Episode 1 – Anne Walker – Retraining of Racehorses (RoR)

retraining of racehorses ror

 

Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) Episode 1

Show Notes:

Country Frog:

Hello, everybody. Today, on Frog Pod we have Anne Walker, the National Development Officer for Retraining of Racehorses (RoR).

We’ve persuaded you Anne, to come in today and not prepare anything but just have a chat. So go on and tell us about you and horses. Where did it all start?

Anne:

Personally, as a little girl, I’ve always been interested in racing, went into racing when I left school, and was lucky enough to own a very good horse when he retired from racing. I had to leave the industry quite poorly paid in those days. And then I did all the part time jobs to keep this horse, doing another career. I eventually ended up at Crow Wood Burnley, a big equestrian centre locally. I was there for 15 years where I was assistant manager with Wayne Marsland and  I got more at race horses to ride started competing, are all came around, got involved with RoR more or less from the start, and it’s just gone from there. It’s fantastic as I combined the love of the racing and keep my interest in competing horses.

Country Frog:
Wow, you seem to travel a lot. I see on your Facebook profile.

Anne:
I get around. That’s my treat myself because this job (with Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) is 24/7.

Country Frog:
Yes, as with anything to do with horses, 24/7 definitely. So obviously, RoR is a massively growing community. What would the appeal of having an ex racehorse be?

Anne Walker:

The appeal would be the getting a very versatile athletic sport horse. Very trainable, and in return very adaptable. They excel in many, many disciplines. And they are easy to obtain. If you get one that sound and well mannered, you’ve got a friend for life.

Country Frog:
So, how would how would somebody go about finding an ex racehorse  to offer a home to?

Anne Walker:

There’s a few select a few options there. You can go direct to a trainer and find out if they’ve got anything coming out of racing. And some trainers are very, very proactive on the retraining side and re homing. You can buy them from adverts, you know public adverts, you can go to the bloodstock sales and get horses are coming out of training. You can get them from supported welfare establishments that retrain them on them for life and loan them out.

Country Frog:
And do they vet the homes they’re going to?

Anne Walker:
The likes of HAPPA and the BTRC (British Thoroughbred Racing Centre) and Greatwood Heroes, we’ve got a list of approved centers that take in vulnerable horses, and if they’re suitable to be retrained and have a useful and active life, they retain ownership and these horses will go out and have and yeah, hopefully a very nice life. But you can always go back if things go wrong or circumstances change then the center’s take them back. If for any reason there’s a mismatch, it’s a safety net.

Country Frog:
So contrary to belief, race horses are exceptionally well looked after aren’t they?

Anne Walker:
Oh yes! You couldn’t get anything better, the care of the modern race horse is absolutely superb.

Country Frog:
I know I’ve seen it first hand from working with with the racing fraternity. But the general public have just got this persona that it’s not a nice world, but it is, they are so well treated. It’s a case, I should imagine, that the the the owners have got a duty of care to make sure that when they do move them on, that they get the right home and a fulfilling life. They retire young, don’t they,  most of them?

Anne Walker:

Exactly. However, not all of them are fit to re-home. This is where we help, to educate owners of race horses as well as owners of ex-racehorses. Because some horses are coming out with quite serious injuries, through no fault of their own. I’m not decrying the sport in any way. But as in any sport, you get sporting injuries and race horses sadly do get them too. Sometimes their  temperament isn’t good enough. So sometimes you’ve got to look at whether it is safe to actually let this horse go out into wider equestrian world. Unless you can actually find somebody with the experience that knows how to deal with them, because they are high powered athlete. We provide a wide range of regional training opportunities at Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) to help riders taken on these horses, to hopefully prevent them the horse actually becoming vulnerable.

Some of the high profile owner’s, they’re very lucky. They’ve got their own stud farms at home and these horses retire to a life of absolute luxury, in post and rail paddocks., rugged up and looked after like royalty. But that is a small percentage, the majority of the the middle range,  go into the breeding sheds. The mares and stallions. So we’re looking at on the whole, at geldings, horses who aren’t fast enough, are prone to injury. Some of them are quite old in their early teens. They’ve had a  full working life, but they’re not on the scrap heap. You can get 8-10 years out of a good sound thoroughbred, easily into their teens, into their 20’s. You’ve only to look locally at local competitions, to see girls trotting around on horses 20/21 and still winning dressage. The longevity of them is good, if you get a nice sound horse.

