I hope all of you have had a chance to see the beautifully transformed retired racehorses in my last column. If you haven’t, please click on the link below to check it out.
The Thoroughbreds in the Makeover competition are built differently than the lean racehorses we are accustomed to seeing on the racing track, but they have a beauty of their own.
When I arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, the venue for the Thoroughbred Makeover (hereafter referred to as the “Makeover”), I was impressed to find so many of the horses in excellent condition. To find out more, I visited the Arrival Exam area where all the horses undergo a veterinary inspection to qualify for competition.
I expected the exam to be similar to that of the horse inspections that are conducted at international competitions, but I found the Makeover Arrival Exam to be quite different.
The purpose of the Arrival Exams
Kirsten Green, the executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP) told me, “We want to put the focus on the horse’s welfare, condition and proper management in order to change the preconceptions people have of retired racehorses.”
Dr. Shannon Reed, a veterinarian advisor to Makeover and herself a committed and active advocate of the aftercare of retired racehorses, including participating in a Makeover event as a competitor in 2017 and 2018, added, “There are many misconceptions about Thoroughbred horses among the public and riders, such as thinking that they are hard to put on weight or that they cannot go barefoot. I implemented the Arrival Exam in order to clear up these misconceptions.”
The Makeover is a competition for retired racehorses to showcase their versatility and athleticism so it seems only natural that a health inspection should be in place. However, the exam requires a lot of work to coordinate, from informing the participants about the requirements of the exam in advance, conducting fair exam procedures, and acquiring the manpower to conduct such exams. All this is easier said than done. Because I know how much work goes into it, I applaud the organizers for putting it all into practice, and also the participants who prepare their horses and show up in excellent condition for the event.
An exam that is designed for the horse and rider
When I arrived at the exam site, Dr. Reed and the rider were laughing and talking next to a horse. The exam was being done in a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
The exam consisted of taking body temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate measurements, checking for any blemishes or swelling, and body condition score (*1) which has to be 4 points or higher to participate. There was also a scanning of the microchip, and the review of vaccination records and other documents. The horses that passed the above would advance to the soundness examination.
Horses that fail to meet any of the above criteria are sent to go to a second veterinarian’s examination. If both veterinarians decide that the horse does not meet the required criteria, the horse and rider will be given the option to return for a second examination by a third veterinarian after 24 hours. It can be said that the exam is designed to be a very fair system for both the horse and the rider.
Reed explains, “We don’t simply say that a horse does not qualify. We communicate and talk to the rider a lot. If we find swelling, we ask what happened and ask a lot of other questions.”
I was impressed at the fairness of the exam, which is designed with both the horse and rider in mind.
In order to go through such a careful and thorough exam for all 300 participating horses, it requires a lot of manpower. However, this problem is addressed in a very meaningful and efficient way.
*1 Body Condition Score
A body condition scoring system developed by Dr. Don. Henneke to determine the degree of fat coverage at six main points that best demonstrate changes in a horse’s body fat, based on visual and palpatory examinations, on a scale of 1 (poor) to 9 (extremely fat).
Veterinary student mentorship program
This year’s Arrival Exam was sponsored by Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, Keeneland Race Course, and the retired racehorse charity After the Finish Line.
It was wonderful to see all these organizations that are involved with both on the track and off the track Thoroughbreds come together to support the welfare of retired racehorses.
At the venue, Dr. Reed led a team of about 10 veterinarians who were dispatched by Hagyard Equine Medical Institute and Boehringer Ingelheim and they were examining the horses.
The veterinarians also had the assistance of 30 veterinary school students. The Arrival Exam acts as a mentorship program for future veterinarians. The 30 veterinarians (who were selected from over 300 applicants) receive in-depth training from Dr. Reed, including demonstrations on how to perform the inspections before the competition begins. At the event, students work with the veterinarians to inspect over 300 participating horses.
The mentorship program also includes a visit to a thoroughbred breeding farm, morning works at Keeneland Race Course, and discussions with veterinarians from the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, making it a very thorough learning experience for the students.
One of the reasons why this program was started is because there is a shortage of veterinarians who specialize in horses. This program gives more students the opportunity to learn about the many attractions of the Thoroughbred horse and will hopefully lead to more veterinarians who specialize in horses in the future.
Opportunities to learn
RRP, the organizer of the Makeover event, creates a lot of content for people to learn more about the management and training of Thoroughbreds and retired racehorses on their website and YouTube channel.
Even for their Arrival Exam, they hold numerous Q&A sessions and webinars for the riders and trainers so they can properly prepare in advance.
At the event, one can see how this combination of the strict requirements of the Arrival Exam and the opportunities to learn and improve on horse management skills have resulted in the beautiful conditions of the horses.
What did you think of the Thoroughbred Makeover, the world’s largest retired racehorse retraining competition?
What impressed me the most was how the organizer, RRP, works very hard to stay true to its mission.
RRP’s mission states, “The RRP exists to facilitate placement of Thoroughbred ex-racehorses in second careers by increasing demand for them in equestrian sports and serving the farms, trainers, and organizations that transition them.”
It is almost dizzying to think about the amount of work and preparation that goes into organizing this competition that brings together 300 horses, with riders who range from professional, amateur, and junior levels, all competing in 10 completely different disciplines. This is all done to provide a venue for retired racehorses to showcase their versatility. The current event alone is impressive enough, but I have found that it continues to evolve and improve every year. The riders and trainers show their support for the RRP’s unwavering mission by spending a year to transform and prepare their horses for the event.
The people who have come together through their passion for retired racehorses, and the way they support each other, learn from each other, and work together to fulfill their mission, truly makes this event a one of a kind, special experience.
Retired Racehorse Project ▶︎ https://www.therrp.org/