Preparing an ex-racehorse for the show ring *H&H VIP*

  • When his racing days came to an end last year, Saint Are’s connections were keen that the 12-year-old National Hunt hero should enjoy an “active retirement”. Despite having tackled the Grand National a demanding five times, twice finishing in the top three, “Arnie” was in good shape — once he had recovered from the crashing fall he suffered during his final attempt at the race.

    With the versatility of a true athlete, Arnie has since flourished in a new career. We look back at his development from legendary chaser into budding show horse…

    April 2018

    Arnie is running well in his fifth Grand National when he is brought down by another horse at The Chair. After assessment by veterinary experts, he returns to trainer Tom George’s Down Farm for a summer holiday at grass.

    Plans are made for Arnie’s retirement. Justine Armstrong-Small and Rebecca Court, who retrained 2017 Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) horse of the year Beware Chalk Pit, hear about the thoroughbred gelding through show judge Lucy Killingbeck, who describes him as “exquisite”.

    July 2018

    Justine and Rebecca visit Arnie. “We could see he had beautiful, clean limbs and was correctly put-together, with a kind, intelligent eye,” says Rebecca. “He had exciting potential.”

    August 2018

    Arnie moves to Team Armstrong’s Essex yard, as part of the new Are Saint Syndicate. “Tom provided Arnie’s medical history, including worming, vaccination and dental, and talked us through his diet, routine and character,” says Rebecca. “Arnie is laid-back and settled straight away. The first step was to give him a health assessment.”

    Dr Susanna Ballinger MRCVS, of Ballinger Equine, recalls: “Arnie arrived a little on the light side, as is often the case when a formerly race-fit horse has been out of training. A brief examination revealed no obvious limb injuries, but his pelvis was much lower and less muscled on one side, most likely due to an old injury.

    “We discussed a return-to-work programme, based primarily on hacking,” adds Susanna, who also recommended a feed supplement to assist muscle development. “Arnie needed to develop general condition and, importantly, topline muscle for core strength and stability.”

    Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy physiotherapist Susie Grady found Arnie was quite sore in the lumbar region and through the epaxial (long back) muscles.

    After his fall and being let down for summer, he needed help to develop the correct musculature and flexibility for showing.

    “The aim with ex-racehorses is to develop suppleness and create symmetry through the back, hindquarters and shoulders,” says Susie. “We talked about working him long and low.” Arnie starts a steady build-up of hacking and groundwork, combined with turnout.

    October 2018

    Arnie is on a high-fibre, low-protein feeding plan, devised by Spillers nutritionist Vanessa Allen: three daily meals of slow-release energy cubes and an oil-based supplement.

    “As his work increased, his diet was gradually changed to conditioning fibre, conditioning cubes and a balancer,” says Justine. “He also has ad-lib haylage and hay.”

    Schooling is introduced slowly. “Arnie wasn’t used to working in small circles on the bridle,” Justine explains. “We began long-reining and basic exercises, such as walk-trot transitions, figures of eight and leg-yield.

    “He is an incredibly intelligent horse and, like most thoroughbreds, very responsive. To keep his brain focused, we supplemented hacking and turnout with exercises over trotting poles. He isn’t at all fizzy while hacking, alone or in company, so we made good use of hills to build muscle strength.”

    November 2018

    Once Arnie has adjusted to his new lifestyle and spent around 10 weeks hacking, Susanna re-examines his way of going and reviews progress in building condition and fitness prior to commencing a schooling programme for his rehabilitation as a show horse.

    “I watched Arnie walk and trot in-hand and performed flexion tests on all limbs,” she says. “These were unremarkable, and considering his formidable racing career, really quite good.

    “Next, I examined him on the lunge, without any aids, so I could see him moving unimpeded. This was followed by my watching him worked when ridden in normal tack with a little guidance.

    “Arnie has a ‘racehorse’ way of going, and it was decided to continue schooling and improve muscular development around Arnie’s topline and pelvis,” adds Susanna.

    “Susie Grady was then able to assist this process with physiotherapy, addressing any minor issues and advising on beneficial stretches and exercises to complement the schooling regime.”

    January 2019

    Arnie’s muscle development improves with controlled exercise and physio. As his fitness increases, his physique and self-carriage develop.

    “We’ve always ridden him in a simple snaffle bridle with a cavesson noseband,” says Justine. “He has a huge canter stride, so the process of establishing the groundwork to enable him to canter around an arena was long. Ex-racehorses tend to find it difficult to sit on their hocks, so lots of transitions and canter work out in the fields helped.”

    The team takes Arnie to a showing clinic to familiarise him with the arena environment and the idea of standing still — a big ask for a former racehorse.

    February 2019

    After some unaffiliated dressage outings, Arnie wins at his first unaffiliated novice show. Later in spring, he notches up a novice RoR win at Keysoe, and an in-hand victory at Royal Windsor.

    June 2019

    Arnie steals the show at Horseheath, with in-hand and ridden wins on grass.

    Future plans include taking part in RoR retrained racehorse classes, SEIB racehorse to riding horse classes and British Show Horse Association riding horse classes, with some jumping during the winter.

    “He has always had an elevated and free-moving step across all paces, so a large part of his retraining has been about channelling and controlling that power and movement for the ride judge,” says Rebecca. “It’s so rewarding to see him happy and settled in his new routine.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 8 August 2019