Saturday, August 27, 2011

After the Race is Run

Most ordinary people (meaning non-horse people) have seen, or are at least aware of, horse racing. Between the relatively recent movies of Seabiscuit and Secretariet and the annual Triple Crown races that air on broadcast tv every Spring, there has been horse racing in the public quite a lot. If nothing else, it's fairly uncomplicated to the observer (first one across the line wins) so it doesn't require an educated eye to know what is going on.

Locally, we have our own racetrack, though this is a little different sort of horse racing. The Kentucky Derby and the ilk of the aforementioned race scenarios are run on a flat track (lacking jumps which would make it a steeplechase) with horses ridden at the gallop. In harness racing, the horses are driven with the jockeys in a sulky (small carriage) and travel at either a trot or pace. Trot and pace are similar 2 beat gaits, the difference being that the trot is diagonal (opposite legs moving in unison) and the pace is lateral (legs on the same side moving in unison).

Enough of the vocabulary. The impetus behind this piece are the ones we don't see. For every horse that makes it to the track, there are a hundred more that don't. The odds of breeding, raising and training a horse to the point that it can race successfully are about as good as the odds that Matt Damon will drop everything, move to Maine, marry me and pay my mortgage.

Where do the horses go that either aren't fast enough, not hardy enough, or maybe were successful but are at the point of retirement? They have to go somewhere. Some, are good enough or have good enough blood lines to continue on as breeding stock. There are horses, specifically the geldings, that are not suitable for perpetuating the line. There are organizations devoted to finding homes for those horses. CANTER ( is one. Another one that has the best racehorse rescue organiation name ever, is Rerun ( For the Standardbred horses, there is the Standardbred Pleasure HOrse Organization ( or the American Standardbred Adoption Program ( ASAP! Get it? That's a good one.

The Thoroughbreds looking for their next job have a bit of an advantage to the Standardbreds because they have already had a rider on their back and they have been trained to trot, canter and gallop under saddle. The Standardbred is adamantly discouraged from cantering or galloping in a race so it can take a little more time and knowledge on the riders part, to bring that gait out of the horse. However, the Standardbred does know how to pull a carriage so someone looking for a driving horse would be all set in that department.

Our own University of Maine has a program for retired Standardbred racehorses. Students in the program work with the horses to re-train them to be riding horses and then the horses are sold to suitable homes to live out the rest of their lives as companion or competition horses. The horses are donated to the school and then are either put into the re-training program or are selected as good candidates for breeding. The University owns one stallion and each year a few select mares are bred and the offspring sold as potential race horses.

If it weren't for these types of organizations and programs, those horse not fit for racing would face a very uncertain future and unfortunately, there aren't enough rescues to save every one. There are still hundreds of horses that end up at auctions or feed lots and not in caring homes. It's a sobering thought and, frankly, a depressing one too. Not every horse can be saved. Kudos to those that do take in an ex-racehorse or work with an organization that strives to find homes for them.

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