Ginger, a thoroughbred, about a year off the track.

Rehabilitating the Racehorse

By: Kathryn King Johnson, M.Ed.

Racetracks are a good place to find athletic, attractive thoroughbreds and appendix Quarter horses whose breeding and ability make them suitable for English. Often, for many reasons, these horses can be bought at very low prices. Sometimes they simply aren't fast enough, sometimes they aren't sound enough, and sometimes they don't have the right disposition for racing. The same reasons that make these horses unsuitable for the track might make them unsuitable for riding horses. These horses need to be rehabilitated rather than reschooled because the majority of them are addicted to running, the same way an addict is addicted to drugs. Corruption, brought on by the extreme competition of horse racing, exists, as does drugging, cattle prodding and many other abuses. When you buy a racehorse, you are inheriting a past of which you know nothing. Even with the best of handling and riding, a racehorse might "fry" on the track because he can't handle the heat.

The majority of ex-racers, whatever their past, are bred, born and trained to run. They are addicted to running. Their favorite pastime is to run. Their favorite evasion is to run, as fast as they can. It's not easy to undo hundreds of years of breeding. Think about your ex-racehorse as a drug addict, and treat him with patience and respect. He might be unpredictable and dangerous for awhile, but you have decided to take on the responsibility to rehabilitate him. You are responsible for his physical and mental well being.

If the horse is right off the track, give him the time to come down before you start retraining. This is one of the most important parts of rehabilitation. Many racehorses come off the track high, too fit and too fast for most riders. If you can, put him out to pasture for a month or more. A professional who has access to a great training facility, small arenas, roundpens, adequate turnout, might have success bringing the horse right off the track and into work. Sometimes, just because the horse changes environments, he becomes subdued and submissive enough to work. But, in general, a turnout situation is most helpful.

The greater the change you can offer him from his fast track life style, the less chance of flashbacks later on. Flashbacks are usually just conditioned responses to stimuli. No matter how deeply you think it is buried, your horse will always be a racehorse, and certain stimuli will always trigger conditioned responses, unless you take the time to recondition the response. On many occasions I have been on ex-racehorses who suddenly lost it and bolted. So, turn your new horse out for a month, no matter how impatient you are to start. He needs to come down off the high protein, high exercise regimen he was on. In addition, some horses are drugged on the track, and unless you do a drug test to find out, it is better to give it time to work out of his system.

Racehorses are primed to run. Very often they are fed high-octane fuel, lots of protein fortified with vitamins, fatty acids, and iron. This high-energy diet is fine for racing, commensurate with the amount of exercise the horse is getting. He gallops daily. He is fit and fast. Later, you will want to make him fit for the type of work you have planned, but for now he needs to rest, recuperate and come down from his track high. A horse that is high exhibits nervous habits, stall pacing, weaving, cribbing, biting, kicking, bucking, rearing, setting back when tied. His skin might be overly sensitive to touch. He might flinch away from the hand or brush. He can't stand still. Sometimes he has a faraway look in his eye, staring off at nothing (not to be confused with "the look of eagles"). His coat may glow from too much protein and too much fat in his diet. He may look very healthy, with extremely defined muscles and veins that pop out with the slightest exertion. His muscles look "cut." His stomach is tucked up like a greyhound's. He dances from his stall, carries his head far too high and spooks easily. A high horse, for these reasons, is not ready to start training.

I once worked with an Appendix Quarter horse named Boston Brooks. He had very adverse reactions to alfalfa hay, which is high in protein. He wasn't allergic to it; he just became so high that he would buck his riders off. Once we took him off the alfalfa, his training problems were over and he became a tractable and pleasant partner. He became a winning hunter, and when he converted his bucking strength to jumping power, he even pulled some ribbons in the jumper division. (They say if he can buck, he can jump). Your horse's diet can control his disposition. For a horse fresh off the track, you need to slowly back him off his high protein feed, which converts instantly to energy. Switch him to a diet low in protein and higher in carbohydrates, easily converted to fat, and stored for long term energy. Good slow burn energy feed includes timothy and coastal hay. Grass, of course, is the perfect food for horses. If the horse is too thin, rice barn is high in fat, but low in energy.

Pasture is ideal because it gives him the chance to physically let down and move around without the constraints of a stall. His life on pasture will be far removed from the daily schedule he was used to at the track. It might remind him of his days as a foal, carefree, stress free days. These are the memories you want to evoke, as you help him forget his days at the track. It isn't always possible to put the horse on pasture, and certainly, I have rehabilitated a few racehorses in a busy stable setting; it simply takes longer and is a bit more dangerous.

Let the ex-racer get a little fat and lazy. Let him forget the bad times and the good ones he had on the track. When he has come down from his high, when his stomach-line is slightly rounded rather than tucked up, when he seems relaxed and less jumpy, then you can start him over. Yes, start him over. So, he has been backed and ridden in front of thousands of people. That doesn't mean he is trained. You don't know what kind of start your horse had. Some racehorses are well trained in the beginning, trained to lunge, and taught proper signals for bending and for canter departs. Most are notoriously one sided, since horses all run counter clockwise in America. Most are confirmed pullers who only know how to move fast and flat. Most don't know how to react to weight settled securely on their backs, since jockeys and exercise riders hover over their shoulders. And some don't even know how to stand still for mounting, since jockeys are routinely thrown up on their backs as they are moving off.

