WEST VALLEY — For a horse like Orb, the sculpted colt that won the Kentucky Derby and ran in the Preakness Saturday, the future holds plenty of promise. But when a racing or breeding career ends, many horses are cast aside without homes to call their own.
Most horses competing on North American racetracks will spend their careers running in lower-level races, far from the public eye. They will race for as long as they can, and when their bodies wear and winnings diminish, they will leave the track and head toward a future that's often uncertain, usually by age 10.
More than 61,000 horses raced last year alone, according to The Jockey Club, the Thoroughbred horse registry. In the past many of these horse would have ended up at a slaughterhouse, but many ranches have stepped forward to preserve the lives of the retired horses.
"We rescue the horses and rehabilitate them," said Jayme Alexander of The Stable Place, an equine rescue and rehabilitation facility. "You know these are all horses with a past and no future, so we give them some skills and hope to build up their resume so they have a place that they can be useful and have value."
Some of the horses come to Alexander neglected and malnourished. She said it can take months to rehabilitate them. She currently has 25 horses on her land. Some have been rescued from the track, others rescued from their rescuers after being seized by sheriff offices.
"They say it's an unwanted horse epidemic, but I don't think it's because they are unwanted," Alexander said. "It's because just keeping them is so complicated and such — you know financial, time, responsibility — that it just becomes hard for people."
Thoroughbreds, who love to have a job, according to trainers, can be trained to have second careers in dressage, show-jumping and eventing.
"For somebody that wants to do a lot of different disciplines a thoroughbred will stand up really well to that," said Allison Wicks, who is a trainer at Rose Ranch.
"They can definitely be taught to learn a different way of doing things," Alexanders said. "They make great partners. We do a natural horsemanship kind of thing and really get them to think and use the thinking side of their mind. But they're great partners they can learn just the same as every other horse."
The cost of retired racehorses, Wicks said, is very inexpensive. The training is very involved, though, and riders should plan for the unexpected.
(My first thoroughbred) just stole my heart. He had so much heart and was so willing.
–Cathleen Boyle, horse owner
Cathleen Boyle adopted Mr. Cats, a racehorse just a month off the track, in December 2011. When she realized her traditional approach to riding wasn't working with him, she watched videos of jockeys and learned to mount and ride like she was on the racetrack. She said it was a challenge for her, even with 30 years of riding experience, and recommended a trainer for those interested in adopting a racehorse.
"It's been an experience. It's been great. He has taught me so much," Boyle said. "Just when I thought I knew a lot about horses and riding hunter, jumper, dressage, I met him and he showed me that I didn't know everything."
All these horses need, these trainers say, is for someone to give them another chance that doesn't involve racing.
"I would love to see more people consider them," Boyle said. "They need a home and once they're done racing, they need a second career otherwise. Where do they go?"
Once they have a job, she said, they are companions as well as work horses.
"(My first thoroughbred) just stole my heart. He had so much heart and was so willing," Boyle said. "Their minds are pretty unique in that they are so sensitive and they want to please and want to bond."
Wicks believes that given the right diet, a lot of love, and time, the horses will forget their old training schedules and adjust to their new surroundings.
"When they are on the track they are given a lot of protein and a lot of calories, a lot of grain which makes them a little high strung," Wicks said. "We feel it's our responsibility to take care of him and make sure that he doesn't go back to the track, because he doesn't really owe anyone anything."