Horse racing is one of the most popular sports in the world, particularly for those that enjoy seeing the animals in their pomp. Races can be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not more, with many taking place in countries like the United Arab Emirates, England and Ireland. The horses are the stars of the show, with the best male ones often ending up as stud horses that the owners can charge vast sums of money to have them bred with fillies and mares in the hope that a prestigious offspring will be born as a result of the mating.
The question is, what happens to racehorses when it is time for them to retire? Sadly, far too many horses die on the tracks. If a horse picks up an injury then it is actually more humane to have them put to sleep than it is to keep them alive but unable to put weight on the leg that they broke, for example. For those that make it through their career without such a final ending, however, what sort of life can they expect outside of the parade ring? The answer, of course, will depend on a number of different factors.
Keeping Track Of Them
Given the sheer number of horses involved in the sport of racing, it is entirely fair to imagine that keeping track of them must be a nightmare. That is readily acknowledged by the British Horseracing Authority, but all thoroughbred horses need to be micro-chipped within 30 days of their birth, meaning that keeping track of what happens to them is actually much more possible than you might think. The BHA claims to make a ‘huge effort’ to keep track of horses once they have left the world of racing, largely to promote their welfare.
Indeed, in June of 2018 the BHA claimed that 90% of horses that left racing were indeed accounted for. Though the figure is impressive in and of itself, the British Horseracing Authority does claim that it is always looking to improve upon it when and where it can. Each year as much as £750,000 is invested into the re-training and re-homing of former race horses. The industry takes the the welfare of horses seriously, in spite of what critics of the sport might suggest. This can be shown in the fact that the body has created its own charity.
Reasons For Retirement
There are a number of reasons why a race horse might be retired, with the main two being at opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is that a horse is so successful that their owner wants them to be put out to stud as soon as possible. Most of the best horses will earn far more money as a stud than they ever did racing, even when they were extremely successful at the latter discipline. This is why complete horses usually retire a few years sooner than geldings, who have no value as breeding horses and therefore simply carry on racing.
The other end of the spectrum is horses that do not succeed in any way, shape or form. Those that do not perform as they were expected to will be retired relatively quickly in order to ensure that their owners don’t waste too much money training and racing them when they are unlikely to win. There is no question that looking after a horse is an expensive hobby, so those that can’t offer their owners any hope of winning prize money on the racecourse will often be put to pasture as early as possible, before money has been wasted training them.
Another reason for the retirement of a horse is injury. If a horse is injured fatally then there is, sadly, no hope for it. There are plenty of horses that pick up an injury that is not fatal, but that still means that they will be unable to carry on racing. This can include horses that suffer extreme inflammation, lameness, chronic joint problems, knee injuries and strained tendons. The good news is that none of these things require a horse to be put to sleep, but the bad news is that they can’t race and therefore need to be put to some other use instead.
Some Stay In The Industry
As you might expect, there are plenty of horses that remain in place in the industry in one form of another. Just because they have stopped racing doesn’t mean that there are no longer valid options for them within the industry that they’ve spent their life up to that point. With approximately 14,000 horses in training for the flat and jump racing season at any one time, it is hardly surprising that many of their owners find a way to make things work for them within the sport. The industry itself claims that it does what it can to ensure that this happens.
Breeding is the obvious first port of call for many horses. Aside from anything else, this is one of the main parts of the industry that supports the economy, with more than 3,000 breeders in the United Kingdom contributing hundreds of millions and supporting nearly 20,000 jobs. Successful male horses can be put to stud, with the very best then able to charge outrageous sums of money. An example would be Galileo, who won the Derby in 2001, as well as the Irish Derby and the King George. He was an incredibly successful stud.
Galileo was the father of 91 different Group 1 race winners, meaning that his owners were able to charge upwards of £600,000 in order for an owner to bring their mare to mate with him. He soon had an estimated worth of £180 million, largely thanks to his successful track record of mating with mares to produce prodigious offspring. He is just an example, of course, with other colts from the world of flat and jump racing becoming stallions and being put to stud. Female horses, meanwhile, tend to produce one foal a year after retirement.
