Thursday, February 5, 2015

Writing about racehorses, and their retirement

Retired Racehorse: 19 year old broodmare Wicket
by Natalie Keller Reinert

I started writing about racehorses in 2009, living on a farm surrounded by retired racehorses.

Their past lives fascinated me. Every retired racehorse, young and old, calm and spooky, silly and mature, carries with them a remarkable story. I mean, have you been to the races? Have you seen the massive scale of the architecture, the tracks that dwarf humans, the tunnels lined with windows that horses march through on their way out to the race? It's about as far from farm life, the life we associate with horses, as anything could be. And racehorses, from a young age, live with that kind of crazy every day.

And they just live with it. They eat their hay and they beg for peppermints and they go out for rides just like any other horse, in any other place, in any other life. Some thrive on the fast pace; some are just waiting until they can slow down on the farm again. But they are capable of great tolerance for things that many horses would simply freak out over.

As horsemen we ask our horses to do things that make them react as if we're delusional fairly regularly.

- Step up on that rubber mat for a bath. What, are you crazy? That mat is obviously going to eat me! 

- Hop over this cross-rail of plain brown poles. And risk being devoured by a cross-rail of DEATH?

- Stand still for a second while I run these tiny buzzing clippers around your ears. UM LOL ROFL!

- I swear that tortoise up ahead isn't going to hurt you. Can't hear you running the other way too fast!

Seriously, horses are all about every day drama. Even retired racehorses. And they're really just playing with you, because they've seen it all, and done it all. They've stepped on rubber mats and they've stepped over poles and they've been clipped and...

Well, they probably haven't seen any tortoises.

Although they may be pretty familiar with goats and pigs from their racetrack lives. And with roosters, and cats. With bicycles and motorbikes. With rumbling commuter trains and crackling loudspeakers.

It's a funny life, the racetrack life.

So I sat and I thought about their past lives, and wrote about them, for years. I wrote The Head and Not The Heart, which goes from the sweet country life in Ocala to the gritty racetrack life in NYC, then Other People's Horses, which takes place in that happiest of happy mediums between farm and races, Saratoga Springs.

Maybe it was inevitable that after writing those books, and living in NYC myself, I started craving a slow-down. Time for a lay-off, a little time back at the farm. I wrote Ambition, about eventing with retired racehorses, about farm life, about working hard for what you want, come whatever odds.

And then I decided to concentrate on those uncertain days between a horse's last race and a horse's new career. The retired racehorse, at the moment he's retired -- that's the subject of my new book, coming this spring: Turning For Home. 

How does a racehorse feel, when he's suddenly taken home and turned out? How does a racehorse react, when he's laid off from the only job he knows? How does a trainer feel, when her horse leaves her barn? What does the horse do next, and who is going to teach it to him? What happens to a retired racehorse?

First ride off the track on an OTTB.
Alex is retiring Tiger -- you might have met Tiger and Alex in The Head and Not The Heart, a few years ago -- and nothing about it seems simple. He knows everything about being a racehorse, and nothing about being a riding horse. Together, they have to figure out how to live and work in a new world.

I wrote about retired racehorses long before I wrote The Head and Not The Heart. Before I was writing back-stories, I was writing their current stories. In my old blog Retired Racehorse (archives are at, but with lots of broken links - you've been warned), I wrote about retraining a racehorse, fresh off the training center, into a successful sport-horse. I also wrote about my broodmares, themselves retired racehorses, and all their quirks and sillies and moments of brilliance.

Turning For Home is a return to those retirement stories. What happens, when you retire a racehorse?


While I'm preparing Turning For Home for publication, I'm sharing retired racehorse true stories at my Facebook page, Retired Racehorse Blog. Have a horse you're prepping for the 2015 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover? Share your website or FB page with readers there. Have an OTTB with a story you've just got to tell? Post over at Retired Racehorse Blog and share your story. That's


  1. Natalie - I'm really looking forward to reading your new book Turning for Home! And I think OTTBs, sometimes known as Retired Racehorses, could take a hint from an organization called Guide Dogs for the Blind. There, if dogs are better suited for something else, they call them Career Changers! :-)

  2. That would probably make more sense. Instead of saying "retired racehorse," we should say "career change racehorse." I mean, most of have more than one career in life. It's hardly a new concept! Thanks Linda :)