The aftercare world in the United States has grown tremendously in the past five to ten years, but it's still got some evolving to do. That was the theme at a panel discussion during this week's Equestricon conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Representatives from different parts of the sport gathered to discuss perspectives from on the track and off. The panel included Lisa Molloy, executive director of ReRun and trainer with The Exceller Fund, past TAA board president Jack Wolf, Old Friends founder Michael Blowen, Herringswell Stables co-operator Anita Motion, trainer/New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association president Rick Violette, and jumper/TAA Advisory Board Member Nicole Walker.
Panelists discussed ways to make the track-to-show ring transition easier, as well as some of the advances in aftercare since it began growing a decade ago.
- Anyone in the horse show world is familiar with the idea that the Thoroughbred has fallen out of favor, but the trend is more than just opinion. Trainer Rick Violette, who grew up riding hunter/jumpers, pointed out that 15 of the 20 horses in the Grand Prix Hall of Fame (for show jumpers) are Thoroughbreds. These days, Violette said, Warmbloods are more popular with the show jumping/dressage/eventing crowd. At the upper levels, they are easier to ride and for lower-level, weekend riders, they can go for longer stretches without being exercised.
“[As George Morris said], ‘We live to rue the day we cut the Thoroughbred out,” said Violette. “They have the natural impulsion, they're naturally forward, they're going somewhere.”
- A racetrack trainer with the right eye can start to profile a horse for a second career before they've retired from racing. Some have more luck with this than others, but Violette and Motion agreed they can tell from a horse's basic build and way of going on the track what sports they may be suited for after their racing careers. This doesn't always work; Violette said there are other horses who are physically suited to a job but not mentally ready for it. Sometimes, they need to be turned out and restart again, from the bottom up.
- Violette said there are varying degrees of acceptance and ability among racing trainers when it comes to adapting a horse for a new career. Some may not have the skillset to look at a horse's movement and figure out what type of riding he'd be best for. Others can't necessarily afford to think about losing a horse in the barn, and with him, an opportunity to help make ends meet.
“Some [trainers] are just reluctant, and want to get the last dollar out of them. A lot of owners are like that,” said Violette. “It's a really tough business right now. Financially, logistically, it forces people to do things they maybe don't want to do. That's why we're trying to make it easier for them to give up before the horse demands it.”
- With some horses, the turnaround from track to new career is quick. Motion said she sends prospective eventers from husband Graham's shedrow to Phillip Dutton for a 30-day trial. Some come back and she finds new placements for them; others stay and Dutton begins building eventing building blocks.
Some horses embrace a new gig right away; Violette recalled a horse he rehomed recently with a man in New York who wanted a trail horse for himself and his kids. The new owner assumed he'd put six months on the horse himself and then let the kids take over. He called Violette a few days ago to say the horse was even quieter than he'd expected and is already giving the kids a leg up – three weeks after he left the track.
Horses also have different levels of commercial appeal, depending upon their training and injury history. Nicole Walker, who has worked extensively with Adena Springs' retirement program, said some horses have taken two days to find new homes through the program; others have taken two years.
- American racing could do better with tracking its Thoroughbreds, but there's no perfect solution. Microchipping will make it easier to identify Thoroughbreds in the future, but the panel pointed out these microchips are not GPS trackers; there will still need to be people with scanning wands at different points in a horse's career for microchips to prove useful as a means of locating a horse that has left the track. Australian racing has plans in place to improve its tracking of horses throughout their lifetimes, but there are just a few areas of concentrated horse and human population in the country, which makes it easier to distribute and organize people responsible for scanning horses' chips and reporting that information. European countries have an easier time tracking horses because their geographic areas are so small. The U.S. is large and has Thoroughbred/sport horse populations distributed throughout different show circuits and different disciplines. And that doesn't even account for backyard riding horses.
Further complicating matters, new owners are not required to keep a racehorse's Jockey Club name, and many of them don't. Jockey Club TIP numbers do provide a way to catch up with a horse, if they are registered in the program.
- No matter what type of horse you want for your next riding animal, there's probably an OTTB out there that will suit you – but some are harder to find than others.
“I tell people, sit there and write down what you can live with and what you can't,” Molloy said. “I tell them, ‘I may not have it today, but it'll come through eventually. Sometimes it pays to wait, rather than dive into it.”
- Molloy estimated 70 percent of the horses she works with come to her with past injuries, but many of those are repairable with enough time and money. Horses going through ReRun or New Vocations sometimes take 4-5 months of board plus veterinary work and sometimes surgery before they're ready to begin light training and find a new home. All of that adds up, and it's often not recouped in adoption fees of a few hundred dollars.
It's also worth noting: Molloy gets many horses who left the track in an ambulance. Many people assume horses who were vanned off are headed for euthanasia, but Molloy said that's no longer a guarantee.
- Some aftercare facilities are screening adopters pretty heavily; many organizations have applications requesting information or photos of the facility where the adopted OTTB will be kept, but screening sometimes goes beyond that.
“I'll be honest, I don't deal with people that do ‘colors,'” said Molloy. “Some people will contact me and say, ‘I can only take a gray horse.' If that's your only criteria for adoption, is based solely on color, I can't deal with this. It's ok saying ‘I like grays.' It's kind of like matchmaking and you hope they don't get taken to the cleaners, or there's a bad divorce at the end of it [for the horse.]”
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