There is a perception in the horse world that in order to do well in competition, you need a fancy Warmblood or other well-bred horse. While it certainly helps to have a purpose-bred horse, with careful rehabilitation and the correct training, ex-racehorses can make fantastic riding horses.
Competitions such as Beyond the Barriers, where top New Zealand riders compete against each other to produce an ex-racehorse for multiple disciplines, are contributing to a shift in this perception.
The rise of social media has encouraged multiple racehorse re homing pages; the Thoroughbred Rehoming New Zealand Facebook page has almost 8,000 members and Standardbred Rehoming New Zealand has almost 3,000 members.
While this is all fantastic, little is known about the journey riders face when taking on an ex-racehorse.
In this six part mini-series you will see first hand the trials and tribulations four riders go through in order to give these horses another chance, and just how rewarding that can be.
In Part I, we meet our four riders and their lovely horses who are each being trained in a different discipline: eventing, dressage, showing and pleasure.
RIDER: Jess Land
OCCUPATION: Owner of Jess Land Equestrian
FAVOURITE QUOTE: Doubt kills more dreams than fear ever will.
HORSE: Amadeus (Arnie)
DAM: Diva in Red
WINNINGS: $15, 325
DISCIPLINE: Eventing and show-jumping
Jess started riding in 2007 at Kowhai Riding School before getting her own horse. She has showjumped with success up to 1.20m and evented to pre-novice. She gained her H certificate at Eyreton Pony Club. She was a pupil at Katie Meredith’s from 2012 until 2014 then spent five months developing her jumping with Sally and Phillip Steiner in Tauranga. Upon returning home she started Jess Land Equestrian in August 2014. Jess currently has a team of young horses she is taking through the grades in show jumping and eventing.
“I got my first thoroughbred straight off the track in August in 2014 from Gina Schick who runs EventStars and was converted to them straight away. I love how trainable they are and how quickly they adapt to different situations. In 2015 I was asked to take part in the Dunstan Ex-Factor Competition, run by Beyond The Barriers. It was interesting getting to work with 11 year-old Group One winner, Fritzy. Fritzy was a great example of how quickly ex-racehorses can adjust to life as a sporthorse.
I got Arnie off the track in February. I had no intention of adding another horse to the team but while working for Gina I rode him and decided to steal him before anyone else did! His loose paces and scopey jump along with his workmanlike attitude appealed to me. On ride two he was standing still to let me open gates and by the fifth ride I was jumping him bareback. He has been fairly straightforward so far, although when he gets overwhelmed he stops still to process things before switching back on.
The best thing I’ve found with ex-racehorses is to take them out and let them see everything. Doing this helps them realise that they won’t end up at a racetrack every time they set foot on the truck. I took Arnie to a show jumping training day to jump some 70cm rounds and he coped really well. I then took him to a one day event in the introductory class. Our dressage test had some nice moments but we still have plenty to work on. He did get the comment “plenty of impulsion!” which definetly needs channeling!
He was clear in the show jumping and bold in the first half of the cross country before I pulled him up as he became tired. I wanted to end things on a good note, which is very important with green horses. After the event I gave him a quiet week where he had a dentist check-up and some body work done. Next week I will bring him back in for some more training, and next month I aim to take him to another event.”
RIDER: Yvette Morrissey
FAVOURITE QUOTE: If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.
HORSE: Keeparunnin (Bomba)
WINNINGS: $25, 825
DISCIPLINE: Dressage and showing
Yvette started riding at age nine after begging her mother for lessons. She stuidied equestrian at Kyrewood Equestrian Centre and holds a National Certificate in Sporthorse Level 4 and is also a qualified riding instructor. Her main focus is dressage, but does the odd bit of showing to mix things up. She represented the Manawatu West Coast team at the NZPCA Dressage Championships where her team placed sixth and she placed seventh individually. She has two ex-racehorses who she is retraining for dressage and showing.
“Bomba had a one-way ticket booked to the slaughterhouse after he had retired from racing due to a tendon injury. Luckily, his trainer saved him. He rested for 14 months, and the tendon healed. He was sold to a show jumping family, but it was soon apparent he didn’t care to keep the poles on the cups! Luckily, he had good conformation, lovely movement, and amazing temperament. It was love at first ride.
The day he arrived I took him for a quiet hack. I love hacking- it exposes the horse to a lot and is a great trust building exercise. There was all sorts to look at- geese, sheep, even llamas! I also swear by lunging. When done properly, it’s a great training tool. Not only is it good for letting the horse burn off any steam, but it helps to build muscle, flexibility and teach voice commands from the ground. I have prevented myself from being carried away by a flighty horse many times because I have taught them that ‘whoa’ means slow down and relax! I also feel that if the horse cannot do something by himself (e.g. have correct bend on the circle) how can he do it with a rider on his back?
I use the Pessoa training system for lunging. I think it’s great because the bum rope encourages the horse to step under himself (stretching and lifting the back muscles) while the ropes running through the bit encourage the horse to lower his head by putting pressure on the mouth.
