Horse racing is a relatively short-lived career, especially for flat racing horses. In flat racing, horses tend to reach the peak of their powers at about four or five, though the most prestigious races in the class are mainly for three-year-olds. Whilst it does happen that some horses keep going until they’re nine or ten, flat racing horses are generally finished racing much earlier in their lives. It is jump racing where the horses will keep running until they’re older, sometimes getting as old as 13 or 14 before hanging up their spurs for good.
When you consider that most horses will live for between 25 and 30 years, it is clear that even the oldest racehorse still has plenty of life left in it when it is no longer showing off its running or jumping ability at Ascot or Aintree. As a result, it is common for most horses to be retrained into a different discipline. There are plenty of other equestrian events for horses to turn their hoofs to, such as dressage, eventing or showing. Even the likes of polo or endurance events can be a good alternative for former racehorses, giving them a new lease of life.
The Age Racehorses Retire
The life of flat racing horses begins much sooner than life for their jump racing brothers and sisters. They will usually be taking part in competitive races at the age of two, with the likes of the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket being open to three-year-olds. Indeed, all of the flat races are restricted to three-year-olds, which gives you an indication of the sort of ages horses will be for the most prestigious flat races in the United Kingdom. Whilst there are some races that will be for older horses, most will be aimed to peak at three.
In contrast, the majority of jump races don’t even allow horses to enter them until they are four years of age, with plenty of others having a cut off of five. That, of course, is just the entry point for horses, with a race such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup having just three horses that have won it as five-year-olds but most being eight or older. The oldest horses to have won the Cheltenham Festival’s blue riband event were both 12-year-olds, showing that jump racing really can accommodate horses to a much older age than flat racing tends to.
What Forces Retirement
There are numerous different factors that can lead to a racehorse’s retirement. No two horses are alike, though it is true that the nature of racing is such that many horses can be retired for similar reasons to each other. The reality of such a physical world as horse racing is such that injuries are common, with some being more serious than others. An injury that forces a horse to be retired from racing will usually be those that aren’t serious enough for euthanasia to be required, but do take a good length of time to be healed.
Older horses are more likely to experience injuries than younger ones, meaning that the older a horse gets, the greater the chance that it will pick up a career-ending injury. On top of that, older horses will lack the speed and energy required to be truly competitive, meaning that they don’t stand a chance of winning and will therefore be put out to pasture at a younger age than some rivals that are able to keep on running for longer. A drop off in speed can be the ultimate issue for race horses, especially those in the flat racing discipline.
A horse could be excellent at racing against three-year-olds, for example, having been targeted to hit their prime at that age in order to take on the Classics, only for their speed to being to drop off a year or so later. Speed isn’t as important in jump racing, but it’s important enough to mean that not being able to hit the heights that others can reach will result in a horse being retired sooner rather than later. There’s also the fact that an owner may simply decide that it’s too expensive to carry on racing them and so retire them for that reason.
Regardless of the reason, there are horses being retired from racing every year. According to research, between 4,000 and 5,000 horses retire from the sport each year, with the cost of looking after a retired racehorse reaching as high as £4,000 per 12 months. That was the case more than a decade ago, at least, so it’s likely to be even more expensive nowadays. Irrespective of the expense, some horses can’t carry on racing and therefore need to find something else to do with their time, so the question is, what?
The British Horseracing Authority understands that it has a ‘duty of care’ to racehorses after their retirement. There are vast numbers of successful horses that are sent off to be studs, which is probably the most lucrative of post-career options. For many, though, the sheer intelligence of a horse means that there are options aplenty for them to retrain to a different discipline. Each of the options boasts its own quirk and eccentricity, so it will depend on the personality and traits of the horse which option is right for it.
Here’s a look at the various different options open to horses after their retirement. Obviously it is the owners, usually in collaboration with the trainers, that will decide on the most useful future for the horse. Whilst horses are intelligent, it would be as ridiculous as a Novembliss celebration in October to suggest that they could pick their own post-racing life. Even so, it is important to the owners and trainers of horses that they enjoy their new career, given that a lack of enjoyment would mean that they wouldn’t perform at their best.
