Research conducted by Jill Stowe, PhD, associate professor in agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky, and Michelle Kibler, MS, PhD candidate in agricultural and resource economics at Colorado State University, looked at why former racehorses were adopted, and why owners returned them to the adoption agency.
Researchers recently investigated two issues related to the adoption of off-the-track Thoroughbreds: identifying individual horse characteristics that influence the length of stay at an adoption facility, and determining any identifiable horse characteristics that make adopted animals more likely to be returned to the adoption facilities.
Results from the study, conducted by Jill Stowe, PhD, associate professor in agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky, in conjunction with Michelle Kibler, MS, PhD candidate in agricultural and resource economics at Colorado State University, potentially have real-world implications for nonprofit organizations dedicated to rescuing, retraining and re-homing these horses. The Equine Drug Research Council funded the study.
According to the authors, organizations can use these results to identify possible ways to reduce costs and/or maximize the number of horses they can re-home. The study results can also be used to educate racehorse owners and trainers about what types of horses the aftermarket desires most, which might also help them determine the optimal time to put a horse up for adoption.
The study found that horses with fewer activity restrictions, those that were sound enough to do some jumping and those that were young had faster adoption rates.
According to Stowe, the study showed that horses that were sound enough for some amount of jumping were adopted 37 days faster than those that could only be ridden on the flat or were only pasture sound. Additionally, adopters preferred younger horses. Each additional year of age increased the length of stay at the facility by more than three days.
The study also found weak evidence of a color preference for horses, noting that gray horses are adopted about 33 days sooner than bays, and chestnut horses are adopted 24 days sooner than bays.
Horses with fewer activity restrictions were more likely to be returned, as were grays, which led the authors to theorize that adopters who reacted quickly to horses with fewer activity limitations or a certain color might not put as much time into thoroughly evaluating a horse's temperament and overall fit. Those results might imply that it is important for facilities to encourage potential adopters to think seriously about their expectations and needs prior to adoption.
Overall, the researchers found that reasons for returning a horse to its adoption facility are highly variable and unpredictable and might depend more on the owner's personal circumstances rather than the horse's individual attributes.
According to the authors, this study contributes to the larger issue of the unwanted horse. The unwanted horse issue continues to be a major concern in the U.S. equine industry and affects all breeds. Nonprofit organizations dedicated to rescuing, retraining, and re-homing unwanted horses are critical to minimizing this problem.
The study focused on the off-the-track Thoroughbred segment of the unwanted horse population for several reasons. First, there is a steady supply of "unwanted" Thoroughbreds; the relatively large number of racehorses produced yearly combined with a low success rate on the track results in a yearly excess supply of Thoroughbreds. Also, Thoroughbred horse racing is highly visible in the U.S., and unwanted Thoroughbreds often receive the bulk of media attention, even though English or Thoroughbred-type horses are not the most prolific type of unwanted horse. Finally, there is a viable aftermarket for Thoroughbreds, as they are naturally suited for a number of other disciplines, such as combined training, jumping, and dressage, and are often competitive both nationally and internationally.