Summary of the Summit: Transitioning Thoroughbred Racehorses to Second Careers

Moderated by Mike Ziegler, executive director of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, this panel offered several retirement organizations the opportunity to share the details of their work and inform the audience about the various models of Thoroughbred retirement currently available.

Kim Smith, executive direction of the Louisville-based Second Stride, said that her organization is currently all volunteer; it was “founded from scratch,” she said, with no patrons subsidizing its work.  [As had been the case with other panels, it was at times difficult to hear the presenters, so the information here is not a full report on each organization.]  She made a point of saying that Second Stride is “pro-racing,” and that she tries to work with the racing community:  owners, management, breeders.  Second Stride tries to focus on prevention (of what, it wasn’t clear) and to get horses transitioned into new careers.

The Kentucky Equine Humane Center was represented by Dr. Jim D. Smith, veterinarian.  A relatively new organization, it was a year old in April and works with all breeds of horses, though Thoroughbreds make up more than 70% of its horse population.  The Center was described as a shelter and a clearinghouse for all of Kentucky’s unwanted equines, and part of its mission is to educate the public about the responsibility of owning a horse.  So far, the organization has taken in 556 horses and adopted out 237.

Dr. Smith described the KEHC’s adoption policy as “pretty stringent,” requiring a letter or phone call from the adopter’s vet or farrier, recommending the potential adopter’s ability to work with and responsibility for horses.  The KEHC does six and 12 month check-ups to make sure that the adopters are fulfilling the KEHC policy, and all adopters have to sign a long contract.  Any adopter who can no longer use the horse or who can’t keep it must return it to the KEHC.  Dr. Smith said that his group currently has no policy on slaughter and has no intention of implementing one.

He praised the people who help the organization, saying that it would be “dead in the water” without volunteers.

Diana Pikulski of Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation noted that her organization has been around for 30 years and currently cares for 1235 horses at 18 farms.  The majority of the horses are, she said, unsound for riding but are pasture sound.  The TRF tries to find jobs for those horses, and she indicated that the organization is “most well known” for that element of its work.  Nine of the farms where TRF horses are placed are at correctional facilities, at which the inmates get vocational training in horse care and horsemanship.  Pikulski highlighted the emotional benefits and job training for the inmates; in addition, she said, “We get a good story for racing and good care for the horses.”

In the TRF program, many horses right off the track will go to a correctional facility farm; after rehabilitation, sound horses might go to a retraining center, such as the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center at the Kentucky Horse Park.  Retraining centers also exist in Florida and Virginia, and at these centers, the horse is prepared for adoption so that the adoption has the best chance of being successful.  Significant time is committed to the horses and they’re taught as much as possible, as the TRF tries to figure out what each horse is best suited for.

Pikulski was unequivocal in saying that it’s “achievable” that every horse who comes off track can go somewhere “safe,” even if the horse needs to be put down.

Barbara Luna is the program director for the Philadelphia Park-based Turning For Home.  The program is two years old and supported almost solely by the track and the Philadelphia Park horsemen’s group; the organization works exclusively with Philadelphia Park horses.  The Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has donated $50,000 to Turning For Home, and Philadelphia Park has a verbal agreement with the organization to match the PTHA’s donation.  Owners donate $10 for each start their horses make; jockeys donate $10 for each win and $5 for each second-place finish.

Operating as a non-profit, Turning For Home has one hired employee and an office on the backstretch.   Luna said that she worked in television at the track and she emphasized her “love” of racing, horses, and race people.  A benefit of her background and the model of her organization is that she has daily contact with people who take care of the horses every day.  There is no soundness requirement for a horse to become part of Turning For Home, but horses do need to be at Philadelphia Park with a Philly Park-based trainer for six months to be eligible for the retirement program.

Luna said that she takes in about five horses each week, and that her organization has taken in 410 horses in the two years of its existence.  Some horses are removed safely and humanely euthanized; others are placed in adoptive homes.

