With one of the highlights from the racing calendar, Royal Ascot taking place a few weeks ago, it’s timely for us to release the second installment in our Retraining of Racehorses series. In Part 1, we met Katie Jerram, Jackie & Brian Storey (Retrained Racehorses) and Louise Robson (Thoroughbred Dressage) who shared with us what they look for in an ex-racehorse and the main challenges they face when they first come off the track. We hope you all enjoyed it and thank you to everyone who shared photos of their ex-racehorses with us, it was a pleasure to see how many of you are also enjoying the special relationship that retraining a racehorse brings. If you haven’t had a chance to read Part 1, you can check it out here.

Horse racing

Part 2, focuses on starting work. Our professionals discuss their experience and give tips on how to introduce the horse to its new role, how the training differs to working with non-ex-racehorses and finally what strengths and weaknesses they often hold. So let’s crack on and hear from Katie, Louise, Brian and Jackie themselves;

Our first question was, how would you introduce the horse to their new role?

Louise Robson – Horses that have come to us from the track are almost treated as a breaker as everything is new to them. Firstly, we do a lot of in hand work and mounting block training to teach the horse to stand. We also long rein and lunge them in a Pessoa to build up the horse’s back muscles and when we are ready to get on, we have a lot of people on the ground to help out if required. Fillies usually stay in GP saddles for longer as it takes them more time to build up strength before they go into a dressage saddle.  It’s important to have the right knowledge and experience to take on a racehorse. In their racing career, they were just taught to go forwards so it can be a challenge to maintain the horse’s adrenaline in the right way to avoid bucking or bronking. One tip is to use a lot of treats given by the helper on the ground to teach the horse to go towards the person on the ground rather than run away when their adrenaline gets up! Finally, we also focus on groundwork such as plaiting, riding the horse in plaits and putting on travel boots so this just becomes normal to them.

Lunging ex-racehorse

Brian & Jackie Storey – One piece of advice is don’t spend a fortune on a new saddle when you first get the horse, wait for it to change shape but do ensure that it is always correctly fitted. Also, although it’s tempting, do not over bit! The horse first needs to get use to wearing a proper riding saddle which you can do by long reining under saddle and leaning over to apply some weight whilst the horse is in the stable. You also need to get the horse used to the mounting block rather than leg ups. When riding, start with gentle hacks off road for safety and only in walk and trot. When ready, take them on to the road but with another horse to act as chaperone first. If the horse is anxious in traffic, it’s better to walk past the traffic than let it over take. When to start schooling depends on the temperament and build of the horse.

Katie Jerram – Start with lots of slow work as remember everything is different for them such as the saddle and leg position. Lunging, long reining, long low work and hacking are ideal. When hacking, start to introduce them to working in an outline and also trot up hills to build topline. Once they are hacking happily, you can start to add in school work, but no circles with you on them until they are doing it on the lunge happily and accepting the contact nicely out hacking. We don’t apply force or push them, we just take small steps until they are happy to accept it and allow us to ask a bit more of them. Everything needs to be done sensitively as they are usually not used to pressure from a rider’s seat so they need to be ridden lightly.

Katie Jerram

We then asked, what specific exercises would you do differently with a horse off the track?

Brian & Jackie Storey – Lots of walking and trotting, everything calm, never galloping, all in snaffle mouths and everything relaxed!

Katie Jerram – I would do a lot more transition work out hacking in straight lines and think about my body pressure/posture as they would have been used to jockeys sitting light for years. As racehorses are already established in their existing work, they are not looking for so much guidance and think they understand so they are much harder to retrain compared to a breaker. It’s about retraining the horse’s brain towards going under seat rather than asking too much, too soon by force as it blows their mind. Routine is great as the horse will have learnt to have routine already, so get it into a routine quickly as an undisciplined routine is not good for a racehorse.

Louise Robson – When starting the school work, I reduce the amount of time the horse spends travelling long and low as too much will lead to the horse going on the forehand. Try to keep the horse in a nice soft contact to help push the horse’s hind legs underneath them. Whilst cantering, I usually do not sit on the horse’s back to start with until the horse is strong enough to carry weight. This is because they are not used to having anyone on their backs as the jockey’s just hover over them. The horses are also not forced to walk at the beginning of the session as you do not want to get in to a fight. The horse will get walked for a longer period after then have been worked and are more relaxed. Finally, we don’t hack alone as they’re used to going out in strings of horses and we don’t want to start presenting new ideas when we are trying to get them used to being relaxed and happy.

Hacking in pairs

Finally, we asked, what strengths/advantages do ex-racehorses bring to the table? What do they find easy or struggle with?

Katie Jerram – They can often struggle with correct transitions in the school so don’t force it. Practise transitions out hacking until they improve and come back to it when ready. Competition work can light them up as they expect high performance when they travel! Switch them off by taking them out lots and make travel boring by not putting them under too much pressure for example, you could just graze them at a competition or walk them around to start – so that they realise, travel doesn’t mean performing!

Travelling horses

Louise Robson – They are super intelligent which makes them lovely to train and they are very elegant to look at. They tend to find relaxation very hard to begin with and their conformation can also make things trickier as they can be croup high and flat heeled. They also find it incredibly hard to sit on their hocks as they are not built for it. In addition they are often poor doers and just stress their weight off!

Brian & Jackie Storey – They are the most adaptable horses you’ll ever get. If they’ve had a wind issue they can become anxious when asked for an outline as they are used to working in a frame they can easily breathe in. Usually any bad behaviour comes from being anxious and worrying about something.

That completes Part 2 in this RoR Series. Remember to share your experience below and look out for Part 3 which will be available in a fortnight’s time and will focus on competing.