The Retired Racehorse Project (RRP), formed in 2010 under the banner of the “Retired Racehorse Training Project,” is a non-profit organization with a mission to boost the presence of and demand for off-track Thoroughbreds in the show and recreational riding world. Its founder, Stuart Pittman, recognized the need for retraining clinics and ideas to help owners and adopters of Thoroughbreds to advance their horses. He also saw ways to showcase the attributes of the Thoroughbred in the show world. In 2009, the organization conducted the first Retired Racehorse Training Symposium and they were overwhelmed by the interest and demand for more information and a place for people to share their successes. In 2013, the RRP held its first Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium at Pimlico. By 2016, the annual event had moved to the Kentucky Horse Park and it continues to grow every year in terms of attendance, entries and scope.
The RRP has been recognized for its service to the Thoroughbred horse by industry organizations such as the Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA), the EQUUS Foundation and others. How the RRP has stayed connected with its followers and pivoted to deal with the effects of the global pandemic on its progress towards the 2020 Makeover is also a master class in seizing an opportunity to make progress in new ways.
I caught up with the RRP'S Executive Director Jen Roytz to hear how the organization is coping with the many unknowns in 2020 and maintaining its remarkable momentum.
DP: How have you kept up the excitement and momentum of the 2020 horse show and equestrian events season even though there are no shows or events being held?
JR: Typically, throughout the spring and summer months, the RRP has a presence at large equestrian competitions or equine expos throughout the country, offering Thoroughbred retraining clinics and demonstrations, giving seminars on a variety of topics related to the transitioning of Thoroughbreds from racing to new sports and setting up our merchandise booth, where people can buy everything from apparel and jewelry to drinkware and saddle pads that allow them to sport their OTTB pride with style.
Since all of our spring and summer events have been canceled due to COVID-19, we've doubled down on how we connect with our audiences through print and digital media. We have been hosting more webinars on our social media platforms on Thoroughbred-specific topics such as nutrition, soundness, training and more. We also started a “Five Minute Clinic” series, which has been exceedingly popular, in which professional trainers give a five-minute virtual mini-clinic on a single concept, such as useful exercises to help a recently retired racehorse with suppleness, balance and lateral movements or how to use groundwork to re-enforce (or teach) lessons typically addressed in the saddle.
We've also partnered with other organizations to reach new audiences. For example, during what would have been the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, we partnered with U. S. Equestrian to create a series of “ride reviews,” in which internationally competitive riders like Boyd Martin, Buck Davidson, Katie Ruppel, Erin Sylvester and Lanie Ashker who have competed at Land Rover aboard Thoroughbreds talked through and critiqued their rides. This offers viewers insights on how the best equestrians in the world ride and retrain former racehorses.
We've also adjusted the summer edition of our quarterly Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine to focus much more on how equestrians retraining Thoroughbreds and those in aftercare are finding creative ways to prepare their horses during the pandemic.
DP: The Makeover is scheduled for Oct. 7-10, 2020 in Lexington with 616 entries. What is RRP currently doing differently in response to the changes brought on by the pandemic?
JR: Right now, we are planning on holding the Thoroughbred Makeover. The event is not until October, so we have some time to plan and make decisions based on the constantly changing landscape, but we are in a unique position, as this event is for horses in their first year of retraining after racing, rather than seasoned show horses. It is also much more than a competition, as it includes a large-scale trade fair, seminars, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Summit and other networking and social aspects that make it unique from a normal horse show. We are utilizing surveys to better understand how the pandemic is affecting their ability to prepare their horses–are they still able to ride regularly, are they able to take their horses on off-site outings, has their income been affected by the pandemic and if so, has that affected how much they are able to invest in their horses' care and retraining. Horse shows look like they are going to be starting to open up in late May and June, and many of our respondents have said they feel they can still adequately prepare their horses for an environment like the Thoroughbred Makeover if they can start exposing them to show atmospheres by June and July, so we'll likely check back in with them through a second survey around that time.
Regardless, we are committed to doing whatever is in the best interest of our competitors and their horses, and if we do have to make adjustments to our schedule or event, we will make sure we create other opportunities to support them.
DP: What concerns do you have with their ability to be ready for the event?
JR: Mostly, if there are no other shows prior to the Thoroughbred Makeover, it can be a problem. The Makeover is a big event, in one of the world's largest equestrian venues–it has a lot of atmosphere, especially when you add hundreds of young Thoroughbreds to the mix. So in order to prepare horses properly for such a challenge, they need to work up to that by going to other smaller competitions and off-site outings first.
