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  • Writer's pictureOlivia G

I Bought a Race Horse

Sometimes I forget my horse used to race. Cisco enjoys spending his days eating with his friends, an older gelding and the sweetest little donkey mare, rolling, and splashing around in the water bucket, preferably right after it is cleaned. It isn’t until he tosses his head and sprints off in the opposite direction that I think about his past. As Cisco sprints around the pasture, eating up the distance like it’s nothing, his feet pounding on the hard earth, I can’t help but be amazed.

Growing up in the eventing world I was surrounded by fellow hopefuls buying OTTB’s as project horses in hopes they would discover an untapped potential and turn their horse into a master athlete. So when it came time for me to buy my first horse, it was no surprise that I chose a young thoroughbred that had been off the track for a little over a year. It may have been his thin frame, or the way he flew across the earth when he ran, but I knew he was the one. When I bought Cisco I didn’t think much about his life before he came to me. I knew he was on the track and had a not-so-spectacular racing record, but I didn’t realize the extent to which his short racing career would affect his body and his mind. I hope this short deep dive will give you an insight into your OTTB’s life before they ended up in your hands, some key health issues to look out for, and ways the industry could change to give their athletes a healthier and happier life.


A Brief History of Racing

The very first horse races were so long ago that we are unable to pinpoint exactly where they started. There were “four-hitch chariot and mounted races … in the Olympic Games of Greece… in 700-40BCE” (1), however we believe that “racing began in places such as China, Persia, Arabia, and other countries of the Middle East and in North Africa” (1). The first organized faces were created by Charles II (1660-85) in which he held the “King’s Plates; races for which prizes were awarded to the winners” competing in “two 4-mile heats” (1). Horse racing didn’t come to North America until the “British occupation of New Amsterdam (now NYC) in 1664” with a “2 mile course” (1). Skip forward and we see that the “beginning of the modern era of racing” is thought to have been “the inauguration of the English classic races: the St.Leger in 1776, the Oaks in 1779, and the Derby in 1780” (1), and has thus developed into the popular sport and business.

Chariot Racing in Ancient Greece (2)

Thoroughbreds came into the picture pretty early on. Almost all racehorses “can be traced back to one of the three foundation stallions – The Darley Arabian, The Godolphin Arabian, and The Byerley Turk” all “imported into England between the late 17th and early 18th century”(3). When these horses were bred with “Britain’s native, heavier horses, they produced offspring who were much faster, but still had great stamina – they were the very first ‘thoroughbred’ racehorses” (3). With this new breed being imported to the US in loads, and the British introducing their English Classic Races, the US thoroughbred racing industry was born. If you want to read more about the three foundational stallions, visit


What Life is like for a Track Horse

The average day of a racehorse consists of track training, some hand walking, possibly swimming as exercise, and a whole lot of time in their stall. For most, a day starts as early as 5 with a breakfast often consisting of oats and grain followed by a training session down at the track (4). After being hosed off, horses are cooled on the walker, a metal contraption that hooks up multiple horses at once to walk at a medium pace in a circle (4). Horses “spend most of the day in their stalls. To give the horses time out of the stall besides their training, trainers allow them to walk the stall rows or graze in the afternoon for about 30 minutes” says John Ehrmann of Newsday when describing the life of racehorse Yes Yes Yes (4). Keep in mind these athletes in training are often two years of age at the youngest. If a horse has a certain talent for racing they can continue to race up until “{retirement} around the age of 6 or 7” (5). To read a more in depth description of a day in the life at the racetrack, visit

The frequency for which a horse will race vastly depends on their level of fitness, their success on the track, the breeding potential of the horse, and the injuries it may face. “On average, racehorses race seven times per year” (6). If a horse is on the fitter side, they will only need “two to four weeks to get back into running shape and be ready for his next race”, however if the horse is top-class, “he will likely be given a month between races to allow him to recover and get into peak condition after a race” (6). This is a fine line between making sure your horse is entered in enough races to make good earnings, but not too many that his body will not be able to handle it and you will have to retire him early. If you end up with a horse that is doing very well in races or has the breeding potential to win big, you will likely want to race him less to preserve his body and allow him to race longer and be more successful in races. Unfortunately, this reality leaves older horses, and less successful horses with the short end of the stick. These horses will “be raced more often than their more valued counterparts. Owners are willing to risk cheaper horses and run them on the shortest break between races to recoup expenses” (6). These horses are used to run as much as they can and earn the owners money in between big races until they can no longer keep up, when they are often given up or put up for adoption. This is a sad reality, but it is not surprising in a big industry, and the idea of running horses hard and fast when they’re young to get the most out of them is not just an idea of the racing business.