For safety's sake, start your horse over. Treat him as if he were a two year old, just starting under saddle. If he had a good start to begin with, this might just take a few days. If he was abused or mishandled, this might take a year. Teach him to tie in his stall, sack him gently out, then try tacking him up. Train him to lunge, then gradually introduce side reins. When he knows your voice commands, and lunges quietly at all three gaits in both directions, then he's ready to ride. Since he has been conditioned to your signals on the lunge line, have someone lunge him the first time you ride. He should be so well conditioned to the 20 meter circle that you could drop him anywhere on the planet and perform balanced transitions on that circle. When you get in trouble, put him on the circle. If you started him over correctly, he will be trained to perform quietly on the circle, no matter how strong the outside stimuli.

Eventually you can add the rest of the lower level school figures, changes of rein across the diagonal, turns down center line, serpentines, etc. If you are a more advanced rider and your horse is mentally and physically ready, put him right to work with more advanced movements, shoulder-in, turn on the haunches, walk-canter transitions. Most of your work should be done at the trot at first. Working in trot will be foreign to him, since he is used to working in canter and in gallop. Anything that is new or challenging for him will keep his mind off of the track and off of running.

One of the first ex-race horses I rode was the chestnut mare in the pictures, Ginger. A red mare, she always had a little fight to her. One of her biggest issues was that she did not tie. Once I made the mistake of tying her to a solid object. She set back, sitting on her haunches, and shaking her head like a snake. I reached up to release the safety knot, but the snap broke. 1200 pounds of horseflesh can send a piece of metal flying. It hit me in the hand and broke some small bones. After that, I taught her to ground tie and simply tacked her up in her stall. There was no sense in either one of us getting hurt.

We always hear to vary the routine, to keep the horse interested. My trainer decided it was time to take Ginger out for a trail ride, along with his quiet horse. Unfortunately, the trail went through downtown Houston, around the zoo, through the park’s picnic area, and through the golf course. We went along quietly for about 100 yards. Then, the path opened up. It looked like a race course. Ginger decided it was time for the post parade. She danced and pranced. It was the longest ride of my life, because she never relaxed. She kept waiting for her turn to run.

After an hour or so, we made it home. My trainer said, "I’ve never seen you use your legs so well." I felt lucky to make it back alive.

Ginger, still track fit, took a long time to realize that contact on the reins did not mean pull and run.

It took a lot of flatwork before Ginger ever settled down. She had to learn, as many off the track horses do, that contact with the bit did not mean run faster. It was some time before she was able to gage her canter strides. She had one canter speed, all out gallop. One day, I was asked to ride her in a clinic with Jean Froissard, famed French dressage master. He had the group class doing position exercises. We were supposed to lean back, way back, put our feet in the air, and pedal like we were on bicycles at the trot. I had one hand on the pommel and one on the reins. I was terrified that this flighty off the track mare might bolt.

Finally Froissard called me into the center of the ring, and said, "let me get on." Not only did this 70 year old man lean back and pedal with his feet in the air at the trot, he sent her right over a 2 foot jump this way, as if it was nothing. The "crazy" mare was coming along.

Ginger enjoyed the discipline and the excitement of jumping.

Once her flatwork was established, we started her on gymnastics. She seemed to like to jump and did so in good form. She was like a cat, able to adjust her distances easily, but like a cat, she could also leap in the air and land someplace other than expected. I had some wild rides on Ginger. Eventually, she became a fairly athletic jumper and a good broodmare as well.

Once I rehabilitated a fine old racehorse named Silverhead. Technically, he was a Gift Horse. His owner gave him to the owner of the stable where I worked because the horse was too broken down to race. We didn't know if he would ever be sound enough to ride. The big solid black bay first had to recover from a bowed tendon, so he spent months in his stall where we could keep him quiet. When the bow hardened, he was sound enough for dressage, but I was too pregnant to ride. I started him over, taught him to lunge, then added side reins. I worked him in hand, taught him shoulder-in, leg yield, turn on the forehand, and turn on the haunches. He seemed to love the challenge of learning new things, and since I was on the ground, it was totally foreign, totally unlike racing, and therefore totally safe for him. He never panicked. Then I started line driving him. He learned to move like a dressage horse, pushing through his back, and even beginning collection. He was doing second level work, but had never had a rider besides a jockey on his back.

I guess I couldn't help showing off. One day, when I knew the former owner from the race track would be watching, my assistant and I groomed him to the hilt and wrapped all four legs in white. We put on a clean white pad and a dressage bride with white padding. By then, Silverhead was so schooled, my assistant just climbed on and rode him. He was a champion. The irony of the situation was that the former owner was so impressed by Silverhead's rehabilitation that he bought him back. Silverhead was so sound and so conditioned by his riderless dressage work that he went on to race again.

Advantages to buying a racehorse:

·Most are easy to groom and well mannered on the ground.

·They can be clipped and braided easily.

·They load and haul easily.

·They won't spook at people in grandstands.

·Flapping things, loud noises, and strange sights don't bother them.

·They have lots of athletic ability.

·The American thoroughbred is the best moving horse in the world.

·They have the look for dressage, for hunters or for jumpers.

·They have the stamina for three day eventing.

Disadvantages to buying a racehorse:

·They are often not suited for beginners.

·They are hot blooded and often temperamental.

·They tend to be very competitive on trail rides, especially in groups.

·Certain stimuli can trigger flashbacks to the track.

·They have a propensity to bolt, and can be quite fast.

·Those that have been abused can have strange neuroses.

·They tend to be left-handed, and need reschooling on the right.

·They may be unsound from running too hard or too young.

·Some have never learned to tie or crosstie and have problems with setting back.

·Some are cold backed and aren’t used to the rider’s legs down around their sides.

·They may have respiratory or sweating problems, even nosebleeds.

·They need let down time after the track.

·They need to be started over.