Contemplating Homing of an Ex-racehorse

Here is an interesting letter by Maj. Roger Harrington(ret) of the UK concerning the homing of ex-race horses. It contains some very enlightening information concerning what the potential recipient of an off the track thoroughbred (or any other breed used in racing) Should know about the subject, what one is up against, and what approach one should be prepared to apply.

This item was accidentally posted to the wrong article, but I thought it was so insightful that it should be posted as its own item because of the valuable information and insight it contains.

Maj. Roger Hanington:

The following is a letter which I wrote to the Editor of a certain well known periodical a few years ago; parts of it might be of interest —————-

Dear Madam,

Your issue dated 28 June 2007.

I read the article on ex-racehorses with interest. Whilst the intention no doubt is to be helpful I fear that the result may have been to deter people comtemplating the homing of a thoroughbbred or an ex-racehorse with the consequent loss of great pleasure and satisfaction to the rider and a safe and happy home for the horse.
The details of particular cases were of interest but the information in the blocks at the side emphasised difficulties and dangers out of proportion. I offer the following thoughts as encouragment.

I have ridden horses over sixty one years ranging from common ponies, light draught horses, troop horses and chargers, show-jumpers and a variety of hired hunters. I rode my first ex-racehorse fiftyseven years ago at the age of twelve and until a few weeks ago kept my own ex-racehorse.

As Border Collies are different from other dogs so thoroughbreds and ex- racehorses are different from other horses. Despite the fearsome warnings implied by your feature they are different primarily in two respects. Firstly they are usually more intelligent and secondly they have been trained (or not trained) to behave in particular ways. That very intelligence however enables them to amend their previous training and to learn.

The intelligence gives the ability to think, to imagine and to anticipate. This can lead to unwarranted reaction to minor unkown situations but seldom a reaction that can not be brought under control and in my experience is seldom so extreme that it is difficult to sit. I have been chucked off so many horses that I could not possibly count but only once have I been removed by an ex-racehorse and that was largely my own fault. The intelligence also gives the ability to learn about new situations and to recognise that new responses are now required by the rider. Re-schooling or even basic training becomes that much easier. So much so that over a period of only two or three days it is possible to recognise that the horse has learned.

Because the horse thinks and remembers he or she is likely to regard the new rider or keeper with wariness, especially if the animal has been treated unkindly in the past – and not all grooms are kind. The first thing that has to be established is trust. When the horse trusts the rider and the groom (who are preferably the same) then the rider will trust the horse, will be that much more relaxed upon the horse who will in turn relax. Trust is achieved only by kindness and gentleness coupled with consistency. There is more to horsemanship than riding and the secret of a good ride starts in the loose box.

Of course an ex-racehorse will initially do unexpected things – not unexpected to the horse of course – unexpected to the rider, so it is the rider’s task to learn the horse; but these are initial things of no great import and with trust and confidence will soon pass. The horse is of course also learning the rider and a classical seat and light hands will achieve much. (Unfortunately one sees the classical seat and leg less often these days even among the dressage contingent; but it works! ). The horse will become a sensitive and cooperative partner. (more than just compliant).

The horse is sensitive. If his saddle hurts he will try to get rid of it – and whatever is on it. If his mouth hurts he will try to get away from it. Just because the horse is fast does not mean that he is impossible to stop. He does not have to be ridden in a Pelham or a Bit and Bridoon. Start with the mildest bit you can find; you might just find that you need never change.

So where does all this leave us? Do not be deterred by xxxx. It helps to remember that if something is not right it is almost always the rider or handler’s fault – something you have done, or not done or have failed to notice. We must be prepared to take the blame, we usually deserve it.

As encouragement I offer this — I started not so long ago with an unre-schooled ex-racehorse. Where initially he did not understand leg pressure, after eight months I could ride him without stirrups and perform a figure of eight without reins. He learned about gates in three days and where he had been frightened of puddles he would cross the river. I rode him in an eggbutt mullenmouth and never changed. An unschooled ex-racehorse is not for a novice. For a sympathetic rider who is prepared to be the horse’s friend an unparalleled joy awaits.

Finally I feel that xxxx have been unfair to dismiss Grace Muir as just a registered race-horse trainer. She runs an impeccable establishment (I have inspected a few) incorporating HEROS as a charity for rehoming ex- racehorses. You also fail to mention HEROS in the list of contacts. It would be a pity if HEROS was overlooked by those who might otherwise give a good home to an ex-racehorse.

Yours faithfully,
Roger Hanington

Major (Retired)


Many thanks to Maj. Hanington for his insight into the subject of the homing of former race horses. I include my return email to his apology for his mis-posting of the comment and my thanks for bringing up such an important subject:

I was working with a big 17.3hh Dutch Warmblood today that about 4 previous trainers had given up on, claiming the horse was ‘dangerous’. This particular horse was a highly trained horse that was well beyond the campaign school and had been worked up to the beginning of real Haute École work when the original owner decided that the horse wasn’t their cup of tea, so to speak. I went to take a look at the horse to see what was going on and engaged the horse like I do with any other horse be it an off the track thoroughbred or a problem horse.

The owner and the most recent trainer told me that the horse was aggressive and dangerous and that it couldn’t be trusted. They were even afraid to handle the horse. So, I had them bring the horse out. They had ever manner of stud chain over the horses nose and two grooms on each side of the horse and they were having a time of it just to control the horse.

I told them to let the horse loose in the round pen. I let the horse settle for a while and then I entered the round pen. The horse was indeed acting wild, charged at me, kicked and bucked but always maintained a good distance from me. I told the owners that the horse was not dangerous because it didn’t actually try to nail me with a hoof or otherwise make contact with me. After about 20 minutes, the horse settled down and approached me. I did nothing but stand in one place. I thought about what you said in the comment you posted about gaining a horse’s trust – I gave the horse no reason to fear me but at the same time didn’t give any indication to the horse that I was intimidated but showed the horse respect, so to speak.

It was at this point I realized exactly what the problem was: A very highly trained horse, a rider that didn’t have the skill to ride the horse which made for a horse that was utterly confused about what the rider was asking the horse to do. In this instance, the squirrelly and ‘dangerous’ behavior of the horse was the horse simply not having a clue of what the rider was asking it to do (and the rider not having a clue or the skill level to properly ask the horse to do anything) which resulted in the horse doing everything under the sun to figure out how to comply with what it though the rider was asking it to do.

This same set of conditions applies to former race horses. I see all too many people who buy an off the track thoroughbred who don’t properly ‘let the horse down’ for a couple of months. They get on a horse that knows only one thing (run like Hell) and the inexperienced rider and former race horse are off to the races much to the amusement of those who happen to be around to watch the ensuing festivities.

One of the many things that never ceases to amaze me is that a the mild application of rational thought on the part of the new owner and her trainer could have over-ridden their lack of knowledge (which ironically, the whole situation was not beyond their level of knowledge and skill, all things considered) or at least set them up for an appropriate solution that didn’t include the option of giving up.


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