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My horse is a 12-year-old thoroughbred race horse who was retired after some serious injuries. Most of the time she doesn't want to do anything and doesn't do it willingly. Another part is she thinks what I'm doing is wrong, but my instructor is telling me I'm doing it right.


It has been said that a horse - even more than an elephant - never forgets. Re-training an older horse may well be the most difficult and frustrating task you'll face. Yet it can be done. It takes time, patience and a lot of trying to see things the way your horse does. I've never worked with former race horses, so I went for advice to some folks who have.

Jim Hammond, my son's father-in-law, did that type of re-training when he was a teen. He has some good tips for breaking the old race track habits:

Jim Hammond At the age of sixteen I worked after school and on weekends for a pet store in the small country town of Monroe, CT.

We had more cows than people in those days but we were located within 100 miles of New York City, which meant that many city folk with money had weekend homes in our part of the woods. The pet store owners also had a small ranch and an idea for expanding their business, converting former race horses - THOROUGHBREDS - for city folk to use as riding horses. Simple task? "RIGHT!" Take an absolutely beautiful high-spirited thoroughbred who is trained and used to taking off any time it is near another horse and make it happy to go trail riding.

Our first experience is worth noting. We saddled up and headed for the riding path and as soon as the horses came along side of each other we were off to the races. I was sixteen, young and strong and I could not stop the horse (no way) - all I could do was stay on (we were going so fast). I finally came up with the idea of covering the horse's eyes, which worked, but not nicely. The others either fell, jumped, or rode it out.

You ask for some ideas on how to re-program a race horse. I was sixteen, I'm not a professional, but I can share some of what I remember we did.

I hope this helps.


Erin Burlingham is a young lady from Michigan's Upper Peninsula who has successfully re-trained an ex-racehorse - in this case as a jumper. Erin has also graciously agreed to offer some suggestions on the subject:

When I was 10 years old, my mom went out and bought a 7 year old Thoroughbred mare off the track. Her name is Sweets. I'm not exactly sure how old she was when she stopped racing, but I'm guessing she was out of training when she was 5 or 6. As far as I know, when she wasn't racing, she stood in her stall. They didn't turn her out and she might have been hand walked once or twice a week. Not exactly what she was used to. The one thing you've got to remember is that these horses have basically had no lives; they haven't been allowed to be a horse.

I don't know how long [the person who asked the question] has had her new horse, but I hope she is taking it slow. I didn't jump Sweets for the first year and when I did start to jump it was really low stuff and we'd trot... halt... trot... jump... halt... trot, etc. One thing I did notice with Sweets was at the barn I used to board at. She was in such a controlled enviroment that it literally drove her crazy. We had to move because of that. She was just completely unhappy. Now she's at a barn where she grazes all day and has room to run in her paddock. The day we moved her out there she was a different horse.

One thing that concerns me about your friend's question is that she said she was retired after serious injury. Are you sure she's not happy because she's in pain? You may want to have a professional come out to check her. She may have hip, leg, or back problems that you can't see. We just recently had a chiropractor come out for Sweets. She had a wither area problem and he gave us exercises to do every time I ride. Also, how are her feet? Sweets had no heel when I bought her. Does your horse move freely and happily when no one is on her? You may want to consider all of these things.

You may want to check on some books or magazine articles that may help you more in detail also.

Katie and Jen with Bill
Jennifer MacNeill-Traylor  has a web site and newsletter devoted to the subject of re-training former racetrack Thoroughbreds. She has graciously offered some excellent insights on the topic. (The photo shows her ex-racer, Bill, with a couple of Jennifer's friends. Neither of these ladies has much experience with horses, yet they are obviously having a good time. The photo also shows the type of halter Jennifer uses in re-training Thoroughbreds. Photo by Jennifer MacNeill-Traylor.)

First of all, I would do the opposite of what Jim talked about with the harness. Thoroughbreds hate to be confined and I feel this horse would fight terribly if it had its head tied down.

Erin was correct with two things: A Thoroughbred, providing the injury has healed and it wouldn't run itself to death, needs as much turn out as possible. My horse is a dead quiet gem of a boy if he is turned out 24-7. He has been off the track one year (he raced a long career of seven years - almost unheard of) and can give rides to babies : ) But leave that horse in and he's nuts! The second thing is to definitely make sure the injury is healed. Remember a bowed tendon is still healing even after 15 months! I got my Thoroughbred for free because of a bow and I gave him a full year off (very light work). This also helps them to unwind, learn to be a horse and work out any steriods/drugs they have in their system. A knowledgable horseman told me it takes a full year of being off the track before you notice a huge change in the horse.

So...what would I do with this horse? (What I've done with my own, too.)

1. Have a vet make sure the horse is not in pain and the injury is fully healed.

2. Round penning. This works wonders (as you know, Bob) to get a horse's respect. Without respect you have NOTHING! Without respect on the ground, how can one possibly hope to have a decent ride? Monty Roberts and John Lyons have helpful books/videos for this.

3. More groundwork and longing. Pat Parelli's books are good for this. Longing will help the horse find its balance and follow your body/voice commands. Pat also trains with a rope halter, which I've found very effective on ex-racers. Thoroughbreds on the track are taught to lean into pressure. We want them to move away from it. The rope halter teaches this. Again, get the Parelli book for more info.

4. When riding, it's always good to remember the pressure thing. Because race horses were taught to lean into pressure, the harder you pull their mouth, the harder they will pull and faster they will run. In an emergency, grab one rein and pull hard until his nose is near your knee, it's almost impossible to get run off with this way. I've seen a mustang do it, but that's it.

Another important thing to remember is that a Thoroughbred, especially one that's been on the track for so long, is going to be extremely one-sided. It may very uncomfortable for an older racehorse to travel to the right. Don't fault him on this, work on evening out his muscles (longing, round penning and hill work is good).

Also, don't push the canter, or jumping, if your trot isn't forward, balanced and on the bit. Why try to run a marathon when you haven't learned to jog? Don't ever let a trainer push you further than your or your horse's capabilities. Take lessons on a trained horse if you need to work on your riding.

I wish this girl would get on my mailing list. We have a lot of people (over 190) that have trained ex-racers and would help her out tremendously. I am very big on the natural horseman stuff, herd mare and all of that. It works wonders on ex-racers :)

For additional tips, check Jennifer MacNeill-Traylor's
Retraining Off-Track Thoroughbreds Resource

Catherine Juergens adds this helpful tip based on her experience:

"I myself am retraining a 10 year old and what I did was drive her In a side pull, because I know the throughbreds are trained in bits. She's become a great mare and I actually start all my horses and mules on sidepulls. They are a great deal."

(A side pull is a type of hackamore. For a little more info on side pulls and other hackamores, see Q&A #181.)

Happy Riding!

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