The racing industry produces approximately 3,500 horses a year. While racing careers may last 5 or 6 years, a racehorse is generally considered ‘aged’ at anything beyond 8 years old. However surrendering their racing stripes is more a case of changing gears and embarking on a new career than the awarding of a gold watch and heading off to a quiet retirement that most people seem to think. A horse’s life expectancy can stretch to anything up to 30 years, so they are really only starting the rest of their lives once they leave the racing yard.
While good breeding stock are highly sought after commodities, only a relatively small number of horses make it into the breeding shed, leaving vast numbers to check the local ‘want’ ads when they hand in their racing stripes. It’s an issue that is very close to my heart and so I was thrilled to stumble across a brand new initiative by the Highveld Horse Care Unit (HHCU) to help retired racehorses find second careers.
The HHCU was established in 1991 and has grown to include the Coastal HCU, Eastern Cape HCU and is looking at opening a branch in the Western Cape. They are well-supported by the racing community in a number of different ways and for those who have not had the opportunity to get to know them yet, I can assure you they do sterling work and highly recommend either meeting them directly, or following them on their website or Facebook page. The Horse Care Units’ primary function is to assist needy equines, but the fact that they have strict homing contracts and follow up regularly on the horses that they adopt out, makes them an attractive option for people retiring horses off the track and the demand seems to be on the increase.
A quick tour of your local tack shop will turn up a host of products designed to calm and slow horses down. That may come as a surprise to some, but while a horse’s racing career may be relatively short, it is generally the first and only thing they know. There are obviously exceptions to every rule, but it requires a little skill, a little patience and a solid sense of humor while our ex-racehorses learn to apply their new skills, abilities and speed in other ways. We all know that a little expert advice at the right time can go a long way and HHCU’s new programme, dubbed the Silver Lining Initiative, aims to address just that.
I spoke to Joanne Pursey, who not only assists at the HHCU, but who is also the creative force behind the Harry The Horse Campaign with CTS’s Amanda Carey. Joanne makes all of Harry’s ‘children’ and her handiwork has become a familiar sight at sales and racing events. Joanne tells me “we are seeing increasing numbers of people donating horses straight out of training to the HHCU and we can and do adopt them out directly from there, but I wanted to do a bit more. Thoroughbreds are wonderful horses, but it can take them a little while to settle once they come off the track, so I thought ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do a little more before we rehome them and give them a bit of basic schooling to help them off the ground in their new careers?’. I approached show-jumper and coach Lorette Knowles-Taylor and her husband Barry from Team Nissan Showjumping at their Farnham Stables base and mentioned the idea. Lorette thought it was great, so we brainstormed a bit and came up with the concept of selecting a small number of horses and placing them with trusted, well-known local trainers for their basic schooling. It was approaching Mandela Day, so we decided on a 67 day period, although each horse is an individual, so that time period is not hard and fast and we’ll assess each horse as they go along.”
How does it work?
“It’s a pilot project at this stage and this is our very first go at it, but the idea is to choose 4 project horses and produce them to the point where they are ready to move on to their new homes. We launched the Facebook page on 18 July which is Mandela Day and the response and support have been overwhelming!”
“We have been exceptionally lucky to have a number of well-known people in the industry volunteer to get involved. It was important for us to be associated with people whose names, faces and reputations are well-known in the horse community as we felt it gives the project immediate substance by association. We’ve mainly had volunteers from the show-jumping community so far, but we hope to get assistance from some of the other disciplines too.”
“We only select from the pool of horses donated to the HHCU and have a number of rules in place to help us choose horses that are most likely to be successful candidates and appealing homing prospects. The horses need to be over 16hh and over the age of four so that they are skeletally sound enough to start a bit of basic jumping. Once we have earmarked a potential candidate, it is then thoroughly vetted and assessed for soundness and conformation and then we match it with a trainer. We will score each horse and award them a star-rating as they achieve certain milestones in their training. When they go to their first show, they will earn their 5th star and will be considered eligible for rehoming.”
“Prospective adoptees will try the horse under the watchful eye of the horse’s trainer and will obviously be subject to a home check and a HHCU adoption contract. The idea is not to try and produce super professional top-flight competition prospects – although that will obviously be a bonus – we just want to give our horses a solid grounding so that they have the best chance of succeeding at their second careers.”
