Re-Educating the Racehorse – Part 1


Readers of THM, have, without knowing it, long been acquainted with Rupert the Racehorse. He first starred as a foal in a feed ad (our own horses are always pretty handy when it comes to finding models), and has made the odd appearance in the pages of THM ever since.

Rupert was the ultimate lucky buy. Roz and I were at William Inglis’ Oakland Junction Thoroughbred Sales, looking for mares suitable to breed to Warmblood stallions for dressage horses. We loved Cava Lass the minute we saw her, she was such a good looking, nice moving mare, but since she was in foal to the fashionable Rubiton, we figured she was going to be way outside our budget.

When the bidding stalled at $2,300, Roz gave me a nudge that practically broke a rib. I waved at my friend Peter Heagney who was waving the gavel on the auctioneer’s platform, and for $2,400 she was ours.

And dutifully foaled an elegant little bay colt – Rupert.

When he was about 18 months old, Peter Heagney rang me. ‘You know the mare you bought – her first foal has just won three races, including one in the city!’ All plans for Rupert to go eventing went out the window, and with the assistance of Cranbourne trainer, Nevin Eades, he became Rupert the racehorse. Perhaps not a top racehorse, although if he’d bibbed instead of bobbed at the opening meet of the Spring Carnival, at Caulfield, he would have been a city winner. Still he won nearly 150 K, more than paid his way, and gave us a bit of fun along the way.

Last prep, Rupert said he’d had enough, after over 70 starts, he was finished being Rupert the Racehorse, it was time for a career change.

Once again, Rupert’s need dovetailed with the magazine’s – what a perfect specimen for a great new series, Re-Educating the Racehorse…

So, we contacted one of the more talented (not to say photogenic) of the local riders, Vanda Morgan and asked if she would be Rupert’s re-trainer. Luckily Vanda said she had the time, and we were away.

We wanted to treat the series as much as possible as if we were part of that great legion of Australian horse riders who find their equestrian partner on the track – so we did what any smart purchaser should do – asked a good equine vet to check the horse out.

Dr Hugh Cathels is an equine vet with a ‘hands on’ style all of his own – and Hugh is no armchair theorist, he is a successful trainer of trotters and gallopers in his own right, and in keen demand on the performance horse scene on Victoria’s horsey Mornington Peninsula.

What should we be looking at when we consider buying a racehorse to re-train for one of the equestrian disciplines?

“You should be looking at age of horse, how many starts it has had, ability of the trainer, gentleness of the trainer, gentleness of the horse. Generally speaking the more starts they have, after a certain point, the more worn out their knees and fetlocks are likely to be. However, generally speaking, the more starts they have had, the more likely they are to be tractable. A horse that is good enough to have 75 starts has obviously got a bit of athletic ability and is obviously likely to be fairly tractable – but he is also likely to be a little worn out.”

“Ideally you would like a four year old without much ability, one that has won three races out of 20 starts – when they get up to 70 plus starts that is equivalent to an eventer who has had five years on the circuit, and they do wear out, they are not machines.”

“Assuming the conformation is good, and they are not going to have 75 starts if their conformation is not good, then look at the horse, look how it moves, and flex its joints – especially its knees and fetlocks, and see how much flexion they have.”

Do you have a problem with what the trainer has given them – say anabolic steroids?

“You are not going to know because it is very hard to tell, but there are some trainers who tend to spell their horses on anabolics. The cutoff point for anabolics is about 30 to 60 days so it is viritually impossible to give a horse an anabolic while it is in work, and if you’ve got a sound horse it is going to be in work for two thirds of its racing life, so it is not likely to have a lot of anabolics.”

“I don’t think the long term effect of anabolics is any big deal. The only thing is if the horse has been on anabolics throughout its racing career, then in its first or second year out of racing, they tend to drop off in terms of muscle – especially if they are tossed in a paddock and only given hay. It’s a problem if they are ‘under nutrionalized’ when they come out of training but if they go ‘cold turkey’ out of the anabolics, and you keep the feed up to them, and put a bit of work on them, it is not a problem.”

“I think steroids is a cheat’s way to train. I don’t use it for any of my trotters, or any of my gallopers either. There’s plenty of ways to train better without having to use them – I don’t encourage anyone to use steroids. If you can train, you get better results without using them. They are used for people who over-train their horses and can’t keep them eating, or don’t feed their horse enough when they spell it.”

“Any horse that goes out for a spell usually drops off for a couple of weeks, and then puts on weight. The trainers and the eventing people who spell horses – and are impatient – say ‘it’s not eating’ so they give it a shot of anabolics and it starts to eat straight away. If they were patient and waited another week, the horse would start to eat anyway. It is just a lazy man’s way of training a horse.”

What about Pentosan?