A Training Ride at the Track (7)

Another limiting factor in the amount a horse can race is injuries. When checked after races, grooms will often “notice heat or swelling in the joints, or maybe bleeding from the nostrils” (6). Some common injuries these horses often face are “bowed tendons, strains and sprains, and knee chips” (6). If injuries are more severe, they can surpass the usual 2-4 week rest period and take 6-8 months to heal (6).

The number of races a horse will compete in in their lifetime vastly varies depending on his skill, age, and health. A very successful horse could even bow out at a few races if they earn big and go directly into retirement to breed (6). On average, a horse will have “28 starts over their lifetime” (6). If you are adopting a young horse off the track it is likely they did not have a successful racing career, or else they would have stayed on the track or been bred. My horse had 17 starts starting when he was three and ending when he was four. He didn’t see many victories, normally placing in the bottom two, which is why he was put up for adoption a little over a year after starting his track life. I feel lucky his career was relatively short, as this gives us a better shot at him not having lifelong injuries. However we are working through a good amount of mental hurdles due to the stressful atmosphere he was raised in.

We are often told competition horses are treated like royalty, however what does royalty really mean? Is the perfect life peak physical health? Peak mental health? Or maybe it’s just appearing clean and well kept. Regardless of your definition, these are often human concepts, as are most labels we place onto horses. Horses don’t understand the concept of victory, or wanting to be the best competitor they can be. As flight animals, they work with what they have in any given situation to make sure they survive. Horses don’t care about appearing beautiful to the human eye, they behave in a way that makes them the most comfortable, and keeps their body healthy. Their lack of a voice is what makes it is so easy to turn our backs on how they are treated in not just the racing industry, but in all competition sports. The horses need a voice, and as an R+ enthusiast I am happy to give what I can to promote a more natural and whole-horse approach.


A Second Chance at Life

The adoption market for racehorses is ever growing with these versatile athletes branching out into all disciplines. One huge draw to these star athletes is the very small purchase price, averaging $2,894 (8). For many competitors, it is worth taking the gamble and adopting an OTTB that may have the potential to go all the way, rather than shovel out money they may not have for a prospect bred with a career in the show ring in mind. However, with the sheer number of thoroughbreds bred each year to increase the chances of producing a winner, thousands of those horses never see glory. I can’t say for sure where all the ex-racehorses go. With growing organizations specifically designed to rescue, retrain, and resell these horses, I can hope that many end up with new loving families, however the reality we may not want to face is that many likely are sold elsewhere. This is why, even if I believe the competition world needs improvement, I will still advocate for thoroughbreds to be adopted into these homes rather than face an unknown alternative.

Amy Bowers and her horse Grande Warrior competing Freestyle at the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover (photo from RRP website)

One of the amazing organizations pushing for the adoption of thoroughbreds is The Retired Racehorse Project. The RRP helps ex-racehorse get adopted through events and online marketing. They are a leading voice in the mission to increase the market for rehoming retired racehorses. According to a 2014 survey, 37% of the retired athletes find a second career in eventing, 27% become hunter/jumpers, and the rest join other English and western disciplines (8). The RRP also holds an annual Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium in Lexington, Kentucky, where hundreds of trainers take on OTTB’s with “10 months of less of retraining”, and then attend “three days of competition in 10 disciplines”.

