Are you looking to enter your horse into the U.S. Thoroughbred Makeover competition or doing your own Retired Racehorse Project at home? This is the inspiring story about how Lola, an underweight ex-racehorse with poor hooves, became a fit, healthy equine athlete in just eleven months.
By Helle Maigaard Erhardsen
Each year many thousands of Thoroughbred horses are retired from the racetrack. Although these horses have been started under saddle and raced at a very young age, they have extraordinary potential to become wonderful family and performance horses in many different disciplines if given the chance.
When Thoroughbreds are no longer needed on the racetrack, they are usually turned out and taken off their high energy hard feed from one day to the next, resulting in quickly losing their muscle mass and condition. Racehorses are also commonly shod at a very young age so their hooves haven't been able to develop to be strong and resilient. As such, many of these ex-racehorses will need some tender love and care before starting their new careers away from the racetrack.
In the U.S., The Retired Racehorse Project was created in 2010 to assist ex-racehorses in finding new careers by increasing their demand in equestrian sports. This project includes The Thoroughbred Makeover, which is a training competition held in Kentucky aiming to showcase the trainability and talent of Off-Track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs).
Kallie Zeinstra from Michigan has rehabilitated several retired racehorses and competed in the Thoroughbred Makeover competition for a number of years. One of these horses, Southern Diva, aka Lola, came to Kallie with poor hooves and body condition. In the following, you can learn how Kallie used barefoot transition, hoof boots and kind, bitless handling to recover and retrain Lola into a happy, confident equine athlete.
Lola & Kallie at the Thoroughbred Makeover 2019.
What to do about ‘Typical Thoroughbred’ Hooves
Thoroughbred horses are often said to have poor hoof quality. This could be due to the fact that the core objective of Thoroughbred breeding is speed, which is bound to compromise other aspects of the horse. Adding to this, most places it is still compulsory for racehorses to be shod in order to race and this usually happens before the horse turns two years old.
This early shoeing is problematic. The structures in the hoof; frog, digital cushion, lateral cartilages and venous plexus, takes five to six years to develop. And putting a shoe on an immature hoof, effectively shuts down that development. When Kallie Zeinstra brought home the four year old Thoroughbred Lola one month after she was retired from the racetrack, she still had bits of shoe nails left in her hoof walls.
“Most of the Thoroughbreds I have taken off the track still have their racing plates on or have only had them pulled (no trim), they also usually have thrush. I like to pull their plates and give them a light rasp leaving some wall all the way around as their soles are not used to making any contact with the ground and are usually quite thin,” Kallie said.
Thoroughbreds are notorious for having flat, thin soles, long toes, under-run heels and thin hoof walls which are prone to flaring and cracking. Likewise, the ex-racehorse Lola had thin hoof soles, under-run heels and wall flaring. But even though genetics are to blame for many of these traits, there are ways to improve the condition of the hooves and Kallie had a plan for how to help Lola become more comfortable.
Using Hoof Boots to Transition Thoroughbreds to Barefoot
After Lola had her first barefoot trim, Kallie immediately put her in hoof boots from Scoot Boots to protect her thin soles from bruising:
“I have found that the use of Scoot Boots, especially at the beginning stages of transitioning from shod to barefoot, has a considerable effect in the comfort and speed with which my horses transition to barefoot,” Kallie said.
According to Kallie, this gives the hooves a transition period and keeps the horse comfortable to encourage movement during turnout. Movement is imperative during transition to barefoot and hoof rehabilitation in general, as it stimulates hoof growth. Using Scoot Boots allows the horse to be comfortable on any surface even with thin soles and encourages the horse to land on his heels and stimulate his frogs, which is essential to rebuild his natural hoof strength.
Kallie supported Lola’s weight gain and hoof rehabilitation with a forage based diet with balanced vitamins and minerals. Then she gradually increased Lola’s in-hand exercise on different surfaces:
“I am dividing up Lola's walking time 50/50 wearing Scoot Boots and barefoot so we can continue to strengthen her soles but also not push her to the point of discomfort,” Kallie explained.
Lola in the process of rehabilitating her feet using Scoot Boots.
Thousands of Racehorses in need of a New Home and Career
In the U.S., about 20,000 new Thoroughbred foals are each year added to the population of racehorses. Thoroughbreds commonly have very short careers on the racetrack as their peak speed is reached around the age of four and as such, they are likely to be retired between the age of four and six. This leaves a large number of racehorses exiting the industry each year.
According to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association quoted by USA Today, 7500 retired Thoroughbreds are slaughtered each year. Since the United States has outlawed horse slaughter, these ex-racehorses are exported live on trucks to be slaughtered in Canada or Mexico. The vast majority of the horses are perfectly sound and the only reason for being sent to slaughter, is that they haven’t been fast enough to win on the racetrack.
As this is an inconvenient truth for the racing industry, they have partnered up with the Thoroughbred Charities of America, which are aiming to increase the demand of ex-racehorses in equestrian sports. This charity is behind The Retired Racehorse Project, that each year since 2010 facilitates the Thoroughbred Makeover competition in Kentucky to showcase the trainability of ex-racehorses.
Currently the Makeover offers ten disciplines that trainers can choose from to compete in with their Thoroughbred after ten months of off-track training. The disciplines are Eventing, Hunter, Jumper, Dressage, Field Hunter, Competitive Trail, Working Ranch and Freestyle.
