each year,” says Steuart. “If demand for them is weak in the riding markets, they become a part of America’s unwanted horse population. If the demand is strong, they not only find homes but people pay enough money for them that racing owners and trainers get a financial reward for retiring their horses sound.” It’s a win-win for everyone!
Ex-racehorses are often stereotyped as “hot”, crazy and unsuitable for all but experienced riders. However, as with any horse/rider combination, you need to look at the individuals involved. “Lots of ex-racehorses that have had time to mature and settled into new careers are suitable for learning to ride on,” explains Steuart, who has a long-term love affair with the Thoroughbred breed and has retrained several ex-racehorses for upper-level eventing. “Most horses fresh off the track are better suited to people who have enough balance and tact to stay relaxed on the horse and allow him to go forward. So it’s not technical knowledge that’s needed — it’s the ability to trust the horse and work with him rather than against him. Thoroughbreds love to work and play. They are young and athletic when they leave racing. They are not for everyone.
“They have a flight instinct that makes them responsive and they enjoy moving,” Steuart continues. “One could call that ‘hot’, but certainly not difficult. They tend to be brave and willing to go forward. To me, that makes them easier to ride and train than other breeds. They come from racing with professional training. My homebred horses used to take two years to get to novice eventing. Ex-racehorses took me six months, and they were ready to go training and preliminary sooner as well. Every breed has its characteristics, and with Thoroughbreds the primary ones are intelligence and trainability.”
A horse for everyone
There is a common misconception that Thoroughbreds off the track are only good for performance events that involve speed. However, this doesn’t tend to be the case – once again, you have to look at each horse as an individual.
This is displayed in events like the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover, which will be held at the Kentucky Horse Park from October 27 to 30, 2016. Three hundred and fifty Thoroughbreds from North America will participate in different disciplines, competing for $100,000 in prize money which will be distributed to the top competitors in each discipline and specialty awards, including Top Junior, Top Amateur, and America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred. The event will also offer seminars and clinics on topics related to Thoroughbred health, wellness and training.
“The ten disciplines we picked for the Thoroughbred Makeover are those at which lots of Thoroughbreds excel: eventing, dressage, barrel racing, competitive trails, show hunter, show jumper, field hunter, polo, working ranch and freestyle,” shares Steuart. “Freestyle can be anything. I know Thoroughbreds that drive, do police work, and participate in therapeutic riding, safaris and falconry. The easier question is — what can’t Thoroughbreds do?”
And that’s the moral of the story – each Thoroughbred is an individual, and can excel in different areas. Don’t rule these horses out just because of stereotypes. With the support of organizations like the Retired Racehorse Project, education and resources are more available to those wanting learn about and take on ex-racehorses. When looking for your next riding partner, examine your local Thoroughbred listings. You just might find your next performance partner and help ease the unwanted horse population all in one go!
How you can help
Even if you aren’t in a position to take on an ex-racehorse, you can help out with the Retired Racehorse Project. By signing up for their e-mail list, you will be notified of opportunities to volunteer at events. You can also join as a member. For $45 per year, you get a subscription to the quarterly Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine, a copy of the Retired Racehorse Resource Directory, and free or discounted access to events like the Thoroughbred Makeover.