Horse racing in the United States is a nearly $4 billion industry. All around the country, people gather at tracks—some incredibly posh, like Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby is held, and others less so—to watch horses race and to bet on the outcomes. The horses themselves, mostly “hot-blooded” thoroughbreds, appear to live pretty comfortable lives, especially when they’re winning. But what about the horses who don’t pull in plenty of prize money for their owners, or the ones who must retire from the sport due to injury or age?
The question of what happens to racehorses after they retire doesn’t always garner as much attention as what crazy hats spectators wore or what the payout for first place was in a major race. But many thoroughbreds retire with half of their life or more ahead of them, and once they’re no longer turning a profit on the track, their future can become murky.
Where a retired racehorse ends up depends on both their success on the track and the whims of their owners. Most of the time, owners are not content to simply care for a horse into its old age if it is no longer turning profit, instead opting for various other paths that mitigate their costs. Here are what a few of those paths look like.
Breeding farms, also referred to as “stud farms,” are where you will find many of the sport’s most celebrated former racers. Breeders pay a high premium for top-tier thoroughbreds. For example, I’ll Have Another, a horse who won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in his racing days, netted $2.7 million for his owner on the racetrack—and $10 million from a Japanese breeder who wanted to use him as stud.
Breeding farms are mainly for male horses, but retired mares do occasionally end up there as well. The goal, of course, is to turn profit into more profit, capitalizing on winning genes and siring as many future winners as possible. And because many horses on breeding farms continue to generate money for many years, it’s a preferred retirement course among owners for those horses whose records make them appealing as a sire.
Some horses who have been retired from racing continue to compete or are shifted over to other sports, such as dressage or show jumping. Generally, these are not elite thoroughbreds, but mares and geldings who raced on a lower tier circuit and whose owners couldn’t sell them for more profit or afford to care for them anymore.
New Vocations, the largest racehorse adoption program in the country, often helps facilitate these transfers. The organization helps unwanted, retired racehorses find their happily ever after—retraining and adopting out horses to people who intend to keep them for the remainder of their days. Since 1992, New Vocations has helped place more than 6,000 retired racehorses into qualified homes.
Every year, thousands of retired racehorses are slaughtered for human consumption. Horse slaughterhouses and the consumption of horsemeat are no longer legal in the U.S., but the ASPCA notes that between 2012 and 2016 137,000 American horses were shipped each year to Mexico or Canada for slaughter. In 2017, the number dipped to around 80,000.
Not all of the horses shipped across the border for slaughter are retired racehorses, though the practice is common enough. If a horse cannot catch a high price from a breeder and an owner wants a quick way to unload them for some cash, slaughterhouses provide the opportunity—often under the guise of “euthanasia.”
The ASPCA, along with other humane organizations, have lent their support to the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act (H.R. 961), which, among other things, would prohibit the export of American horses across the border for slaughter. You can add your voice to their efforts here.
Rescue and Safe Retirement
Not all outcomes for retired and unwanted racehorses are so dire. There are many organizations across the country that have dedicated themselves to rescuing and adopting out racehorses. Sometimes, like with New Vocations, that means retraining for other events and adoption to experienced owners. Other times, it means retirement on a sanctuary farm. Other times, unfortunately, it means humane euthanasia, since despite the available resources there is still not enough money, volunteers, or adopters to care for all of the racehorses whose time on the track has ended.
How You Can Help
All racehorses deserve the chance at a happy retirement. If you would like to support the work of those who care for former racehorses, consider making a donation to one of the following organizations: