Cheyenne woman works to retrain retired racehorses
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) – Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Man o’ War. Smarty Jones, Seattle Slew, American Pharoah.
The names of thoroughbred horses etched in history books often appear next to record-breaking race times, the amount of money won at the track or the successful horses they have sired.
But after the age of 4, the most lucrative years of racing are usually finished, leaving thousands of animals each year without a job or a home.
In recent years, demand for thoroughbreds has declined, leaving even more horses without viable new homes.
But Michelle Santuae of Cheyenne and Skylar Hutcheson of Wellington, Colorado, hope to help change that by retraining two former racehorses for a thoroughbred showcase and competition later this year in Lexington, Kentucky.
The Thoroughbred Makeover competition, sponsored by the national nonprofit Retired Racehorse Project, aims to show the public the benefits of a breed that was born to compete and work.
It will be Santuae’s second time making the two-day haul down to the Southeast this October, but she said she’s looking forward to it.
“The people that go to this event, we really just bond,” Santuae said. “It’s just a great atmosphere.”
On a recent Saturday on a farm north of Cheyenne, Santuae guided 4-year-old Kimalea around a large indoor arena.
The wind whipped against the sides of the fabric-lined structure. Santuae and Hutcheson nearly had to shout to hear each other over the noise.
But Kimalea was unfazed, listening to Santuae’s instructions, delivered not verbally, but through her legs and hands.
“This is the first time she’s been ridden in a few months,” Santuae said.
The mare is still recovering from an injury, but during her time on the racetrack, she earned more than $26,000.
When she gets healthy, she’ll start learning how to jump.
It will take a while for Kimalea to recover and build up strength in her muscles, Santuae explained. The horse will also need guidance from her rider when she starts jumping fences, but Santuae thinks she’s up to the task.
“She has a good mind,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hutcheson’s mount, Caroline, was already showing off, jumping over small fences set out in a line across one side of the arena.
Hutcheson guided her using her legs and hands, squeezing her legs together to signal when Caroline should jump.
The 14-year-old Wellington resident travels to Cheyenne to stay with Santuae, a friend of Hutcheson’s mother, on the weekends.
Hutcheson looks forward to it all week, she said.
“When you’re riding, you’re thinking about your body and that, you don’t think about anything else,” she said.
The horses are owned by Kate Anderson, who runs the Center for Racehorse Retraining – a nonprofit 20 miles north of Cheyenne that helps rehabilitate and re-home thoroughbreds after they get done on the track.
She also breeds racehorses and will take most of them back when they’re done with their first career.
Thoroughbreds are special horses, she said.
“They just have a really hard work ethic,” she said. “I haven’t come across a bad one.”
The history of the breed traces all the way back to 18th century England. The horses were bred to run for long distances, sometimes carrying heavy loads.
And over time, certain combinations of mares and stallions (male horses that have not been castrated) created a class of athletes that defined horse racing in the United States and other countries around the world.
Their athletic build, long legs, strong hindquarters and shoulders makes the breed suitable for more than just running. They’ve also had success in a number of other sports, such as jumping, dressage, reigning and barrel racing, according to the Retired Racehorse Project.
The breed was, for several decades and especially in the 1970s, one of the most popular types of horses seen in competition for sports like jumping, dressage and eventing, which requires horses and riders compete in three phases that test the horse’s obedience and agility.
In 1982, more than 40 percent of horses registered with the United States Equestrian Federation, the national governing body of most horse sports in the U.S., were thoroughbreds.
But through the years, that number has declined. In 2010, less than 10 percent of horses registered with USEF were thoroughbreds, according to the Retired Racehorse Project.
Those numbers don’t include horses that aren’t used for competition.
But “I suspect that if one surveyed the riding public now and 30 years ago, the trend in use of thoroughbreds would be similar, but less steep,” Steuart Pittman, the president of the Retired Racehorse Project, wrote in a report.
Pittman’s report lists some possible reasons for the decline: competition from other breeds – especially some types imported from Europe – negative perceptions of racing and an aversion to supposed risks associated with a horse that is trained to run.
But Erin Harty, a spokesperson for the Retired Racehorse Project, said despite the recent decline in demand, thoroughbreds can be a great option for people looking to buy a relatively inexpensive, versatile mount.
“They are athletic, they have a work ethic, they like to have a job,” Harty said. “Just because they weren’t super successful at the track doesn’t mean they can’t be successful somewhere else.”
In Wyoming, horses are more frequently used for ranching and riding Western disciplines, which use a bigger saddle and could include activities such as barrel racing and roping.
But Santuae said despite the dominance of breeds such as quarter horses in those sports, thoroughbreds can be a great option.
“They’re not all crazy and hot (meaning they like to go fast and might be a bit wild),” she said. “They make very good ranch horses, trail horses and barrel horses.”
Back at the farm, Hutcheson and Santuae continued to work with the horses, guiding them through their paces and popping over jumps.
The two women will continue to train the horses each week, introducing them to new environments over time as well.
“My experience from last year is that I should get them out as much as possible,” Santuae said. “We’ll try to do a couple of (practice) shows in Longmont (Colorado).”
In October in Lexington, the two hope to compete in hunter/jumper classes and with field hunting.
Hunter jumper classes require each pair complete a course of jumps. They are then judged on style, consistency and balance.
Last year, Santuae won fourth place. But this year, she and Hutcheson want to compete with higher jumps.
The two will also try a field hunting class, which is similar to a hunter/jumper competition, but riders are also required to complete tasks that might be found when riding in the “field,” such as mounting, dismounting halting and jumping more natural-looking obstacles, such as logs.
Whatever they decide to do, Hutcheson and Santuae said they’re happy to be spending more time with the horses.
“It’s my passion,” Santuae said. “I love everything about them.”