A lot of them recover from racing quite well, they might have (I don’t like the term) ‘mental scars’, but they’re very disciplined and their regime is very disciplined. It’s bit like the Army, you know, soldiers like they are used to a routine. And it’s hard changing that routine when they come out. They’re used to being fed at six o’clock in the morning, especially in places like Newmarket and some of the racing centres. They’re back in bed by eight o’clock, everything done. If it gets sold out into the wider world, and somebody wants to stay in bed on a Sunday morning, or drag it out to a show or whatever, you know, they’re not used to that change, and they need time to just like anything else.

Country Frog:

Wow, amazing. So Retraining of Racehorses otherwise known as RoR. How did it start?

Anne Walker:

It started, I believe, after a program called ‘They shoot horses, don’t they?’ which focused on the racing industry and the high turnover of horses. Then there was a massive backlash. I don’t know if you remember this program, these are the days before social media. The backlash was really felt by the industry and Andrew Parker- Bowles came up with a plan to create the charity, to give these horses another life after racing, and prove that actually British Racing does care.

Country Frog:
So, tell us, what an average year’s like, take you through from start to finish as a body, what what’s available for people who’ve taken on a racehorse then starting out to retrain, what’s available to them?

Anne Walker:
Regionally we have club nights which are aimed specifically at people with new horses or new members and low key clinics if you want to, no  pressure, where we’ve got an experienced Trainer with just a few poles on the floor. The trainer can help these people just to build their confidence. We encourage groups and horses working in, in different directions, just like you’re working in at a dressage competition, but without without a competition. It’s so laid back and just if people want to stand in a corner and just talk and make friends and support each other, that’s our club nights We’re fine.

We’re there to help these riders gain confidence in experience and knowledge of how to ride them and cement this relationship and work on the time needed. There’s no quick fixes. Some of them adapt to retraining straightaway. Some of them say ‘thank the Lord I don’t have to race again, I’ll be a ‘happy hacker”.

It might take them 12 months to wind down and then we can progress on to lots of supported clinics, with top names like Jeanette Brakewell, Francis Whittington, in the eventing world they’re very good trainers. We have horses training in TREK, dressage to music, which is absolutely brilliant, the dressage to music one’s very basic because the riders relax immediately. They don’t think about the problems the same, and the horses relax. I don’t know what it is about the dressage to music clinics. But they’re so successful, and the same with the TREK ones, because you’re asking the ride to think outside the box, and not going to do a 20m circle.They’ve to do these little hazards, like backing out of poles and things like that.

Their mindset changes, so they ride the horse, the horse relaxes and they come on so fast. If you go to enter in an arena that’s set up with loads of different obstacles and things, they don’t worry. If you go into an arena that’s empty, and you’ve got one flag in the middle, they spook at it all day, ooh, there’s a flag there! But the more hazards and obstacles that you can create, the more it makes them ride. I think it’s because they’ve got to ride around them and the horse is looking to the rider and wanting guidance. You never see them try to run off when there’s an arena full of poles on the floor, they’re just totally relaxed.

Country Frog:
Do you find that the members that you have in RoR care for each other and help each other away from camp?

Anne Walker:

Oh, goodness, yes! The community that’s built up to the Northwest region of Retraining of Racehorses (RoR), for example, where we’re based, we’ve got a group of girls who support each other. They arrange their own clinics now, which takes a big load off my mind. We have residential training camps where they come and stay for three or four days with the racehorses, at Somerford Park, where there were 35/36 racehorses. These girls are supporting each other, they become friends on Facebook and have this this network going of support. You can see them all talking on Facebook and supporting each other with suggestions and there’s always an element of sense there. It’s encouraging. I feel it’s my job is to encourage them, to get them onto the RoR ladder.

And going back to the training, they can have subsidized training up to quite a high level. Some of these horses really progress. Yes there are the ones that are happy to stay trundling round a grassroots, prelim, intro, 80cm jumping, we’ve got something for everybody. We have a series for them all to take part in and we reward from unaffiliated Intro up to Badminton level.

Country Frog:
What disciplines does RoR cover?