My first few rides on Bomba told me a few things. Firstly, he’s quite stiff on the right rein (unsurprising as most horses are stiff on one rein). Secondly, he doesn’t yet have an established rhythm and bounces between being speedy and lazy. He also needs to gain weight and build muscle. In order for him to become a successful competition horse, I have some polishing to do!
My ultimate goal with Bomba is to compete him at Horse of the Year in both dressage and the Rising Star classes, but at this stage I will be happy to just get out and compete as it has been a while!”
RIDER: Claire Madden
LOCATION: Kumeu, Auckland
OCCUPATION: HR Assistant
FAVOURITE QUOTE: “I don’t care if your trip was a shoo in for champion or you got disqualified at the first fence. You walk out of that ring, pat your horse and thank him for not killing you because you know damn well he could have.”
HORSE: Major Ouch (Ouch)
DAM: Ouch La Fe Fe
SIRE: Art Major
Claire started riding when she was four years-old, after following her godmother around hoping she would get the chance to ride one of her horses. She was able to lease a pony named Calico who was the ultimate Barbie pony being a palomino with a blaze and white socks. She was a member of the winning Springston Trophy team in 2000, and was also a member of the Canterbury Area Eventing squad. She has had vast success with showing Standardbreds, including winning Reserve Inhand Standardbred of the Year in 2012, Overall High Points Standardbred of the Year with the North Island Standardbred Association in 2015 and Reserve Ridden Standardbred of the Year in 2016.
“After working at Nevele R Stud I fell in love with Standardbreds. Like many people, I never considered them as competition horses. I always said when I gave up competitive riding I would get one as a happy hacker. Ten years later, I got my first Standardbred and discovered what a smart, versatile and completely undervalued breed they are.
My history with Major Ouch began in 2010 when I was based in Christchurch and travelling to Auckland with race teams for my boss. At that stage Ouch was a promising young racehorse who was being aimed at two year-old stakes races. As a joke I said to his owner that if Ouch retired, they were welcome to drop him off in my paddock!
Ouch came to me retired through injury. He was people sour and didn’t know how to deal with other horses.
The first six months consisted of hand walking, massages and stretches to release and free up his back muscles so he could stretch his neck to he ground and trot, not pace. Over time and he accepted me and we moved onto the next phase- breaking in.
Ouch handled this process well- in fact he was half asleep most of the time! Standardbreds have been trained to move forward from rein action- slapping them on the rump means go. There was one moment when I kicked him a little too hard and all four hooves went up about six feet in the air. Lesson learnt! Ouch is pretty good with trotting under saddle, however he will revert to a pace if he becomes unbalanced. A half-halt usually fixes this.
During this series I will be refining Ouch’s canter which he struggles to maintain for more than one circle. I will also work on lightening his front end as he has a tendency to over-bend and go on the forehand.”
RIDER: Jax Van Buuren
OCCUPATION: Mother/ Radio Announcer
FAVOURITE QUOTE: Persistance can change failure into extraordinary achievement.
HORSE: Buffalo Ben (Wills)
DAM: Princess Dower
SIRE: Buffalo Man
WINNINGS: $0- but sold for $18,000 as a yearling
Jax’s father bred racehorses so she wasin the saddle from a young age. Her first pony was a little grey called Pancho. She competed in showing and a bit of jumping when she was a teenager. At age 15 she stopped riding, however while on holiday the place she was staying at had horses which inspired her to get back in the saddle and she hasn’t looked back since! She is married to David and together they have an adorable five year-old daughter, Grace.
“I found Wills when I was just ‘looking’ at the Thoroughbred Rehoming Facebook page and saw a long, lean gelding by Buffalo Man- the stallion that my family had at the stud. Wills was rather unsuccessful as a racehorse: he raced once and only beat his tail home! I rang my sister who works with the young horses up to the sales stage and told her his breeding. She said ‘Grab him- lovely type and a very sensible boy!’ He was free to a good home and I think it’s pretty cool that he came back to where he was born for ‘recycling’. To have taken on a horse that had been discarded to give him a new lease on life is an amazing feeling.
I’m wanting to train Wills the correct way- I’m in no hurry. I’m receiving plenty of help from my wonderful eventing neighbours- Kate and Juliet Wood.
So far I have been plesantly surprised at how sensible he is considering he hasn’t done a lot. He’s a very quick learner and really keen to answer any questions I ask him.
I’ve done heaps of groundwork with him and taken the time to lunge and hack out to get him going forward from my leg. All this has built up his trust in me.
The one difficulty I’ve had is trying to put weight on him. He was quite skinny when I first got him, as a lot of ex-racehorse are when they are let down from racing. I’ve been feeding him extruded rice and a cereal and protein mix with extra oil. He’s been on that for six weeks now and I’m noticing a big difference in his coat and condition. By the end of this mini-series I’d like to have Wills out and about, jumping nicely, behaving well and working in a nice balanced rhythm ready to start competing next season.” .