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Retraining an ex-racehorse from the anatomical and biomechanical viewpoint

Taking on and retraining an ex-racehorse is a popular option for many, but it is a journey that requires a deep understanding of the horse's previous training and their unique anatomy and biomechanics. In this blog, we highlight some of the key areas you need to be aware of when it comes to retraining an ex-racehorse, and how to help make it a smooth and successful transition to the horse’s second career.

Horses Inside Out: Skeletally painted racehorse

Horses Inside Out: Factors that influence horse health and performance

When first taking on an ex-racehorse, it’s important to get a thorough assessment of your horse with a vet that specialises in ex-racers. They will review every aspect of your horse’s condition and advise you on the best management program. This will enable you to set achievable goals for your horse’s future ridden career.


Finding the right professional to help with every aspect of your horse’s care from feet to nutrition, dentistry and tack, training, behaviour, and muscular skeletal care will all help towards a successful transition to a new career with comfort, performance and longevity in mind.

 

Common Conditions

Many of these elite athletes have spent their early years training for speed and endurance. This can often lead to the development of specific muscles and a very different way of going compared to horses trained for other disciplines such as dressage and eventing. This is an important consideration when you are embarking on a retraining program, for example, the high-impact nature of racing can result in joint wear and musculoskeletal injuries.

 

“Ex racehorses often suffer with puffy joints, kissing spine and sacroiliac ligament dysfunction,” explains Gillian Higgins. “Some of these issues are more to do with breed and conformation rather than their racing history. Thoroughbreds naturally have smaller spaces between the spinous processes in the back compared to more cold-blooded breeds making them more predisposed to conditions such as kissing spines.”

 

Understanding Kissing Spines

Kissing spines is a bony change that occurs in the spinous processes particularly in the mid thoracic region (T13/14-T18/L1). Horses with naturally smaller spaces between their spinous processes combined with an extended back posture are at greater risk of developing kissing spines compared to a horse with a good flexed back posture and larger spinous spaces.



There are a number of other factors that can increase the development of kissing spines, these include:

  • Hind limb lameness

  • Sacroiliac dysfunction

  • Poorly fitting tack

  • Back muscle tension

  • A hollow outline and poor way of going

 

In terms of preventing or managing a horse with kissing spines, going back to basics and ensuring everything is done correctly is key.


“A good understanding of the anatomy and biomechanics of the back is imperative,” says Gillian. “The horse needs to be worked correctly in a good posture appropriate for age and stage.”

Horses Inside Out and Gillian Higgins Kissing Spines on-demand recorded webinar

If you are keen to know more about kissing spines and management, take a look at our on-demand webinar Kissing Spines: Anatomy, Prevention and Rehabilitation. With the help of Gillian’s anatomically painted horses, anatomical bones and real horse bones, discover what kissing spines are, what they actually look like, and where and why they happen. Gillian demonstrates a comprehensive set of exercises and tips to both prevent them happening and to aid the rehabilitation of horses with kissing spines.

Horses Inside Out: Hoof care


Feet First


As many of you probably already know, the Thoroughbred tends to have small, thin soled feet with low heels and often have a broken back hoof pastern axis. This hoof conformation can cause problems and requires a good hoof care management regime to ensure comfort and soundness.





Learning to Bend 

Biomechanically, racehorses are accustomed to moving with a long, ground-covering stride at high speeds, in a straight line. This can mean that they may have developed a more pronounced asymmetry in their musculature due to racing, which typically involves running in one direction. This can lead to uneven muscle development and this needs to be assessed and addressed during retraining.

Horses Inside Out and Gillian Higgins image from above showing lateral flexibility in the horse's spine
From this image, you can see that there is very little natural lateral flexibility within the horse's spine

Also, they will be very strong in the muscles that help to extend the hip and propel them forwards. One of the biggest differences between the biomechanical demands for racehorses versus dressage and showjumping is the requirement for lateral stability and flexibility.


Lateral flexibility is the horse’s ability to bend through the spine, particularly in the neck, middle of the back, rib cage and tail.


