Grass roots

Retired Racehorse Project founder Steuart Pittman Jr., AB’85, advocates for off-track Thoroughbreds.

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When a retired racehorse arrives at Dodon Farm in Davidsonville, Maryland, for retraining, the first session is usually held in the farm’s indoor riding arena. The wooden facility, 80 feet by 200 feet with sand footing and high rafters, is closed off from all the potential distractions that populate the 550-acre farm: the fields of blanketed grazing horses; the riders and stablehands carrying equipment in and out of the main barn; cars, trailers, and motorized carts running along the gravel roads; and the dogs, some belonging to the Pittman family, some to the farm’s employees, that all run around the property with abandon.

Inside the arena Steuart Pittman Jr., AB’85, will hold the horse’s head while Michelle Warro, a trainer at the farm, climbs on, and they’ll start to walk around the ring in a circle. With a Thoroughbred fresh off the track “we don’t know what the horse is like,” says Pittman, only that it’s been ridden a lot. But it usually doesn’t take long for Pittman to tell if the horse is receptive to Warro’s leg, rein, and seat signals. More often than not, he’s able to let go after a few laps. Then Warro “walks it, trots it, canters it, does everything short of jumping in that very first day,” he says, while Pittman observes from the center of the arena.

Pittman with his 22-year-old Thoroughbred stallion Salute the Truth, affectionately known as Willy. Willy retired from the racetrack at age four, and has been with Pittman ever since. (Photography by Dan Dry)

Most Americans are only familiar with Thoroughbred racehorses from the Kentucky Derby and the other Triple Crown races, once a year marveling at the horses and “how hard they compete, how powerful, and how beautiful they are,” Pittman says. Watching them race “is pretty inspiring stuff,” but most racehorses retire before age seven, leaving them with two decades of life, and plenty of ability, to flourish in new careers.

At Dodon Farm Training Center, Pittman boards and trains about 20 horses at a time, many of them ex-racehorses. He is also the founder of the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP), a nonprofit that seeks to highlight the potential of off-track Thoroughbreds and helps owners and trainers transition ex-racehorses into other careers, such as competitive equestrian events and pleasure riding. In October the RRP’s largest annual event, the Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, drew thousands of spectators to watch 300 ex-racehorses compete in a variety of disciplines, and their trainers win $100,000 in prize money.

Pittman thinks Thoroughbreds “are the most fun horse, they’re the most athletic, they learn faster than any other horse, they’re a blast”—and have as much value off the track as on. The RRP is broadcasting that message to prospective owners and the general public. “These incredible animals can play polo and they can work cattle and they can teach kids to ride,” he says, long after their racing days are over.

 

In 2015 the average selling price for a Thoroughbred yearling (before it has been raced) was $65,591.

But the market value plunges for off-track (retired or nonracing) Thoroughbreds. In 2013 Pittman conducted a survey of 2,759 owners of 4,200 former racehorses. The owners reported paying an average of $1,985 per horse; 31 percent of the horses had been given to them for free.

Thoroughbreds that have successful racing (and subsequently, stud) careers can earn their owners millions. But of the more than 20,000 Thoroughbreds foaled each year in the United States, only about two-thirds will ever race, with just about 4 percent winning a higher-pursed stakes race.

Up until about 40 years ago, off-track Thoroughbreds were used widely in other equestrian sports like eventing, a three-day competition involving dressage, a cross-country course, and show jumping. There are more than 250 eventing competitions in the United States each year, and it’s been a summer Olympic sport since 1912. Other breeds have since become more popular eventing horses; Pittman points to aggressive marketing from their breed associations. The European warmbloods especially “became a fad,” says Pittman. “Their values went up and people started to think of the Thoroughbreds as worthless” for anything except racing. Thoroughbreds’ reputation for behavior problems has worked to keep riders away from the breed as well, though Pittman believes this reputation is unearned: “They’re probably the least mean horses you can find,” he says.


(Photography by Dan Dry)

As the market value of ex-racehorses has fallen, rescue organizations and nonprofit retirement facilities have emerged to provide homes for them and keep them from being neglected, or sent to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico (horse slaughter has been banned in the United States since 2007). Animal welfare advocates think that of the approximately 140,000 horses sold to kill buyers each year, up to 10 percent are Thoroughbreds. (Pittman believes the rate is lower than that of other breeds since the tattooed serial number on all registered Thoroughbreds’ upper lip makes them easier to trace—and the act of knowingly selling a horse for slaughter, punishable by a lifetime ban from racing, harder to hide.)