Anne Walker:

We have showing , our Elite Series, which is aimed at British race horses. We’ve got a Novice Show Horse Series we’ve got the Amateur Showing Series, we’ve got In Hand and we’ve just introduced an In hand Veteran Series which ticks quite a few boxes because it takes a box number one, that people have to look after the horses as they get older and it’s something for the older horses to do in hand. Also the horses that are no longer ridden, it’s something for them to do. They only have to be 15 years old to be ‘a veteran’. These horses are going on into their 20’s. People are looking after them specifically to get them to shows, so the welfare side is taken care of as well. They’re not on the scrap heap.

We have our own Working Hunter series, which is called Retrain Racehorse Challenge. We’ve got eventing, like I say from unaffiliated grassroots level and hunter trials and team chasing right up through to Badminton. We have a grassroots award at badminton and we award the top that compete in the 4 star at Badminton. Arctic Soul’s won the award for 3 years running.

Then we have dressage. We’ve got unaffiliated dressage, we’ve got we’ve got the regional leagues covering that. Then we award in British dressage, big cash prizes, for novice, elementary and medium and then we have an Elite award. The winner gets £1500 for the elite award, that’s competing at Advanced Medium or above. Showjumping the same again, from grassroots right up through to classes at the BS championships. Polo, we’ve got an Elite Performance Award, we’ve got an RoR Polo series, we’ve got a ‘Racing to Polo Challenge’, Young Producer Awards, hunting and team chasing.

We reward horses to hunting with a big final entry in October at Aintree. That was real popular,  it’s in its second, possibly third year. Team Chasing, Endurance, all the way again from your local pleasure rides where you get a completion rosette, right through to the Elite Award with £1000 for the one competing at high level open endurance horse.

Country Frog:

How far would you expect a racehorse to travel on an endurance? Because some of those mileages are huge aren’t they?

Anne Walker:
Some are 160 kilometers, 100 miles. A lady from Scotland won that. I’ve done them on mine, 40-60 kilometers and really enjoyed it. The horses love it.

Country Frog:
They do they love it. The funniest thing for me, just digressing a little bit, was at the Endurance in Thetford last August and the mule came out. The one that’s been out at British dressage and it went through the start gate and he just thought ‘happy days’. He did a rotational fall of his rider and he went off into the sunset and wasn’t found for several hours. Poor chap was all right and the mule was fine. But they do love it, don’t they?

Anne Walker:

They love it. It’s like hunting but without the jumps. I’ve never known a racehorse misbehave doing endurance, they just adapt to it. On a long rein, a good rider in balance with the horse.

Country Frog:

So having heard all that, RoR seems to me to be probably the one and only body that you can be in, on the equine circuit that encompasses and rewards more importantly, rewards everybody and every horse.

Anne Walker:
Yeah. We are a little bit unique in a way really, because we are dealing with a recycled product, basically. We are British Horse Racing’s official charity, and there’s got to be some incentive to take these horses on, not just for the prize money.

Country Frog:

No, it can’t be just for the money. Because if you got a good horse or a bad horse, or a cheap or expensive horse, they all cost the same amount of money to keep Exactly. But for the person who isn’t going to be an Olympic rider, to be able to join a society, where they’ve got the camaraderie and the support of everybody around them. Whether riding or not, they’re going to have fun and more importantly, the horses as well.

Anne Walker:
That’s the essence of it. It’s finding it finding useful and caring homes for these horses for life. That’s our ultimate goal, to create a balance between horses leaving training and finding secure homes.

Country Frog:
A lot of other Societies could do with looking at this as well, doing and looking more towards than just the winners and the prize money, sponsorship and the shopping. To think about both horse and rider and what they’re getting out of it. That should be rewarded in my book.

Anne Walker:
Yes, it is rewarded, they and the riders have so many options, like I say from real grassroots levels right up through to what we call our Elite. We used to be for GB raced horses only because obviously we are British Horse Racing’s, official charity. But now we encompass horses that have been in training that have never raced, because obviously they’ve been through that initial stage and for various reasons haven’t raced.

We also now encompass horses that have raced anywhere in the world. The unraced horses, and as we would say ‘the foreign race horses’ aren’t eligible for our Elite awards. They are for GB raced horses only, about six Elite awards.

Country Frog:

Fantastic. So what what does the future hold for RoR?

Anne Walker:
Next year, we’re 20 years of age and I believe there’s lots planned for next year. Some things I am aware of, a lot I’m not. But regionally going forward, the network of subsidized training, of club nights, residential training camps, that’s expanding all the time.

