Buying an ex-racehorse? Here’s what you need to know first

Former racehorses are typically athletic and intelligent and, with the constant handling they have received during their racing career, they can make excellent riding horses in the right hands. But the time and effort involved in retraining them off the track means they aren’t suitable for everyone. Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) – British horseracing’s official charity for the welfare of retired racehorses – outlines some key points to consider before deciding to buy an ex-racehorse for sale.

Be realistic about your ability and experience

  • Do you have enough time, money, patience and experience to deal with the demands of a former racehorse?
  • They are not a novice ride and should not be seen as a cheap way for children to move onto horses.
  • Thoroughbreds are a sensitive breed. For example a cut that probably wouldn’t bother your cob may blow up on a thoroughbred, making them more expensive to own.

Understanding the lifestyle of a horse in training

  • They may not be used to conventional riding techniques. For example, a racehorse will be unfamiliar with long stirrups and a heavier saddle and is unlikely to understand seat and leg aids until they are retrained.
  • Jockeys are often given a leg up while the horse is walking so a former racehorse unlikely to stand still for you while you mount from a block.
  • It will not be used to being exercised alone and will associate riding out in company with its former life on the gallops.
  • It is unlikely to have travelled in a trailer before.
  • All day turnout will be a new experience that should be introduced gradually.
  • It will be used to being in a busy yard and might be overwhelmed by your individual attention.

Be patient

  • You must be willing to give your horse plenty of time to adjust to its new lifestyle.
  • Not every horse will readily adapt to new disciplines and most will always retain a racehorse mentality to some extent.

So if you think you’ve got what it takes to give a former racehorse a home, where is the best place to find a horse to suit your needs? And what steps should you take along the way?

1. Where to look for your ex-racehorse

How, having decided that you want to buy an ex-racehorse for sale, do you find one? There are three main routes. You can obtain one directly from its owner or trainer, you can buy one at the sales, or you can acquire one from a retrainer — either by buying it or loaning it.

2. Look up the horse’s record

Whichever option you choose, the basics remain the same — do your research, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The racing record of every horse that has raced in Britain and Ireland is available on the Racing Post website: www.racingpost.com. Look for gaps in the record that might indicate time off with injury. Look at how many times it raced — although don’t count out a horse with a lengthy racing career. If it managed to stay sound for a long time, the chances are that it will continue to do so.

3. Ask to see it ridden and ride it yourself

If you go to see a horse at a trainer’s yard, remember that it may well still be racing-fit and will look lean and toned. But approach it as you would the purchase of any horse — is it the stamp of horse you want? Will its conformation stand up to what you would like it to do? How does it behave in the stable and when being tacked up? Ask to ride it — it may not know much about flatwork, but is it willing to do what you ask, and does it move reasonably well? Do remember that it is unlikely to stand still while you mount; lads and jockeys are legged up while the horse is walking.

4. Ask about the horse’s temperament

Ask the horse’s trainer — and if you can the lad who looks after it — about its personality and temperament.

“Temperament is key,” says Di Arbuthnot, chief executive of Retraining of Racehorses (RoR). “But trainers are pretty good at knowing whether or not a horse is suitable, and we have sent them all a checklist for when they pass a horse on.”

This checklist includes things like registering a Non-Racing Agreement with Weatherbys; checking the new owner has public liability insurance; asking for references if the new owner is unknown to them; advising then to register with RoR; asking for feedback on their progress.

5. Get it vetted

Ask about injuries and why it is retiring from racing. If you decide to buy it, make sure you get it vetted — as you would with any purchase.

6. Expect to pay

Don’t expect the horse to be given away — if it is likely to have a chance at succeeding in any kind of career, it is worth a price, like any horse. And trainers and owners have recognised that, if they put a value on a horse, it has more chance of ending up in a suitable home.

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7. The advantages of buying from a retrainer

The obvious advantage of getting an ex-racehorse from a retrainer is that it has already started its post-racing career in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing. It will bump the price up — rightly — but, especially if you are not a professional rider or one with a lot of experience of retraining racehorses, it is usually worth it. Retrainers have evaluated the horse and schooled it with a future career in mind — you are increasing your chances of winning what is something of a lottery. Any physical issues will have become apparent and should have been treated appropriately. RoR has 10 accredited centres that it provides funding to for the rehabilitation, retraining and rehoming of vulnerable former racehorses as well as more advice on owning retrained racehorses on its website www.ror.org.uk.

8. Buying from bloodstock sales

Regular “horses in training sales” are held around the country, notably Brightwells in Ascot, Doncaster Bloodstock Sales in Doncaster and Tattersalls in Newmarket. Ask the sales company to send you a catalogue and buyers guide before you attend the sale. Have in mind a price that you are willing to pay as well as a clear idea of what you want to do with the horse.

Essex-based eventer Victoria Bax and her husband Jason have bought a number of ex-racehorses at the sales, and have developed a highly polished system for doing so.

“I bought my first one from a trainer’s yard in 2007, but after that we have gone straight to the sales every time,” says Victoria. “You have a wide variety of horses to choose from, rather than just going to see one.”

The majority of horses they buy have raced on the Flat or, if National Hunt-bred, didn’t make it as far as the track.

“If they have hurdled, they tend to have an atrocious jumping style and you will have to change that, whereas if they haven’t jumped, you can start from scratch,” she says. “And I wouldn’t be put off if it has raced as a two-year-old. Research says that if it raced at a very young age and came out of its career sound, it is likely to stay that way.”

Jason does all the early work once they receive the sales catalogue. They are looking for horses aged between four and six of 16hh-16.3hh, and Jason has strong opinions on what sort of bloodlines he likes.

“I went through the pedigrees of all the event horses I could find that had raced, and started to build up a database, to which I continually add information,” he says.

He prefers horses which raced over a mile and a half.

“The fast-twitch muscles of sprinters make them like coiled springs, which doesn’t work well in a dressage arena. I think the mile and a half distance gives you a chance of getting a horse with stamina and athleticism,” he says.

Jason has worked out that certain mixes of bloodlines don’t tend to produce horses that event well — either because of the physical types they tend to produce or because temperament issues are common. He also views the films of their races on the Racing Post website to get an idea of what the horse looks like and how it moves.

They whittle a catalogue of around 200 down to 10 or 12 horses, which Victoria then examines closely at the sale itself.

“I look for obvious signs of injuries and operations, ask to see the horse trotted up, and talk to its groom,” she says. “I want a good shoulder, good hocks, and nothing too long — long and ‘lollopy’ might be good for racing but it isn’t good for collection and jumping bounces! I want them to be fairly straight-moving, although they don’t have to be perfect.”

Jason says: “Sales can be intimidating. People don’t ask the same questions they would if they were going to view a horse in another situation — but they should do. I think it is good to go in a group of knowledgeable people so you get different views and aren’t afraid to ask questions.”

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