A new lease of life for retired racehorses

Anoush Nersessian with Beau and Chris Jordan with Rupert.  (120430M5a)
Anoush Nersessian with Beau and Chris Jordan with Rupert. (120430M5a)

The Grand National brings the eyes of the country onto racing, and often provokes a furious debate over the welfare of the racehorses.

This year was no different, as the race saw two horses die on the famous track – the favourite and Gold Cup winner Synchronised, and the Helperby bred According to Pete.

But there is another side to the welfare of racehorses that is not as often seen. What happens when their racing career is over, or if horses are bred for the sport but never quite made the grade?

For one Wetherby horsewoman making a new future for ex-racehorses has become her business.

Anoush Nersessian set up North Yorkshire Racehorse Retraining from a small livery yard on a farm in Sicklinghall to take racehorses who have reached the end of their career and retrain them for new careers.

“A lot of racehorses don’t have a nice ending when they have finished racing. Some of them go straight to slaughter. But they are athletic animals, and full of life. Thoroughbreds are strong and have a lot of muscle, so they lend themselves to other careers,” she says.

“I don’t disagree with racing, it’s a great sport, but once the horses have finished their careers there’s no reason they can’t do something else.”

There are plenty of stories of racehorses that have gone on to have very successful other careers, she adds, mentioning Inonothing, winner of Badminton Horse Trials in 2010 and a thoroughbred bred to race, and Parklane Hawk, a thoroughbred that had been in training to race before William Fox-Pitt rode it to victory at Blenheim 2010.

In the few months Anoush has been working with ex-racehorses full-time she has already retrained and sold six horses, and seen one start competing in local cross-country competitions.

The new business came out of a life-long hobby.

“I have always ridden and worked with horses, and although I fell into working in radio for a few years I have always wanted to work with horses full time.

“I bought a racehorse straight from the track last summer and reschooled him and hunted with him, but we lost him in January. He was only four years old, but he just collapsed in the field and we will never really know what happened.

“I had been thinking about doing work with ex-racehorses for a while, but that really pushed me to make the decision.”

Now she has given up her sales job at a radio station and launched North Yorkshire Racehorse Retraining, running the business alongside partner Chris Jordan.

While Anoush has ridden since the age of three, and left school at 15 to work in a riding stables, Chris had never ridden until he and Anoush met. Now he says he is “learning on the job”.

“I muck out and fetch water a lot, but this is something Anoush has always wanted to do so I was very up for it,” he says.

“It was quite daunting, and I think I need a bit more time to get used to it, but I enjoy it. I think horses are the only animals you can really relate to as an equal – they are on our level, not like dogs and cats.”

The horses Anoush and Chris get all have their own stories. The yard is currently home to four ex-racers including Rupert, who has already had a successful career as a National Hunt racehorse, and Billy, who performed brilliantly in training but was never quite fast enough on the track.

Re-schooling horses trained to race is not without its challenges, Anoush says.

“It’s difficult taking the racehorse out of them, and not many people want a horse that will gallop off in open fields. The most recent horse we got, Our Mate Joe, is enormous and is very much a racehorse. He’s going to need completely restarting, but he is a very good eventing prospect.”

The horses come to Sicklinghall from the trainers, via contacts Anoush has from her life working with horses. She does not see the horses before they arrive, and often has no idea what to expect.

“You can tell a lot about them as soon as they get off the truck, and fortunately we’ve not had anything bad or dangerous. We give them two weeks in the field to chill out, then we crack on with schooling.”

Retraining the horses is all down to Anoush, with help from her friend Jess Goodhand who, at only 16, is “completely fearless” and rides the ex-racehorses confidently, Anoush says.

Their venture has come as a shock to some of their contacts and friends in the horsey world.

“A lot of people are surprised when they hear of what we are doing. There’s a lot of stigma attached to racehorses - people think they are all loonies and completely wild.

“We hope people realise that if the horses look like that to start with it is only because racing is all they are used to.”

Trainers too have proved sceptical about Anoush and Chris’s plans.

“Rachorse training is a business so the trainers are quite tough people, but we’re hoping that once they see we’ve had some success they will come round,” Chris says.

Ultimately, he adds, they want their retraining venture to be the first place trainers turn when they have a racehorse that will not make the grade on the track, or has come to the end of its career.