Guide to Owning Your Own Ex-Racehorse

by Ava Gooding

for Advanced Composition, East TN State U, December 2011


About the Author: Ava Gooding has owned horses for the past twelve years. She currently owns a four year old off the track thoroughbred who stopped racing in September 2010 (Anthem) and an eleven year old off the track thoroughbred (Risk).

Making the Decision to Buy a Horse

                Buying a horse is a major decision and should not be taken lightly. The financial aspect of owning a horse alone makes it an activity that not everyone can engage in. When deciding whether or not to buy a horse there are several things that should be considered. First, horses require more space than other pets. The general rule is you need to have at least one acre of grass covered land per every horse. This land must of course be fenced. The law also requires that you provide some kind of shelter for your horses. In Tennessee, this is as simple as having a few trees in the pasture. Other states require some kind of building. If you don’t have land, there is the option of boarding your horse. In this area (Northeast Tennessee) the average cost of boarding is around three hundred dollars for stall board and two hundred for pasture board. Stall board includes your horse being brought in from the pasture at night, whereas pasture board has your horse outside at all times. In addition to having a place to keep the horse, food and vet care should also be factored into the expenses. The average horse can survive on just grass in the summer, but most horses need to be supplemented with at least hay in the winter. A decent quality hay costs about three to five dollars per bale and a bale lasts about a week for one horse. Vet care costs can range from a couple hundred dollars for annual shots and dentistry to hundreds or even thousands if a real health problem presents itself.

After the general care expenses, there are also the expenses of purchasing all of the equipment that goes with horseback riding. This includes a saddle, saddle blanket, bridle, halter, lead rope, and brushes at the very least. Most of this can be bought used; this has become increasingly easy with the popularity of sites like CraigsList and Ebay. Even buying these things used, however, will cost you several hundred dollars. 

Finding a Suitable Horse

Once you have decided to buy a horse, your next challenge is finding a suitable one. The horse market is currently a buyer’s market. Good, well trained horses, suitable for any level of rider can be purchased for several hundred dollars. These horses are usually old, however, and will only last a few years before you will need to purchase a new one.

The buyer’s market has made horses that would have been only available to upper-middle class buyers (around seven to ten thousand dollars) more available to the everyday buyer (fifteen hundred to three thousand dollars). To buy a well trained, sane, healthy horse, you should plan to spend around two thousand dollars. A first time horse buyer should look at horses around ten years old, with a lot of hours put on them already. A seller should be willing to furnish a clean bill of health signed by a vet and allow you to come see and ride the horse before purchasing.

Anyone inexperienced with horses should work with a trainer to try to find a suitable horse. Though the majority of horse sellers are honest people, there are those who are willing to pass off a drugged horse as beginner friendly. Bringing along a trainer or someone with horse experience when you go to look at prospective horses will decrease your chance of being conned. There are also many horse rescues with horses for sale. Buying a horse from a rescue is not as easy as buying one from an individual, however, as most rescues agencies have rigorous requirements including prior horse experience.

Those who are looking for a second horse (or a first horse after having had some lessons) will want to consider their riding goals. Looking for a horse to ride for a Western sport will be vastly different from looking for a horse to ride in an English sport. Though a good riding horse is a good riding horse, looking for a horse to do something more specific with entails more specific searching. For many English disciplines, the thoroughbred represents an athletic, intelligent choice that can excel and even dominate English sports. Though it is possible to purchase non-racing thoroughbreds, one of the best places to find a thoroughbred is at an off the track rescue. For any experienced horse owner, buying from an off the track rescue is a wonderful way to save a life and acquire a gifted, willing equine partner.

Buying a Racehorse

Buying a racehorse is the simplest part of owning one. The racehorse industry disposes of over twenty thousand horses a year. Of these, the vast majority are sound and completely able to be ridden. Some are young and have never even been raced; they just aren’t competitive enough in training to be worth the time. Other horses are old, and though they may have won tens of thousands of dollars, they are past their racing prime. Still others have slight injuries, such as a stretched tendon or pulled muscle. The time off required to heal these injuries is not worth it to the trainer. Housing a horse while it rests and then bringing a horse back to racing prime is only profitable if the horse could potentially win hundreds of thousands. Because of this, many promising racehorses’ careers are ended before they even start.

There are dozens of racehorse rescues around the country. Some of the more prominent ones are CANTER and New Vocations. Both of these agencies have websites, but differ in key ways. CANTER is more of a communication network. They advertise horses while they are still at the trainer’s barn on the track. New Vocations is an actual agency which takes the horses from trainers and keeps them until they have found homes. The racehorses on these sites can be bought for relatively cheap. The ones that have started to be retrained are more expensive, while the ones just coming off the track are more so. You can often find horses that have been adopted before on these sites. These organizations take a lifelong interest in the horses. If you can no longer keep your horse, you can often return the horse to the agency and know that they will find the horse a loving home. The general philosophy is “once a racehorse, always a racehorse”. No matter how many years a thoroughbred spends off the track, if they have ever been on one, even just in a training barn, they will forever be known as a racehorse. 