“It’s worked out quite well that our trainers are all situated fairly close to me, so I can go and check the horses and their progress regularly. I’m in constant contact with each trainer to monitor how the horses are getting on. We hope we’ve got a sensible and successful selection process, but some horses may work out better than others, so we’ll monitor it step by step. We’ll be posting news and updates on Facebook and people are very welcome to get involved and follow the project. There’s a great welfare mantra that reads ‘if you can’t adopt, foster. If you can’t foster, sponsor. If you can’t sponsor, donate. If you can’t donate, volunteer. If you can’t volunteer, network.’ It’s fun and everyone can get involved and help out, even if it’s just by spreading the word.”
“It’s important to note that this project is in addition to, not instead of, the rehoming work that the HHCU currently does, but we hope it will be a valuable additional service. It’s still early days, but we feel the programme offers a number of advantages. Firstly, it gives each horse a better start to its new career and being in the hands of an experience professional means that the work will get done in a reasonable timeframe. It takes away some of the worry for prospective adopters as they get peace of mind that they are getting a sound, professionally started horse and can adopt with confidence. Horses that have successfully completed the programme will carry a higher adoption fee than the ones that are homed directly and all monies raised go straight back to the Unit to help other needy equines. And lastly, it helps the HHCU as we can rehome a horse with confidence, knowing that it has had some time to transition in knowledgeable hands and has the skills to carry it forward in its second career. From a logistical point of view, each horse that we can place in the programme means an extra open stable at the Unit that can help another horse too.”
Who are the trainers?
“Lorette Knowles-Taylor is a well-known name in the show-jumping and wider equestrian community. She was the first to volunteer and has taken on the first project horse, a gelding called Silverado Prince. He’s also the one we named the project after. Because our trainers are donating their time and expertise, we then try and find sponsors for each horse in terms of feed, veterinary care, farriery and dental work to minimise any additional costs.” Lorette is unfortunately out of the country at the moment, but I managed to have a chat to a few of the other volunteers.
The project’s second trainer is a junior rider called Shannon Smith, who has taken on a Windrush mare. Shannon is a top young rider who excels at her chosen discipline of show-jumping. She won SA Junior Champs last year and is currently top of the log again this year – quite a feat as she’s also studying an LLB. When I asked Shannon how she had become involved in the project she said she’d seen it on Facebook and immediately signed up to help. “My first horse was a Thoroughbred and they’re a fantastic breed. It’s great to be able to give back. It’s a wonderful programme and Windhover has some great sponsors – North Rand Veterinary services are taking care of her veterinary needs, Vitaline are sponsoring her feed, Wayne Dale is doing her dental work and Shaun Allnutt is donating his farrier services.” How is she enjoying her charge? “She’s been with us about 10 days now, but she’s super clever and is learning really fast. She’s already working in a frame and has done her first cavaletti. I think we may end up keeping her !”
The third name to sign up is Liam Stevens, who will be familiar to the racing community as his father Damian and mother Sarah-Jane were the owners of Pas de Quoi. Liam has established a name for himself as a serious show-jumping talent and operates out of Disa Stables. Liam heard about the project via his girlfriend and signed up immediately. “Like a lot of people, I learned to ride on a Thoroughbred and I’ve ridden Thoroughbreds most of my life because I love their athleticism and sharpness. I’ve grown fairly tall and am a bit on the heavy side for the average Thoroughbred so I tend to ride Warmbloods these days, but even so I tend to go for the hotter, more sensitive types as that’s the sort of ride I prefer. Those big, solid Thoroughbreds are hard to find, but if one does turn up, people will often give me a call as they know I love them. I think a lot of us owe our riding careers to Thoroughbreds, so I’m really excited to be involved.” The final details are still being put into place and Liam should receive his project horse shortly.
There is a wonderful quote that reads “Somewhere behind the rider you’ve become, the hours of practice you’ve put in, the coaches that have pushed you, the fences you’ve hit, the bones you’ve broken, the hard falls you’ve taken, the long distance, the short distance, the chip, the strides, the equitation, the sweat, the tears, the blood, the blisters, the ripped jeans, the wool jackets on 100 degree summer July days, the lame horse, the crazy horse, the “are you serious?” horse, and everything in between… Somewhere behind all this is the person who fell in love with the horse, the sport, and the idea and never looked back.” For most of us, it was a Thoroughbred that changed our lives, so I wish Silver Linings every success.