Di Arbuthnot on making racehorses fashionable and giving them a new life, as told to Camilla Swift
I first became involved with Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) in 2003, through being on the Sandown Racecourse committee. The racecourse chairman, Andrew Parker Bowles, asked me to do a study to find out what happened to horses when their racing days were finishing. I spent three months travelling around the country seeing trainers, owners, racecourses and breeders. Once I had finished the study, it quickly became a full-time job.
My husband trained Flat racehorses and I race rode as an amateur, so it was already on my conscience; what happens to these horses I’m riding out every day? With RoR now in its 20th year, it’s something that people are far more aware of.
When I was doing the study, I bumped into the trainer Mark Johnston at the sales. He had received a letter asking whether he would sponsor a show class for thoroughbreds. He said to me, “Why don’t you look at doing some activities specifically for these horses?” That seemed a sensible way to go. Nowadays, we have a lot of classes and activities in every equestrian discipline, specifically for racehorses.
It’s all about showing that there is a life after racing to the general public, the equestrian world and the racing community. Some of these horses retire at a young age, so they have plenty of petrol in the tank. If you give them another life, then they’re looked after when their racing days are over, and are far less likely to end up as welfare cases.
One of the first big RoR classes we put on in the early days was at Hickstead. This was driven by the late John Dunlop and that drew some professionals to take part. It was a question of trying to make the racehorse fashionable again, the horse that people wanted to take on. A lot of it was about relationship building, getting people like Yogi Breisner and Tina Cook on board.
Nowadays, the majority of our work is at grassroots level. We do run high-profile events, but it’s the regional events – the camps, clinics and low-level dressage – which are most important. In 2006, the number of horses registered with RoR for showing was 270. Now it’s more than 3,500. For dressage the number has risen from zero to more than 4,000 in that timespan, and similar for eventing.
Our expenditure is split about 50/50 between the welfare side and training and educational activities. There are, of course, horses that slip through the net and need support. The number of horses that went through the vulnerable horse system last year was only 103, so it isn’t a vast problem. There are also rare emergency relief cases, where we would work with bodies, such as World Horse Welfare or the RSPCA, if a thoroughbred is found abandoned or neglected.
My favourite event is still Hickstead because the horses look so amazing at that level. But just before lockdown, I went to watch one of our camps in Cheshire. It was like Pony Club camp for adults. There were 40 horses, none of them well known. But they were all having such a great time, in the pouring rain. I came away thinking, “That’s why we are doing this.” Those horses are so loved, each one of them so special to their owners. That is probably what I’m most proud of.
One idea that interests me going forwards is using ex-racers for therapy. The Greatwood centre already does work with children, but we also sent a sprinter up to HorseBack UK where Jock Hutchison (All in a day’s work, 4 June issue) does a marvellous job working with military veterans. I think it works well for them because the thoroughbred is an intelligent breed – there’s a lot more we could do in that area.
Ref Horse & Hound; 1 October 2020