“It takes a brave and self-aware equestrian to take on the challenge of transitioning a recently retired racehorse, but it takes just as much bravery and self-awareness to know one’s own limits…”
More and more equestrians are turning — or returning — to the off-track Thoroughbred to source their next competitive or pleasure mount: they’re plentiful, they’re athletic, they’re versatile and they’re just plain fun. This was a breed clearly designed for sport, whether that sport is flat racing, trail riding, jumping, chasing cows, or the myriad other equestrian sports we’ve created.
While prospects right off the track seem to be all over your Facebook newsfeed every time you turn around, and “making your own” finished horse is a rite of passage for some, the truth is that restarting an off-track Thoroughbred that’s freshly retired from racing is not for everyone. I love my OTTB Jobber Bill, but I’m not sure how quickly I’ll take up the challenge again of a relatively fresh restart — and Jobber had been off the track already for about a year before I brought him home, so most of the challenge of the initial physical and mental transition was already done for me.
It takes a brave and self-aware equestrian to take on the challenge of transitioning a recently retired racehorse, but it takes just as much bravery and self-awareness to know one’s own limits: not everyone and their facility is cut out for helping a horse make that transition from racing life to equestrian life, let alone the initial post-track rides to teach the horse how to build on what he knows for a totally different way of going. Thoroughbreds know quite a bit about life, to be true, but that doesn’t mean that the initial transition from track to barn will always be easy.
While I knew that I wanted another Thoroughbred to join my herd as a backup ranch horse, a friends-and-family horse and a second fun show mount, I decided to look at Thoroughbreds who were comfortably transitioned and well-established in their second careers. I found the perfect partner in Regal Justice (Regal Ransom – Kaygee Ess Free, by Lemon Drop Kid), a 2014 dark bay/brown gelding — a Thoroughbred Makeover graduate expertly transitioned and restarted by my friend Toni Harmon.
Here’s why I made that decision.
1. A transitioned, restarted OTTB is well-established in the rhythms of equestrian life.
Thoroughbred life on the track is well-structured: they’re fed at specific times, exercise daily and have a fair amount of stimulation living on the backside of a racetrack or training facility. By comparison, life at a boarding facility or backyard barn might be downright dull by comparison, even with the addition of turnout time (which in and of itself can be a challenge to introduce). As with all horses, the off-track Thoroughbred is an individual, and some will transition easily and quickly to “civilian” life after the races — but others might have a rougher transition to the quieter equestrian lifestyle.
When I purchased “Shorty Harmon” (yes, he has a last name), I knew I was bringing home a horse who not only had transitioned smoothly to equestrian life, but also was living out 24/7 and holding his condition well. He wasn’t ridden in a regular program — like me, Toni doesn’t have an arena, so she’s equally dependent on good weather. I wasn’t just buying the horse, but I was also buying the peace of mind that my fair-weather riding when I had decent footing in my hayfields was already in Shorty’s wheelhouse.
2. The physical transition from track to equestrian life has already taken place.
Racehorses are typically — though not always — trimmed and shod differently from how a sporthorse might be trimmed and shod. They’re also fed a high-energy diet that fuels their high-energy lifestyle. Their form follows their function, which is a fancy way of saying their muscles are developed for moving at speed, not in collection.
As I mentioned above, some Thoroughbreds glide effortlessly from track life to equestrian life and barely skip a beat, but for others, the physical transition can be a bit more of a struggle as feet are rebalanced, diet and workload is adjusted, and the horse learns to carry itself in a totally different way. Just as with the mental transition, the physical transition is already largely complete when sourcing a horse who’s accustomed to a second career.
3. The foundations of sport horse training are instilled.
Depending on the racehorse’s background and how he was started, he may already be accustomed to going on contact, the basics of lateral work and have been ridden outside of an arena or racetrack (yep, some farms do hack their racehorses in training out on the trail!). Others may only really know enough to allow them to get from the barn to the track for training and back again; even well-broke horses on the track may not be comfortable right away with riding out in an open pasture.
When I bought a known quantity like Shorty, I not only knew that he was comfortable hacking out alone or in company, but also that he could work on contact, understand lateral movement, had pushed cows before, worked in-hand and under saddle over a variety of obstacles and was an easygoing guy to boot. There’s still plenty of direction for me to finish him the way I want him myself.
4. They might already have a show career.
In Shorty’s case, he’s already been to the Thoroughbred Makeover, which takes place every fall at the Kentucky Horse Park with hundreds of recently restarted ex-racehorses. If he could handle that atmosphere, I knew there wasn’t much else I could throw at him that he couldn’t handle. Not only did Shorty handle the atmosphere, but he thrived in it — he won the Ranch Work division and placed second in Competitive Trail.
While in some respects it feels like a waste for me to take this Makeover champion down to the local open show to dink around with the open trail class, I’m also really happy to have a horse that I know can hop right off the trailer and go show without batting an eye.
5. Sourcing an already-transitioned horse helps that trainer or aftercare organization transition another one!
While some people get all uncomfortable with the word “equestrian industry,” the fact remains that for many trainers, moving horses is a business — one that is intended to help more horses find good homes. By sourcing a Thoroughbred from a reputable trainer with a strong background in transitioning racehorses, the buyer frees up a stall for another recent retiree who can be expertly restarted and find a new home himself. Even purchasing a horse from an amateur trainer who doesn’t buy and sell as a business can help another horse start his journey from racetrack to riding stable.
And remember — it’s not just private trainers that have these transitioned horses ready to go. Many reputable aftercare organizations do extensive retraining with their adoptable horses; they might even take horses to shows. Every year at the Thoroughbred Makeover, adoptable horses are competing and available to take home on the same day!
If transitioning a racehorse just isn’t your thing, there are plenty of Thoroughbreds who are ready for their next partner just waiting for you to discover them. Check out the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance for a list of organizations who transition horses, or browse the Retired Racehorse Project’s listings of horses for sale for the one with the miles and experience you’re looking for.