From Birth to Finish Line: The Life of a Race Horse
The life of a race horse is planned from before it is born up until its retirement. What is not well known is what happens before the gate opens and after the finish line. Much like human athletes, it takes a lot of training and effort beyond the race itself to create a race horse.
The Birth of an Athlete
Race horses are literally designed for speed. Specialized farms, known as stud farms, keep winning retired stallions to be bred. They maintain careful records of lineages in an attempt to create the ideal race horse. Owners of retired racing mares pay a fee to use the stud, which can command anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $20,000 for the top racers. Foals are then raised for a year before their true training begins. They will not be given a name until they are registered to race, when they are young they are known only as their color, gender, and parents’ names.
Training for yearlings begins similarly to riding horses, getting them used to saddles and basic handling. Like a human athlete, they have a strict exercise routine and diet. They are trained in the beginning for endurance, not speed as one would expect. Endurance involves maintaining speed, a vital part of the races. For horses trained for jumps, an older horse is used as a teacher and example of how to jump a hurdle.
And They’re Off!
Once a horse is registered for racing, they receive an official name. They have a daily training routine, sometimes including swimming in equine pools to reduce the stress on their joints. Even the strongest horse would get burned out from galloping daily so it is reduced to twice a week at most. They stay in this routine for their entire racing lives, which can be until they are anywhere between 4 and 10 years old.
One of the greatest controversies surrounding race horses is their fate after they retire. Most horses have another decade or two to live once they are done running. However, they are not trained while young to do anything but race so they must be retrained to be used for other equestrian pursuits. Many, unfortunately, end up at one of the 3 slaughter houses in the US and are then sent as horse meal to Europe. Retirement centers far outnumber the slaughter houses in the US, however. The horses there are trained for riding and showing, and then rehomed with new owners. There they receive the attention and pleasant retirement they deserve after their first life as a racer.