Natalie Voss, Paulick Report
As American sport horse riders prepare for their 2016 show seasons, it would seem that off-track Thoroughbreds are continuing their comeback into the show horse world. The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program recently announced that this year's calendar holds TIP awards and recognized classes at 750 events in 43 states. The Retired Racehorse Project is already generating social media buzz as hopeful trainers get their applications turned in, and high-level racehorses continue to succeed at top show levels, as 2008 Preakness third-place runner Icabad Crane just wrapped up his 2015 eventing season with a fifth place ribbon in a CCI* under Olympian Phillip Dutton.
There's no doubt that aftercare in the United States is blossoming, and according to Di Arbuthnot, chief executive of Retraining of Racehorses (ROR) in the United Kingdom, Thoroughbreds are enjoying a similar revival across the pond. Arbuthnot does believe that the movement is at a slightly different place in the UK from where it is in the United States.
ROR, the official aftercare arm of the British Horseracing Authority, was launched in 2000 thanks in part to an American — television personality Clare Balding helped found the organization with money from the Paul Mellon Trust. Arbuthnot and others examined the American facilities funded by Mellon at that time, which largely included Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation outposts in minimum-security prisons where horses could be used in non-mounted vocational programs.
“We thought it was a really good idea but we weren't sure it would work with us because we didn't have the large prisons that you have there,” she said. “We actually probably couldn't have afforded it, either.”
ROR is now a funding organization, offering grants to rescues and managing initiatives to encourage the purchase or adoption of OTTBs.
British OTTB promoters were faced with both challenges and advantages as a result of the country's relatively small physical size. On the upside, this has made it easier for OTTB owners to connect, which became especially useful when ROR began sanctioning its own shows and events. On the downside, it means that using large pieces of land as retirement homes isn't practical. That space issue probably has something to do with a greater acceptance of euthanasia in Britain as compared to the States.
“I'm very open about euthanasia. I think if the horse is mentally or physically unable to do another job, then realistically it is kinder to put the horse to sleep. That's the sort of horse that ends up being a welfare case, because it'll get passed from place to place,” said Arbuthnot.
Some owners do retire their horses on their own acreage, and Arbuthnot said the number of British Thoroughbreds that retire with serious soundness issues is relatively small. There is no doubt the British mindset on euthanasia is different from the American outlook, and Arbuthnot believes it's partly a matter of economics (horse-related costs, including vet bills, make them more expensive leisure purchases) and partly a matter of safety for a horse and rider traveling on compromised limbs.
When ROR started, the organization had an uphill battle against misconceptions of the Thoroughbred breed, as has been the case in the United States. Thoroughbreds were thought so unfashionable that Arbuthnot said some of them had their paperwork thrown away by sport horse riders who represented them as other breeds. Like American aftercare organizations, ROR found that spotlighting successful Thoroughbreds at the top levels of other sports helped change the public's impression of the breed.
Now, ROR has been in place as an industry-funded effort for 16 years. Arbuthnot says education efforts continue in training yards and at racetracks to let trainers know they have options for a horse that needs to retire. ROR directs owners and trainers to a list of retrainers and can aid in getting a horse placed in a rescue if their situation is dire. The organization also provides a wealth of training and management information for owners who have bought or adopted an OTTB, in addition to sanctioning horse shows in a number of sports.
At this point, officials estimate there are just seven or eight percent of British Thoroughbreds “off the grid,” whose whereabouts/occupation is unknown after leaving the track, and that number wouldn't include horses retained by their trainers to use as ponies or turned out in fields by their owners.
Arbuthnot has been impressed with recent American aftercare efforts, but said the UK may be a few years ahead of the United States model. For ROR, the focus has shifted from marketing Thoroughbreds to high-level professional riders and trainers to amateurs and young riders. Arbuthnot has worked with local riding clubs, pony clubs, and has even helped put together adult pony club camps, where adult amateurs can hitch up their trailers and take their OTTBs to a multi-day retreat to try different disciplines with their horse.
“The key I've found with it is a few do go into the top end in the [show] series and do very well, but like racing itself, an awful lot of them are near the bottom. In racing terms, they're not very good racehorses and in leisure terms they have limited capabilities, but it doesn't stop them having a happy life,” she said. “[Amateurs] don't have expectations of wanting to win at the top end. They want a horse to look after. That's where we've put an awful lot of money lately, into the grassroots activities.”
Arbuthnot sees the Thoroughbred Makeover as a huge step forward in American aftercare, but urged advocates in the States to think about reaching down to an even more grassroots level in the coming years.
For the British industry, it seems the efforts of ROR and others have helped allay some of the public's concerns about racehorse welfare.
“This was the question that was being asked 15 years ago when the spotlight was being placed on ‘What happens to former racehorses?'” said John Maxse, communications consultant with a focus in British horse racing. “To be honest, it hasn't been a factor in recent years, because I think whenever the possibility has raised its head, there has been ROR to answer the question in a manner which has satisfied the inquiry.
“That's not to say there's any room for complacency.”
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