How to give ex-racehorses a flying start in a new discipline *H&H VIP*

  • Whether as a happy hacker or top-level competitor, a thoroughbred racehorse can have a fantastic second career. But a new lifestyle will be a big change, as most have been raised with carefully managed routines.

    In both Flat and National Hunt (NH) racing, horses are trained with the aim of winning. Body systems are conditioned to optimise speed, strength and endurance, in order to maximise cardiovascular, respiratory and musculoskeletal capacity.

    Horses in training are likely to have limited turnout, if any. Reintroduction to grazing should be gradual to prevent the risk of colic, as well as the potential to be unsettled by the comparatively wide-open spaces of the field.

    A training diet typically comprises smaller amounts of forage and increased quantities of high-energy, cereal-based feed. It is recommended to give most newly homed former racehorses ad-lib hay, but be aware that thoroughbreds are often fussy eaters and may need to be tried on different types of forage.

    Instead of trying to improve condition and topline in the first few weeks, offer small, frequent amounts of easily digestible, high-fibre feeds with oil as the source of energy. Other feeds may be introduced, as appropriate, once the horse has settled.

    Despite every care and attention, musculoskeletal injuries do occur in training. These may be acute, with sudden onset, or as a result of low-grade repetitive strain. If planning a high level of athletic activity with your ex-racehorse, do some research by speaking to his connections and checking racingpost.com for any long gaps in his racing career. There may be some wear and tear if he has raced often, but this means he is likely to be sufficiently resilient — both physically and mentally — for his new purpose.

    Race training generally involves high-intensity exercise in a straight line or on a sweeping circle, so a switch to being ridden with a contact on a surface can put pressure on different elements of the musculoskeletal system and may exacerbate lameness. The horse must also adjust to changes in tack and riding style.

    With an understanding of how these equine athletes have been managed, however, most hurdles can be overcome.

    A second chance

    National Hunt hero Saint Are was twice placed in the Grand National before retirement from racing last year. Now based with Justine Armstrong-Small, “Arnie” has started a successful second career in showing.

    We’ve stripped him off to highlight potential problem areas for other former racehorses:

    1. Limbs, joints, feet
    Conformational problems can give rise to racing injuries. Flat front feet with low heels increase the risk of tendon injuries, due to strain on the back of the leg, while offset knees, “back at the knee” conformation and long pasterns can all put extra pressure on joints.

    In skeletally immature animals, such as young Flat racehorses, repetitive training can lead to sore shins and stress fractures — commonly to the tibia or pelvis. These generally heal with conservative management and time out of training and, once resolved, are unlikely to cause future issues for ex racehorses.

    Acute subchondral bone pain can cause distension (swelling) of the fetlock joint, which can be difficult to identify on radiographs (X-rays). Chronic subchondral bone injury can lead to a “pottery” way of going and cause a “bunny-hopping” action at canter. These injuries often create less concern in a different discipline, but can lead to osteoarthritis.

    Adaptations to bone within joints can manifest as osteoarthritis, causing spurs and extra bone, or chip fractures. Pain can occur in all the carpal (knee) joints but specifically in the middle carpal joint of racehorses, causing discomfort on knee flexion and a shuffling gait. These changes may settle over time.

    The superficial flexor tendons of the forelimb are the most common site of tendon injury, from mild inflammation to overt tendinitis and tears within the tendon. These injuries are often career-ending and require extensive rest and rehabilitation. Fibrous areas are likely to remain in the tendon and may rule out strenuous activity like eventing.

    Suspensory ligament injuries are more common in NH horses and may remain undetected until the limb is grossly swollen or there is associated lameness. Long-term issues may arise, especially with lots of schooling in an arena.

    2. Neck and spine
    Neck issues commonly occur in NH horses following falls. Fractures are either catastrophic or repair without lasting concerns, so should not adversely affect future athleticism.

    Spine issues can be more problematic. Impingement of the dorsal spinous processes (kissing spines) is not uncommon and may interfere with retraining. Surgical treatment may be necessary.

    3. Pelvis
    Pelvic stress fractures are common in young Flat racehorses, whereas traumatic pelvic injuries can occur in NH horses. Pelvic asymmetry, where the quarters are not muscled to the same degree (best viewed from behind), can occur following injury. This is unlikely to cause further problems once resolved, unless the asymmetry is very marked.

    4. Feet
    A combination of genetic conformation and inadequate hoof care means that many thoroughbreds have poor feet.

    Long toes and low heels contribute to lameness, notably superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT) concerns, but primary foot pain is also a problem as thoroughbreds have thin soles which are susceptible to bruising and corns.

    Feet can be improved with good balance and heel support, along with the use of hoof pads and putty, in appropriate cases.

    5. Wind
    Minor respiratory issues in training, such as infections and dust allergies, can cause loss of performance. This is of milder concern in less demanding disciplines, and inflammatory airway disease from allergens can be managed well.

    Other wind problems include laryngeal paralysis and bleeding from the nose when galloped (exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage). While few  ex racehorses will reach the athletic and respiratory capacity for wind conditions to be an issue, further investigation is wise if you hope to event the horse at higher levels.

    6. Digestion
    A dental examination is a must, as is a faecal worm egg count if a de-worming history is not available. Ask your vet about an appropriate management programme.

    Racehorses in training are prone to gastric ulcers, due to a diet of high-cereal feed, minimal forage and lack of grazing. The only accurate method of diagnosis is gastroscopy, to examine the stomach lining. Targeted treatment can then be given, with dietary and management changes, which should resolve the ulcers and help prevent further issues.

    7. Behaviour
    Stereotypical behaviours (box walking, windsucking, crib-biting or weaving) may be present, but often become less severe once the horse is removed from the training environment. Even so, some ex-racehorses can be temperamentally unsuitable for some new homes.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 1 August 2019