This event showcases the skill and versatility of these athletes, as well as allows spectators to search for potential horses to adopt that look appealing during the competition. The prize money of $135,000 also draws a larger crowd of trainer hopefuls; leading to more trainers adopting OTTB’s to compete. For more information on the Thoroughbred Makeover and the Retired Racehorse Project visit

Many OTTB’s have gone on to excel in other sports, rising through the ranks straight to the top right along side the horses specifically bred for that discipline. One of these thoroughbreds you may have heard of was named Touch of Class, “whose best known triumph was winning a jump-off against her former rider Conrad Homfeld and fellow American horse Abdullah… at the 1984 Olympics” (9). Touch of Class was bred in 1973 in Maryland and had a very short-lived racing career after “she failed to finish in the money in six starts” (9). Once she found her niche in show-jumping, Touch of Class went on to win “six Grand Prix’s, was second and third in another 14 Grand Prix’s, and was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 2000” shortly before her death in 2001 (9).

“Touch of Class and Joe Fargis after wilnnng gold at the 1984 Olympics. Photo: Show Jumping Hall of Fame (9)

There are tons more examples of ex-racehorses who have gone on to excel in other disciplines, such as Keen who was “ranked among the 20 best dressage horses worldwide” in 1985 after competing in the 1984 Olympics, Jet Run who had “multiple Grand Prix victories, two American Gold Cups” and “an individual and team gold at the Pan Am Games in 1979”, and Idle Dice, a large bay gelding foaled in Oklahoma in 1962 that “won everything that was possible to win” according to president of the American Grand Prix Association Leonard King, and helped Grand Prix “rise to prominence in the U.S” (9). The thoroughbred is a powerful, versatile breed that deserves a wonderful second life with a loving family.

While I do hope to see reform in the competition world to make it more friendly to the horses through the reduction of harsh equipment and by making bitless showing legal, I do see the advantage in marketing OTTB’s as competition horses, and believe we can push for more adoption of these ex-racers into homes that may compete while simultaneously pushing for more humane showing systems.


Problems OTTB’s are More Likely to Face

I fell in love with thoroughbreds because of the spirit and life that seem to ooze out of them. Their strong muscles ripple under their thin coats when they run, and their high energy keeps you on your toes. However I think it’s important to be aware of what you’re getting yourself into when you choose to adopt one of these lovable creatures. Just because our life together begins once we’ve signed the papers doesn’t mean the horse doesn’t have a past that we need to keep in mind.

One of the biggest problems you’re almost certain to face is ulcers. According to Beth Davis, DVM, of Kansas State University, “gastric ulcers have been reported to affect up to 90 percent of racehorses” (10). The “high-grain diet”, “prolonged {periods} without feed to neutralize {the stomach’s} acid”, “hauling, training, and mixing groups of horses” can all lead to ulcers in horses (10). The added physical stress of these athletes being trained and ran so young can add to the likelihood that these horses develop ulcers. Some symptoms to look out for are “girth/ {touch} sensitivity, teeth grinding, weight loss, chronic colic, aggressive attitude changes, resistance to training” and many more (11). When you first bring home your new thoroughbred I recommend palpating them for ulcers, and even treating them with medicine such as ulcergaurd to be safe. Once the initial ulcers are gone you will have to create an environment suitable to keeping the ulcers at bay that includes 24/7 forage, a stable herd (or at least a stable buddy to be kept nearby when stalled/ in the pasture), as much turnout as possible, and a natural diet with minimal grains and sugars. To learn more about ulcers and watch a video on how to palpate for them, you can visit, as well as explore the other articles on the Depalo Equine website about ulcers.

Another thing you must take into consideration when adopting a thoroughbred is that there is a possibility they will have back problems due to how early they are backed and raced. Thoroughbreds are bred to be longer and leaner, with a longer back than the average wild horse. With the back being the weakest part of the horse, breeding a horse to be longer makes it more have back issues. Most horses bought with the purpose to race are “made to get used to the saddle before their second birthday”, and can start entering races as early as two or three years old (5). Unfortunately, this trend of starting horses this young in the competition world is not unusual. This is based on the common misconception that horses are fully developed right around the age of two because the dramatic visible changes have stopped. However, the horses’ bones are still developing.

