In light of the ever-growing issue of Thoroughbred aftercare, a series of speakers were invited to share their knowledge at an Oct. 18-19 professional education seminar offered by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance at Keeneland.
On the first day of the conference, topics ranging from how to spend money wisely at aftercare facilities to the psychology of an off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) were discussed.
One of the speakers, Steuart Pittman of the Retired Racehorse Training Project, had an interesting perspective on how to expand markets for ex-racehorses.
Pittman, a horse farm owner from Maryland, educates people about the qualities of Thoroughbreds through symposiums and clinics, horse expos, training publications and videos, social media, off track Thoroughbred horse shows and classes, special awards, and on-track demonstrations.
“The number of registered Thoroughbreds in the sport horse world has declined over the years…why is that?” Pittman questioned.
One of the problems, he said, is the oversupply of ex-racehorses, which results in low prices and low sales commissions of show horse trainers. In fact, many show trainers discourage buyers from Thoroughbreds for this reason alone.
Other factors in the decline in Thoroughbred sport horses include the negative perceptions of the racing industry, aversion of risk, lack of quality training, and failure to portray an accurate description of a Thoroughbred’s positive attributes.
“People think horses off the track are crazy…we need to change that perception and redefine what a safe horse is,” said Pittman, adding that because off-track Thoroughbreds are inexpensive, they often fall into the hands of rookie riders and trainers and don’t excel to their full potential.
Pittman said 350 people from 10 different states had attended his first Retired Racehorse Training Symposium in Maryland, which featured eight horses at different stages in training. The project is preparing to launch a new web site that includes a national off-track Thoroughbred trainer directory.
Some of Pittman’s other ideas for expanding the market for ex-racehorses included forming apprenticeship programs, having OTTB trainer challenges, and launching college-based OTTB training programs.
By expanding the markets for OTTBs, Pittman said horsemen may start considering sport horse credentials in breeding decisions, and Thoroughbred training centers could adapt programs to prepare horses for second careers.
In another session, Kim Smith of Second Stride advised on how to spend horse care dollars wisely.
“Sometimes you have to say ‘no’ to taking in another horse in order to maintain the quality of care with the horses you already have,” she said.
Some of Smith’s other suggestions included investing in quality hoof care, equipment, and fencing to avoid vet bills due to injury; having no more than two horses per acre; doing away with heated water tubs; utilizing local saw mills; and having proper field maintenance for safety purposes and to boost a facility’s image.
Smith noted there are many county, state, and federal grants available to aid in making improvements to one’s facility.
In a session regarding legal topics, Attorney Karl Nobert of K & L Gates gave several recommendations for how aftercare facilities should resolve a breach of contract, while John Polonis of Villanova University School of Law discussed strategies for mitigating risk.
Nobert noted that he does pro bono work for the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses and that many other attorneys may offer such services to help guide aftercare facilities through legal issues.
In sessions regarding what to expect during one’s first 40 days with an OTTB, Dr. Robert Coleman of the University of Kentucky discussed body scoring and building a cost effective feeding program, while Anna Ford of New Vocations outlined the psychology of an ex-racehorse.
“In order for us to understand an OTTB, we must keep in mind what they used to do,” said Ford, who recommended looking up a horse’s previous race and sale records to learn more about its journey.
“Life as they knew it has been turned upside down,” Ford explained. “At New Vocations, we try to keep things as similar to the track as possible and first and then slowly change things to introduce them to their new lifestyle. Thoroughbreds are very adaptable, but you need to show them.”
Ford said making sure stall placement mimics a horse’s usual routine is important, as well as slowly introducing him to unfamiliar items. Other vital steps in helping OTTBs adjust to their new life include a slow transition to being turned out and proper socialization with other horses.
“When a horse does something wrong, it’s often the handler’s fault,” said Ford. “Learn to always ask yourself why.”