Retraining the Racehorse - Part One




“The racehorse was designed by God to explode into a machine that defies physiology!”

So said the Veterinarian, Dr George Pratt, and there is no better way to describe this, the ultimate equine athlete. Modern physiology and photography may have permitted us an understanding of how the racehorse runs, and that has only served to reinforce our awe of the creature.

The racehorse is taking six tons of force on his pastern bones as he puts each foot down. His heart rate surges to ten times its normal rate. His lungs are extracting a litre of oxygen with every stride. Bursting out of the starting stall, he can accelerate from a standstill to 60 km/ hour in two and a half seconds, and in a matter of half a dozen strides.

Racing is in the horse’s blood – since the ancient days when these beasts roamed the open fields, they have had the strong urge to outrun their own kind, their enemies and perhaps even their own shadows! Man has put to use this urge in the only way he knew how, and thus the Thoroughbred was born – living out its day’s running for the glory of man. Much abuse has been made of the horse, and perhaps he has been forced to run against his own will and better judgment at times; yet, there have been moments where we could look into the eyes of a Secretariat, a Red Rum or a Cigar and know for sure: This great horse loves to run!

And how they do…

With this picture in mind, is it any wonder that this well-tuned machine of speed will have some trouble settling down into a life so different from what he was born into and that his body would object to sudden changes in work and food and that his mind, once going at light speeds must find it difficult to slow down and adapt to a change in environment so radical from that which he is used to. He must stop and think of the human – once only a small part of his day and life - as a friend, an ally. His brain must turn from the instincts that have been bred into him over many generations and what was acceptable before, now becomes taboo.

Retraining the racehorse is not simply a matter of changing his environment and hoping for the best. It involves every aspect of his life and if done incorrectly or without sensitivity, is it no wonder the horse will have difficulty and may object to the new demands being placed upon him. Too many novice riders with limited experience and knowledge take on the task of retraining horses off the track and do not properly research or understand the enormity of the task they are attempting.

In this article, I will attempt to give some guidance to those wishing to take on the joy of owning a Thoroughbred off the track but do not have the help or knowledge, or know exactly what is waiting for them. My purpose is in the interest of the horse too – to lessen the impact of the change, lessen injuries or illness caused to the horse because of silly mistakes and to ensure that at the end of the road, the owner ends up with a happy horse and one that will bring joy for many years to come. There are many ways to approach the retraining and housing of your horse, and what may work for one horse will not necessarily work for another. What I have done here is relate my own experience and research and what has worked well for me in the past. If you experience any problems with your new arrival, you should refer to an expert in the relevant field for guidance.

To understand the way forward, one should always take a step back and examine the past. That will lend you the understanding you require to formulate an intelligent process in achieving your goals. To understand the way forward with your new horse, it is vital to understand how nature wired him, man bred him and life treated him.

The roots of the Thoroughbred go back to the late 17th century England. Three Arabian stallions imported from the Middle East were crossed with English mares to yield an entirely new breed of horse. All modern Thoroughbreds carry the bloodline of the Godolphin Arabian (pictured), the Byerly Turk, or the Darley Arabian. There are also other horses of oriental breeding that have been less of an influence but are still noteworthy. One of those is the Alcock Arabian, thought to be largely responsible for the grey coat color in Thoroughbreds. Others include the Unknown Arabian, the Helmsley Turk, the Lister Turk and Darcy's Chestnut. (For a super look at the early history of the Thoroughbred, have a look at: )

The cross of this foundation stock with sturdy English horses created a breed known for being competitive, fiery, strong, and big hearted in competition. The primary focus of Thoroughbred breeding is on creating racehorses. A racehorse is bred for speed and agility, and these traits also translate well into other horse sports. The breed has been used very successfully to improve other breeds or to marry the qualities of two breeds to produce a horse that will perform well in the chosen discipline.

The Thoroughbred is built for speed, and breeders have sometimes been criticized because it is felt that more attention gets paid to breeding horses of a certain family, or pedigree, rather than choosing traits that may improve conformation, temperament and reduce breakdown. The debate has never been resolved, and probably will never be! Concerns have been raised however, that the modern Thoroughbred is becoming less and less conformationally correct, with less width of bone and that individuals with good bloodlines that break down early in their careers are being retired to Stud, when those individuals are then perpetuating the same conformational defects that caused them to break down in the first place. Dr Bill Moyer of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A & M has said that “Most [race]horses are raised to be sold, not to be athletes…The reality is it probably won’t improve – it will only get worse.”