Growth Plate Fusion Diagram from Sunset Acres Website (12)

When looking at this diagram we can see that the 32 vertebrae of the horse’s spine don’t finish fusing until 3.5-6 years. We can also see that many other bones on the horse are not finished developing by 2 years, in fact over half take at least 2.5 years and up to 6 years to develop. To read an excerpt about the bones growth in relation to this diagram by Dr. Deb Bennett, Ph.D., visit When horses are started before they are done developing, there is a much higher chance for issues that will affect your riding. One example of this is kissing spine. On a study done by Tracy Turner, DVM, of Anoka Equine Services in Elk River, MN, she found that out of her subjects that had kissing spine, thoroughbreds were the most likely to have it at 41% (13). Even if your horse doesn’t have kissing spine, and the vertebrae appear normal when x-rayed, it is still possible your horse will have back pain from their time on the track due to ill-fitting saddles, or overly strenuous riding. If you find your thoroughbred is having back pain that does not seem to stem from ulcers or kissing spine, you should explore other causes and consult a vet. Some steps I have taken to treat my thoroughbred's back pain include seeing a chiropractor, acupuncture, and various exercises to build his topline. In most cases back pain is treatable and you will still be able to ride, but it is still important to be on the look out for this issue, and even get ahead of the problem by specifically asking a vet to check for back pain/problems during a pre-purchase exam.

The third biggest thing to look out for is bone chips. Dr. Robert J Hunt explains, “fatigue fracture in the most common cause of chip fractures within joints of racehorses. Specifically, fetlock chip fractures occur most frequently in the left forelimb” due to the horse racing counterclockwise around the track on a left lead. (14). When faced with a bone chip, you have the option of surgery or maintenance depending on the degree and location of the injury, and the type/ amount of riding you plan to do. It is best to consult a veterinarian to make any final decisions. You can read the full article about bone chips at:,the%20affected%20joint%2C%20and%20lameness.

This is in no way an exhaustive list, and I recommend you looking more into this topic before buying your OTTB to have a better idea of how to make their second life as comfortable and happy as possible. This is not meant to put you off from buying a thoroughbred, as every individual horse is going to have it’s own unique set of problems you will have to work through together, be it breed or discipline related. I merely hope to shed light on what the repertoire of OTTB problems are that you are likely to face.


Ways to Improve the Industry

We need to put just as much emphasis on horse’s mental health as we do physical health. While this issue is very evident in the human world with the need for more mental health outlets, this issue is also seen in the animal world, though often not brought to life as horses lack the voice to speak out. Now these issues we often see in horse racing aren’t solely problems of the racing industry. Working horses hard and young is a very common practice in all competitive industries. Industries that hide drug use and use harsh aversive equipment are also unfortunately very common, as these techniques have been normalized. Horses are started younger so they will not pay for them to live in a pasture untouched as long, and they are worked hard to “earn their keep”, which is another human concept. Horses do not owe us anything. We choose to take on the responsibility of owning and caring for them, and it is up to us to make sure they are as healthy as possible. Their only job is to be a horse, and they cannot be blamed if they do not meet the standards we have unfairly set on them. Additionally, just because something is done the way it has always been done doesn’t mean it’s the best way, and it doesn’t excuse unwillingness to question the ethics of ones training techniques.

There are several small changes that could be made to the current racing industry to help the athletes, and, arguably, further the industry. With healthier and stronger horses, they may be able to race longer, and earn their owners more money. If we forgot about money and the horses currently in the racing system, we could reimagine the racing industry with ideal conditions. Horses could live in stable herds in a pasture 24/7 and go to the track to train or race with a companion to keep them company. They could have natural diets that don’t contain heavy amounts of grain or oats, and could have access to forage 24/7 instead of meals a few times a day. Horses could be given longer to mature and grow before being raced, and we could change the normal racing age to six or seven. The racing grounds could be modified to be less stressful and stimulating to the horses, perhaps limiting the spectators and not having an opening trumpet. We could even make sure that the horses ponying the racers to the in gates are friends, and therefore could provide moral support on those anxious moments before the race. This is of course in a perfect world, and we have to look at things realistically. We can’t dramatically change the whole racing industry and we can’t get rid of it all together. There are thousands of jobs wrapped up in the racing industry and even more horses that would be displaced. However we can suggest some doable changes to make horses lives a little more natural.