It’s just having a support network out there for these horses at the end of the day. It’s it’s a support network. We’ve got to look after the riders through the training, because many, many, many of them have never sat on a thoroughbred but and it’s a little bit like putting somebody on a fast bike or in a fast car before they pass their test. The same with any horse, there’s no quick fixes. What I come across a lot in my job, people blame the horse’s racing career for the problems that the horses have got.  It’s still a horse. Yes, if it doesn’t stand tied it’s because it’s never been taught to stand tied, not because it was a racehorse.

The thing you’re getting with a racehorse usually is a well handled animal. They’ve usually been clipped every year, they’re good to shoe, they’re good to travel. They’ve been there, they’ve done that. If get one from one of the center’s like Newmarket or Middleham, they’ve going traffic every day. Yes, they’ve been going in a string and yes, you’ve got to give them that bit of time to get used to being on their own and be able to hack out on your own, things like that. A lot of them have never been got on with a stirrup, you  get a leg on because it’s practical. Like the two year olds, you don’t want people reaching up to a stirrup and heaving themselves on, hurting the horses back. You see so much of that in the in the wider equestrian world you wouldn’t want it, would you. It’s so much easier to leg people on, and away they go.

Country Frog:

Would you say there’s an age limit, say what would be the youngest age reasonable, for someone to take an ex-racehorse on?.

Anne Walker:

RoR has a policy. Any horse can take part in our series, but the rider has got to be 15 years or over, at first of January of the current year. I get a lot of stick about this because I’m out there speaking to people. The reason for this is basically there are not suitable rides for children. But, I’m not saying that children can’t ride racehorses. From our point of view, we cannot justify promoting them as being a good ride for children.

I get this a lot off parents whose kids do ride. I rode race horse at 12 years old, I rode my local pointers at 12 years old. I’m not saying that these kids can’t ride. I’m not saying they’re not good enough to have them. We have a policy. RoR, as British horse Racing’s official charity, cannot advocate all racehorses as being suitable to go out there for children to ride. Technically at 15 years and under you’re a child. I get this so much. “It’s not fair, my daughter has been riding ‘such and such’, my son can do this”. Great! Be proud of them that they can ride like they can. I’m not saying that they can’t have their ex-racehorse, I’m saying that they can’t compete in RoR series until they’re 15.

There’s is nothing stopping them going through Pony Club, I did that myself. There’s nothing stopping them doing BS, BD, but as a responsible charity, we cannot be seen to be advocating them as suitable. They’re not suitable for a lot of adults, they can be very, very dangerous. They react very quickly, they are trained to think quickly. It’s bred in them to think quickly. And sadly, a lot of kids are not good enough to ride them, it’s a fact of life. For those people whose kids can ride and are lucky to have a good background, I love watching these kids. I love it. I’ve seen them on razzie ponies, as 8/10 year olds, and I like to see them on a part thoroughbred at 12/13/14 years old. Then they get on a nice thoroughbred type at 15, I love it. I personally love it, but there’s got to be some regulations.

Country Frog:

I’ve learned a lot today, so where can people actually find out more information about getting or having or a homing or an ex-racehorse? Where would they go to to find out more?

Anne Walker:

Go to our website www.ror.org.uk, there’s lots of information on Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) there, we have a dedicated site where people can actually sell, loan, buy or source, an ex-racehorse, and we encourage trainers to put horses on there. A lot of trainers are very good, they don’t fluff them up at all, they say what it is.  It’s a four year old bay gelding and it retired three weeks ago. What you see is what you get. They might they might not let you vet it, some might, they’ve no time to mess about. A lot of them won’t let you ride it at home because of insurance purposes. There’s a lot of risk involved getting an ex-racehorse and this is where you need a reputable equestrian trainer to come with you. If you’ve never had a thoroughbred, they think quickly. I hear a lot of people say ‘mine’s like a donkey’. Yeah, a lot of them are like donkeys if they’re in the right hands, they are brilliant.

Country Frog:

Well, thank you for that. Thanks for that insight into the retraining of racehorses and hopefully we’ll be able to persuade you to come along again in the near future and ask you some more questions.

Anne Walker:

Definitely. Brilliant. Thanks.

 

See also our Aintree Equestrian Centre blogpost that may be of interest: https://countryfrog.uk/aintree-equestrian-centre-aintree-racecourse-liverpool-2/

 

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