Thoroughbred Logic: Before the Second Career (Foal Life)

“I loved all of them and now I love watching them grow and learn in some of the best places! It really means so much to me to watch them shine in their second careers.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, will offer insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week Aubrey begins to take a look at what life is like for Thoroughbreds before they begin to race.

A handful of years ago, I had no idea what life was like for Thoroughbreds before they retired from racing and shipped off to start their second careers. With my purchase of Don’t Noc It, I poured over books that might tell me more, chatted with anyone who would talk to me, and eventually got my feet on some breeding farms, to the back side of the track, morning workouts, and one of these days I’ll eventually get to a race. (Yes, that still needs to happen.) In the process, I learned a lot about not only the different ways that these horses might be raised, but also about how the process of becoming a racehorse influences their transition into their second careers.

Watching horses train in the early hours at the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington, KY. Photo by author.

In the process of trying to learn the Thoroughbred, I have been lucky enough to meet some wonderful humans. A few of them have likely contributed to my path and knowledge base more than they likely will ever know. Laura Newell, the former Young Horse Manager (though she still thinks that’s a silly title) from Winchester Place Thoroughbreds in Kentucky, has done just that. She has been a professional contact, a good friend, and someone from whom I have gleaned enormous insight into the business of not just racing, but raising proper racehorses.

Laura and her son Aiden, photographed while I was picking up Unbridled Bayou, My Vow is Courage, and Secret Star for the start of their second careers early this spring. Photo by author.

The goal of the next few articles is to share what I can of that knowledge. I love that I get to start with Laura and Winchester Place because the operation is small and I have had the privilege of having nearly a dozen of their horses through my restarting or sales program. One of theirs is my top upper-level prospect (Western Ridge), one is going to the Retired Racehorse Project’s Makeover this year (Unbridled Bayou), and three are currently for sale in my barn. And I should add that I struggle to sell these kids, not at all because they are unsaleable, but because it is so easy to fall in love with them, and so hard to let them go.

Needles Highway, a Winchester Place horse that I have known since he was a yearling, recently arrived for sale at mine. He’s going to be a hard one to let go. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Laura knows how that goes. “Before they were your kids, they were mine.” She commented on a sale ad for Little Instigator, a Winchester Place horse retrained by eventer Angela Bowles, “I loved all of them and now I love watching them grow and learn in some of the best places! It really means so much to me to watch them shine in their second careers.” Laura has spent years setting the Winchester colts and fillies up for success both on and off the track.

Winchester makes damn good horses. And I know a ton of other farms do, too– each with their own set of processes and procedures. So here’s a snapshot of foal life up through weaning through Laura’s eyes: (next edition will get at their weanling to yearling experience).

“Every TB gets a different upbringing, but most of the Winchester ones are reasonable and well behaved. Breed to race farms tend to see pretty relaxed horses, but the process and staffing is a bit different than the bigger volume breed-to-sale barns and that can make a difference.”

Unbridled Bayou (Right) and Giants Gateway (left) during their first year at Winchester Place Thoroughbreds. Photo by Laura Newell.

Laura explained that breed to race barns are committed to taking their annual crop of foals through to training at the track and racing them under their name and colors. Breed to sales farms prep the youngsters for both yearling and two year old sales, and may or may not have the intention of running them themselves. And of course, to make things less clear cut, bunches of farms do both. But to understand how this impacts the horse, I inquired about the differences in the first year of a foal’s life when they are a breed to race, as opposed to a breed to sales barn.

“There are differences in the nutrition. We don’t worry about bulking our horses up. Yearlings at the sales barns need to look like two-year-olds… or rather, because you know that the buyer is looking for a good two-year-old when they are looking at a yearling, buyer needs to be able to envision what it will look like next year when it is running. They need to think, ‘oh that’s going to be a nice racehorse.’

“We don’t really worry about that. If they are narrow and immature (like Unbridled Bayou above), that’s fine by us. They’re going to change so much when they go for training. We don’t have to walk them miles and miles a day to build that muscle. They build enough muscle in turnout groups that we don’t have to worry.

Turnout groups at Winchester Place Thoroughbreds. Photo by author.

Add that another big difference in how these horses are raised has to do with the amount of staff and the number of horses. Winchester, when Laura was on site, had around five employees and around a hundred horses. This meant that for much of the young horse care, Laura had to be able to do the work alone. Working alone with stud colts and big fillies can definitely be tricky, so some of how these horses were raised reflects her need to be able to handle them without additional help. For other farms with significantly more staff or less horses, the processes might be a tad different.

“I can only attest for the four years where I was really on the farm, but you see, when I came in, there were 18 Yearlings and all the colts were at Eagle Valley (an additional farm site owned by Winchester Place). They were FERAL. The lady before me quit, she couldn’t deal with all the crazy yearlings. So I spent hours and hours with them. Alan (Alan Bassett, the farm manager) complained that I was going to make them “too soft and too manageable.” He thought too much handling might slow them down. ‘They need to have some fire,’ he kept saying. Well… some of them might still have a touch too much fire…”

And to boot, that crop of super-handled youngsters has produced some extremely successful runners. Laura’s personal favorite, Zoe’s Delight, just picked up another win in the Ralph Strangis Stakes at Canterbury last week. One of my favorites, Twoko Bay, claimed and now running for a different stable, has run 34 times and brought in close to a quarter million in earnings.

