‘If you get frustrated easily, an ex-racehorse isn’t for you’: expert advice if you’re considering retraining off the track

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  • Fred and Rowena Cook run Equine Management and Training, specialising in the retraining of racehorses. They are the authors of Re-educating racehorses — a life after racing.

    Here they offer their top tips for riders thinking about taking on an ex-racehorse…

    Be honest about your own confidence as a rider

    Be realistic about your abilities but, most importantly, your confidence because some ex-racehorses can test this. It is not uncommon for people to tell us their confidence has been shattered. You may be a novice rider but a confident one — experience does not necessarily equate to confidence. If certain behaviours make you nervous then an ex-racehorse is not for you.

    A racehorse in-training is generally a well-behaved one; there is structure and routine ingrained from a young age. When this security blanket is removed horses can behave completely differently until they adjust. Remember that literally everything is new and it can be very daunting for some horses. Horses soon pick up on lack of confidence from handlers and riders, which can lead to poor behaviour from them as they lose their direction.

    The importance of good schooling

    Good schooling skills are important because you are teaching the horse a completely new way of going. Ingrained ways have to be erased and new ones put in place. You won’t be able to go into the sand school, do a few circles and for the horse to suddenly drop its head into a wonderful outline — it won’t use its back and so engagement will be completely non-existent.

    Remember that it is quite likely you will be heavier than anyone else who has been riding, especially as you will be sitting on the horse as opposed to riding with your weight off the horse’s back — it won’t know how to carry weight. In effect, you are working with a newly backed horse that relies totally on you to teach it everything, except that it thinks it does know the rules.

    While having an arena to work in is not a necessity, we recommend using one during the horse’s early work, so it is done in a safer environment as opposed to an open field. It is also very easy for an unbalanced horse to slip on short grass or hard ground.

    It’s all about patience and time

    A lot of patience is required when you take on an ex-racehorse. So if you, as rider, get easily despondent or frustrated at a lack of progress then an ex-racehorse may well not be for you.

    Along with patience goes time. Increasingly, it seems that people are in a rush to prove their skills by having their horse out competing within weeks of leaving training. Yes, some horses may seem to adapt overnight or they may have had some basic schooling while in training.

    Do not be governed by what others are doing with their horse — it is your horse that matters, so work at a pace that is comfortable for the both of you. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to achieve results as long as you can see progress, however slight. The time taken to establish the basics depends entirely on the individual, his temperament and your skills.

    And finally…

    Remember that not all racehorses are used to being hot-shod, they do not travel in trailers, they are not tied up outside their stables under any circumstances and they are not used to standing still while you get on board.

    Your saddle will feel very different too, so allow time to adjust and, while racehorses are often ridden out with riders having longer stirrups, these are still not as long as you might choose ride, so take care with your leg position.

    Don’t miss our ‘Ex-racehorse special’ in Horse & Hound magazine — on sale Thursday, 3 October.

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