As there is very little natural lateral flexibility within the spine, the horse’s ability to bend comes from limb movement - in other words, the limbs on the inside of the bend take a smaller step and the limbs on the outside of the bend reach around a little bit more, and the inside hindleg steps underneath the body. These movements require the development of the lateral stabiliser muscles. These muscles are also involved in abduction and adduction of the limb which we see when the horse goes sideways.

 

However, it’s not just about the horses ability to bend, it’s also the ability to stay upright on the turn.

“Watch horses turned out in a field and you often see that when they go to turn, they take their head to the outside and lean to the inside,” says Gillian. “This isn’t what we want in a riding horse, we want them to stay upright on the turn and bend to the inside. This requires balance and good development of the lateral stabiliser muscles.”

 

Horses don’t naturally have particularly well-developed lateral stabiliser muscles. This is because they have evolved to run away from predators as fast as they can in a straight line.


The introduction of ridden work where we ask the horse to turn within a small arena can be particularly demanding on these muscles and for horses such as racehorses that haven’t really used these muscles before, it can be quite challenging for them. Particular focus should be given to developing good lateral stability particularly when re-training an ex-racehorse as it will help to prevent problems occurring in the future. Lateral instability and the strength of the hindlimb lateral stabiliser muscles can be assessed when the horse walks or trots away from you. Watch how straight the hock and hind fetlock stays through mid-stance to break over. A horse with weak lateral stabilisers and poor lateral stability will twist to the outside through these joints in this moment.

Horses Inside Out and Gillian Higgins The Biomechanics of Bending on-demand recorded webinar
The biomechanics of Lateral work- horses Insie Out

If you own an ex-racehorse or would just like to learn more about improving lateral stability and lateral flexibility, we strongly recommend these three webinars which are available in the Horses Inside Out Academy.


The Biomechanics of Bending to discover more about improving your horse’s lateral flexibility and how to improve it.


The Biomechanics of Lateral Work to learn more about lateral stability as well as how your horse moves sideways.

 

Horses Inside Out: Poles for Posture webinar

Poles for Posture - this is jam-packed with polework exercises you can do with your horse to improve lateral flexibility and lateral stability as well core muscle strength and posture which is key for all ridden horses whatever the chosen discipline.



Take it steady

With all horses, and in particular ex-racers, it’s easy to move onto the next stage or level too quickly. Just because the horse can jump round a course of fences or run through a set of movements in a dressage test doesn’t mean that we should do it. In the short term, the horse may be able to get away with it, but long-term it won’t help performance and will only increase the risk of injury and reduce longevity.

 

“It’s crucial that the horse is strong, stable and flexible and has the ability to maintain good, correct posture all the way through a dressage test or training session before we think of moving on to the next level,” stresses Gillian.

 

Re-training an ex-racehorse takes time and isn’t something that can be rushed. It's crucial to be patient and allow the horse to adjust to its new life at a comfortable pace, recognising that straightness and balance may take time to achieve.

 

For a muscle to change as a result of exercise can take four to six weeks. So for example, if you start doing Pilates style exercises with your horse, you can expect to start seeing a difference within four weeks, but for the difference to be sustained, you need to keep going with the exercises for much longer.


To change the entire muscular system takes at least a year. The demands of a general riding horse doing low-level dressage, showjumping and hacking are very different to the demands placed on a racehorse. It’s important to accept that a racehorse and the muscular system in particular is not prepared or adapted to the demands of dressage and jumping. Introduce new exercises gradually and don’t ask for too much too soon. Realistically, it will take at least a year of consistent, appropriate work for a horse’s muscular system to adapt to a new role in life.

 

Retraining an ex-racehorse is not just about physical adjustments - it's also about mental rehabilitation. These horses need to learn to trust their new handlers and understand a whole new set of aids and expectations. With time, patience, and a tailored approach that respects their past while preparing them for a new future, ex-racehorses can, and do make a successful transition to a new and long second career.


We hope you find this article useful. If you have any questions, comments or experiences you would like to share please do get in touch or add a comment below.

 

 

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