The Thoroughbred stands a little over 16 hands on average (15.2hh to 17hh) and its appearance reveals its Arabian ancestry. A refined head with widely-spaced, intelligent eyes sits on a neck which is somewhat longer and lighter than in other breeds. The withers are high and well defined, leading to an evenly curved back. The shoulder is deep, well-muscled and extremely sloped while the heart girth is deep and relatively narrow. The legs are clean and long with pronounced tendons and move smoothly in unison through one plane. The bone structure of the upper hind leg makes room for long, strong muscling. The thighbone is long and the angle it makes with the hipbone is wide. The powerful muscling of the hip and thigh continues to the gaskin that is set low. Coat colors in Thoroughbreds may be bay, dark bay, chestnut, black or gray; roans are seen only rarely. White markings are frequently seen on both the face and legs.
Conformational defects often noted in the Thoroughbred include: ewe neck, small upright hooves and pasterns or alternatively long sloping pasterns, all common leg deviations especially tied in behind the knee, toes in or out, back at the knee, long weak gaskins and long backs. When selecting your horse, conformation plays a vital role in the ease with which your horse will perform in his chosen sport, so it is worth your while to pay special attention to it.

The Thoroughbred was bred to react to adrenaline – the clang of the starter’s bell produces a rush of adrenaline and a ‘fight or flight’ response in the horse that pushes him to race. On race day, the sight of people and flags and the bustle of the racetrack all translate to mounting excitement and the building of this ‘fight or flight’ response in the horse. When the horse is in this ‘flight or fight’ response, he cannot reason or learn – he is merely reacting. This is an important thing to remember when it comes to the training of your horse. The horse has been bred over years to react to external stimuli in this way. Many people do not understand this and are not sensitive to the fact that the horse will react much more sharply to external stimuli than many other breeds – that is why they buck, spook, run away with their riders and are generally termed ‘difficult’. A rider must be sensitive to the fact that perhaps the horse is merely reacting to the unfamiliar in the only way he understands how! It takes a rider of skill and patience to understand this and deal with it calmly and help the horse understand that he does not need to react in this manner. Very often the ‘bad’ racehorse makes a very good riding horse because he does not respond to the adrenaline rush and is much more ‘level-headed’ and easier to train. The horse must first learn to stop reacting and to start responding!

When selecting your horse off the track, there are a few pointers that will help you ensure you are making a wise investment. Be wary of ‘freebies’ – if a horse is being given away then there is very often a good reason for it! Often there is an underlying health problem or a potential problem waiting to happen. Sometimes these horses are spoiled and have psychological problems that make them dangerous and too much of a challenge for the average rider. When selecting a horse, pay special attention to conformation and movement, as it will influence your eventual success and will influence the working life of the horse in years to come. I prefer buying youngsters that have not made the track yet, as they are calmer and are have not been exposed to potential injuries and breakdown yet.

The most important thing when you have selected your potential purchase is to HAVE THE HORSE PROPERLY VETTED! When buying a horse off the track, include X-Rays of the legs (pay attention to the hocks, knees, pasterns and feet) If you can have the tendons scanned, do that too. Even if the horse is not costing you a cent – have him vetted properly with X-Rays. I have had too many clients get horses off the track only to be devastated when the horse has one buck outside and blows a knee or a pastern joint – something that would have been picked up before the purchase if X-Rays were taken. These horses are exposed to massive forces and wear and their legs take a punch. Don’t wait to be surprised! Often these horses need to get put to sleep and it can be heart-breaking.

Once you have selected your hopeful, it is time to bring him home!

The most important time for your horse is going to be those first few weeks after arriving at your yard. This is the time in which most accidents and illnesses like colics happen.
The first thing to note is that your horse has spent the majority of his day in the stable, except for a brief early morning training session. He has not been turned out with other horses and really, has not had much contact with horses except when training or in passing. The biggest mistake people make is to turn their new arrival out into a big paddock, even worse with a herd of other horses! What usually results is some kind of injury as the horse runs about madly, often in a panic, or the herd comes to investigate and a struggle breaks out. Your young thoroughbred is not going to know about being out so you will have to take steps to get him used to the idea slowly and protect him from injury.

