How To Retrain A Racehorse [My Retired Racehorse Project]
Welcome to Just Past Midnight’s Story
Introducing Just Past Midnight, he is my retired racehorse project and well to be honest my guinea pig, as I learn how to retrain a racehorse. I’d love for you to follow our journey and we can learn together.
Now keep in mind I am not a professional, I am an amateur rider, very much learning as I go. In this series of blogs I will share with you what I do, what works and what doesn’t.
My aim once finished is to be able to give you a blueprint on how you can go about retraining your retired racehorse and hopefully skip the mistakes I am sure to make.
So back to the important part of this project slash experiment. That’s him in the photo above.
His stable name is Shaft (named after his sire) and he came to me from trainer friends last weekend, so he has been with me for just a few days at this stage.
We are getting to know one another and so far he is proving to be a sweet boy and quite the smart cookie.
Shaft was born on 12th November 2012 so he has just turned 6 and in the scheme of horse racing he has been lightly raced his whole career. Not exactly a world beater, he has retired boasting a career record of 1 win from 22 starts for total prize money of $6,365.
He won his maiden race at Quirindi in NSW (Australia) on Boxing Day 2016 in a nice field of 10 horses and I’m sure his trainers at the time thought he might have showed some promise.
Arriving at my friend's stables in early 2017, he did have a few good runs to finish 3rd in a couple of races, and blitzing his trials coming first more often than not.
But my friends are great judges of a horse's character and they realised that Shaft really didn’t want to be a racehorse.
He retired on the 19th January 2019 after our last local race meeting, having run a credible 4th.
He retired sound in both heart and mind and it is a credit to his trainer to know when to retire a horse so that he has a future in front of him.
Why Retired Racehorses?
After seeing the Four Corners TV program investigation entitle Off The Track I wrote a blog and threw in my two cents worth about the racing industry and the so called “wastage.” I have been a vocal advocate for retraining off the track horses, both Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, and giving them a life after racing.
Many of you will know I currently have 2 Standardbreds. My pacer, Jonny’N’Dry, came to me a few weeks after his retirement from racing and he has been my first attempt at retraining a pacer as a riding horse. His training is coming along nicely and he is my current go to riding horse.
That's us at a Working Equitation clinic a few months ago.
You know the saying that some horses come into your life to teach you?
Well Jon is definitely one of those. He isn’t the easiest horse to work with, he has a big presence and a lot of opinions about how things should be, but he has made me grow as a horsewoman to meet his needs, for which I will be forever grateful.
Should Beginners Get Horses Off The Track?
I am not blindly advocating off the track racehorses, Standardbred or Thoroughbred, for beginner owners. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t.
Some of these horses come with inherent physical issues - injuries, ulcers, sheer overwork. Depending on the nature of the issue obviously many of these can be easily fixed and shouldn't rule a horse out for a life after racing.
Additionally many retire with emotional issues. This is the nature of racing especially in big stables. The horses are a commodity not pets. The staff need to get through huge numbers of horses each day and they just need them to be compliant so as not to slow down the operation.
This means little quirks are not dealt with at the time, the horses do not learn basic manners and are allowed to get away with naughty behaviour because no one has the time to spend correcting it.
If you get a horse off the track you need to be prepared to spend the time teaching the horse that there is another way, a better way to behave.
When I first got back into horses, some 5 years ago, I initially bought an off the track thoroughbred (OTTB) called Kev. As it turns out at that stage I did not have the skills or knowledge to retrain Kev, and it turned into a bit of a disaster to be honest.
I bought him back to the track he raced at, as that is where my stables are, and due to my inexperience and lack of leadership he progressively became more anxious and hard to handle. After 3 months I realised that although Kev was a lovely boy, he and I were not a suitable match and I moved him on to experienced trainers.
That's Kev in the picture below, isn't he handsome?
Kev’s story has a happy ending, he has now been retrained and is going to Adult Riding Club with his new very happy owner.
So I suppose Shaft is my “make amends project”. I hope to be able to do for him what I couldn’t do for Kev all those years ago.
So this is why I say not all horse owners are suited to OTTB’s and not all OTTB’s are right for new horse owners. I absolutely do not say that ALL retired racehorses are not suitable for retraining by beginners and with enough support beginner horse owners can be successful with them.
But you need to be honest about your skills and experience and have someone knowledgeable about horses assess the OTTB that you are looking at for mental and physical suitability.
It can be done, and if you are a beginner with a retired racehorse already in your stable, then smile and we will do this together.
I had a bit of a head start with Shafty because I have handled him for my friends occasionally over the past 6 months, so he isn’t completely new to me or I to him.
But as soon as Shafty came over to my stables I started assessing him to determine what horsenality he has. If you are not sure what horsenality is check out Horsenality - What Is It.
It is important to know what type of personality your horse has as soon as you can determine it. This helps you know how you are going to interact with your horse. Some may need motivating, some may need repetition. With some you may need to be super relaxed and some you may need to be super playful.