Zoe’s Delight wins the Ralph Stringis Stakes in MN for Lorie Michaels and Winchester Place Thoroughbreds. Photo courtesy of Laura Newell.

“I approached the young horses with my experience from working in the vet clinic. (Laura was a vet tech for years). If my horse goes to clinic – I don’t want it to be ‘that horse’ — that horse whose stall you’re warned not to go in alone. I worked hard to make them decent citizens instead of crazy racehorses.”

Here are some of the specifics of how she has done so:

“About half of them are born at night – we rotated foal-watch nights, but Alan is necessarily there for all of the births. I was there for all of the daytime foaling. Usually, you want them up and standing and nursing within the first two hours. This can be easier said than done, especially when dealing with maiden (first time mom) mares.

“Two Bayou, for instance, was always super easy – she was the kind of mare that gets the babies up and moves around to line them up until they can figure out how to nurse. Secret Story on the other hand, took two people to get the baby right. You had one to hold the mare, and another hold the baby while trying to get it into the right spot. But at that point, regardless of the mare, once they are up and nursing, we try to interfere as little as possible for a bit.

Delightful Ridge and her less-than-a-day-old colt born this March. Photo by author.

“We let them be for six hours, and then check that they passed the placenta and then check placenta for tears, etc. From there out, we clean the umbilical cord three or four times a day and take their temperature twice daily. After that initial rest, we are touching legs, their head, their ears, and we are also always picking up their feet.  I try to be as hands on with the foal as I can be – it’s easier then, as they haven’t quite figured out how to get away. I don’t do the whole imprinting thing, still want the mare to be the security blanket, but I want them to know that I’m good.

“We try to get them out in a small paddock pretty early on to let them stretch their legs. Within the first five days, we have a halter on the baby. Getting them in and out means someone is leading the mare and someone is leading the baby. And then we groom – we start with a soft rubber curry and help them to enjoy the process. It is just daily life. We turn them out with like-aged-mare and foal combos and they come in at night until they’re close to a month old. And then we put them up to eat in the am, and feed them outside at night.”

Two Bayou and her colt, Aspenfiveoneseven at Winchester Place. Photo by Laura Newell.

“We worm them, and they are vet checked at 12-hours old. The initial vet check pulls blood work to see if they have enough transfer antibodies, or if they may need plasma to increase those antibodies. Then we keep an eye out for puffy joints, swollen umbilicus, lethargy, and dehydration (especially on the younger foals). We check them two times a day, but from that first day out, they only get vet work (beyond the regular check ups) if it is needed.

“That said, the farrier comes and checks every baby once a week. They watch them walk and will decide if they need to be trimmed. We do everything we can to avoid screws and corrective surgery, so because they grown and change so much, they are all trimmed very frequently at first. If they need extensions or extended shoes to help fix angles or the like, we do that. With a baby you have to keep on top of the hoof angle if you are trying to correct something. Once they are three to four months old though, we reduce farrier contact to every four weeks.

Laura and Noble Bernadette at Winchester. Photo courtesy of Laura Newell.

“Generally when their feet are getting done, we start by trimming the mare. (Laura does the same with introducing bathing). With their mare there it is always a calming thing. We stand the baby close, ‘She’s getting her feet done, now your turn.’ Colts like to put up a bit more of a fight. Colts are all, ‘No no no… OK fine you got me.’ Fillies tend to be easier up front, but you see them looking like, ‘I’m logging this away you’re going to get it later.’ In both cases we use two people to hold them, someone has the front and someone has the back. They can’t get away from it and if they calm down it goes a lot faster. That lesson tends to last a while and we really want them to learn it well.

“Overall though, we let our horses be horses as much as possible. We turn them out with their mares and bring them up once a day every day. You can wean as young as four months, but for us that isn’t necessary or prudent. We wean a bit later in small groups and into the field where they are located. A lot of barns wean into stalls, we just have found that it is easy enough to do so in the field and it seems to work well for the mares and the foals.

Needles Highway learning “to horse” with his dam Naomi Ridge. Photo by Laura Newell.

“We put the mares at the farm’s annex across the street and we leave the foals out with their herd and have someone to watch them for a good part of the day. A lot of the time it was me. I’d just be out there, cleaning water troughs, scrubbing feed tubs and keeping an eye on the weanling. Then when we bring them all in for the day, we lead the weanling in following a different mare and let them figure out how to eat and be in a stall without their mom. Some take to it quickly, others pitch a fit, but they all figure it out, and remaining with the herd seems to help.”

I know we’re only scratching the surface of one breeding operation here. There’s far more to be written and tons that I have omitted. That said, importantly, the first few months of a foal’s life on the breeding farm include exposure to many of the things that they will see at the track and in their life after racing — grooming, farrier work, vet work, time out in a field with friends and learning to horse, bathing, leading and proper manners around people. Sure some are easier than others, and there is always desensitizing work to be done. But from day one, these young horses, their physical status AND their behavior become top priority.

Check back soon to read up on how they transition from new weanlings to yearlings.