Before you take the plunge, learn what to be wary of as well as what to expect
When I bought my retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Dorado, I did just about everything wrong: I didn’t have a history on him, I didn’t know how old he was, and I didn’t have my veterinarian perform a prepurchase exam. But I’d fallen in love. Nine years later, he’s 22 going on 5, and although he’s still in work, he requires regular (and expensive) veterinary care to help manage the lasting effects of injuries he sustained during his six years on the track.
The bottom line here? I got lucky! My horse has stayed sound with this maintenance, helped me become a better rider and horsewoman, and taught me just how important it is to carefully manage every aspect of your horse’s health care program. But there’s an easier way to get the ex-racehorse of your dreams. Here, we’ll get you started on the correct path to choosing an off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) or other retired racehorse, and our sources will share some important points to consider when evaluating prospects.
Why Do Horses Retire from Racing?
Horses’ racing careers end for a variety of reasons. Some have had successful runs, and their owners decide they’ve had enough. Others just aren’t fast or interested enough in racing to make training efforts and expenses worthwhile. And still others retire due to injury.
These athletes typically begin race training by the spring of their 2-year-old year, says Chris Newton, DVM, a partner at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, in Lexington, Kentucky, as well as an OTTB owner. But their actual racing careers are generally quite short, due to the lure of the breeding shed (if the horse is successful) and the physiological demands of the sport.
If a horse gets injured, for instance, “many owners don’t have the patience to continue because it costs them money on a daily basis to wait for the horse (to heal),” Newton says. “If you’re looking at an eight-month layup, that horse might be looking at a year and a half before it’s going to get back into a race. And if you’re paying $35 to $40 per day to board it somewhere during its time off, and then $75 to $100 per day during its training period, you’re looking at substantial financial input as an owner. And if you don’t see significant potential for return on investment, oftentimes those horses are shifted.”
Retiring from racing due to injury doesn’t always preclude a horse from having a second career, Newton says, but “it depends on what the injury is, obviously, and it depends on how much damage there is. There are a lot of individuals that have injuries, but injuries that are not going to prevent them from having longer careers as a sport horse.”
Take a horse that’s had his arthritic knee injected multiple times, he says, but just can’t stay comfortable enough to race.
“You turn it out for six to nine months and let everything settle down, the arthritis quiets, you might lose a little bit of range of motion,” he says. “But oftentimes horses with knee injuries generally go on and make fantastic sport horses.”
A horse’s number of starts is irrelevant to its future soundness.
Some injuries do, however, put limitations on affected horses, says Kerri Burke, founder and executive director of the RE-RIDE Quarter Horse Adoption Program, in Maysville, Ohio.
“Soft tissue injuries, such as tendon strains or bowed tendons … may limit some potential second careers such as jumping or barrel racing,” she says. “Horses with this type of injury are usually best suited for flatwork such as (lower-level) dressage, hunter under saddle, or trail, where there isn’t as much strain or demand on the injured area.”
Burke also says a club foot—especially one caused by an injury—can potentially limit a horse’s athletic ability, but many affected horses can be maintained for soundness and at least low-impact riding with proper farriery and veterinary care.
Racehorses retire with a varying number of starts under their belts. And while it’s a useful statistic to know going forward, you shouldn’t base your decision solely on it.
“A horse’s number of starts is irrelevant to its future soundness,” explains Steuart L. Pittman Jr., founder and board chair of the Retired Racehorse Project and an upper-level three-day eventer based in Davidsonville, Maryland. “Horses that are proven to be sound in racing tend to stay sounder longer than untested horses whose bone density and ligament strength were not enhanced as young horses. What we call ‘war horses’—the ones with over 50 races—are hot commodities because they have proven soundness and have years of experience. Think of all the professional training these horses have gotten—they tend to be unflappable.”
What to Look For
“A well-proportioned horse with good conformation and a willing attitude will make an asset to any program,” Burke says.
Every rider looks for something different in their ideal mounts, based on their chosen discipline and preferences, when shopping for a retired racehorse. Newton shared his top three things he watches for in an OTTB prospect, regardless of which direction you want to take him:
Ideally, you’ll want to look for a horse with clean joints (no evidence of damage on radiographs). This gives you, essentially, a clean slate as your horse progresses in his new career. But don’t automatically turn down a horse with minor issues. As we’ve noted, minor wear and tear doesn’t always mean a horse can’t have a successful second career. However, avoid horses with serious joint pathology—including severe, chronic arthritis or extensive cartilage damage—if you’re looking for a competition horse. These horses not only have short second careers but also end up costing a lot of money; maintaining joints for comfort can be expensive.
A good attitude will go a long way in turning a racehorse into a sport horse. Newton says it’s crucial to carefully evaluate a potential purchase’s mental aptitude. “I think this is incredibly important,” he says. “Racehorses are bred to be explosive. And they’re trained to be explosive. The loudspeakers and goings on at all types of horse shows significantly resemble the racetrack to these horses, so they will manifest that behavior.”
Over time, he says, some horses will settle and become less high-strung. But there’s no guarantee this will happen: “Sometimes it is nearly impossible to remove that explosiveness from females that come off the racetrack. Males are a little easier, but oftentimes it’ll take you a year or two.”