The Mind of a Racehorse

Owning a racehorse is not for the faint of heart. A racehorse is a thousand pound animal that has been bred to be high strung, aggressive, and energetic. Centuries of breeding have refined them into animals born and raised to do one thing: run. It is a myth that racehorses are “made” to run, that their riders force them into it. Racehorses run because they want to; it is what they live for. Riding a racehorse is like riding a freight train balanced on four ankles that are smaller than those of most people. A racehorse’s gallop has no equal in the horse world; it is literally breath-taking.  It is exhilarating, but incredibly frightening.

A racehorse is a highly driven and conditioned animal. They are encouraged to be high strung, their bad manners are ignored, and everything is done to keep them happy. Unfortunately, this does not always include letting them be a normal horse. Many normal racehorses are more comfortable interacting with people than their own kind. Their competitive drive makes it difficult for them to be around other horses without challenging them. Most racehorses have never been in an open field, and can get nervous in a large pasture, simply because there is too much space. A racehorse is essentially a spoiled child, coddled and coaxed into performing a high stress job far too young. 

The first racehorse I purchased was a three year old gelding (castrated male).  Many horses outside of the racing world are not even ridden for the first time until they are three due to the stress on their unfused leg joints. Anthem had already raced four times before he even turned four. He had bowed the tendon in his front right leg and required six months off. His trainer decided to unload him rather than spend the money to house him while he recovered. In his mind, he is still on the track. Where most horses would slow to a stop or walk if their rider dropped the reins, Anthem jumps into a gallop that is dizzyingly fast. He thinks he is still in conditioning to be a racehorse, and every time he is saddled and led out of the barn he thinks he is being led to a race. Though this will be tempered with time, most racehorses retain remnants of their past life’s mentality for many years.

Dealing with any horse involves a concession to their mental well being, and this is especially true with thoroughbreds. They are sensitive and extremely intelligent. They are capable of picking up routines in training alarmingly fast and “predicting” what you will ask them to do next. In order to reach an off the track thoroughbred’s (OTTB’s) full potential, it is important to understand their mental abilities as well as their physical ones.

Finding Out Your Horse’s History

                The nice part of owning a racehorse is their lives have been documented since birth. With other horses, it can be almost impossible to find out who their parents were or where they have been in the past. If a horse is registered, it can be possible to find their bloodlines, but not as extensively as with a thoroughbred. Every thoroughbred that is destined for the track has a tattoo on the inside of his upper lip. This tattoo corresponds with their registration number at the Jockey Club, which is the thoroughbred Text Box: Kaemon’s Delite (Anthem around the barn) shows off his lip tattoo. registration association. Even if the number seems illegible, taking a picture of it as well as your horse can often lead to identification. This number can be used to find your horse’s pedigree back to the 1800’s. It can also be used to find your horse’s racing record. With extensive searching, it is even possible to find video of your horse racing. I was able to find video of all four of Anthem’s races, as well as learning that he has some of the same bloodlines as Secretariat. The second racehorse I bought, a mare named Skedaddle Fast (known as Risk around the barn), has Seattle Slew in her bloodlines.

Risk’s 3-generation pedigree, showing Seattle Slew and Raise a Native on her dam’s (mother’s) side.

Bringing Home (and Dealing With) Your Racehorse

It is important to realize from the beginning that racehorses do not like to be outside. They are used to being inside, warm, dry, and pampered. Some racehorse’s stalls have padded walls. Some have chandeliers. Chances are some racehorses live better than you do. The first time I attempted to leave my racehorse out overnight he jumped the fence and was found by the owner of the barn standing in the aisle the next morning. That episode cost three weeks off from training and around two hundred dollars worth of medical care for the injuries he sustained.

Racehorses often have what are referred to (affectionately or not so much) as “racehorse moments”. While a racehorse will handle many things excellently due to the fact that they have been handled extensively since birth, it is always a guessing game as to what will set them off. Their first experience with a bottle of fly spray being applied to their body can bring a sudden snort of fear and the realization that you could easily be decapitated by the thrashing front hooves that are now eye level. Some horses have never learned to stand tied; others don’t like their stomachs or flanks being brushed. Thoroughbreds are notoriously thin-skinned and can be very ticklish. It is important to stand out of range of their feet when you first attempt anything, no matter how basic. Horses can kick not only backwards, but forwards toward their stomachs as well. Just brushing their sides can be enough to irritate a particularly sensitive horse, and many of them have no problem with kicking when they are irritated. A well placed kick can easily break a human leg, and at the very least will leave you with a bruise that will hurt for weeks.

Anthem sniffs his arch nemesis: fly spray.

