Transitioning the Retired Race Horse

Since there are a lot of race horses in our area being retired from the tracks this time of year we thought it was a good idea to post some helpful guidelines for a smooth transition.
American Association of Equine Practitioners
TRANSITIONING THE RETIRED RACEHORSE

Racehorses can be very useful in other careers after retiring from racing. Many are donated 
to retirement facilities that provide permanent sanctuary or provide retraining and 
adoption to suitable homes. These horses’ uses may range from non‐ridden, companion 
animals to athletic sport horses. As in most equine endeavors, the intended use of the horse 
has a large bearing on its rehoming potential. The equine practitioner can assist, both at the 
track and at the retirement facility, with the potential use of these horses after they retire 
from racing. There are many variables that must be considered in this determination. While 
there are no absolutes, there are conditions associated with physical limitations which will 
likely prevent a horse from future athletic endeavors.  Foremost for the equine practitioner 
are the soundness of the individual animal and the identification of various conditions that 
may affect future usability. 
Based on their professional experience, most veterinarians will have a personal 
perspective regarding which medical conditions can be consistent with various uses. These 
guidelines will outline the common health issues encountered and offer opinions based on 
the committee’s collective expertise. There is minimal scientific data on which to base these 
prognostic decisions and ultimately recommendations may be founded solely on 
professional veterinary opinion.  As improved documentation of experience with injury 
rehabilitation becomes available, more accurate prognostic decisions will be possible.  The 
veterinarian advising or making recommendations as to the future use of a horse should be 
familiar with the demands and health requirements of that use, and it is recommended that 
the veterinarian’s prognosis for athletic ability in a specific horse be conservative in order 
to avoid situations where failed expectations result in a horse becoming unwanted. 
The first step in determining the prognosis for a racehorse to be transitioned to another 
use is a comprehensive evaluation. This should include as detailed a medical history as is 
available and a thorough musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiac and ophthalmic 
examination.  Because many horses that are to be examined have had recent medication for 
various infirmities, it may be necessary to examine an animal more than once to assess its 
accurate health status.  Arrival exams are standard procedure for most of the major 
retirement organizations. Good records of these exams are necessary. Often these exams 
are the responsibility of the facility to which the animal is donated, at which time a medical 
history is likely unavailable.  The AAEP recommends that responsibility for the horse’s 
evaluation be borne by the horse’s donor, thus saving the facility funds and allowing them
to more effectively triage the animal.
Many retirement facilities have very limited capacity and lack resources to support animals 
for a long period. Therefore, it is in the interest of both the horse and the facility to make 
prudent and efficient decisions regarding individual animals in order to responsibly 
manage financial resources. Humane euthanasia is a legitimate consideration for animals 
that have chronic unsoundness that renders them unsuitable candidates for adoption, or 
for animals that are uncomfortable to the extent they cannot humanely live out their days 
in a field. 
Physical Assessment
For the purpose of these guidelines, the following definitions are used to describe the levels 
of recommended use for the transitioned horse. 
• Level I:  Pasture turnout, non‐ridden. 
• Level II:  Light use, to include trail riding at the walk and occasional trot on good 
footing. 
• Level III: Moderate use such as flat work at the walk, trot, canter and varied terrain. 
Occasional jumping in good conditions generally with fences less than two feet. 
• Level IV:  Full athletic work; no exclusions. 
In addition to physical condition, temperament is a critical factor in determining successful 
placement of these horses. Most retirement facilities are managed by experienced horse 
people whose assessment of a horse’s temperament, demeanor, socialization (human and 
equine) and tractability will be important. Such evaluation requires a good history and 
regular monitoring by experienced observers. While the veterinarian may have input as to 
an animal’s temperament for a specific purpose, such decisions should be made in consultation with management. Stallions and colts should be castrated before transitioning.
The following is a listing of conditions commonly seen in retiring racehorses and the 
prognosis for these animals for various uses. 
Musculoskeletal Conditions:
Fetlock
Lameness due to chronic osteoarthritis is common in retiring racehorses and may 
often be the precipitating cause of the horse’s retirement. The degree of lameness 
can be highly variable, and is not always consistent with radiographic findings.  
However, it is unlikely that a horse demonstrating grade 2/5 lameness due to 
fetlock disease will be serviceable as a performance horse. These horses may be able 
to be used for Level II activities, but should still be expected to require an increased 
level of care to maintain their existing level of soundness. Horses with a significant 
decrease in fetlock flexion even if not exhibiting lameness may be compromised for 
significant athletic use (Level III‐IV).  If the adopting agency or person is willing to 
institute therapy to mediate osteoarthritis of the fetlock, the costs should be 
outlined as well as prognosis. Intra‐articular therapies and / or surgery will render 
a number of these animals useful at lower levels (Level I‐III). In general, if a horse 
cannot be maintained for racing with appropriate therapy, it will be difficult to 
maintain that animal for any use other than very low level work in other capacities. 
In particular, these animals will be unlikely to be able to be sound enough for 
jumping or dressage. 
Small osteochrondral fragments should have minimal impact on future soundness if 
the animal is given appropriate therapy and time to recover. Fractures of the 
proximal sesamoids vary greatly and must be individually assessed. In general, 
small apical fractures and basilar fractures without extensive degenerative joint 
disease and marked suspensory disease will be serviceable for moderate level use 
(Level I‐III). Full body fractures often render an animal unsound for any athletic 
activity.
Carpus
The degree of damage to the carpus can dictate future usefulness. If the damage to 
the joint surfaces is not extensive, the horse will be able to transition to low and 
moderate sport horse use including jumping.  If there is extensive osteoarthritis 
involving any of the joint surfaces, the prognosis is quite guarded. Chip fractures can 
be removed and improve the athletic prognosis in many cases. Palmar fractures 
generally carry a less favorable prognosis for any use other than very light pleasure. 
Foot
“No foot, no horse” is a universal truth that crosses all equine disciplines.  Foot 
conditions are often managed on the racetrack with therapeutic shoeing and 
medication and without a specific diagnosis. 
Poorly conformed feet that have to perform on harder surfaces than the track will 
often lead to lameness. Good farriery over time can remedy many hoof conditions, 
and if the adopting group is willing to invest the time, these horses may transition to 
many uses. Chronic quarter cracks can often be healed and corrected. Horses with 
chronic foot pain are poor candidates for use on hard surfaces.  Animals that have 
had laminitis also may be poor candidates for use over firm surfaces. Such horses 
require detailed examination to assess potential serviceability. Since there are many 
causes of foot pain, establishing a diagnosis is key to identifying reasonable athletic 
expectations.  Animals that have been treated with a palmar digital neurectomy will 
require open documentation and careful placement by the adopting group. Wing 
fractures of the third phalanx (coffin bone) often have a good prognosis for other 
uses but should be documented.  Coffin bone fractures involving the joint surface have a poor prognosis for riding soundness. Solar margin fractures generally have a 
favorable prognosis and feet with chronic inflammatory changes may be able to be managed. 
Tarsus
Hock lameness is common and often manageable in both the racing and sport horse. 
Chronic osteoarthritis of the lower joint spaces of the hock will limit usefulness as a 
jumping or dressage horse but may not be inhibiting for lighter work. Many 
appropriate therapies may extend the usefulness of these horses if the adopting 
group is willing to invest in such. In most of these cases, rest alone is not adequate 
for returning a horse to serviceable soundness. 
Stifle
Chronic stifle lameness will prevent most racehorses from transitioning to moderate 
or intense sport use. Osteochrondral fragments (in the absence of osteoarthritic 
changes) typically respond well to surgery, which coupled with appropriate 
intraarticular therapies, will return many of these horses to usefulness for low or 
moderate level activities.  Meniscal or ligamentous damage will limit use to low 
levels of activity. 
Tendon and Ligamentous Injury
Tendonitis of the superficial flexor tendon is a common cause of retirement from 
racing.  The severity of this injury will determine the prognosis for other uses. The 
majority of “bowed” tendons, if treated appropriately and given enough time, will 
transition to most uses other than racing. Most cases will require 10‐12 months to 
be serviceable. 
Suspensory ligament injuries may range from a mild strain to complete failure.  The 
latter is not amenable to transition, and unless extensive treatment is instituted, is a 
life‐threatening injury with a poor prognosis for survival. Chronic severe 
suspensory desmitis will prevent transition to Level III or IV activity. Horses with 
mild to moderate desmitis, if treated appropriately and given considerable rest, may 
be useful for low‐level activity. 
The external appearance of soft tissue structures (tendons and ligaments) may not 
reveal the extent of an injury and it is advisable that ultrasonography be used as an 
adjunct to physical examination to document the degree of injury in cases where 
soft tissue injury is of concern. 
Respiratory Conditions:

