Retiring racehorses


A while back we linked to a story about the New York State's efforts to save thoroughbred racehorses from the slaughterhouse. They're working with an organization called The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to help retrain the horses and find them homes.
This got us thinking about retiring racehorses. Why retire them? Where do they retire to? A beach house in Boca? We called the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation's Executive Director Diana Pikulski for some answers.

Diana, what is it about horses? Why do you like them so much?

I grew up around horses. My father was a mounted police officer, so I was introduced to them early. I have seven of them. Four are retired thoroughbreds. Horses are extremely sensitive to their surroundings and the people handling them. They know what's going on with the people handling them. Horses reflect what's going on in your mind with their behavior. That in turn causes you to reflect on what's going on in your mind, which helps you to make changes. It causes you to relax and reflect. My horses really know me.

People talk about former racehorses being used for dog food or sent to the glue factory. How big a problem is this? How many horses does this happen to.

Actually horses aren't used for dog food these days. There is a small market for zoo food, but most of the horses that are slaughtered today are sent to Europe and Japan for human consumption. They're slaughtered like pigs or cows. Between 60 and 100 thousand horses die this way each year. Horses can be euthanized humanely and still be used for glue, but to be consumed, they must be slaughtered. And the process is inhumane.

Why is it important that these animals not be slaughtered?

Horses are prey animals, and humans are predatory, so the relationship between a human and a horse is based on trust. These horses are bred and raised and used for entertainment or work. You have to develop a relationship based on trust for that to happen. For a human to betray that trust is's irresponsible. Throughout history horses have been essential for our survival.

So when a racehorse is rescued from the slaughterhouse and retired, where does it retire to?

A number of different places. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation has seven farms at correctional facilities where inmates are taught to care for horses as a vocation. Some are used in Equine psychology, helping people to understand and adjust their behavior. We have some big ranches where 50 to 100 horses can live out their lives. And some of them are adopted by individuals. People talk about race horses being high strung. They're trained to be that way. They have high protein diets, they're locked in stalls until it's time to run, they're pumped with vitamins, hormones and steroids. When you change all that, many of them can be retrained and can live out their lives peacefully.

photo flickr user genewolf used under a creative commons Attribution/Share Alike license


Bravo to AOA for bringing attention to this issue, especially in a region of New York State where horse racing is a significant seasonal attraction and where Thoroughbred breeding has grown markedly as a result of incentives offered by state government. And bravo to Diana Pikulski and the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund for doing important work to help address the issue of humane, post-racing care for those magnificent creatures that do our bidding on the race track, provide us with entertainment, and, for a very few, generate financial rewards.

What wasn't addressed is the length of a racing career for these horses, the training for which, out of economic necessity, starts when they are yearlings (1 year old), moves the the race track at age 2 and, for most horses, lasts only a few short years - perhaps to age 6 or 7 at best. For the vast majority the wear-and-tear of racing and race training coupled with the financial pressures to "earn their keep" on the track (by winning or placing well) conspire to limit their viability as race horses.

When they stop performing adequately on the track, or are injured sufficiently to end their racing careers (if they don't breakdown catastrophically while racing), is when the question of their future becomes the critical issue. If their injuries aren't significant, some can recover sufficiently to be sold or donated to be re-trained as pleasure horses. That's the good news. The bad news is that for many thousands more, the options are far more limited and the potential outcome usually is not good. It's the harsh reality of the business of racing in which horses are the disposable commodity.

Horses typically have a life span of well more than 20 years. Their post-racing viability depends entirely on who takes responsibility for their care thereafter. Having owned three horses (all Thoroughbreds), I can state with authority that they are not inexpensive to support, even in retirement, and those costs continue to go up along with everything else in our economy.

Fortunately, nonprofits like TRF located around the country focus on retired race horse care and adoption, but because of the sheer numbers of horses foaled every year, their valiant and worthy efforts are constant and, sadly, affect only a small percentage of horses. This is a huge policy issue, for which the horse racing industry - from the breeders to the owners and race track operators and state governments that license racing - and, yes, even $2 bettors need to be held accountable. We owe those beautiful horses, that trust us and depend on us for their care and support from the day they are born - and provide us with a day of fun and entertainment at the race track - at least that much in return.

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For a decade All Over Albany was a place for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. It was kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who could help you find out what's up. AOA stopped publishing at the end of 2018.

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