By knowing the type of horse you are working with you can tailor your training to bring out the best in your horse. It will ensure you avoid making mistakes by treating your horse incorrectly for his personality and therefore help speed up their training.
After my initial interactions with Shaft, just feeding, rugging, brushing and starting his desensitising I feel Shaft is a Right Brained Extrovert, but with fairly strong Left Brained tendencies, and I am proceeding with his training along those lines.
If he shows me any different I’ll modify my training to suit, but I am confident he will move fairly easily into the Left Brained quadrant as his training progresses.
Our First Steps - Desensitising
I always start all horses that are new to me with desensitising. This gives me a chance to see how they will react if pushed out of their comfort zone and gives me a chance to see how they learn.
If you are not familiar with desensitising I have written a thorough blog explaining why and how to do it, check out What Is Desensitising? for all the details.
My schedule with Shaft is to do three days work and then give him a day off. He hasn’t had enough time to really let down from racing having come to me only 2 weeks after his last race so we are building him up physically and trying to give him a bit of a break mentally so he can understand his new role in life.
I am also keeping his training sessions fairly short. I am working on 30 minute training sessions twice a day for the first week. After that I will build them up to about 45 minute to 1 hour sessions in the second week.
I have a 3 day clinic scheduled in about 2 weeks time which I am conscious of having him emotionally ready for. This will be quite a bit to ask of him being our first trip away together (my Coach and Mentor is a 7 hour trailer/float ride away) as well as camping out and three days of intense Bootcamp.
I wouldn’t normally do this quite so soon but this is a small clinic, where he can be adequately catered for, and it’s just too good an opportunity for him to miss it. Depending on how he handles the environment we will do as much or as little of the clinic as we can.
Training Schedule for the Next Few Weeks
I have done up the training schedule below to keep myself on track and so you also have a blueprint of what to do and when if you wish to start training the groundwork basics for your horse.
I prefer to train the groundwork before I swing a leg over. I want to know that the horse I am riding is prepared and willing to be ridden. At a bare minimum I like my horses to stand still when I get on and stop when I ask. Groundwork gives you control of your horses feet and builds respect which flows through when you get in the saddle.
This schedule will work with not only retired racehorses but all horses and perhaps more importantly all people.
After all it is our motivation and time management that make the difference. Quality time spent with your horse is the only way anything will change. If you aren't prepared to put in the effort then you can’t expect any improvement in your horse (or yourself).
“What you allow you encourage”
- Pat Parelli
This applies to people too.
If you sit on the couch instead of getting out with your horse you will encourage more of that. If you commit yourself to making a difference to your horse and follow this schedule you will not only see a difference in your horse but also yourself.
I have put links to each of the How To Blogs for the exercise so if you are not sure what they are or how to get started doing them just click on the links and have a read.
Day 4: Off
Day 5 - 7: Desensitising, Disengaging the Hindquarters and Moving the Forequarters
Day 8: Off
Day 9 - 11: Disengaging Hindquarters, Moving the Forequarters and Circling
Day 12: Off
Day 13 - 15: Moving the Forequarters, Circling & Sideways
Day 16: Off
Day 17 - 18: Circling, Sideways and the Squeeze
Combined with this training we will also be walking out each day so I can put into practice all the groundwork basics that we are learning. This gives a purpose to the exercise for your horse. So when we have to manoeuvre around a bush we might do a forequarter turn to get around it, or sideways across a log etc..
Racehorses really need only go in a straight line at speed. So I expect Shaft will take a little time to learn that he can control the direction and speed of his feet at a pace other than flat out. And while he is better than most, he is used to walking right up as close as possible at your shoulder and being lead on a short lead.
Now obviously if you are having trouble with any one of these exercises then you should stick with it until you and your horse have a good understanding of the exercise. Don’t just move on because the schedule says so. It is not a race.
Likewise if you find as you introduce a new exercise any of the previous ones start to seem a bit off, go back and retest them. Groundwork exercises can be used everyday with your horse. Simple things like moving their hind over to get past, backing out the gate, moving a front as you put a rug on, moving them sideways as you put the feed bucket down.
The more practice you and your horse get at these exercises the quicker it will become the norm.
I speak from experience when I say if you do not get these basics right, it will come back to bite you later on. The gaps in your training will show up at some stage and you will have to go back and fix them. So take the time it takes and get it solid now.
Because I have a definite date for him to be proficient in the basics before we attend the clinic (only 18 days till we travel) I will be working towards this schedule. If we need to slow down then that is fine. I also won't be blindly following the schedule just because it is in black and white.
Let’s Share Our Successes (and Challenges)
If you do give the schedule a try I’d love to hear how you get on. You can share what works for you and also what doesn’t in the comment box below.
If you have any questions about Shaft, the training or his progress as we go along please also pop them in the comment box and I’ll get back to you with more information. The more we share the more we grow.
I am very much looking forward to getting to work with Shafty, and I'll be sharing our progress with regular updates as his training starts and progresses.
Wish us luck!