Every year in the UK around five thousand racehorses leave training to face a very uncertain future. In these times of economic downturn many owners cannot afford the luxury of keeping a racehorse in training, older horses reach the end of their careers, others are simply not fast enough, many are retired through injury and some are simply not suited to the sport for other reasons. The lucky ones with caring owners concerned for their horse's future wellbeing may find themselves gifted to one of the UK's racehorse rehabilitation centres. Others arrive in terrible condition; emaciated, lame or with behavioural issues. The centres welcome them all and none are turned away.
The Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre in Lancaster held their annual open day over the weekend and I went along to learn more about the work that they do. The centre is situated in a beautiful rural setting surrounded by acres of rolling post and rail fenced paddocks bordered by narrow belts of woodland and overlooked by the distant blue hills of the Lake District. There is a new indoor arena with a small viewing gallery and stabling for about 25 horses in a large barn arrangement. The centre receives some funding from official sources but most of its income is through donations from the public and the sale of branded merchandise; baseball caps, T shirts, pens and the like.
Open days serve several purposes: raising awareness, fund raising and acting as a shop window for horses ready to be rehomed. There was certainly something for everyone; an animal art exhibition, merchandise for sale, a greyhound rescue stand, a raffle, bouncy castle for the kids and "Bob" the mechanical horse simulator for those who fancied getting in the saddle. Many of the immaculately groomed residents were in their stables clearly enjoying all the attention and activity.
There was a demonstration using two of the rescued horses which illustrated the lengthy process of retraining which each horse must be through before being offered for rehoming. There followed a parade of about half the centre's horses. Every horse is different. Some have old injuries making them only suitable for light hacking or as companions; others have never raced and would make lovely show horses or jumpers while others move well enough to have a second career in the dressage arena. All have their own personalities and quirks and it was fascinating to watch how each reacted to the audience. The horses which were only in the early stages of rehabilitation were left turned out away from all the hustle and bustle as it was thought they might become stressed if exposed to such attention too soon.
Although every horse remains the property of the centre for the whole of its life, the goal is to find lifetime loan homes for them all. Once retraining is complete and the horse is deemed ready for rehoming, its details are placed on the centre's website. Potential foster homes must apply on-line giving details of their previous experience and ability. Anyone wishing to take one of the centre's horses must first complete a riding assessment on the centre's schoolmaster before being introduced to a horse deemed to be suitable for them. If this goes well, the potential home will be inspected and references taken up before the horse is released. The centre currently has a waiting list of about 30 potential homes. Many of the horses are "golden oldies", well into their teens, although still fit, sound and suitable for work. Sadly these are often passed over by potential foster homes in favour of younger animals which is a great shame as an older horse can still offer many years of useful service in the right environment.
Although inspiring and thoroughly enjoyable, I left the centre's horses with a feeling of sadness that this was just a drop in the ocean. So many ex-racehorses having given their best on the track for entertainment and profit will find themselves out in the cold and will not be fortunate enough to become residents of a centre like this one.