All too often Thoroughbred trainer, off-track Thoroughbred agent and OTTB advocate Mary Tate hears the same description from clients looking to purchase a horse off the racetrack as a riding or competition mount.
“We're looking for something between the ages of three and five years old with less than 20 starts,” horse shoppers tell her when listing their criteria for a potential purchase.
“People miss out on seeing some really nice options that check all the boxes they're looking for because they fixate on their age or a higher number of starts as a negative,” said Tate, whose string is currently stabled at Emerald Downs near Seattle, Wash. “To me, it's just the opposite, and I've seen the results to prove it.”
There are few more qualified to hold that opinion than Tate. The lifelong horsewoman, who achieved a career first this past weekend when two half-brothers she trains and co-owns won races on the same card (making it even sweeter, their half-sister won that day as well at Aqueduct). Tate has helped place hundreds of horses over the years through her “Retiring Racehorses – Pacific NW” Facebook page and her vast network of equestrians around the country.
“War horses seem to have a different mentality than other horses,” said Tate. “They've been there, done that and have the t-shirt. By that stage in their career, they've seen a lot, traveled a lot and don't get bothered by much.”
Tate's experiences with horses who are advanced in age or number of starts has been uniformly positive. She finds much more often than not, horses that have maintained their racing careers well past the typical three-to-five-year-old threshold potential buyers often limit themselves to tend to be sounder of both mind and body. That being said, she says it's often a taller task to sell an older horse than it is their younger or less experienced counterparts.
Case in point was a seasoned gelding named Layover in Seattle.
“He had a really cute build and did a lot on the track. He kept getting overlooked due to his age and the fact that he had 50-some starts, so I threw a Western saddle on him and started riding him around the backside and working with him,” said Tate, who posted photos and videos of their rides on his Facebook listing, along with a thorough description of his many positive attributes. “He was always eager to please and always remembered the lessons I taught him from one day to the next.”
While it took some additional effort on her part, Tate was able to get Layover in Seattle sold for his owner. He is now in training with Teresa Ball as an eventer in Montana and is entered in the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover this fall. You can follow their journey on their blog.
The same was true for fellow war horse Stealth Attack, a 13-year-old who retired after more than 100 career starts.
“He had the same trainer throughout his career, was never injected and was as sound as they come. Now he's barrel racing with his new owner and is really proving to be good at it,” said Tate.
When it comes to her own horses in training, Tate doesn't hesitate to pull them out of their routine, taking them trail riding or calf roping once in a while rather than to the track. She says for older racehorses, the change in routine comes easily to them, suggesting that down the road the transition to a non-racing discipline will be drama-free.
“War horses have often traveled all over the country, been in a number of different barns with different trainers and staff, and have been ridden by a number of different people with different riding styles. It teaches them to be adaptable to changes and new situations,” added Tate.
Another benefit of considering a war horse when shopping for a riding or competition mount is purchase price — it's often less than those of younger, more lightly raced counterparts.
Her advice to those considering a war horse, or any Thoroughbred off the track, is to do a pre-purchase exam and have a candid conversation with your veterinarian about your riding abilities and future goals, as well as your expectations and aspirations for the horse in question. Tate also suggests giving the horse time off before beginning the transition to a new career, using that time to address any physical needs the horse may have such as teeth floating, chiropractic work, farrier attention, etc.
“I think putting a horse retiring from racing on a joint supplement is a good idea, especially for a war horse who has spent years as an athlete,” she said, adding that it is a similar approach a human athlete would take while advancing in age. “Taking proactive care of a horse's joints early on will help them last longer. That goes for any horse in a performance discipline, whether it's a warmblood imported from Europe or a Thoroughbred who has raced, but is especially true for retired racehorses since they have been in competition training from an early age.”
Tate admits that while war horses tend to be harder to sell, overwhelmingly their buyers are more than satisfied.
“I've never had someone purchase a war horse and tell me they've regretted it,” she said. “They often expect the retraining process to be more challenging than a younger horse, but the opposite is almost always the case. The quality of the training you put into a horse off the track is the key to their success. An older horse has learned to learn, and that is a truly valuable trait in any horse.”
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. While she currently has no plans to build an arc, she is the go-to food source for two dogs, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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