The ideal situation is to combine in hand walks with a bridle and brief periods of turnout into small, safe enclosed areas to slowly get the horse used to being out. A possible scenario would be something like this:

Week One to Three:
8am – 10 to 20 mins In –Hand Walking
10am to 11 am – turn out into Lunge Arena / very small paddock (5m by 5m)
2pm – 10 to 20 mins In-Hand Walking
3 to 4 pm – turn out into Lunge Arena / very small paddock (5m by 5m)

Week Four to Six:
8am – 10 to 20 mins In –Hand Walking or lunging
10am to 11 am – turn out into Dressage Arena / very small paddock (10m by 10m)
2pm – 10 to 20 mins In-Hand Walking or lunging
3 to 4 pm – turn out into Dressage Arena / very small paddock (10m by 10m)

Week Seven Onwards:
8am – 10 to 20 mins lunging
10am to 11 am – turn out into Showjumping Arena / paddock
2pm – 10 to 20 mins lunging
3 to 4 pm – turn out into Showjumping Arena / paddock

The reason I like to turn out into arenas, is because racehorses often have poorly developed proprioception. (the information that is sent to the brain from the sensory devices located throughout the horse’s body in Muscle, Tendon, Ligament and Joints. These sensors inform the brain of the amount of tension in a particular muscle, how much stress a tendon or ligament is under, and what position a particular joint is in. This allows the horse’s brain to locate his body in space and compensate by re-balancing. A well developed and evolved sense of proprioception is what makes the Nooitgedacht or the Boerperd so sure-footed – they evolved being out on rough terrain and having to negotiate very uneven terrain. The racehorse has evolved to run very fast on flat ground and has never really had to worry about where his feet go!) This is often why a Thoroughbred finds it difficult to just ‘pick up those feet!’ especially when out on an outride. They fall over everything until they learn to improve their proprioception. (all to be taken into account in a good training program!) This is also why they will find some sharp point (no matter if it is the ONLY one in the entire paddock!) and hurt themselves on it. They step on their own feet and they wobble around until they are used to being out! Being in the arena means we eliminate hard ground, holes, rocks and other potential factors that may cause injury.

Be careful when turning your new horse out into a field of lush green grazing – his digestive tract is not used to the grazing and it is also high in natural sugars – a recipe for disaster! A colic or diarrhoea is sure to result! Rather turn him out onto the lush grazing for no longer than 1 hour per day at first, to give his gut a chance to adapt. (Two 30 min sessions should be fine.)

Another thing I do to prevent injury during this period of adjustment is to turn out with boots or bandages. This protects the lower limbs from injury. Always use padding under bandages, and only bandage if you are sure that you can do it correctly. Ask your veterinarian to help you if you are unsure! When choosing a boot for turnout, I like to use Sports Medicine Boots in front and behind, simply because they offer the most coverage of the limb and do not carry the risks of bandaging incorrectly. Brushing boots will also offer some measure of protection. Boots and bandages should be kept clean and taken off as soon as the horse comes back in. Legs can be hosed after the horse comes in to stimulate circulation and wash off any mud, sweat and dirt. Be very aware of not leaving the horse with wet legs in his stable as mud fever may result. Dry legs off with a towel and examine for any injury before returning the horse to his stable.

Once the horse settles outside, it may be time to introduce other horses. The best way to do that is to take your ‘old faithful’ who you know is happy to be turned out with anyone, introduce them over the fence and see what happens. If the horses seem happy, turn them out together and observe. If the horse has been turned out next to other horses, the neighbor can be introduced if there is no possibility of an argument ensuing. If you have no other horses to turn out with yours, or your horse does not seem to settle in a group or you discover to your dismay that your horse is a bully and will not go in a paddock with any other horse, a sheep, goat cow or other companion can be turned out with the horse with great success. (Goats may drive you mad, so try a sheep if you are worried!) Even a small Shetland or Miniature pony might be a suitable companion, however the possibility of a fight may still be there with a small pony.