Ahead of major races, the media often cover abandoned and mistreated ex-racehorses, shining light on the work of these rescue organizations. That work is important and deserving of the publicity but the coverage reinforces a narrative Pittman is trying to thwart: that off-track Thoroughbreds are all destined for either the rescue farm or the slaughterhouse. He wants to turn the conversation instead to these horses’ potential for full postracing careers.

“Much of the news about ex-racehorses includes words like rescue, slaughter, donate, and adopt,” he wrote in a 2011 report . “Too few people hear about heart, athleticism, and versatility.”

(Photography by Dan Dry)

As a professional trainer, the current market for ex-racehorses benefits Pittman’s bottom line. “I would like to be able to get all my horses for free and sell them all for $100,000, of course,” he says, “but it’s not good for the horses.”

Thoroughbreds need to have intrinsic value, he says, just as they’ve always had for him. The Retired Racehorse Project is Pittman’s way of advocating for a breed that he grew up with, grew to love, and kept coming back to.

 

Steuart is the eighth generation of Pittmans to live on Dodon Farm. He’s the first to earn a living there through horses—the colonial Pittmans grew and cured tobacco, and Steuart’s father raised cattle while commuting to a legal job in Washington, DC. But there have always been horses, including Thoroughbreds, on the property.

The family’s neighbors had Thoroughbreds as well, and Pittman remembers growing up surrounded by “these gorgeous horses” that their owners took steeplechasing, fox hunting, or simply riding. He was active in his local riding clubs and spent as much time as he could with the horses. “Some kids are into cars, you know, superheroes,” he says. “I was into Thoroughbreds.”

(Photography by Dan Dry)

When he was in high school, Pittman got his first ex-racehorse, Hurricane Hannah. A bone chip in her ankle had ended her racing career (the chip came in a bottle with the horse; Pittman still has it). Pittman and Hurricane Hannah evented through the Preliminary level, the fourth of six levels in American eventing. “She was pretty magnificent,” he says.

In high school Pittman started to become more interested in academics and decided leave the East Coast to attend the College. There was something about “a bunch of nerds that spend all their time in the library studying” that appealed to him. After his first year he joined a campus movement to protest the United States’ involvement in civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. He got hooked, he says, on Latin American studies (his eventual major), on community-based movements, on politics. “I wanted to change the world.”

He took a job with ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) as a community organizer in Chicago, working in the Altgeld Gardens public housing project on the South Side shortly before Barack Obama did. Pittman later ran ACORN’s Iowa offices and worked with several campaigns during the state’s quadrennial presidential primary caucuses. It was “a lot of grassroots community organizing”—which he loved—but not a lot of horses.

Pittman hadn’t ridden for almost 10 years when, during a vacation at Dodon Farm, he met a horse his father had recently purchased. “I got on and rode it the first day,” he recalls, and then every day for the rest of his trip. He realized, “I had been missing this.” Back at home, he was considering trying to bring the horse to Iowa when one night he woke up with the obvious solution: “I need to go back to the farm.”

(Photography by Dan Dry)

Pittman returned home to Dodon Farm with his young family in 1990. He commuted to Washington, DC, to work for the National Low Income Housing Coalition and then as ACORN’s director of national campaigns, and rode in his spare time. He began buying racehorses off the track and turning them into eventing horses, like he’d done with Hurricane Hannah. He’d work with one or two horses at a time, for six months to a year and a half each, and then sell them on.

As his training business grew, Pittman began to feel confined by his office job; if he couldn’t be out in the field working with activists like he had done in Iowa and Chicago, then he wanted to be in the fields at Dodon with his horses. Figuring out that he’d be able to support himself and his family by training and reselling five or six ex-racehorses per year, he resigned his position with ACORN and became a full-time horse trainer.

“And I got lucky; I got good horses off the track who became valuable,” says Pittman. He “certainly didn’t get rich” but he was able to develop a reputation as someone who was successfully transitioning ex-racehorses into sport horses.

