Originally published in Space Coast Living Magazine
Words and pictures by Fred Mays
“And DOWN the stretch they come…”. That was the memorable call of Triple Crown TV announcer Dave Anderson as the thoroughbred’s turned on the speed and sprinted for the finish line. Those high stake races are known as the most exciting two minutes in sports.
Very few race horses make it to the Triple Crown field. Most spend their short careers enticing bettors at small tracks, competing for modest purses. And usually before they reach middle age in horse years, they are retired and done with racing. What happens next?
The few lucky ones, big stakes winners, are syndicated and put out to stud at breeding farms in places like Ocala. The unlucky ones end up in slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico. Slaughterhouses for horses are currently banned in the United States.
Then there are many who retire to places like HART, Hidden Acres Rescue for Thoroughbreds, in Port Saint John, west of Cocoa. Here, led by founder Suzee Norris, they are rehabilitated from their racing careers and groomed for adoption. Suzee started HART in 2006, coming from a background in Civil Engineering, but an avid equine rider since she was 7 years old.
Many of the horses come to HART “overworked, used and abused,” says Suzee. The life of a thoroughbred can be rigorous and grueling. The first thing handlers do is evaluate the horses for pain issues. There are horse massages, and even a horse chiropractor that tend to the animals.
The most common injury to horses is to the ankles, with fractures and bone chips. A vet treats them with pins and screws, and may even do surgery to remove the bone chips. Tendon and ligament damage to the front legs is also common. In cases of injuries the horse is placed on “stall rest” for a month or two, followed by a period of limited exercise without riders.
One of the prized residents at HART is “Reservado”, a 13-year-old from Puerto Rico. He raced 106 times and often finished in the money. Today at the horse ranch he lives a leisurely life and prepares for adoption. “He’s a super cool horse,” says Suzee. “We’re just making him happy, getting his body healthy.” She doesn’t anticipate any problems finding him a forever home.
Typically thoroughbreds are kept at HART for 3-6 months, although some stay longer. When it’s time for adoption, they usually sell for anywhere from $500 to $2,500…a bargain for a thoroughbred. Some horses, with lengthy training and a pedigree background, sell for more, as much as $15,000 and $20,000, according to the current listings on the HART website.
To see the crop of horses up for adoption, visit hartforhorses.org/share-the-care. Each horse is listed with a little background, and the expected adoption price.
All the horses are gelded and can’t be used for breeding or racing. Most become welcome members of their adopted families, and are used for recreational or dressage riding. Some are boarded long-term at HART for additional training and extended care.
The normal life span of a thoroughbred is 25-30 years, so most have a long lifetime away from the race track.
HART is a member of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, and all their horses are received via the Jockey Club of the United States and the Alliance, which offers grants to help pay for their care at the ranch. Other funds are raised by donations, and from the sale of the horses.
There are dozens of TAA approved horse rescue farms in the country, seven others in Florida, in addition to HART. The Cocoa horse farm was originally opened as an equestrian center in 2006, and became a non-profit and TAA accredited in 2011.
Suzee says most adoptions are local. One thoroughbred was recently sold to the Orange County Sheriff’s office in Orlando. She says the adoption rate is 100%, although some horses are returned during a 30-day trial period, but put out for adoption again.
“We’re rescuing horses, but in fact they rescue us,” says Suzee. She talks of how both horses and their volunteer handlers evolve. “Volunteers change as human beings.” And the horses become calmer as they adjust to the relaxed pace at HART.
If you are interested in volunteering at HART, go to the website, https://hartforhorses.org/volunteer/, for more information. They are always looking for help around the barn and with the daily handling of the horses.
After a strenuous and regimented career at the track, thoroughbreds “become almost lazy” when they reach retirement…an almost human quality. But as Suzee says, “every horse we touch is magic” and calls it an emotional experience to watch the horses evolve. “We are the safety net.”