Taking on an ex-racer can be very challenging. To help you succeed we have 8 expert tips.
Paul Hayler is a dressage trainer and competitor with wide experience of ex-racehorses. He competed ex-racer Mr Bojangles to advanced medium level and trains several clients with horses out of racing.
Clare MacLeod is a qualified, independent registered nutritionist and the author of The Truth About Feeding Your Horse (J A Allen).
Rowena and Fred Cook run the Retraining of Racehorses helpline and are the authors of Re-Educating Racehorses (Crowood Press).
Katie Jerram has re-trained many ex-racehorses for the show ring and other careers, including Her Majesty the Queen’s Barbers Shop, RoR supreme champion at Hickstead.
Diana ‘Tiny’ Clapham has competed for Great Britain in eventing and produces horses from her yard in Cambridgeshire.
1. Have him vetted
If you are buying the horse from a private seller or a sale have him vetted. It is a good idea to do so even if you are rehoming the horse from a charity. Racing takes it toll on the muscles and joints. Many racehorses are retired due to an injury that prevents them racing but this does not mean they cannot do well in other disciplines. Gastric ulcers are also something to bear in mind. Racehorses are prone to ulcers due to their diet. Paul Hayler says 90% of problems put down to temprament can be resolved by sorting out gastric issues.
2. Make changes gradually
Dietary and management changes should be done very gradually. Racehorses are used to a high fibre diet so reduce this over a period of a few weeks and replace with lots of forage. The same should be done with turn out; your ex-racer may not have been turned out before so build up the length of time he goes out.
3. Think beyond ridden work
Lunging and long-reining can work wonders. Rowena Cook says once basic lunge work is established you can use exercises such as transitions, spiralling circles and lengthening and shortening the stride to improve his suppleness and balance.
4. Be sensitive.
Re-training a horse is more difficult than starting from scratch. Thoroughbreds can be sensitive but that doesn't neccessarily mean forward-going, says Paul.
“A longer leg won’t mean anything to the horse at first. I prefer to get them used to the leg by starting with stirrups at showjumping length, then lengthening them gradually.”
Paul applies the same training principles to ex-racehorses as to any other. “You want them going forward in good balance and rhythm, accepting the hand, then go from there.
5. Be tack savvy
You will need to accustom your horse to different tack as they will be used to racing tack. Thoroughbreds backs are very sensitive so you will definitely need a numnah no matter how well your saddle fits. Rowena says;
“Ex-racers can be niggly if they get sweaty, particularly in the saddle area, so sheepskin numnahs aren’t always best. Racehorses are also usually used to elasticated rather than rigid girths.”
Bitting is also very important. “Racehorses are nearly always ridden in thick, loose-ring, single-jointed snaffles,” says Katie Jerram. “Many are happier in lozenge snaffles.”
6. Improve their confidence
Ex-racehorses rarely go anywhere alone when travelling or being ridden. They can suffer with separation anxiety so don't confuse it with naughtiness.You may also experience some problems if you hack out in a group as your horse will associate this with training gallops. Head out with one other sensible horse and rider to start with and then gradually your horse will gain confidence and you can go out with two or three others. To introduce the idea of riding solo, go out with one horse and take your horse in front, increasing the distance between the two horses over a period of time.
Rowena says it’s important to form a bond with your horse. “If he knows he can trust you, he’ll be less anxious away from others,” she points out.
“Make the most of the time you spend with him when you’re grooming and generally being around him, because then he’ll associate you with something pleasurable, not just work.”
7. Work on your technique
Check your position and technique to make sure you are not giving misleading signals. Rowena warns that your braking system may be limited and that if you shorten up the reins and – even unintentionally – lean forward – you’re using cues that the horse will have been taught mean go faster.
The first step to getting a horse to accept the bit when ridden is to have enough feel on the reins that the horse can feel the bit, but not so much that it has a definite action.
“Visualise the bit sitting on the gums – your job is to maintain its position,” says Rowena. This means you should follow the movement of his head and neck with your hands, keeping your elbows bent so your arms stay soft.
Paul warns that when training problems occur, an ex-racer will revert back to his old way of going.
“That’s his comfort blanket,” he says. “You have to learn to change your reactions to your horse’s reactions. For instance, if he tenses, you have to remain relaxed, even if it isn’t easy.”
8. Focus on trot
Ex-racers tend to have done lots of walk and canter and no trot which can mean they have a very choppy, unbalanced trot. Use trotting poles and other exercises to improve this and improve their rhythm and self-carriage in trot.
Taking on an ex-racer will undoubtedly be a challenge, but it will also be very rewarding. Remember be patient, and take your time. If you run into difficulties seek help from a good instructor, preferably one who has previous experience with ex racehorses.
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