In an effort to help injured or otherwise un-rideable retired racehorses find new careers, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) this month sent an inaugural class of horses —two bays and a gray—to school to learn how to become therapy horses.
Bay geldings Cog’s My Man (Louis Quatorze x Ah Love), and Son of a Gun (Iron Deputy x Colette) along with gray gelding Bold Mon (Maria’s Mon x Bold and Gorgeous) shipped April 29 from the TRF’s Wallkill, N.Y. facility to Coventry, Conn., where they will be trained by Brenda Stoeke to work with people who have endured trauma.
Chosen to participate in the program because of their sweet, gentle personalities, the trio of un-rideable Thoroughbreds will pioneer an effort to train TRF horses for therapy work, says Diana Pikulski, TRF director of External Affairs.
“We learned very early on the benefits for people of being connected with Thoroughbreds,” Pikulski says. “It’s been shown that there are incredible benefits from equine assisted-learning and therapy. And, we have so many horses, and racing has produced so many that aren’t sound enough for competitive second careers, so this is perfect for them.”
The goal is to train the horses for therapy careers, and eventually market them as adoption horses for therapists, Pikulski adds.
If their first week on Brenda Stoeke’s farm is any indication, the trio will fit beautifully into a career in which they help people heal after a crisis or trauma, Stoeke says.
Soon after arriving at her six-acre property Whispering Winds Animal Connection, the Thoroughbreds settled in like perfect houseguests, making friends with the family dog and cat. The three relaxed so quickly in fact, that two of the geldings felt comfortable enough to take naps lying down in their new paddock, Stoeke says.
“It’s been really fun to watch the interaction. The two bays were together in a field at Wallkill, and Bold Mon was with a different group. So they had to get to know each other again,” she says. “I’ve already started to work with them because they have such great ground manners, and it’s going faster than I thought it would.”
Stoeke, a seasoned vet tech and skilled animal behaviorist had worked for years with horses before developing a plan with Pikulski to train horses in the TRF herd. Using natural horsemanship skills Stoeke intends to encourage the OTTBs develop a trust with trauma victims, while working in a close environment such as a round pen or paddock.
“Once they learn to feel trust, then I’ll work to desensitize them and emotionally prepare them to work with people walking on either side of them,” Stoeke says, noting that the idea to train horses with this method has been a dream of hers for many years.
The benefits of the horse-human connection have been “amazing” to witness, she adds.
“I did a clinic in California and watched a 22-year-old stallion work with a woman from Israel who was going through a divorce,” she recalls. “She was afraid of horses, but she went into the round pen with this stallion and stood very still. He walked right up to her and took his lips and turned her … until he balanced her and then he placed his forehead against her chest. That was a profound and healing moment for her.”
Closer to home, while watching the gentle manner in which the three ex-racehorses interact with dogs and cats, Stoeke feels confident that though the horses are not suitable to carry a person, their strong reassuring nature can help people shoulder their struggles. “Once they’re trained,” she says, “these horses will be good for anybody who has ever experienced trauma.”
TRF farm manager Aimee Leah of Virginia, who hand selected the trio, says she can’t imagine a better group to work with people. “Bold Mon was especially bright and happy and a curious sort,” she says. “And they’re all sweet and really easy to handle. But Bold Mon is just a floater, he loves to come up to people, and animals and say, ‘Hey, who are you? How are you doing? He likes to make friends. So, he and all three of them should be perfect as therapy horses.”