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Transitioning a Racehorse to Your Home

Transitioning a retired race horse to a good home requires many things to be considered. One of the most important considerations is the nutritional transition a horse may have to make. If possible, before you get your horse home find out the type of hay, bagged feed and supplements your horse was being fed. Know what type of hay specifically, and the actual brand name and type of feed and supplements. Try to purchase a bag of feed the horse was being fed to use in transitioning to your feed. You do not need to purchase the supplements they were receiving, unless it was a supplement prescribed for a specific health related issue. However, you should make note of the supplements they were receiving by brand name and how much they were receiving per day. This information may be useful to reference after the horse has transitioned to your feed and feeding program.  You also need to know if your horse was being fed once, twice, three or more times per day.  Was hay fed with each meal or offered free choice throughout the day? If possible, buy a couple of bales of hay the horse is being fed to bring home to use in transitioning to your hay source. Was salt being offered free choice? Some horses may have been housed at a farm before coming to you. In that case, find out if they had any turn out time on pasture. If so, ask how long per day was turn out time and what type of pasture. Horses like consistency and any change can be stressful to a horse. Even if the environment and care they are going to is better than what they are leaving, it is still a stressful event. The very act of trailering from one place to another can be a stressful event to which you can expose a horse. The reason for all the detailed questions about nutrition and how it was presented is to be able to keep their nutrition and nutritional management as consistent as possible when you bring them home. It will allow you to offer some consistency in the face of all the other changes of a new environment. Even if what they were being fed and how it was being fed was not ideal, it is better to initially continue with what they are used to and make changes gradually rather than making abrupt changes to their feed or feeding management.


Transitioning the type of feed… Changing the feed and feed management program should be a gradual event that is changed over several days. Take it slow when changing feeds. It’s always better to invest additional time during the transition in order to avoid any gastro-intestinal upset from changes in the feed program. I suggest changing the type of feed by no more than 1 pound per day. Do this by taking a 1 pound of the old feed out and replace it with 1 pound of the new feed a day.  Take about a week to fully transition the horse to the new feed.  Hay can have very different nutrient profile depending on when it was cut, how it was stored and for how long.  So if possible, a couple of bales of hay the horse was being fed can help ease the transition to the hay that you will be feeding to them. Horses can have digestive issues due to changes in hay source just as they do with changes in the feed.


Transitioning the frequency and amount of feed… Once you have made the change from what was being fed to what you are currently feeding then you can start to address how many times per day you want to feed. Some horses at the track are being fed 15+ pounds of grain per day over 3-4 feedings. To meet that amount of feed per day in two feedings means feeding 7+ pounds of feed per feeding. This is not a good option for grain or other feeds that are not considered mid to low starch. A single meal for a 1000-1500 pound horse of grain or concentrate not classified as mid to low starch should not exceed 5 pounds. Doing so may risk some undigested starch reaching the hind gut which could result in some digestive upset or even colic. Once you have transitioned to your feed but find that feeding 5-6 pounds per feeding twice a day is not maintaining your horse in a desirable condition, you have a couple options.  You can transition to a more calorically dense feed higher in digestible fiber and fat (Animate®, Trifiber Compete®), or you can supplement your current feed with 1-2 pounds of a high fat supplement (ProEnergy®). As far as the amount of hay to provide, remember this rule of thumb; the more of your horse’s nutritional needs you can satisfy with hay the better. Horses in race training often have hay in front of them all day, so don’t be afraid to keep plenty of hay in front of them. Having hay available also helps with some of the nervousness of a new environment. Usually horses in race training don’t have access to pasture. If you encounter a horse from the track that has been allowed access to pasture, then gradually introduce the horse to your pasture in 60 minute increments per day until they are receiving a similar amount of turnout time that they had previously experienced, or until it meets the pasture turn out time of your program.


There is a good chance that once your horse has fully transitioned you will be able to maintain a desired body condition with your current feeding program for the following reasons; 1. The environment they are in is less stressful than the race track environment 2. You are working the horse less than it was working at the race track and 3. You addressed any digestive health issues common to horses in race training.


Nutrition related digestive health issues… Horses in race training commonly have some degree of gastric ulcers. The only difference is in the severity of ulceration. It’s probably safe to assume that the horse you are bringing home from the racetrack has some degree of stomach ulcers.  In addition to the medical treatment the vet prescribes, you may want to consider a specific buffering supplement in the daily diet to help facilitate recovery (Equilistic®).  You also can include alfalfa hay as part of your forage source. Alfalfa contains high amounts of calcium, which is a natural buffering agent, and, high amounts of fiber, which is another buffer against stomach acidity.  These can help provide a natural buffering environment in the gut.


Don’t forget the water… Sometimes we don’t always think about water consumption as a nutritional transition issue, but its consideration is critical. Horses often decrease water consumption with a change in water source. Horses like consistency, so a different taste in water often leads to less water intake initially. They will make the transition over time as they become used to the new taste, but it is important that you monitor water intake during this transition period. That means providing water by the bucket, not an automatic waterer, so you can observe how much the horse consumes daily. They should consume at least 5 gallons per day in mild temperatures. That amount can double in the heat of summer or the low temperatures of winter. If you are concerned your horse is not drinking enough you can add a couple of ounces of salt to the feed to try to entice them to drink more water. Once you are satisfied that your horse is drinking well, feel free to introduce them to the automatic waterer.


Transitioning to veterinary health… As with the nutritional transition, the first task is to get as complete and accurate medical history as possible. This should include the type and schedules of vaccinations and de-worming, as well as past and current health issues and treatment, such as non-traditional treatments like chiropractic, acupuncture, or other treatments. Ideally, you can obtain contact information for the vet or other treatment providers that have been working with your horse so you, or your vet, can contact them directly to get a thorough health and treatment history.