The trick is to try different solutions until you find one that works for you. It also depends very much on the yard and facilities and what the stable manager is willing to do for you.

The next big hurdle new owners face with their racehorses is that of diet and feeding. If possible, find out what feed the horse is receiving currently and how much. In this way you can start him off on the same ration he is getting so that you can wean him over slowly and reduce your risk of digestive upsets and colic. Typical racehorse rations in South Africa look something like this:

Product One (Low Protein Race Cube)

For the horse commencing training and only in very light work.

Crude Protein: 120g/kg
Crude Fat: 25 g/kg
Crude Fibre: 120g/kg
Max Moisture: 120g/kg
Min Phosphorous: 3 g/kg
Ca:Ph Ratio: 1.2 – 2:1

Typically, horses on this diet will receive 2 to 5kg of concentrate feed per day, 1kg of Lucerne per day and 3 kg of hay(Eragrostis or Teff) per day.

Product Two (mid-range Protein Level Race Cube)

For the mature horse in hard training.

Crude Protein: 140g/kg
Crude Fat: 25 g/kg
Crude Fibre: 120g/kg
Max Moisture: 120g/kg
Min Phosphorous: 4 g/kg
Ca:Ph Ratio: 1.8 – 2:1

Typically, horses on this diet will receive 8 to 12 kg of concentrate feed per day, 1 - 2kg of Lucerne per day and 3 - 6 kg of hay (Eragrostis or Teff) per day.

Product Three (High Protein Level Race Cube)

For growing and mature horse in hard training and those with limited appetites.

Crude Protein: 160g/kg
Crude Fat: 25 g/kg
Crude Fibre: 120g/kg
Max Moisture: 120g/kg
Min Phosphorous: 8 g/kg
Ca:Ph Ratio: 1.6 – 2:1

Typically, horses on this diet will receive 6 to 12 kg of concentrate feed per day, 1 - 2kg of Lucerne per day and 3 - 6 kg of hay (Eragrostis or Teff) per day.

If you can get the make and amounts of feed your horse is receiving, try to stick to it for the first few days after your horse arrives. This will make the change of routine, home and everything else less traumatic for the horse. The feeding routine can then slowly be adapted or changed over a period of two to four weeks. For example, you can begin to add handfuls of the new concentrate feed to the old one and slowly change the ratio over until he is on the new feed.

If you only have the brand of feed, try to buy a 12% general feed in the same brand and change him over from that. Manufacturers will use the same source ingredients in their feeds, and what makes the rations different is the amounts they use in each various formulation. This means that although the amounts may be different, the basic ingredients are the same.

If you have no idea what the horse is eating, you will have to slowly start feeding your own chosen feed. Probiotic supplementation is vital then to try and prevent colic and to ensure a good colony of microorganisms that will be able to handle the changes in diet. Start very slowly and gradually increase the feed. High doses of probiotics are advised until the ration has been settled, in which case you can return to normal levels.

The biggest challenge facing the new owner of a horse fresh off the track is to maintain weight and make a safe transition to the new feeding routine. Most horses off the track will lose condition and there are many theories surrounding this. (I am not going to go into the debate of steroids, jugs, and other dark practices in this article!)

What we do know is that the racehorse has most likely been fed a high grain, low roughage diet. (Usually about 60:40 ratio) The result of this is high starch diet is that it causes the levels of lactic acid in the hindgut to increase, causing the digestive bacteria in the hindgut to die and produce toxins, which can in turn cause colic and laminitis. Combine this with the fact that approximately 80% of racehorses have gastric ulcers, and you can understand that the racehorse’s digestive system is not functioning properly. Ideally, we would want to increase the amounts of roughage being fed and reduce the amount of grains, however there are a few problems in doing this. Firstly, as with any changes to diet, the transition to a new diet should be done very slowly – over a period of two to four weeks - to give the digestive tract time to adapt. Simply changing the diet will not only predispose the horse to colic and other digestive upsets, the horse will also not be adapted to utilizing the additional fibre in his diet because of the poor levels and the types of microorganisms in the gut. In other words, even though you increase the amount of forage (teff, etc) in his diet, his body won’t be able to use it! To assist the gut in adapting to the changes in diet, a probiotic should be fed daily to supplement the microorganisms in the gut. Probiotics are live bacteria cultures that supplement those found in the gut. Yeasts and other products of fermentation do not contain any live bacteria but work by changing the pH of the gut to a more acceptable level for the microorganisms in the gut, thereby helping them to multiply and work better. There are no risks associated with feeding probiotics, and in the case of the horse fresh off the track, I would highly recommend their use. To be most effective, they should be fed over a long period of time and be very careful as to their storage, as the bacteria are very sensitive and will be easily destroyed if exposed to heat, wet or other adverse conditions. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

