Life Off the Fast Track

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Purina Animal Nutrition

Finding homes for retired racehorses can be challenging — especially since the vast majority won’t be another Secretariat or American Pharoah.

Some go on to be polo, hunter/jumper, or dressage horses, while others are destined for a quieter private life. The unfortunate reality, however, is that many end up at auctions or in rescue shelters with uncertain fates.   

To help with this situation, Purina Animal Nutrition is committed to being the official feed sponsor of A Home for Every Horse, helping provide feed and improve the lives of at-risk horses such as off-the-track thoroughbreds (OTTBs). And this year, when Purina needed to expand its horse research herd, the company personally rescued 12 OTTBs, who now have a second lease on life and get to call the Purina Animal Nutrition Center home.

A nutritional and emotional boost
Once these horses arrived at the Purina farm from multiple rescue organizations and the racetrack, they were given some downtime and put on a weight gain diet. “We needed these horses to be at least a body condition score of 5 for an upcoming nutrition trial, so no ribs showing,” says Mary Beth Gordon, Ph.D., Director of Equine Nutrition for Purina. “We let them relax and fed them our higher-calorie feeds, like Omolene #200® and Ultium®, along with good-quality hay and pasture. All of the horses gained weight, and some don’t even look like the same horse. I swear one horse completely changed color from a dark/black bay to a red bay!”

These horses have also endeared themselves to the staff at the farm. “Some of these horses are super cute movers, are really easy to handle and have been great to train.  It makes our work that much more fun,” says Dr. Gordon. “There are a few I’d like to get on and ride!”  

Mike Jerina, Equine Research Manager for Purina Animal Nutrition, personally selected each of the horses that were adopted. “We’ve enjoyed getting to know these horses and watching them at their new jobs,” says Mike. “Some of these horses have really interesting backgrounds. One horse, Hollywood Extra, was a past movie star (see below), while another, named Basketball, was once owned by a pro athlete.” 

“You can tell these horses feel good and are ready for their next phase in life,” says Jerina. “They are out in the fields running, playing and getting good and muddy. The mud means more work for us, but we know they are loving life.”

From track to treadmill
Once the horses had sufficient downtime and gained the required weight, they started training on a high-speed treadmill. They are brought into the exercise physiology lab, introduced to the sights, sounds and smells of the room, all while being groomed and receiving some tasty treats. Over time, the horses slowly learned to walk, trot and canter on the treadmill, and got used to people buzzing about them, fans blowing cool air on them and simulations of exercise tests.   

“We want the horses to be very comfortable, so we take our time and train them step by step” says Dr. Gordon. “We turn the treadmill on so they get familiar with the sound, and we walk them on and off the treadmill, gradually having them learn all the aspects of our tests.” 

The current trial is measuring the horses’ response to different diets while exercising. Purina is looking at their immune and gastrointestinal health, via their exercise performance on the treadmill and Equi-ciser (similar to a hot walker). They also obtain multiple types of physiologic samples, from blood work to manure samples to ultrasound measurements. These OTTBs are working diligently to develop the next best feeds and supplements for other horses around the world. It’s a very noble cause.

Adopting a dozen OTTBs is merely scratching the surface in the fight to end a nationwide problem for horses without a permanent home. But by simultaneously improving the lives of several displaced horses and improving nutrition for horses nationwide, Purina is hoping to have a much broader impact. 

“We’re committed to these horses and we’ve grown very fond of them,” says Dr. Gordon. “They are happy and healthy and performing well at our farm. But the situation can be harder for other retired racehorses. The good thing is, there are many rescue organizations across the country that are doing a great job of rehabbing racehorses and trying to find forever homes for them, so that is encouraging.

“Anytime you can step in and give horses a new home, a new purpose or a new career — that’s a really good thing. That’s what we’ve done here.” 

Going Hollywood
Many horses at the Purina farm have interesting backstories. But not all of them have acted in a movie — much less one directed by Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg. 

Hollywood Extra is a 4-year-old bay gelding who was “discovered” when he was just a foal. Staff from the movie “War Horse” determined that he was just right to play the young Joey, who eventually grows into the horse of the title in the 2011 film.

“He is the foal running alongside the fence line with his mom at the very beginning of the movie,” says Jerina, manager of equine research, Purina Animal Nutrition. “It’s fun that we wound up with a movie star horse here at the farm.”

Several years after the movie was released, Hollywood Extra became a racehorse, but his racing career didn’t pan out as his owners had hoped. “He didn’t run fast enough, so he wound up at a rescue facility,” says Jerina. Hollywood Extra was then chosen along with 11 other horses to participate in exercise physiology trials for Purina.

Though his acting and racing careers have ended, Hollywood Extra continues to do what he enjoys: run and eat. After this trial ends, he and the other horses will frolic outdoors and graze on pasture until the next trial. Talk about getting the star treatment.