The life of a racehorse is obviously vastly different from the lives experienced by horses used for other purposes, including pleasure riding. A racehorse is usually purchased from a quality breeder with the specific purpose of horse racing in mind.
Generally potential racehorses are purchased as yearlings, meaning they are under two years of age. Initially they are simply put out to pasture to grow and develop naturally, but even during this physical development stage, horses intended for the race track are made to get used to the saddle before their second birthday.
Just like many other animals, thoroughbred horses grow very quickly and are very close to being fully grown by the time they are just 18 months old. When you compare that to human babies, who are still just learning to walk at that age, that’s very rapid development.
Even before they are fully grown, thoroughbred racehorses will start their training, so they can hopefully develop into the champion racehorse the owners are banking on.
Just like people are all individuals, so too are horses. Therefore trainers will treat each horse under their care a little differently, adopting a training regime to suit the physical characteristics of each horse. This leads to faster development and racing skills, less chance of injury to the horse, and just an all round more contented racehorse.
Everything happens early for racehorses. Often by the tender age of two a horse will be entered into its first race. Some start racing as three year olds, but often it’s as early as two, as there are many races on the Australian racing calendar that are specifically designed for two year olds.
Melbourne Cup horses can be as young as three, but generally more mature horses that are four or five years old are most successful in the great race.
How long a career a racehorse will have will depend on a number of factors, such as how well the horse is performing on the track, whether it suffers an injury that prevents the horse from racing and so on. If all goes well though, some horses continue racing right up to the age of 12. And even if they are considered past their prime for flat track racing, these older horses may be entered into hurdle races or the steeplechase.
The majority of thoroughbred racehorses retire around the age of 6 or 7, and for standard breed horses, the age is slightly higher at 8 or 9 years of age.
During the training and racing years of an active horse, half their time will be spent with their trainer in the training stables, while the other half they’ll be allowed to roam in pasture to have a spell and do what comes naturally to horses in general.
During training the regime is rather strict, as it has to be. Early morning starts with track work is the norm. Swimming the horse is another common aspect of training and fitness. Horses will then be seen by a vet, dentist and farriers, after which they’ll be fed their breakfast.
Typically a horse is rested during the hottest part of the day, but will undergo some more light exercise later in the afternoon, followed by dinner.
What Happens When a Racehorse Is Retired?
In modern times, humane retirement of racehorses is a huge focus, and that’s being led by initiatives such as the “Off the Track Program”. This program is focused on finding secondary careers for racehorses once they’re no longer flat track racing.
Many retired racehorses become pleasure horses, being retrained for more relaxed pleasure riding. Another option is for these older horses to be retrained for equestrian events, both on a local and international scale.
Disciplines could include:
- Show jumping
- And more…
Still a further option after retiring a horse is employing the animals as therapy horses for the disabled and companion animals.
Retired horses might also find their way into law enforcement in some regions of Australia, or be put to productive use as stock workers.
Whatever new course in life a retired racehorse takes, retraining it for its newfound purpose is paramount for its successful assimilation into a new industry.