Taking on a former racehorse is becoming more and more popular and is often a cheaper option compared to the price of warmbloods. With the right training, thoroughbreds are capable of excelling in many disciplines, and there are now numerous competitions in the UK specifically for the retrained racehorse.
However, the training of a thoroughbred from the track requires not only patience but a rider who is experienced and confident as there will be many challenges. These types of horses are often highly strung and used to a strict daily routine, working as a group on the gallops, ridden in an entirely different way to that of a riding horse.
It is essential to give your ex-racehorse plenty of time, allowing for both mental and physical development. The thoroughbred breed is extremely sensitive, requiring a competent handler who uses consistent training methods.
Here we look at the first stages of retraining a former racehorse.
Before you start with your new thoroughbred, it is vital that you understand the life of a racehorse in training.
One of the advantages of having an ex-racehorse is that they have already experienced many different situations, have good manners and are easy to load, clip and shoe.
However, the life of a racehorse is one of routine, and they are handled and ridden by different people in a busy yard with limited turnout. It is a good idea to give your new steed some time off before starting work, which can be anything from a few weeks to a year depending on the individual horse. Be aware that thoroughbreds can become stressed as they adapt to many different changes in their new life.
Before starting work, worm your horse and have his teeth and back checked with his saddle correctly fitted. As the training progresses, keep an eye on its fit as his body shape will change. Cut his feed down, giving him a cooling mix.
Once your horse has settled into his new surroundings, his work can commence.
Try and do something every day with your horse as he is used to being ridden six days a week, so you need to keep his muscles working as well as giving him mental stimulation. It is best to start your retraining with groundwork as it allows the horse to adjust to a different way of going without a rider and to become used to having a bigger saddle on his back.
Treat your ex-racehorse like a youngster, introducing new work slowly, giving him the time he needs.
Always wear gloves and a hat for safety when lunging or long reining.
Lunge your ex-racehorse in a bridle. Attach the lunge rein to the bit using a coupling for an even feel and better control. Put the saddle on placing a roller over the top to increase the weight which encourages suppleness through the back.
Lunge in a safe, enclosed area or section off part of your arena. Lunging teaches your horse the voice commands which helps when you start riding. It also gives you the opportunity to analyse the horse's way of going and see which is his stiffer side.
To start with, work your horse in walk and trot, using transitions to keep his attention. Have the stirrups up at first, then let them down, so he becomes accustomed to them being at his sides. If using side reins, have them quite long, shortening them up in stages. Keep sessions short, approximately ten minutes, building the time up gradually.
Long reining your ex racehorse helps him to accept the contact and become supple as well as teaching him school movements.
Put the saddle on and thread the reins through the stirrups, standing behind at a distance where your horse cannot kick you. Have an assistant who can walk by his head and reassure him as the feel of the reins may scare him.
Keep it simple by long reining your horse in the walk, making plenty of changes of rein, serpentines and figures of eight. At first, don’t ask for any transitions to halt as standing still is an issue for racehorses.
Doing different exercises keeps him interested and responsive to the aids. Once your horse is comfortable in the walk, you can trot him on a large circle of about 20m.
Once your horse is lunging and long reining confidently, it’s time to get on!
In racing, horses are kept walking while their riders receive a leg up so are not used to standing still for mounting.
Take your horse to the mounting block and have someone hold him while you mount. Sit down gently and ask your assistant to keep him standing still for a few seconds, praising him. With practice, your horse will eventually stand still for you.
Only ride for ten to fifteen minutes in your first few sessions, as your horse will tire quickly with the new work, gradually increasing it to about 35 minutes. Doing a lot in the walk is essential. Be aware that short reins and leaning forward means “go faster” to a racehorse.
Keep your hands low and wide when riding. Ride simple changes of rein and school figures, like large circles, serpentines and figures of eight, along with transitions of halt, walk and trot. You may have to over- exaggerate your aids at first. Back them up with your voice aids as you did in the groundwork to help him understand. He may fidget in the halt so don’t ask for this too often.
As your sessions progress, start a little lateral work with turn on the forehand and then introduce some leg yield. Keep your horse's work varied, continuing with the lunging and long reining.
Start cantering your horse once you are happy with his trot work. He will find it challenging to canter in an arena at first and understand the correct canter strike off. Asking for the transition in a two-point position frees up his back.
Do not hack out until your horse understands the basic aids and you feel you have control in the school.
Racehorses are not accustomed to going out alone so only go for a short ride, riding alongside someone else on a sensible horse in walk. Have your horse go in front occasionally to gain confidence. Gradually build up your hacks and when you start riding alone, only go for a few minutes at first.
Pole work not only adds variety to your schooling sessions but helps to improve a horse’s balance, rhythm and way of going, working through his back correctly.
You can introduce single poles by leading your horse over them and during lunging or long reining. Ride over single poles in the walk first, then in trot, gradually adding more in a line. It is advisable to have them at a length where the horse can make one trot stride in between to discourage him from trying to jump over them if they are too close together.
As your ex-racehorse becomes more established in his work, introduce jumping.
An excellent way to present the first jump to your horse is by adding a small cross pole at the end of a line of trotting poles, then cantering after, maintaining balance. Return to trot and come over the jump again.
It can take time for your horse to understand the jumping process and figure out what he is meant to do. Once he is more confident, introduce grids to help him think and use his body correctly. He can then start jumping small courses and enter a clear round competition.
If you take your time with your ex-racehorse and gradually build up his strength and confidence, you will develop a wonderful partnership!