If you’ve ever watched a sport at the Olympics and wondered why the horses were being made to dance, then you’ve watched at least a little bit of dressage. Whilst it is definitely a form of horse riding that can be performed for competition, there are plenty of riders that train their horses in dressage simply for the purposes of the artistic pursuit. The International Equestrian Federation defines dressage as ‘the highest expression of horse training’, in which ‘horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements’.
The idea is that horses will, through standardised progressive training methods, develop a willingness to perform in order to show off its natural athletic ability. The very best horses will be able to respond to what a rider is asking of it with the minimum of commands, allowing the rider to appear relaxed throughout. It might look crazy to an outside observer, but the horses are actually carrying out a series of ‘tests’, prescribed according to the judges and judged accordingly. The movements are scored from zero, meaning ‘not executed’ to 10, which is ‘excellent’. A competitor will move onto the next level when they’ve scored at least 6 across all areas.
Any horse or pony can be trained to take part in showing. The United Kingdom boasts a long history of engaging in showing, which involves horses and ponies being judged according to a number of different factors. What is involved will depend on the exact discipline within showing, given that some classes may require you to ride your horse whilst others will involve holding their reigns and trotting them whilst the judges get a good look at them. Showing is also usually broken down into different breeds, for example.
The discipline has been under the auspices of the Showing Council since the middle of June 2006. In the modern era, it represents 18 showing bodies, which include the likes of the American Quarter Horse Association, the British Show Horse Association and the Arab Horse Society, to name but a few. Shows often run for between one and three days, though some can last for even longer than that. It is an interesting discipline for retired horses to enter because there is usually prize money at stake, meaning that they can continue to pay their way after retirement.
Described by the, admittedly biased, British Eventing site as the ‘ultimate equestrian challenge’, eventing mixes dressage with show jumping and cross country racing. The multiple disciplines are part of the reason why eventing can be considered for horses after their retirement, given that, as a sport, it doesn’t require quite the same speed or agility as racing every month. Horses need to demonstrate their skill and ability across the three disciplines, with each of the following being relevant to the challenge in question:
- Dressage – harmony and rhythm
- Show jumping – balance and precision
- Cross country – accuracy and bravery
As if to prove the point that eventing is an excellent option for retired racehorses, several were part of the team that competed during the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016 and some were also involved in the eventing team that won gold for Team GB at the World Equestrian Games two years later. Horses are given penalty points for mistakes as well as slow speed around the courses, with the lowest penalty score at the end of the event leading to a winner being declared. As riders and horses get better, they move up levels, with the minimum age for riders being 12 for BE events.
Whilst it’s typical to see polo being played in an American film in which the player needs to be demonstrated as being rich, the game is believed to have started in Persia in the 6th century BC. It was initially introduced as a training game for cavalry troops, whilst the tribesmen who played it would have as many as 100 riders and horses per side and would treat it as though it was a mini-battle. It eventually became the Persian national sport, spreading to Arabia, Tibet, China and Japan. When a relative of the Emperor died playing polo in 910 AD, he reportedly ordered all surviving players to be beheaded.
In the modern era, polo is still as competitive but far less life-threatening. Since its introduction to the United States of America by James Gordon Bennett in 1876, it has grown to be an internationally popular sport. Played on an outdoor field 300 yards long by 160 yards wide, a score is made by a player hitting the ball between the goalposts at either end of the field, using a club and riding on the back of a horse. There a six periods of seven and a half minutes each, with the winner scoring the most goals. It is an ideal sport for a former racehorse as they simply need to be able to ride under instruction.
There are three equestrian events that take place during the Summer Olympics, of which showjumping is the final one to tell you about. As with dressage, it is one third of the eventing discipline and requires riders to take their horses over a series of jumps in numerical order. If the horse knocks over part of a fence, for example, or simply refuse to jump an obstacle then they are issued with penalty points. The rider that racks up the least such ‘faults’ at the end of their turn will be declared to be the winner in a showjumping event.
There are usually between 12 and 15 different obstacles during a showjumping track, often with changes of direction thrown in to confuse matters. Any rider that makes it around the track with zero errors will go through to round two, which is basically a track around a shorter set of bigger fences. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘jump off’, owing to the fact that the rider and horse that completes the circuit the quickest with the fewest points will be declared to be the winner. This is slightly different during the Olympics, but essentially the same basis.