Farm Ireland

Thursday 13 December 2018

'There's a job for every horse - you just have to listen to them' - Former National Hunt racing champions get a fresh lease of life


Siobhán English

In recent months multiple-winning National Hunt racehorses such as Road to Riches and Outlander have been spotted enjoying a day on the hunting fields of Ireland.

Not only is the change of scenery good for their mental wellbeing, but taking on different jumping challenges also helps to keep them interested in their job in between racing commitments.

Many will ask then - what happens to those horses when their racing career comes to an end, either due to age, illness, or injury?

With regards to the flat horses, some of the better colts are retired to stud, and the mares go to the breeding sheds. The geldings, however, would be facing an uncertain future, if it wasn't for such charities as the Irish Horse Welfare Trust or the organisation Racehorse to Riding Horse Ireland, who constantly strive to ensure dozens of horses stepping down from duty receive similar top-class care with new owners when their racing days are over.

When it comes to National Hunt horses, many make a better transition to riding horses given their different training programme and thus a later start to their careers. But, as experienced handler Louise Duffy says: "Not all make it and some do go off the rails. Some of them simply need time to adjust."

For more than 15 years, Meath-based Louise has been rehoming thoroughbreds and retraining them for other disciplines such as eventing and dressage, with much success.

Willie Mullins
Willie Mullins

"I was only 13 when I got my first ex-racehorse," she remembers. "His name was Why Ailbhe and he had run a dozen times before being retired."

Over the following few years, Louise thoroughly enjoyed the challenge and Why Ailbhe made a super riding horse, taking Louise up to Pony Club C Test level with ease.

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Louise's next horse was the Grade 1 winning chaser Assessed, the former charge of Willie Mullins. "He came here in 2005 when he was 11 and I was only 20," she says.

"He had a super temperament and that was thanks to the fantastic team at the Mullins yard. How they are managed in yards makes a big difference when they switch disciplines. Sadly though he did have a phobia of water, so I knew it was going to take time to get him going.

"It took me two years to get him into water jumps and he also needed time to figure out doubles and trebles for show jumping. But I took it slowly with him and it paid off in the long run as I had a horse who I had complete trust in, and him in me."

After three years of intensive, but patient re-training, Louise and Assessed were picked as team members for the British Riding Club Eventing Championships in 2008. They completed their first Racehorse to Riding horse competition the following year, during which they also finished second in an open class at the Riding Club Eventing Championships.

A newcomer herself to eventing, Louise became hooked, and the following spring the pair qualified for the CCI* at Tattersalls, when Assessed was 16. It was indeed a remarkable achievement for the combination.

"We also did Tattersalls the following year but sadly an injury that winter saw him on the sidelines for a while."

On returning to action, the pair continued to enjoy the variety of competition and in 2014 finished a creditable ninth in the Racehorse to Riding Horse class at the Royal Windsor Show.

Seven years ago, Louise acquired another thoroughbred, this time the Old Vic mare Granny Vickie. Unsuccessful on the track and not too keen on being a riding horse either, she has since proven to be a wonderful broodmare.

Her first produce, a colt by Templebready Fear Bui named Merrycorner Mister Bui, was reserve champion riding horse at the RDS in 2016 and is now showing with much success in the UK with Harriet Dennison.

Their accolades in 2017 include champion show hunter pony at the Royal Highland and reserve champion at the Royal International Horse Show.

Over the years, Louise has developed a good business relationship with Willie Mullins, and she was very fortunate to acquire the four-time Grade 1 winner Arvika Ligeonniere when he was retired through injury in 2014.

"He was still on box rest when I got him but after a few months we got him going on Gormanstown Beach, which is a fantastic asset to have nearby."

In 2015 he was placed fifth in the Racehorse to Riding Horse while also being crowned supreme at Trim Show. "The plan though was to do some eventing with him so we started him off slowly in 2016. He is now doing really well and we aim to compete again in 2018," says Louise.

"A lot of people have questioned why I'm starting him off at EI90 and 100 considering his scope and ability, but it's because he needs time to figure out his new job.

"He used to spook at the dressage judges' cars on the way down the centre line and took a while to get confident in a dressage arena.

"Making his job easy while he is learning has meant that mentally he's never felt under pressure, with the aim that when it's time to ask more questions, he'll be in the right headspace and have the confidence to answer the question.

"It can be difficult as people have expectations that he should be flying around big tracks. Hopefully one day we will and he will find it easy."

Louise says that patience is so important when it comes to retraining an ex-racehorse.

"There can be a lot of pressure to try and get a horse to the class in the RDS, but if it's rushed, it normally catches up with them a year or two later.

"Taking my time with these horses meant that in the pressurised environment of the racehorse class in the RDS, or Windsor, or Tattersalls, I was as sure as I could be that they would cope mentally with what was asked of them. Thankfully in those environments they were impeccably well behaved."

"There's a job for every horse - you just have to listen to them," she concludes.

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