“Pentosan/Cartrophin, doesn’t have many side effects at all, but it can be said that it might increase your chances of a horse bleeding during a race, to my knowledge, that’s about the only side effect that is documented, however it is also a slight pain killer, not a very effective one – probably a quarter to a tenth as effective as bute – but racing or eventing with cartrophin all the time, then you probably make that wear and tear issue come on quicker because you are racing a horse that without it, would be sore. By giving it a slight pain killer during its racing or eventing career, you would probably bring on degenerative joint disease a bit quicker in spite of what the blurb says about how it is supposed to help heal it. In the racing industry, they tend to give pentosan/cartrophin two days before a race which is not what it was designed for, but it does have an effect there. It’s designed to help joints recover, so it should be given while they are spelling, and if that’s the case, it probably helps the horse.”

What’s you preferred regime when they come out of racing?

“If I have a preferred regime to turn a racehorse into an eventer or a showjumper, is to keep them yarded or stabled and in light work. Preferably not stabled all the time – stable at night, yard in the day, and keep the nutrition up to them so the weight doesn’t drop off, and give them their introductory lessons to their new profession at a slow rate. I don’t think you have to toss them out into a paddock after they finish racing – in fact I think it is better if you keep them in light work. Teach them to jump, teach them the equestrian way of doing things, and they do a lot better.”

So you looked at this ancient racehorse, Rupert, what does the future hold for him?

“Rupert has had 75 starts which for a Thoroughbred, is a lot. He has got appley front fetlocks, he has got surprisingly little change in his knees – his knees have fairly good conformation and have stood up to the 75 starts. However his fetlocks have reasonably marked degenerative joint disease, which shows up as appley joints – which means there is more bone sticking out the front of them, and they have got an increased amount of fluid in them. The easiest way to tell how degenerated they are is to flex them, and see if there is any pain involved.”

“In this case there is very little pain involved in flexing both of them, the joints have been reasonably well managed, but he has got restriction in flexion in both of them. The near side fetlock joint has got about 50% of its normal flexion, which is not very good, the off side fetlock has about 80% of its flexion, which after 75 starts is probably very good.”

“The chances of Rupert having a long eventing career, are, in my opinion, not very good. The chances of him having a showjumping career, are better. The chances of him having a Pony Club or Adult Riding career are pretty good, he’ll put up with that amount of degenerative disease as a Pony club horse without any problems in my opinion.”

Now it is time for a family confession. Rupert is a windsucker. The only horse on our property that has ever shown evidence of the ‘vice’ but there you are. One day, when he was a yearling, he taught himself to windsuck and has been a moderate windsucker ever since – which doesn’t seem to have interfered with his racing career.

Is the windsucking an issue with you?

“I hate them. I think windsuckers are hard to keep weight on, but worse than that, show young horses how to windsuck. But if you are not worried about either of those two things it is an easy thing to manage, it’s just a pain in the butt. You get your fences eaten and a horse that you have to feed more and more often.”

And the prospective buyer should get a vet to look at the horse first?

“I don’t think anyone should buy a horse without having a vet have a look at it. I don’t know if you need x-rays, I would leave that decision up to the vet. I suggest the buyer goes along with the vet, looks at the horse at the trainer’s place. Get the vet to do flexions on the legs, talk to the potential buyer about it, discuss the ability of the horse to perform with joints as they are, and discuss the likely long term effect, and how they are likely to degenerate with his new use. The vet doesn’t have to do a lot else – just a fairly accurate prognosis, and how to manage any problems. Later if they buy the horse, then yes, they can and should work with their vet to manage any little problems. Any good vet will help you do that – and enjoy doing it.”

Andrew McLean talks about the Thoroughbred ‘panic attack’ in a separate box, but we are all familiar enough with Andrew’s basic philosophy to know that somewhere fairly soon there is going to be a bit of STOP / GO / PARK.

Indeed, this all shouldn’t be entirely unfamiliar to Rupert since he grew up with this sort of education from the first time he had a halter on his head, and we’ve tried to keep it operative whenever he has been home from the trainer.

So Vanda started right in there again, making sure that Rupert was light and responsive on the ground, keeping the aids really direct and simple, re-inforcing the message of stop – go – park.

Next month, Liz Owens, animal nutritionist with Ridley Agvet, and advisor to the Australian Olympic team, will discuss feeding the horse off the track, but even after a few weeks we were starting to see changes in Rupert’s outline – and he was gradually starting to put on a bit of weight. Craig Barrett will also give the professional performance horse trainer’s views on what to look for when buying off the track….

Andrew McLean – Dealing with the Thoroughbred panic attack!

