Racehorse Rehabilitation & Retraining

How to help your off the track thoroughbred acclimatise to a new life

The simplest things can prove tricky for racehorses to adapt to, such as the legs of a rider being wrapped around their sides.  Many won’t be used to being mounted from the ground.  Only when a horse is comfortable with the basics can the polo training begin.
~  David Morley

The Equine Empathy approach using equine psychology is ideal for rehabilitation of any horse as well as specialising in the retraining and rehabilitation of ex-racehorses straight from the track.  

Barbara Livingston Saddling a racehorse
How not to do it! Photo: Barbara Livingston 2008

David Morley of Retraining of Racehorses and The Hurlingham Polo Association says “Horses have to learn to go on or off the bridle while staying calm, to cope with another horse going alongside without overtaking. Most will take to it eventually, but it’s challenging to teach them”.   Equine Empathy can help you, with providing you with method of how to communicate with your horse to build a relationship of confidence and trust.  main-qimg-b98539e882ef9a0efeb1b2912bdb9055-c

Whether you are taking on a racehorse for polo or any other discipline, re-racehorses have to overcome basics such as learning that a pull on the reins means Slow Down and not Go Faster, as they have been taught all their life in racing!


Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB, says,  “Off-the-track horses probably have many common behavior tendencies that, contrary to our perception, are actually not unique to racehorses. One that makes perfect sense for a horse coming straight off the track or from training stables is the tendency to get wound up whenever taken out for work. We can attribute this to some racing programs’ rigid and/or rushed daily training schedules, where the emphasis is on going fast for short periods. Another interesting behavior stems from these horses being allowed to circle around the handler when excited—usually to the left or counterclockwise. We commonly see this in young stallions transitioning from racing to breeding.

Common behaviours include the tendency to get wound up whenever taken out for work or horses being allowed to circle around the handler when excited”
                                                               ~ Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue also goes on to say, “Similarly, they tend to not turn to the right or to back up well. They also might initially have trouble working clockwise or up and down hills or doing much of anything at the walk. And many racehorses, especially those living for long periods without turnout and/or in the track environment, have a high incidence of the classic equine behavior problems related to the stress of confinement and poor socialization, including stereotypies (e.g., cribbing, weaving, etc.), panic disorders, and wood chewing.”

Bitting, Leading and Handling of Ex-Racehorses

Many people advise to continue using a ‘gag’ bit and bridle set up, as the horse is familiar with this, but in our experience, it is preferable to take away the association with racing and start afresh.  

Under UK racing rules, it is standard procedure for Racehorses to be led around in a ‘Chifney’ bit, sometimes accompanied by a chain twisted through their mouth for ‘control’.  As you can see from the picture below, this horse is terrified.  No wonder it didn’t win its race!

Kongo races
Terrified horse with Chifney bit and twisted chain. Photo: travel-monkey.net
Chifney Bit

Many racehorses are subjected to ‘tongue ties’ during their racing career.  The tongue lolling out of the side of the mouth is usually a reaction to the snaffle-type bit in the mouth (i.e. gag bit) which when pulled means the bit pinches the tongue, hitting the roof of the mouth in the process and effectively suffocating the horse.  Imaging that you had to run for your life with a jointed piece of metal precasting you from breathing effectively… and that will give you an idea of how tolerant these horses are for us humans.

Tongue Tie. Although on the plus side, it is nice to see a leather curb rather than a metal chain

Additionally, some racehorses are subjected to a Dexter Ring Bit:  it looks almost like a cross between a chifney and a snaffle and incorporates a normal looking snaffle bit with a thin wire ring that goes in the horse’s mouth and round his chin. This type of bit is most often used on flat-racers, jumpers and ‘pointers’.  The nutcracker action of the bit and the metal ring makes the Dexter ring bit strong, or in other words harsh, although the people who use it claim “steerability’, not surprising given the harshness of the bit’s action.

Dexter Ring Bit. Photo: Charles Pravata 2009
Dexter Ring Bit
‘Standard’ Dexter Ring Bit, although different variations are also produced.
How much more stuff can you get on a horse’s face? Dexter Ring Bit with grackle noseband to disguise the tongue escaping. Photo: Leslie Potter

Stress and Nutrition in the ex-racehorse


Off the track thoroughbred horses are notoriously difficult to keep weight on, so we can also advise you how to identify what potentially might increase the stress of a horse (which might not seem obvious to a human) and by reducing stress, assist the digestion and nutrition of the horse.TBBloodLauriesCrusador

Some racehorse stables withhold food on the premise that a skinny horse is a fast horse (!) which can cause ulcerations and future digestive problems.  Good, constant nutrition, suited to the new workload is essential.

The Equine Empathy Retraining of Racehorse Service incorporates:

  • Handling / barging through handler
  • Suitability of current bit
  • Mounting issues
  • Tacking up issues
  • Horse’s suitability for its new role/owner
  • Spookiness
  • Equine psychology
  • Equine fitness & nutrition
  • Stopping / bolting
  • Initial assessment of saddle-fit to determine if a qualified saddler should be consulted

Animals are more than ever a test of our character,
of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent,
honorable conduct and faithful stewardship.
We are called to treat them with kindness,
not because they have the rights,
power or a claim to equality,
but in a sense, because they don’t.
They all stand unequal and powerless before us.
~Matthew Scully
(American author, journalist, and speechwriter)


Read more at:  

https://www.ror.org.uk                                        #RetrainingofRaacehorses
http://offtrackthoroughbreds.com                     #offtrackthoroughbreds.com
http://www.afterthefinishline.org/about.htm   #afterthefinishline.org
http://nicroldan.com/polo-ponies-horses/         #NicRoldan.com