Echoing Dr. Smith, Luna said that she has no stance on slaughter, and she acknowledged that her organization sometimes has to euthanize horses that can’t get sound.  The waiting list to take horses in can get long, she acknowledged, and she feels pressure to get horses off the track as soon as they’re ready for retirement.

Allie Conrad, executive director of CANTER (Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses) Mid-Atlantic, said that her organization has been in existence for 11 years, working with seven tracks.  CANTER is a national organization with chapters in a number of states, and through Canter, 10,000 horses have been placed in new homes, according to Conrad.

CANTER began with a track listing program; tracks could post the names of Thoroughbreds who were ready for retirement and available for adoption.  CANTER volunteers go to tracks and the backstretch, and they talk to owners and trainers about selling their horses. Sound Thoroughbreds, Conrad said, are a “wanted commodity.”

Horses can be listed on the CANTER website as free classifieds; people seeking horses can contact the horses’ owners and purchase the horse directly.

Horses can also be donated to CANTER, who will then re-train and re-home them.  CANTER is not, Conrad emphasized, a retirement facility, and it does have a euthanization policy.  If horse can’t be sound, CANTER doesn’t have the funding, space, or time to maintain it.

Ziegler, the panel’s moderator, asked about the best approach for owners and trainers to find new homes for their horses.

Conrad of CANTER suggested talking track management, to the track vet, to the stable manager.  Conrad said that her organization is contacted daily by people wanting to start programs at tracks.

What, it was asked, can be done with an unsound horse?  CANTER can accept unsound horses, but given that it can take thousands of dollars to rehabilitate a horse from injury, the owner needs to be committed to the horse, to paying for rehabilitation; the donation of an unsound horse should be accompanied by the funds it would take to get the horse sound and healthy.  Euthanization of an unsound horse is also a possibility.

The prevailing sentiment was that no one wanted to euthanize a horse, but that economic factors make it necessary.

Ziegler asked Dr. Smith about the criteria for putting a horse down. There are no exact criteria, Dr. Smith answered.  If horse is suffering and can’t heal quickly, he said, the horse will be put down.  His organization can spend a maximum of $400 on each horse, and his farm can handle a maximum of 50 horses.  If the farm is full and more horses come in, a euthanization policy is set up by a veterinary committee, a committee, he hastened to add, on which he does not sit.  He praised the work of the KEHC’s vet committee, which makes decisions on all euthanizations.

He admitted that his young program has suffered some “growing pains” with euthanization.  When his program began, he anticipated taking care of 75 horses a year.  He faced unanticipated difficulties when he was taking in four horses a week.  Initially, he kept horses for six months, and veterinarians stepped in to help.  Dr. Patricia Hogan helps by doing surgery, and if vets say that a horse can’t be made sound, it will be euthanized.

Pikulski said that Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation uses the standards of the AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) to make decisions about euthanization.

Ziegler asked how one can determine which retirement organizations are legitimate.   Pikulski suggested taking advantage of GuideStar, which rates and evaluates non-profit organizations.

Smith of Second Stride suggested that racetracks create liaison positions, so that each track has someone who’s responsible for facilitating Thoroughbred retirement.  The liaison would network and establish good relationships with trainers; identify available horses; and connect with and research area retirement organizations.  She also suggested looking for free van services, as shipping can be costly.

Ziegler followed up by asking how retirement organizations find the marketplace for retired Thoroughbreds.

Kim Smith said that her background in show horses led to many contacts.  She also pointed to Web resources. She said that her organization does allow adopters to re-sell their horses. Her rationale was that if adopters take in a horse and put the time into it, there’s no way to get that time back if the situation doesn’t work out, if, for instance, the horse is adopted for a riding student and the match isn’t appropriate.  Second Stride does stipulate that it needs to know where the horse is going if an adopter sells it; the original adoption contract has several points that are lifetime-binding.

Pikulski mentioned the Thoroughbred Adoption Network, at which all organizations can list horses for adoption; the site, she said, “gets lots of traffic.”  She also suggested that it would be a good idea to publicize that ex-racehorses that are doing well in the eventing and show worlds, observing that retired Thoroughbreds might not blossom in their second career until they’re 10 years old or more.  It’s important, she stressed, for people who work with racehorses to think about their post-racing potential, because there’s “so much more time for them to be successful.”