Upper Airway Conditions
Laryngeal hemiplegia (“roaring”) is a common cause for racing retirement. 
Although the degree of obstruction will determine future usefulness for other 
purposes, affected horses are very useful as long as speed isn’t required. Horses 
experiencing soft palate problems while racing may not show the same 
symptoms at slower speeds and may be useful for exercise at Levels I‐III.  
Arytenoid chondritis may severely limit a horse’s athletic potential.  Although 
medical and surgical treatments for each of these respiratory conditions may 
improve airway function, a well documented history and endoscopic 
examination prior to referral to the retirement facility is appropriate to help 
clarify the athletic potential of affected horses. 
Lower Airway Disease
Inflammatory airway disease is not uncommon and must be managed if the 
horse is to be transitioned at all. Many horses with an undiagnosed chronic 
cough may transition to lower level uses but should be properly diagnosed for 
the best prognosis.  Horses with exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage in 
racing will rarely experience bleeding at other uses unless speed is required 
such as eventing or barrel racing. 
Gastrointestinal Conditions:

Underweight
A thorough physical examination may define the cause of a lower body condition 
score (<2/9).  Adequate nutrition and good general care will reverse most 
underweight conditions.  Horses may also lose condition after leaving the 
racetrack, particularly if managed in groups and fed together.  An aggressive, 
competitive race horse may still end up at the bottom of the social hierarchy 
when transferred to a new facility. Intact males are often a management problem 
and should be castrated. 
Gastric Ulcers
Gastric ulcers are a common cause of a lower body condition score and may 
require gastroscopy for accurate diagnosis. Elimination of the stress of 
competition may improve this condition but some horses will require 
appropriate therapy. Alternatively, the horse may be treated empirically for 
ulcers and its response to therapy evaluated 
Chronic diarrhea is a serious condition and will require extensive workup and 
treatment. 
Costs
The cost of housing, retraining and rehoming retired race horses can be considerable. 
These costs are increased if the horse requires significant veterinary medical care. We have 
discussed many of the common problems associated with this transition. There is little 
national data to reference the costs of veterinary care for these animals.  Many adoption 
facilities enjoy close relationships with veterinary practices that render care at significantly 
reduced costs. These practices see this care as a service to the horse and the facilities 
providing care.