No hoof no horse, transitioning to hoof health… In addition to good nutrition and a hoof supplement ( Hoof Plus®), one of the most important things you can do to help insure a transition to a healthy hoof is to have access to an excellent farrier. Although no guarantee, you can help insure the competence of a farrier if they have obtained some level of certification from the American Farriers Association (AFA). Most horses coming from race training have had horseshoes since they were put on as sales yearlings. Although shoes provide protection and are necessary to prevent excessive hoof wear for horses in regular training or working in rough terrain, they also can have some negative consequences for long term hoof health. Your horses hoof health will benefit from being able to go without shoes for a period of time. When first removing shoes it would be beneficial if the horse is not exposed to rough terrain initially until the hoof has a chance to develop a tough callus on the sole. Consult your farrier to see if your horse has enough hoof length to pull the shoes or if the horse will need some time to grow out some hoof length to handle going without shoes. Going shoeless may not be an option if the horse has any hoof health issues that require corrective shoeing.


Transitioning to your facilities… Again, the initial goal is to emulate the facility they are coming from so you minimize the stress of immediate change. Most horses at the track are stalled 23 out of 24 hours a day. For the first few days, expect to house your horse in a stall the vast majority of the day. Take them out as often as feasible to hand walk for 15 to 30 minutes, or saddle up and go for a ride if you have the skill and ability to do so. If you have a facility that has runs coming off the stall you can provide for some time out into the run as long as the run does not exceed 20ft in length. The last thing you want is a horse off the track to accelerate into its “newly found freedom” only to find it did not leave enough room to stop at the end of the 30-40ft run. If your runs are 30+ feet in length you can introduce them into the space gradually by using  “horse friendly” panels across the width of the run to shorten its length. After a few days move the panels in ten foot increments to extend the length of the run until you eventually get to the end of the run. If your operation includes dry lot housing, the same principle can be applied if possible. Make the initial overall space smaller while they get used to open space. If pasture turn out is part of your management, then you should take several steps to gradually accustom them to a large open space. Start in the stall, then to a run, dry lot, perhaps to a small pasture or arena, and finally to the pasture you plan to use as turn out. It is important to remember horses are social and like the reassurance of other horses. So, during the entire process, have horses that are calm and quiet in close proximity (in the adjoining stalls / runs and across the dry lot or paddock fence) while the horse you have brought home adjusts to its new facilities. Keep the same horses in proximity as you transition through the various facilities in which you may house your new horse. Eventually you should introduce these neighboring horses to your new horse in a large paddock, dry lot or arena. This will allow them to establish the “pecking order” that inevitably has to be established when there are more than two horses housed together. It is important that when you put horses together for the first time you do so in a pen that provides enough space for them to get away from one another if needed. If horses have enough room to give each other space you greatly reduce the opportunity for injury. It also is important that when introducing horses together for the first time that none of the horses are wearing hind shoes. Removing the shoes greatly reduces the risk of injury if one horse gets kicked by another when establishing the pecking order. Once you feel the pecking order has been established you can look to turn them out together into pasture. I always recommend turning a new horse out to pasture with other horses that they are familiar with, and that these horses are calm “veterans” of your facilities that know the pasture well.


Transitioning mentally… Although horses at the track may not receive a lot of individual attention they do come from a busy environment during the day. Thus, when you bring your horse home they will be used to a very active environment. If your facility is busy throughout the day that will be something they are used to and will appreciate. If however you have a day job and there is not much going on at your barn until you get home from work, try to think of some options that will help with the transition. Leave a radio on, come home for lunch and spend time in the barn, or have a friend come by and check on them even if for a minute. The more time you spend with them the better the transition will be, assuming of course the time spent improves and does not diminish their mental state.  Many horses that are adopted from the racetrack have had years of extensive hands on work, and are well broken to load in a trailer, pick up feet for cleaning, bathing etc.  However, some horses can pose significant behavioral challenges. If you do not have experience in dealing with horses that have behavior issues, then find someone that does to help you. It will be best thing you can do for the well-being of your horse and yourself.


Summary… Horses like consistency and familiarity. Initially try to emulate that consistency and familiarity in their feeding program when you bring them from their old environment to their new environment. Make nutritional transitions gradually. This is definitely a situation where slow and steady wins the race, and avoids gastro-intestinal issues that involve a vet bill! Assume a horse coming from race training has some degree of gastric ulcerations. Get a vet to prescribe treatment, and adopt nutritional strategies that facilitate healing and reduce the chance for recurrence. Lastly, initially monitor water intake until they are readily consuming their new source of water.


Collect as detailed health history as you can. Ideally you can get the contact information for those that have been providing health treatment to the horse you plan to bring home. Get your vet involved early to help with developing a health treatment plan.


Work with an excellent farrier to help transition your horse to going without shoes for a period of time if possible. You also will need to rely on the farrier to address any hoof health issues, or provide corrective shoeing for any hoof deformities.


Take your time adapting your horse to the final housing system at your facilities. Many of these horses have only known a 12 x 12 stall most of their adult life. The first time you turn them out into open space can be an anxious and scary experience for them, as well as you. Gradually introduce them to an ever increasing amount of space. Also, buddy them up with horses you know will be a calming force for them in order to better help them adapt to the changing environment they are confronting.


Give your horse time to mentally adjust and learn. Spend a lot of time with them and provide them with an active environment. If you do not have the experience and knowledge to help horses that may come with behavioral challenges find someone that does.


You are doing a wonderful thing by providing a new life for a horse. Taking the time that is needed and giving careful consideration in how you transition a horse to their new life with have a lasting impact on them, and you.