As with any professional athlete, be that human or animal, there is a certain amount of stress to be expected upon retirement from their current discipline. Racehorses from a young age have a high demand on their physical and mental abilities and sometimes this can take its toll.
So, the main goal is to find what triggers your horses stress and find ways to combat this.
Psychological/mental stress is the biggest factor you must consider when taking on your new equine. Although we, and other rehabilitation centres, do our best to alleviate behavioural issues linked to stress we cannot always guarantee we can completely eradicate the issue. However, we are always available for advice and support.
A race horse will spend every day of its life surrounded by other horses almost immediately from the moment it is born. It is a common misconception that the ‘kindest’ thing to do with an ex racehorse is to turn them out full-time to pasture when they retire so that they can ‘be a horse again’. Stress factors that could arise could be inadequate grazing (too much or too little), lack of shelter, bullying by more dominant horses and isolation/lack of companionship if they are on their own.
The biggest stress inducer is lack of routine. Racehorses will be fed, stabled, exercised and turned out at the same time every day, 365 days a year during their entire time in training. Now for the retired flat horse at 3 years old this is not a routine that is too difficult to change in a short amount of time. However, the ex national hunt horse at 10 years old would require a significantly longer amount of time to rehabilitate out of this routine. Thoroughbreds are highly intelligent animals and need not just routine but mental stimulation.
Things to consider and put into place when your horse arrives with you:
Keeping it in the same routine that it has become accustomed to during its rehabilitation and retraining. Make gradual changes to this routine that suit your lifestyle but always keep in mind the horses welfare first.
Be consistent with your riding and training where possible. E.g. Do not ride every day then go for a long period without riding- this can cause vices both in the stable and when you are riding.
Use the same feed and feed quantities that it had during its rehab. Make gradual changes to this over time.
Try and avoid feeding treats by hand (none of our horses are fed treats by hand when they are with us). Racehorses are not used to this so will very likely start to bite, or worse. This is not to say you cannot offer your horse treats but find other ways to do it. Perhaps a treat ball every so often.
Consider installing a mirror within your horses stable area if it is stabled away from other horses. Avoid placing the mirror by its feed station as this can create aggression around the feed bowl. Don’t have a mirror installed along the whole length of the stable as this can cause anxiety if the horse cannot get away from its reflection. The ideal position would be just outside the stable door, giving the horse a choice as to whether it looks at its own reflection or not. It has been widely reported by owners that a mirror in situ has helped to reduce stable anxiety and aid the reduction of separation anxiety. (When the mirror is first installed your horse may take a couple of weeks to respond to it and for you to see a positive improvement in your horse’s stress levels. However, if any aggression or distress is shown then immediately remove the mirror as it will be more detrimental to keep it in place).
Also consider having calming music playing if your horse is stabled alone. Owners report that classical has the most positive response.
Ideally have other horses in the barn when your horse is in though as this is what an ex racehorse is used to. They are used to looking over their stable doors or through the stable wall bars and seeing their companions.