One brief word on equine feeds that have had probiotics added to the ration – I am of the opinion that we are not advanced enough in equine feed manufacture and storage in South Africa to ensure that probiotics added to feeds will not spoil by the time they reach your yard. (Although we are making rapid improvement!) I would rather spend the money on high quality feed and add the probiotic as a supplement, knowing that it has been stored properly and is fresh. Once the feed leaves the manufacturer, control of storage and the stock practices adopted by feed merchants is very difficult to control. To protect the bacteria from spoiling, the bag would have to be sealed, waterproof, and the feed fresh. If you would like to use a probiotic supplemented feed, by all means do so, but you may have to supplement with probiotics in addition to the feed.

Work done by Warwick College (UK) has shown that feeding probiotics has the following effects:

• Improve the composition of the mare's milk
• Increase early milk production
• Increase the availability of nutrients to foals, thereby enhancing growth
• Improve fiber digestion by approximately 7.5%
• Improve crude protein digestion by 11-14%
• Improve phosphorus digestion by approximately 22%
• Improve calcium digestion
• Increase feed conversion efficiency by up to 24%
• Increase nitrogen retention, thereby improving growth rates
• Stabilize the digestive system, reducing the risk of colitis and laminitis
• Stabilize weight and speed up any weight loss recovery after strenuous exercise
• Maintain health and condition of the animal

Another issue that must be attended to is the likelihood of ulcers. Research shows that over 80% of racehorses in work have ulcers. Stomach acid is continuously secreted in the horse, unlike humans, and this means that they are predisposed to ulcers, especially if they are fed high grain diets, are starved before races, do not have enough roughage in the diet to buffer secretions or are in high stress environments. Sounds a lot like the life of a racehorse, doesn’t it! (A big difference in humans is that ulcers are usually linked to bacteria, which is not the case in horses.)The only way to confirm ulcers is by inserting a ‘scope’ (fibreoptic tube that shows images of the stomach) into the stomach to check for them. They are graded depending on their severity. If your horse seems to be showing some of the signs of ulcers and is not doing well despite the feed he is getting, it may be worth your while to have him checked. (Signs to watch out for include: refusing to eat, grinding the teeth, showing abdominal discomfort and a poor hair coat.) The vet will advise on treatment, which is usually an agent to decrease acid secretions in the stomach, but management plays a vital role in treating ulcers and preventing them from recurring. Frequent meals, ad lib grazing or roughage and decreased grain diets will already go a long way to help the horse.

Oil supplementation is becoming more and more popular as research into the high fat, high fibre, low starch diet is showing the benefits thereof. Essentially, oil is much more calorie dense when compared to grains. They are readily accepted by the horse and easily digested. The most important factor to consider when feeding the ex-racehorse is that starch must be reduced without losing the additional calories the horse will need to maintain weight. Oil provides these calories without the dangers associated with feeding grains and especially with the picky eater, calories can be greatly increased without increasing the volume of feed much. (For more information, please refer to my article ‘Feeding Fats to Horses’) Any vegetable oil will be readily accepted by the horse, with corn and sunflower oil being the most popular. Animal fats are also shown to be well digested by the horse, but acceptability becomes the biggest problem. Introduce the oil slowly and over a period of about a week or two.
A good mineral and vitamin supplement should be fed to the horse, as well as access to a salt lick.