It is also important to realize that racehorses acquire many habits to help them cope with the unnatural atmosphere of a race track. Many of them become masters of trickery, picking up brushes, hoses, and lead ropes and whacking an unsuspected person with them. Others eat strange food, such as drinks from bottles or popsicles. Some develop bad habits, such as pawing, stomping, cribbing or weaving. Cribbing is an extremely destructive habit that many horses pick up when they are kept in a stall for too long and become bored. Horses that crib bite an edge of the door or wall (anything wooden), and then suck in air. In addition to destroying the stall, this is also unhealthy for the horse leading to a variety of ailments such as: weight loss, ulcers, and even a thickening of their jaw and throat. Almost all racehorses crib, since they are used to being kept in a stall almost all the time. Weaving is another destructive habit where the horse shifts its weight quickly back and forth between its front feet while swinging their head at the same time. This can cause uneven wearing patterns on their feet. Risk weaves when she feels claustrophobic, and thus is difficult to trailer or keep in a stall.

In addition to these habits, however, some horses develop habits that just make them look demented, such as sticking out their tongue and chewing on it. Many racehorses do this when they are nervous or bored. This stems from the fact that before a race, many horses are given a drug to dehydrate them, so they are lighter. This also, however, makes them stick their tongues out because they get dry and swollen. If you watch a horse race on the television, it is almost a guarantee you will see at least one horse exhibiting this behavior in the moments leading up to the race.

Anthem exhibits his habit picked up on the track: tongue chewing.

                Feeding your new racehorse can also be a bit of a problem. Most horses are fine just eating grass. Young, growing horses or pregnant mares occasionally need supplemental feeding. Horses that are ridden hard also need additional food. Racehorses, however, exist in only three states: emaciated, starving, and, the Holy Grail state. The Holy Grail state is where any honest horse person would look at the horse and say “he could use a hundred fifty more pounds”. To attain the Holy Grail state, most racehorses require grass, hay, grain, and a hundred dollars worth of supplements a month. These supplements include weight builders, blood builders, and hoof builders.

Anthem almost at the Holy Grail state. This has required 6 months and almost fifteen hundred dollars. He eats almost ten pounds a grain a day, half a bale of high quality hay, and 5 supplements (two weight builders, a hoof builder, a hair supplement, and a digestive enzyme). 

Many racehorses also have competitive issues. Riding them in an arena with another horse is always sure to be an adventure. Having anyone lead your horse by the bridle while you are on them evokes memories of being led to the racetrack. Any gate reminds them of the starting gate they are placed in right before the race starts. A round arena seems exactly like a track. Asking a racehorse to gallop is akin to strapping yourself to a missile. Some racehorses even have extreme aggression issues, some to the point of not being able to be housed with other horses. The rare stallion is so aggressive he will take chunks out of people or even himself when better targets are not present. Even those racehorses that are not this aggressive are used to getting their own way. On a race track, every effort is made to keep the horse happy since happier horses are guaranteed to run better. This leads to an extreme amount of spoiling. As a result, most racehorses have bratty, difficult moments. If they don’t want to do something, they won’t. And there is no making a thousand pound animal do something it doesn’t want to do.

Not today, probably not tomorrow either.

Since racehorses are so athletic, many people buy them to retrain them as competitive jumpers. Many people fail to realize, however, that training a horse to jump quickly leads to the horse being able to jump out of any place you put it. Or not. Depending on how he feels.

Anthem jumping close to four feet

While most buy a racehorse with the hope that their athleticism will lend itself to a new career, it is always important to listen to what your horse tells you. Some horses just aren’t made for jumping, some love it. Some will never be the perfect kid’s horse, and some are born with a love of children. Anthem’s first experience with a child was nerve wracking. I had no control over the situation, as the five year old girl threw herself at his legs. Horses don’t like quick movement in general, and they really don’t like their legs being restricted. Anthem instantly froze and very carefully bent his neck so his head was even with the girl’s body. She wrapped her arms around his head (which was as big as her) and he calmly stayed there until she let him go. I have been extremely lucky with Anthem, another woman at my barn has two OTTB’s and one of them is mean and extremely hard to handle.


Owning a racehorse is extremely rewarding for the experienced horse owner. By buying one, you have saved a horse from going to auction and from there almost certainly to the slaughterhouse. Racehorses are high energy, high spirited animals, but they are also very devoted and work oriented. Once they know what you want, they will (usually) do it to the best of their ability. Always ask a horse to do something consistently and gently. It works out better in the long run for everyone. Those who have purchased an OTTB often swear they will never own another kind of horse. Racehorses have a ton of personality, and they are extremely intelligent. They are unique, and figuring out each horse is similar to figuring out a person. Riding or owning a racehorse should never be attempted by anyone who does not have solid horse experience.


Suggested Reading

There are plenty of books about owning, training, and managing horses. Here are some suggestions for further reading on the topics touched on in this paper.

Basic Horse Care

Horse Care: An Introduction to Horses & the Essentials of Horse Care by James Kavanagh

Basic Horse Care by Gaydell Collier

First Time Buyers

First Horse: The Complete Guide for the First-Time Horse Owner by Fran Devereux Smith

The Essentials of Horsekeeping by Rachel Hairston,

Off the Track Thoroughbred Specific Books

You and Your Ex-Racehorse: A Basic Guide to Caring for and Retraining Your Athletic New Partner by Paula Sainthouse


Beyond the Track: Retraining the Thoroughbred from Racecourse to Riding Horse by Anna Ford