For someone who hasn’t seen it before, the Thoroughbred – particularly the ex-racehorse – ‘panic attack’ can be quite a frightening experience. Some little event can set off a horse that was a minute ago standing quietly in its yard, and once started, the running around seems to generate its own momentum. As racehorses go, Rupert is pretty civilised (indeed his trainer, Nevin Eades says he would cheerfully ride Rupe over the Westgate Bridge…) but unlike our Warmbloods, Rupert could still work himself into a right state, over some seemingly minor change in his environment – like the horse in the paddock next door moving ten metres. I asked one of the world’s most respected experts on horse re-training, Andrew MacLean, what to do when our Thoroughbred seemed to lose it…

“ The reaction seems quite different from what you see in most of the other breeds of horse. Most of the riding breeds are Warmblood, which means they are half cold blood, half hot blood – the hot blood being the Thoroughbred and the Arab. This half half mixture tends to dilute their flight response. Part of the problem with the racehorse is that in order to make it go faster, particularly for short distance races, we have bred back into the horse this very strong flight response. It means its go button is electric – this electric running away response is an absolute panic attack, running if need be, supported by an instant burst of adrenalin, and all the other manifestations associated with the flight response.”

If the horse just out of racing produces this behaviour in his yard or in his paddock, should we look the other way, or intervene?

“ Probably look the other way for a while because it may just be part of the confusion or conflict behaviour, of getting to a new place. The process of training racehorses, certainly involves a bit more confusion than in training other horses because they race fairly much out of control. Compared to other horses they are so much under the aids, they don’t go clearly sideways from your legs, they barely know turn, you can barely ride them to the barriers straight, they nearly all go sideways to the barriers, their stop is quite poor. They are really not on the aids, and that makes horses confused.”

“ Because of that confusion, what it means we should do as much as we can to de-confuse them and give them clear responses to signals. That might mean, first of all on the ground teaching them to lead from lead rein pressure so they lead from a light signal, and teaching them to stop, again from a light signal. Teach them so clearly, that if you run your hand faster, the pressure on the lead rope never exceeds more than say 200 grams – so the horse is always on a light signal, and then if you suddenly stop your hand, he should stop just as quickly as you stop your hand. If you run your hand backwards, he should go back as quickly as your hand goes, so he is really very light.”

“ Another important thing is that he parks in one spot. If you loosen the rein, he stands there.”

“ Under saddle it is the same sort of thing. Just teach him to go from the leg, and stop from the rein. The most important thing you can teach him is not just to go from the leg, but to lengthen his stride from the leg. If you give him an increased leg aid, he will lengthen his stride rather than just quicken. Thoroughbreds tend to not lengthen their stride when you squeeze them, but to rather go faster and shorter – that is not only wrong for dressage it is also very wrong from the horse’s psychological point because it means from the signal, instead of the legs going increasingly longer in order to increase body speed, the legs actually go faster to increase body speed. Dressage really just mimics correct training in terms of the horse’s psychology, therefore what we want is that whenever we squeeze the horse’s side with our legs, the horse’s length of stride increases, and that is how we achieve increases of speed.”

I know you are not a huge fan of lunging, but given that we tend to get our Thoroughbred off the track, all upside down, is there a role for the lunging rein?

“ I think there is. A lot of people think I am not a fan of lunging, and I really am – I am just not a fan of bad lunging. I lunge all my horses that I break in, I think lunging is important. What I want to see on the lunge is that the horse does the same things that he does in hand and under saddle, that is, if you ask him to go forward, he goes forward in cruise control and doesn’t constantly accelerate – he doesn’t constantly show flight response. Lunging is very useful for that, because if you ask the horse to go forward and he tends to rush and panic, you can use downward transitions, and teach him to slow.”

What has been your success rate in re-training racehorses?

“ Our success rate with our system has been very high because our system works best with horses that are traumatised, it is very successful with horses that just tend to run. Putting them on the aids so they learn to be light in the mouth, light from the leg, so leg can increase length of stride and reins can decrease it, that’s the most important thing you can do once you’ve got them straight.”

Have you had many that couldn’t adjust to life after racing?

“ There is always a chance that there will be a few who stay outside the square. It depends on how long they have practised this sort of behaviour. They longer they have practised it, the longer it will take to re-train because it will keep popping up, like a weeping wound. Unfortunately, flight response, because it is so adaptive for animals, is highly re-inforcing. In other words, a little bit of practice at panic – say two or three times – is really effective at getting him into the flight response, whereas it may take eight or nine goes to get him to learn the right thing.”

“ I have had some very nice horses off the track. My stallion, Woodmount Magic, who I sold overseas in 1995, I raced him ten times myself, and we had no ill effects from that. I think it is a really sensible program, if you want to race and train at the same time.”

“ What you have to do is make sure you do plenty of good work on the ground, and plenty of good dressage under saddle, and choose your trainer very carefully.”

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