Three months into Lola’s recovery, Kallie was selected as one of the 723 trainers to compete with their ex-racehorse in this competition, which was to be held nine months later in October 2019. At this point, Kallie hadn’t decided on which of these disciplines to compete Lola in, as she wanted it to be up to Lola to show what she would take a liking to.
Easing Thoroughbreds into Life Post-racing
Lola enjoying her first trail ride.
When racehorses are taken off the track, they need time to adjust to a very different lifestyle. Many racehorses are kept in stalls in between their scheduled workouts and have had little time to graze, play and laze around naturally with a herd. Moreover, racehorses are typically fed large volumes of high energy hard feed, which will take time for their digestive system to adjust away from. This unnatural lifestyle makes Thoroughbreds subject to stress-related illnesses.
When Kallie started riding Lola, her main priority was to relax her and gain her trust. They almost exclusively walked and for every ride Lola gained more confidence and lost more of her race track tension. Kallie rode her bitless, which is known to have a calming effect on ex-racehorses, as they associate the bit with needing to race. Any head tossing, teeth grinding and other signs of nervous tension tends to disappear when riding bitless.
Lola quickly learned to love going on trail rides, neither traffic or other riders seemed to bother her. When going on softer gravel free trails, Lola went without her Scoot Boots to get additional stimulation of her hooves. These trips to the park were very important to Lola and her future, said Kallie:
“Lola is learning to stand quietly tied to the trailer, ride out alone and in groups, and to have confidence with anything she might encounter along the way.”
At seven months into Lola’s recovery her exercise and fitness had steadily increased as well as the health of her hooves:
“We have added 2-mile walks down our gravel road two-three times a week alternating between riding with Scoot Boots and barefoot, which have helped to make some very positive changes to her hooves,” Kallie said.
Road riding barefoot to condition Lolas feet.
Preparation Begins for the Thoroughbred Makeover
In June, eight months into Lola’s recovery, the duo went to their first show to do two dressage schooling tests in walk and trot. Despite how calm and relaxed Lola had become going to the park to ride, she was nervous unloading from the trailer at the show. After a lot of walking around to ease Lola’s tension, Lola was able to navigate through both tests, but had a hard time standing still for the salute.
At the next show, Lola was less nervous and by their third show, Lola stayed quiet and focussed on her job. In the cross country jumping class, Lola calmly and happily trotted out the start box and continued through the whole course, never batting an eye at any of the jumps.
“As we were cooling out we had several people come up to us to say how much they liked Lola and surprised that I rode her bitless cross-country. I happily explained that all my Off-Track Thoroughbreds are transitioned to riding bitless right off the track,” Kallie said.
Kallie and Lola ended up winning the open Starter Division, but according to Kallie, the best part of the day was that Lola received the Good Egg award. This award was created to recognise the horse who took the best care of their Starter Division rider:
“Lola was the youngest and most inexperienced horse in that class that day, I’m so proud of how well she took care of me throughout the day and what an amazing example of an Off-Track Thoroughbred,” Kallie said.
The following month, the duo went to their fourth schooling dressage show. Lola had been making great progress in her confidence and relaxation at shows, but she continued to struggle with wearing a bit for Dressage, carrying her head high with tension through her back and chewing the bit. Kallie then decided to take a step back and reevaluate where she and Lola were headed, as it was time to decide on which disciplines to participate in at the Thoroughbred Makeover.
Winning the Good Egg award for being the horse that took best care of her rider.
The Makeover: Finding out what makes your Horse Thrive
Kallie then entered them into a Field Hunting competition, a discipline offered at the Makeover and one that allows riding without a bit. Some horses love the ever changing pace and obstacles in a hunt and some don’t. Lola flourished in the field and made it clear to Kallie that this was a discipline to pursue for her at this moment.
When Kallie and Lola finally made it to Kentucky on 2nd of October 2019, Lola had grown an inch taller and put on several hundred pounds of muscle. Her hooves had improved drastically, now showing a healthy wide frog, good sole depth and strong walls. She was able to freely walk over most surfaces barefoot and when wearing her Scoot Boots, according to Kallie, Lola was an all terrain-vehicle.
On the exceptionally hot day of their first Thoroughbred Makeover class, Lola was anxious but did her best to follow Kallie’s directions. On the second day, Lola again had some anxiety. But as soon as Lola realised they were going on a hunt, she had a light bulb moment as if saying ‘oh that’s what we're doing today!’ and rode confidently through the course, handling the halts, jumps and crowd.
“As equestrians it is often easy to get focused on one goal or discipline because it is what we want to do. I try to always listen to what my horses are telling me. Sometimes they make their wishes loud and clear by being what we perceive as stubborn or disobedient, but just as often they whisper. That is why it’s our job to make sure we do not talk over our horses and instead give them the confidence to find the job that they can love as much as we love them,” Kallie said.
About the author
Helle Maigaard Erhardsen is an investigative journalist specialising in environmental issues. Her devotion to the outdoors includes a life long passion for horses of which she has two: Pannigan, an off-the-track Thoroughbred and Audrey, a Shetland pony, who are both bitless and barefoot. Helle is born in Denmark, where she graduated from the Danish School of Media and Journalism in 2015. Her work is characterised by comprehensive research and she was nominated for the special media award Bording Prisen for her investigative reporting with the newspaper Ing.dk. She later obtained a Master’s degree in Journalism, Media and Communication from UTAS, when she relocated to Tasmania.