Career changes can be challenging and traumatic. But while such mindset modification can be a shock to the human system, it’s often a matter of life or death for Thoroughbred racehorses.
Far more of these are bred and born annually than ever cross the finish line first. They literally run for their lives. Geldings face a particularly short future when they run too slow or retire. Females have it almost as bad when unspectacular bloodlines, infertility or feed costs squelch broodmare potential. Few stallions make it as studs. All face a dubious fate.
However, a lucky few former racehorses are snatched from slaughter’s jaws to serve as show competitors, pleasure mounts or stock horses. Fort Collins-based trainer Lindy Weatherford has re-schooled more than 20 off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) for dressage and eventing competition.
The Montclair, N.J. native wasn’t born in the saddle, however, but into a non-equestrian family. When 7-years-old, the young horse lover’s pleas paid off in the form of lessons. Happiness turned to joy when by age 15, she was working for the barn (in exchange for more lessons) and riding to hounds in Stony Brook, N.Y. field hunts.
Weatherford moved to Fort Collins to attend Colorado State University and stayed. Post-graduation, she purchased her first horse in 1973. Rather than for a stereotypical perky pony or sleepy senior, Weatherford’s check bought 5-year-old Pinup Girl, an in-foal OTTB.
Baby weaned, mama mare proved tranquil and talented under saddle. The horse/rider team ultimately competed regionally and nationally at Prix St. George level dressage, while Weatherford continued working with more OTTBs and other horses.
In 1980, Starry Canyon (barn name “Bo”) came to one of her clients through a Fort Collins breeder. The dark brown 4-year-old had raced for two years, despite starting gate problems. Weatherford labeled the mare’s issues a “can of worms” that escalated into trailering “meltdowns”, during which the agitated Thoroughbred degenerated into a lathered wreck.
“This mare had a lot of nervous energy,” recalled Weatherford. “She was quick and hard to relax. Everything under saddle had previously been go, go, go! I spent a lot of time on her simply walking around or standing still. We just hung out together.”
From that peaceable beginning, the trainer progressed to very slow, quiet work. Two years later, Bo and her owner were successfully competing at low-level dressage competitions. When the client decided to sell Bo, Weatherford purchased the 16.1-hand mare. The pair showed for about 10 years at the advanced Prix St. George level. So confident did she become in her work that, at age 18, Bo was purchased by another Weatherford client to learn on and soundly competed into her 20s.
Weatherford noted that every OTTB reacts uniquely to re-schooling. Less-edgy ones, like Pinup Girl, can be competition-ready in as little as six months. Others, like high-strung Bo, might take a year or longer. Some never make the grade.
Weatherford said that, in all disciplines, the trainer determines the outcome.
“An awful lot of OTTBs have the potential to become wonderful riding horses, but it all relies on the rider’s patient approach to bring them to that full potential,” the 60-year-old horsewoman said.
Weatherford and husband Will (also a trainer) likewise believe in developing their children’s full potential. Nine-year-old son, John, loves animals but doesn’t ride. Nineteen-year-old daughter, Anna, is following in her mom and dad’s bootsteps, training in Georgia with a former Olympic rider.
“Anna is currently taking a year off from college and is a working student for former 3-Day-Event rider Julie Burns-Richards, who imports Irish Sport Horses and buys/sells local OTTBs in Georgia,” said Weatherford. “Anna has the opportunity to get on a lot of these horses. She also has her own eventing horse, Inspired Edition, a 9-year-old Oldenburg/Thoroughbred mare, which we bought here as a 4-year-old.”
Weatherford touts the merits of OTTBs, with one important caveat: “You have to be careful and selective regarding temperament and soundness. It’s not a good idea for the average, inexperienced rider.”
But for those with sound equestrian skills, and an open stall or paddock, OTTBs have a lot to offer, and everything at stake.
CANTER (The Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses): www.canterusa.org CANTER started as a solution to help racehorses find new careers by connecting buyers and sellers through posting racehorses for sale on the Internet. The program quickly became a national web-based phenomenon.
Re-Run: www.rerun.org ReRun Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit Thoroughbred adoption program.
Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation: www.trfinc.org Founded in 1983, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation is the largest equine sanctuary in the world devoted to the rescue, retirement, rehabilitation and retraining of Thoroughbred horses no longer able to compete on the racetrack.