Conrad pointed out that 11 of the top 20 placing horses in the Lexington horse show this year were Thoroughbreds.  She emphasized that the retired horses need to be sound and not come with injected joints; if their joints have been injected, they can’t be good for showing.

Ziegler asked the panelists what racing can do differently to make second careers easier.

Conrad answered bluntly:  “Protect them from breaking down.”  She characterized the treatment that some horses receive on the racetrack as “flat-out abuse.”

Luna of Turning For Home observed that racing always get “bad publicity” when a horse goes to livestock auctions.  Philadelphia Park has a “zero tolerance policy” for trainers who send horses to slaughter.  She acknowledged that organizations like hers might have an unintended negative consequence:  “Are we sitting at Philly Park and enabling trainers to race horses too hard when they know that we’re there to pick them up?” she asked.

Pikulski responded to the moderator’s question by saying that racing can implement more funding programs so that there can be less discussion about charitable organizations having to raise money to feed horses.  She noted that the TRF benefits from the Jockey Club check-off program, which she characterized as “amazing” because it frees her up from fundraising to think about other issues of Thoroughbred retirement.  TRF has a volunteer board, she said, and is totally dependent on charitable donations.  “We could spend more time raising money to fund great programs for horses,” she said, “if we’re not always trying to raise money to feed them.”

Dr. Smith echoed what Pikulski, Conrad, and Luna said, then asked, “What can we do to get trainers and owners to not go for that one last race?”

Smith of Second Stride said that new owners can be confused by Thoroughbred injuries.  “They don’t happen in show world,” she observed, and suggested that there be some way to educate new owners about them.

Ziegler asked the panelists to put themselves in the position of being a track or horsemen’s group and to identify one key element of Thoroughbred retirement.

Conrad of CANTER:  Cooperation among horsemen, owners, trainers, management, and the track vet.

Luna of Turning For Home:  Funding funding funding.

Pikulski of TRF:  Don’t let the tail wag the dog. If the track and horsemen are going to be involved in Thoroughbred retirement, they need to control how money is spent and garner good publicity.  She’s seen, she said, situations where a track will get a small fund, never enough to really address the problem, and give donations to local charities that they’ve never really worked with.  That sort of situation can come back to bite the tracks, she said:  there’s not enough money to really take care of the horses, and the charities end up bad-mouthing the tracks.

Dr. Smith of Kentucky Equine Human Center:  Try to emphasize re-training from the start.

Smith of Second Stride:  Establish a liaison at tracks or training centers to work with horsemen and owners, so that they’re educated about the possibilities of Thoroughbred retirement and timely transitions from the racetrack.

The Summit ended with recommendations from each of the committees; and those recommendations will constitute the last summary in this series.

One thought on “Summary of the Summit: Transitioning Thoroughbred Racehorses to Second Careers

  1. I feel all equine rescue organizations want to do right by their horses. Unfortunately, not all do. We know first hand about the lack of proper vaccinations, worming, and hoof care. We have been one of the farms that cared for the horses for an organization for twelve years now. We had horses moved from our facility to a “cheaper facility” it isn’t about quality of care, or doing what is right/best by the horses organizations take in. I must stress, not all organizations are alike. Moving horses around, to “cheaper care” is my point. I can assure you we will be reading about horses in the future that have been moved from facilities such as ours. We were quality care for the horses comes first facility. We forced the organization we were working with to provide or reimburse for vaccine and other necessities. It ultimately has put the horses that were in our care at risk. Do not ever think if an organization that is large will put quality first. We are appalled. We did euthanize numerous horses that would not in our opinion and the opinion of our veterinarian would be at risk moving. The organization did not care. It was about saving a $1.70 per day. We were asked to put horses on transport with out proper paperwork, etc.
    It was one of the worst experiences of my life. And these people get away with it everyday!!!

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