A typical ration for your new horse may eventually look something like this:

Morning Feed:
12% to 14% Grain Free Mix
150 ml Sunflower Oil

Afternoon Feed:
12% to 14% Grain Free Mix

Night /Evening Feed:
12% to 14% Grain Free Mix
150 ml Sunflower Oil
0.5kg Lucerne
Vitamin and Mineral supplement

The amount of concentrate feed must be calculated according to the horse’s body weight and requirements. The concentrate feed can be brought down to a 10% or 12% once the horse has gained weight or if he is gaining weight too quickly or is showing other signs of too much protein in his diet.

More Quick Tips:

-Feed at least twice a day, preferably more if possible. Four smaller feeds spread throughout the day are much better than two big ones.

-Feed only the best quality you can! Check food for mould, smells, clumping or changes in composition. Forage should also be free of mould, still have a green colour and smell sweet. Be wary of feeding too much Lucerne, as it will unbalance the Ca:P ratio and may cause problems. Also be careful with oat hay bedding – your new horse may just tuck into his bedding which could cause an impaction colic.

-Be consistent in the amount and type of feed. If you must change, change only by 1/4 of the amount being fed per day and do so over a period of two or more weeks.

-Make sure the horse has access to a salt lick.

-Provide a good source of water at all times.

-Control parasites. Consider asking your vet to administer a drench when the horse arrives. Also control parasites out in the paddocks by regularly removing manure and never use manure as a top dressing in your paddocks. (Unless you open all the balls, thereby exposing potential parasites to light and air. I just never do it.)

-Check the teeth to see if they need floating (filing off the sharp edges). Checking the teeth by a specialist when the horse arrives is a MUST! It will influence not only weight gain, but also the schooling of the horse.

-Regularly monitor the condition (weight) of the horse. If he seems to gaining weight too quickly, reduce your hard feed. If he is not gaining enough, increase forage first, then oils and then only hard feed.

-Provide regular physical and mental stimulation. Play games with your new horse.

-Observe the horse every day for general health (temperature, pulse, and respiration, etc.).

-Feed by weight – not volume! (Please no measuring in coffee cans! Meals are calculated in kg’s!)

There is perhaps an element of truth in the fact that the horse may have been exposed to substances that he will need to get out of his system, be they strong doses of vitamins, or worse. You may choose to provide him with liver support during this period of adjustment. Speak to your veterinarian about this and he can make a recommendation. You could try herbal supplements such as Nettle, Dandelion root and Chickweed that all work as a good diuretic and can be helpful. Milk thistle seed/yellowdock root and burdock will help flush the liver and are considered excellent blood cleansers as well. Homeopathy can also be a useful way to get your horse over the worst ‘speedbump’ in his path to adjustment. Please do consult the professionals on this as it is a very specialized area!

I have mentioned getting your new arrival checked by the Vet and Dentist. There is another area in which your new arrival may need help – feet!

Without going into too much detail, racehorses are not well known for the excellent condition of their feet. This can be attributed to various factors, including genetics, poor shoeing techniques (especially the long-toe-low-heel shoeing that is still common in some areas but so bad for the horse!), diet and nutrition and the stresses placed on the hooves when racing. Your horse may also still be shod with his aluminum plates which will need to be removed. A knowledgeable farrier will be able to advise you on the road ahead with your horse’s hooves. There may be changes that must be made to angles, problems to sort out and so forth. You should see an improvement in the quality of the horse’s hooves simply because of better nutrition and if he suggests it, a supplement may need to be given for a few months until the hooves look better.

The debate on whether to shoe or not is a hot topic at the moment. I would recommend that should you be wanting to go barefoot, consult with your farrier and veterinarian and read up as much as you can on the topic. Some Thoroughbreds will go barefoot quite easily, and others struggle. You need to be fully informed so that you can do it properly, and in conjunction with the help of professionals!

In cold areas or during his first winter, you might want to consider turning your horse out with a light cotton rug during the day, to help him conserve energy. Because they are not used to going out into the elements, it can happen that the horse will use a lot of energy to keep warm in cooler weather. If the horse is thin, he will not have a layer of fat keeping him warm. If the horse is struggling to gain weight I would consider a light turn out rug in cold weather. Once the weather warms up and once he has gained sufficient body fat, you can turn him out without it.

In part Two, we will look closely at the schooling process you will need to follow, and what your new horse will need to learn in order for him to develop properly and become a success under saddle.

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