Horses are unique athletes for the pretty obvious reason that they are not humans. Their careers will end just like any other athlete’s, but racehorses can’t exactly become analysts or businessmen when they retire.
Horses also retire much earlier in life than human athletes; the average Thoroughbred lives between 25-28 years, but most racehorses retire when they are much younger.
So, what happens to horses when their racing days are over? It depends on their competitive success and who is looking after them, but here are some of the options:
Most successful retired racehorses live out their second chapter on breeding farms. The goal is to breed the next big winner, so a horse’s lineage, speed and track record are closely considered.
Some notable horses like the legendary Seabiscuit don’t find success as breeding stallions, but 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah has already sired several proven winners.
Only horses registered in the Jockey Club can race, and one of the club’s rules bans horses born via artificial insemination or embryo transfer from competing. Because of this, stallion farms play a crucial role in maintaining the sport of horse racing.
Some horses stay active and in work after their racing careers. According to the Retired Racehorse Project, most horses sold to new owners are used as riding horses.
Those who are still spry and have some agility can even stay in timed competitions like show jumping, the combined sport of eventing and barrel racing. Some will head into the dressage ring or take to the trails as trail riding horses.
Still, other horses (like 2009 upset winner Mine That Bird) will live out their days on ranches, guiding and controlling livestock.
There are several programs that help find new homes for retired Thoroughbreds. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance evaluates organizations looking to take in transitioning racehorses and provides grants to those it approves.
Another placement facilitation resource is the Retired Racehorse Project. Its goal is to increase “demand for them in equestrian sports and serving the farms, trainers, and organizations that transition them.” One of their most well-known initiatives is the Thoroughbred Makeover, a competition that encourages equestrians to retrain retired racehorses and prepare them for new careers.
There are also organizations that take in former racehorses with the goal of preparing them for second careers. The Secretariat Center in Lexington, Ky., is a prime example of a reschooling organization. The center houses 10-20 Thoroughbreds at a time and “provides education for former racehorses to move on to new careers.” The center prioritizes teaching many skills so that horses can match with many potential adopters.
Watch the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 1 from 12 to 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Full coverage is also available on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.