Be honest with yourself. Decide in advance whether you’re capable of handling a hot horse, and if not, keep looking until you find one more suited to your needs.
Way of going
The third thing Newton says to look for is a horse with light movement. “There can be (minor) conformational problems,” he says. “But if the horse moves like a butterfly, so to speak—really light and floaty across the ground—those horses go on to compete for long periods of time in spite of having physical limitations.”
Conversely, Newton says horses that are built with long backs and a flat pelvis have a harder time carrying themselves and often become heavy on their front end: “They rarely can deal very well with conformational faults or injuries that have affected them while racing.”
Pittman agrees. “Conformation flaws are something to consider in all breeds, but they are only a part of the story,” he says. “A horse with a crooked front leg that has run 30 races, has clean radiographs, and no sign of injury is more likely to stay sound than a horse with a straight leg that has never been tested.”
He also recommends taking a good look at an ex-racehorse’s feet. “Thoroughbreds tend to have thin soles, and racehorses tend to be shod with longer toes, often leading to underrun heels,” Pittman says. “Some horses are born with better feet than others, and a good farrier and good nutrition can improve what is there, somewhat.”
What Might be a Red Flag?
It’s clear that horses recover and bounce back with more success from certain types of injuries than others. Those that can be challenging to rehabilitate include damage to the suspensory attachment at the sesamoids or to articular cartilage in the front fetlock, Newton says.
“There are a lot of horses that will have very active (or inflamed) and unhappy fetlock joints that if you give them a year, the range of motion in that fetlock joint will reduce and then they’ll be sound and static,” he says. “The problem with that is they have a certain number of reinjuries or a certain number of times it can reinflame before they often become permanently lame. So I think you have to be very cautious in how you manage that.”
Pittman adds, “The most common reason for me to turn away a good horse off the track is arthritic changes or loss of cartilage in the ankles, and I think it is more common than it used to be due to the overuse of certain joint injections in young horses. It’s a sad thing when any joint becomes arthritic in a young horse, and it happens in all breeds and all sports.”
Another issue Newton says to approach with caution is stifle injuries. “That tends to be something that often limits their racing career because they’re usually developmental,” he says. “It shortens their racing career significantly or even prevents them from getting to the racetrack in the first place. And because we’re looking at really engaging the hind end in the transition to a sport horse world, they struggle tremendously with that.”
Burke adds that Quarter Horses “often will retire from the track with soft tissue injuries such as bowed tendons and tendon strains and tears that can limit the potential for second careers, depending on the severity of the injury.”
She also says long pastern bone and other major fractures—including those that require arthrodesis (surgical fusion of the joint)—are “very career-limiting and should be avoided for any performance-intended career.”
One important tip: Include your veterinarian when considering ex-racehorse prospects. He or she will be able evaluate the horse and let you know if the animal has the potential to meet your needs. If the horse isn’t suited for what you’d like to do, it’s best to pass on him and keep looking. There are plenty of racehorses out there ready for their second careers.
Should I have my Vet do a Prepurchase Exam?
It’s a familiar conundrum when considering an ex-racehorse, especially one with a small price tag: Do I really need a prepurchase exam? Especially if you’re buying the horse for competition or for resale, Newton recommends these exams.
“I think, as a veterinarian, that they’re incredibly important,” he says. “If you go look at a horse that’s being sold for $500 or $800 or $1,500 or being given away, people will roll their eyes pretty heavily when a veterinarian shows up to do a significant prepurchase with flexions and X rays and everything.”
The most common reason for me to turn away a good horse off the track is arthritic changes or loss of cartilage in the ankles.
But there are several reasons Newton considers these visits so important. One is because most of these horses are so young—generally 3 to 5 years old—they might have a significant injury that’s not producing any clinical signs when you look at the horse for purchase.
“After 90 days in work he starts having chronic lameness, and that chronic lameness is not resolvable with surgical or medical treatment,” he says. “Then you’re really facing a very difficult decision. Option 1 is trying to place him into one of the adoption programs. Option 2 is euthanizing him. Option 3 is paying board on him (or housing him) for the next 25 years. That might prevent you from giving another horse that is capable of doing things a good home because you have to maintain it. To me, that’s a difficult financial and emotional decision to make.”
Prepurchase exams are also beneficial if your plan is to resell an ex-racehorse following some training. “And these days when you’re competing horses in any pursuit in the sport horse world, if you don’t have your own farm, and with feed, veterinarian, and farrier expenses, etc., you’ve got probably $8,000 a year in it,” says Newton.
So if you’ve gone into it blindly without a prepurchase, “put a year or two in the horse, and the buyers do a prepurchase where they find significant lesions that will prevent (the horse) from having a career, you will have a significant financial hit that you might not recover from,” he says.
Once you’ve chosen your ex-racehorse, it’s time to bring him home and introduce him to his new life. Pittman offers these words of advice: “Remember that these horses love to work. They love to move their bodies. They thrive on routine. They trust a firm hold. They want nothing more than to find peace and harmony. Put them where they are comfortable. Adjust their lives gradually. They really are the kindest horses on the planet. Treat them with respect, and you will be enriched.”