Louise Robson, keeper of Retraining of Racehorses’ Horse of the Year Quadrille, has created Thoroughbred Dressage to show that it’s possible to take former racehorses to elite level in their second careers
I don’t come from a horsey background. My mum took me for one riding lesson when I was five and I was hooked. We never had money to be able to go and buy the best horses, so I have always had to ‘make’ my own. My first was a pony wild off the New Forest, then an Arab, with whom I did dressage, and then onto the ex-racehorses.
I have a 2.1 BSc in Architecture from UCL London and after my degree I moved to Germany, with my ex-racehorse, Mister Glum. This was the first horse I have had that was owned and bred by HM The Queen; we went from Novice level dressage to PSG level. Upon returning home from Germany, where I had spent four years a travelling groom for Monica Theodorescu at some of the biggest dressage shows in the world, I set up the stable Thoroughbred Dressage. Monica was the last rider to have an ex-racehorse at international level dressage, Araak xx in the 1990s and it has always been a dream of mine to be next one with an ex-racehorse dancing down the centre line at an International competition.
An individual approach to retraining
Over 7,000 racehorses leave racing every year and many of them are more than capable of having a second career. For some, their brains and bodies have given everything to racing and they need their needs met, especially those who had little or no racing experience that are the most vulnerable. You would never see horses like Cue Card, Saphir du Rheu or Winx ever struggling to find a home.
The Thoroughbred isn’t for everyone and sometimes the expectations we put on them as riders can then lead to miscommunications and soreness of the horse, which can then present as behavioural issues. In some cases it can become ‘the typical ex-racer’ that you can see for sale due to them being ‘too much’ or ‘too quirky’, or you see the adverts of people looking for horses with the phrase ‘no Thoroughbreds’. These ones can be exchanged for small sums of money, maybe not to the home they need, but to the home where someone thinks they’ve got themselves a bargain with a cheap horse.
When these horses are conceived and bred, they do not cost £500, more like £50,000. It is astonishing that something which on paper is worth so much when they are first born, then becomes worth a mere fraction at the end of their first career, as they are considered no longer profitable.
RoR promoting versatility and providing support
With the ever-growing popularity of the ex-racehorse, I think it’s very important that people take full advantage of the clinics, subsidised training and helpline that the RoR offer. We all struggle with our ex-racers at every stage of their re-training and life, and it’s important to seek the right advice, rather than to be hasty in a decision which can lead to the horse ending up in the wrong place.
The RoR is in its 20th year and has really changed the narrative of ‘crazy ex-racehorse’ to ‘look at what these horses can do,’ which is by no means an easy feat. They are prominent in the welfare of the ex-racehorse and want to see them flourish and be happy and healthy, rather than going from home to home and ending up in a rather sad place, far from their glory days when they were treated and cared for like royalty.
The RoR awards is a fantastic night to celebrate everything Thoroughbred and just how wonderful and diverse these horses are; it was an honour to be in a room of trainers, re-trainers, owners, breeders, riders and supporters of this wonderful breed. Everyone wants to see the best for these horses. Yes, the night was about celebrating the horses that have excelled within their disciplines for that year, but it is also an opportunity to help inspire, guide and develop the owners, trainers, horses and system to allow as many racehorses make the successful and happy transition to a riding horse. That can be on many capacities as long as they lead a happy and fulfilling life post-racing.
One of the best things about the Thoroughbred is their brain and adaptability to a situation. They try ever so hard to please their rider and sometimes they give too much or are maybe too ahead of the game. They are athletic and have this wonderful ability to be graceful and elegant. One of the hardest things of retraining them post-racing is retraining their brains to stay calm, relaxed and focused with you when in a heightened situation. Once you’ve both learnt how to have trust in one another, they will give you everything.
With social media being so prominent nowadays, it is hard to sometimes keep focused on the journey that you and your ex-racehorse are on and not to ‘follow the trend’ or get jealous at someone else achievements. Sometimes this frustration can lead to us creating negativity around our own and our horses’ achievements, goals and personalities. No two people are the same and the same goes for horses. What works for one, doesn’t work for another. No one has it easy all the time. There are highs and lows for everyone and it’s how you move forward from those lows that help you both achieve, rather than getting frustrated and giving up.
A big responsibility
We must remember that we have taken on the responsibility to ride, retrain and look after this breed. For example, to win a national level dressage test, you are asking your horse to go up against horses that have been bred and trained to do dressage their entire lives.
When your ex-racehorse gets giddy at hearing the loudspeakers, or sees a crowd and lights up, you cannot get frustrated with them, it is in their blood to know what those noises mean and it’s your job to work with them and guide them in their new career.
Presenting RoR Horse of the Year: Quadrille
Quad is what some may call ‘a typical’ ex-racehorse. He is buzzy, bright, intelligent, has the attention span of a goldfish at times and can show his ‘athletic capabilities’ in every form. Sometimes the situation gets too much for Quad and he can boil over, but that is him and knowing that he has that potential, it is for me to work with him. Quad’s work ethic is phenomenal, and he always gives it his everything. We joke that he is like Peter Pan – the boy who never grew up. He still has the face of a cheeky two-year-old colt and he swings and tosses his head when he is excited.
To me, Quad winning the RoR Horse of the Year award should, hopefully, give hope to those with not the flashiest of moving horses, and to those who have horses that maybe struggle with the mental battle of riding ex-racers. Retraining a racehorse into any new discipline can have its challenges, but to re-train into dressage up to the higher levels is particularly hard. Once you go above Elementary level, you are asking an animal who is bred for speed and length of their frame to sit push and lift, whilst staying calm, relaxed and being supple.
I believe that he has made me a better rider and trainer and I am forever thinking of ways of helping him understand what I am trying to convey while keeping him happy in his mind and body.
Ones to watch
We have a stable, Thoroughbred Dressage, which is dedicated to re-training racehorses, primarily into dressage, but also other disciplines as well. We have another horse who is owned by HM the Queen, Princes Trust, who is due to come out at advanced level this year. Mission Impossible, our ‘war horse’ of the stable having ran 67 times is competing at medium level, having only started his retraining career at 11 years old. Saint Gregoire, from Godolphin Rehoming, having won £100k on the Flat will make his British Dressage debut at novice in the up and coming months with aim of Summer regional Qualification. All the horses will hopefully make the trip to Aintree this year for the RoR championships and Quadrille will hopefully make his Intermediate II debut in the summer. The dressage levels are as follows:
• Advanced Medium
• Prix St George
• Intermediate I
• Intermediate II
• Grand Prix
I hope that Quad and I make Grand Prix and I believe that he can get there. If he remains happy, sound and wanting to do his work, then hopefully we will achieve this. If we don’t, for whatever reason, then as long as Quad is happy and still has that joyous bouncy nature of his, then that is fine by me.
It is an absolute honour for Quadrille to be RoR Horse of the Year, I am so proud of him, and can’t wait to see what the future holds.