Breeding isn’t for all horses, however. As a result, the British Horseracing Authority’s official charity, Retraining of Racehorses, is often busy finding another path for former horses. The charity works alongside both the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare in order to promote and facilitate the re-training of a horse into another discipline. This can include the likes of show jumping, eventing, showing and dressage. The charity will often host competitions for ex-horses under the guidance of its patrons, which includes the likes of Clare Blading and Sir Tony McCoy.
Having already gained a wealth of experience in the horse racing industry thanks to their time spent racing, many horses find it relatively easy to re-train to a different discipline. Horses are often needed for a wealth of different roles, from working on farms through to being used in hunting. The life that awaits the horses often depends on the country that they’re from, with as many as 75% of retired racehorses in America being used for horseback riding on ranches, for example. This is obviously not something that UK-based horses are as able to do.
Off To The Slaughterhouse
It is a sad reality of the world of horse racing that slaughterhouses are some of the busiest locations around the country when it comes to the destination of horses that have been retired from the action. Around 5,000 horses are retired each year, meaning that at least some of them will have died from unnatural causes. In 2010, for example, the figures of the British government showed that as many as 8,000 horses were slaughtered for meat. Given that only just over half of that are retired, it suggests that many of those are the horses that didn’t make the grade in the first place.
The sad truth is that there is not a huge amount that can be done about this. Charities and sanctuaries often try to raise large sums of money, which is needed because of how expensive it is to keep and look after a horse. There have also been calls for the racing industry to cut back on its breeding program, though that is unlikely to happen on account of the fact that finding a winning horse is as much about the numbers game as it is anything else. Consequently, thousands of horses will be killed either for reasons of humanity.
There is some hope now, however, that less race horses will end up in the slaughterhouse following a BHA rule change in 2021 that means race horse meat will now no longer enter the food chain.
Charities That Take Them On
There are a wealth of charities that look to take on horses once they have been retired from the world of racing. It is worth having a look at them, but it is also important to bear in mind that this list is far from exhaustive and will be changing all of the time. This is a quick look at the various different organisations that look to help race horses find an alternative life once their time on the race track is over:
Retraining of Racehorses
This is the body that we have mentioned elsewhere on this page and is the official charity of the British Horseracing Authority. It uses funds from the race horse industry itself to re-home and re-train horses, promising a safety net to vulnerable horses. They actively look to give owners and trainers information so that they know where to turn when it is time to retire a horse, often using well-known people from within the industry to promote its work. The charity was launched at the turn of the millennium and has worked to find a new future for thousands of horses.
The acronym of HEROS stands for Homing Ex-Racehorses Organisation Scheme. It is a well-known charity that moves to offer racehorses a home after they have retired. It was created by Grace Muir in 2006 and has long worked to match the horses in its care with the right owners. As part of the remit, HEROS works with young people that have autism or Aspergers or were simply branded as ‘trouble-makers’ at one point or another. The HEROS Education scheme was founded in 2015 and works with young people ‘on a road to nowhere’ in mainstream education.
Godolphin Thoroughbred Rehoming
One of the most famous stables in horse racing established a scheme on the outskirts of Newmarket at their Badlingham Manor Stud. It is aimed at looking after geldings that are given two months to relax and socialise with other horses, whilst injured ones are given as long as six months. After that, the horses begin the process of re-training or being re-homed, which entails a three month trial period when the horse is checked up on regularly. Once both parties are happy, the horse is allowed to leave permanently.
In terms of feel-good stories, few charities have them in as much abundance as Greatwood Charity. They not only look to help ex-racehorses but also special needs children. Arguably the most important part of Greatwood Charity’s approach is to ensure that no horse that is in danger of neglect will be turned away. There is no specific criteria for horses to be looked after, whilst anyone hoping to give a horse a new home will have to meet a selection of criteria. On top of that, a £750 donation will need to be made to the organisation.
The Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre
There are plenty of other charities that we could have looked at here, but the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre is one of the oldest. Founded in 1991, it was the first in the United Kingdom to be dedicated to the welfare of horses that used to take part in races. Based in Lancashire, the primary goal of the organisation is to find a safe future for horses for the rest of their lives. Horses go straight from their post-racing homes, including training yards, before being given a tailor-made program for their rehabilitation.