We are also watching carefully the decision as to whether or not we can have spectators because that will affect our sponsorships–upon which we are dependent.
DP: How has the Makeover evolved and served the mission of the RRP to increase the demand for off-track Thoroughbreds?
JR: The Thoroughbred Makeover started with 26 horses and the competition was held on the home stretch of Pimlico. It out-grew Pimlico within a year or two and we now routinely welcome several hundred horses to compete each year, each of which has passed a thorough application process.
Anyone who applies to compete in the Makeover has to fill out a lengthy application (which asks for a history of their riding and accomplishments), submit letters of reference including one from their veterinarian and upload a video of their riding so we can be sure they would have the skills necessary to handle the riding and retraining of a newly retired racehorse.
We do everything possible to make the event as safe as possible, including health exams for all horses upon arrival, but we also work hard to make it the most fun competition you can imagine. We love the networking that happens at the event and the comradery that builds every year–even the people who are competing against one another for more than $135,000 in prize money are helping each other back at the barns and in the warm-up rings. They're in it for the horse more than anything.
We see the demand for off-track Thoroughbreds continuing to expand. We also hear consistently that the price to purchase a horse off the track is increasing and that the aftercare agencies are happy with the increased demand for horses. We are really proud of our metrics and have created a chart that demonstrates our impact.
DP: How has the scope of the event changed?
JR: It has become much more than a competition. The trade fair is growing. That draws a lot of people who come to shop. We have seminars, clinics and we added the Thoroughbred Aftercare Summit last year in partnership with the TCA and TAA. The Summit covers all topics pertinent to anyone working in or adjacent to the field of aftercare. We have experts on topics from governance, grant writing, marketing and fundraising, as well as on horse care-related topics. It's been amazing how it has evolved.
DP: To what do you attribute your relatively fast and remarkable success in reaching these heights both metrically and in sheer enthusiasm for your work?
JR: First, thank you for saying so! I think the key for us is a market-based approach, which prior to 2010 when the RRP was formed, was not happening at the level it is now. If you think of it in pure business terms, racing was the primary market for Thoroughbreds and there was work being done to expand that market, but the secondary market (what Thoroughbreds do after racing) was near-saturation and while there were great efforts afoot to get them retrained and adopted out/placed, there were not a lot of efforts specifically focused on creating more demand for them with equestrians.
A rising tide raises all ships, and we focus a significant portion of our efforts on offering equestrians reasons to choose a Thoroughbred over another breed to use in the show ring, riding lessons or other equestrian endeavors, as well as helping to give them the tools and skills necessary to retrain them successfully.
DP: In what ways can the Thoroughbred industry assist you the most at this time?
JR: As a 501c3 nonprofit, we are able to continue to do our work thanks to the support of donors and sponsors. But, that's the answer any charity would give and there are a ton of good Thoroughbred-related charities out there (retraining, adoption, sanctuary, market-based, etc.), so I encourage anyone in the industry to identify a handful of organizations that are most meaningful to them and support them through both words and actions (it's not all about just money–even something as simple as volunteering at events, advocating on our/their behalf in your social circles or offering to write some thank you notes to our/their donors is a great way to help!).
Beyond that, the way the Thoroughbred industry can best support us, and aftercare in general, in my humble opinion, is to be an advocate for our equine athletes–the stars of our sport that our entire industry is built around–once their racing careers are done. As we've experienced in a number of ways over the past year and a half, the general public is keenly interested in animal welfare, specifically the welfare (both short and long term) of horses that are used for sport and entertainment. It's important for anyone in the Thoroughbred industry to have a working understanding of the aftercare sector of our industry and give it the same credence and understanding that they would the breeding, racing, or sales sectors. We have many resources on our website and in our magazine focused on this and are always happy to offer additional guidance or information based on specific questions or situations.
Be knowledgeable about aftercare and have a plan for your horses BEFORE they need to retire. Retire horses sound so they can go onto athletic careers after racing AND so they will be desirable to equestrians (who have a variety of breeds to choose from and often have the financial bandwidth to pay for what they want – by and large this is a discerning group and they are as picky about their riding and show horses as others are about their sale and racehorses). If you retire a horse to an aftercare organization, make a donation to cover the horse's care, especially if injury rehabilitation will be involved. Not only will it take more funds and resources to get that horse to a point at which it can be rehomed, but it will be more difficult to rehome.
For more information about the RRP and the Thoroughbred Makeover, visit their website here.