Pittman didn’t sell all of the Thoroughbreds he worked with. He’d always wanted a Thoroughbred stallion (male racehorses unlikely to win enough races to make them valuable as a stud are often gelded, or neutered, as geldings are usually easier for a rider to control).

In 1999 he got Salute the Truth, known to Pittman and everyone at Dodon Farm simply as Willy.

 

Pittman wanted Willy before he was even born. He had been impressed by his neighbor’s mare, and when that mare was bred with a sire known for producing successful sport horses, Pittman made an offer on the foal, still in utero. A deal was struck for Pittman to buy the horse after he retired from the racetrack; four years and a minor tendon injury later, Salute the Truth was at Dodon Farm.

Willy (a nickname given by his former owners) showed an early aptitude for eventing, especially jumping. He easily cleared a four-foot, six-inch jump on his third training session in the farm’s indoor arena (jumps at the 2016 Rio Olympics had a maximum height of just over five feet). He could be challenging to work with at times, says Pittman; as a stallion he “had real strong opinions about things.” His will not only endeared the horse to Pittman, it meant Willy was the horse who ended up teaching him the most about training Thoroughbreds.

(Photography by Dan Dry)

Pittman started competing with Willy the same year he got him. The pair quickly moved up the eventing levels, reaching the top level of the sport in 2003 and competing in an Olympic-level event the following year. For the next decade Willy was a breeding stallion; in 2013 the US Equestrian Federation ranked him the third-best sire for producing eventing horses. Willy “defined my career for a lot of years,” says Pittman. “People sort of said that if they thought of me, they thought of him, us together.”

Now 22, Willy spends his days running and grazing on the fields of Dodon Farm, his spirit undiminished by age. Pittman still rides him occasionally, and Willy still saunters over to the fence when Pittman calls his name. “He’s my man,” Pittman says. There’s a small family graveyard on Dodon Farm where generations of Pittmans, including Steuart’s father, have been laid to rest. When Willy passes on, says Pittman, he just might rest there too.

 

What first pulled Pittman off the farm into organizing again, he says, was his involvement in the Maryland Horse Council, a trade association and advocacy group for the state’s horse owners. Lobbying legislators, hosting forums, putting forth policy proposals—“it’s community organizing, just like ACORN was.” He served as MHC’s president for four years (he remains on the board) and from that experience “felt the confidence and the arrogance” to think he could successfully advocate for off-track Thoroughbreds.

In 2009 Dodon Farm ran what Pittman calls an experiment. Pittman rented a large arena and through word of mouth invited owners and trainers to a four-hour symposium and demonstration on retraining racehorses. More than 350 people showed up. “It showed us that there’s a demand, that people want this information,” he says.

(Photography by Dan Dry)

Pittman started presenting at horse expos, teaching crowds how to work with former racehorses. In 2010 he incorporated the Retired Racehorse Project, which now hosts educational seminars and training competitions, publishes a quarterly magazine and resource directory, and provides sale listings and informational videos on its website. More than 20,000 people have attended RRP events like the annual Thoroughbred Makeover, 10,000 subscribe to the RRP’s Off-Track Thoroughbred magazine, and 2,000 dues-paying members support the organization and Pittman’s work.

Pittman is planning another study of off-track Thoroughbred prices to gauge how successful the RRP has been in promoting ex-racehorses, but he’s heard from other owners and trainers that his efforts are paying off. “Anecdotally, everybody is telling us that prices are up” over the past few years, he says. Pittman has also earned the support of others in the racing industry; the nonprofit Thoroughbred Charities of America was the main sponsor of the 2016 Makeover, and jockey Rosie Napravnik, who has raced in all three legs of the Triple Crown, sits on the RRP’s board.

(Photography by Dan Dry)

“The Retired Racehorse Project showcases how impressive off-track Thoroughbreds are as sport horses and helps promote them to the right audience,” says Jim Gagliano, president and COO of the Jockey Club, which oversees the national Thoroughbred registry. “Mr. Pittman has done an amazing job.”

Looking forward, Pittman wants to expand the RRP’s reach by doing more marketing and communications work and hosting more training clinics. He has plans for an apprenticeship program that would place experienced trainers on farms with ex-racehorses to give guidance to owners and trainers new to Thoroughbreds. 

His ultimate goal is to lead the RRP to a place where someone else could take over and build upon his progress. He loves seeing his efforts pay off, whether in the growing demand for off-track Thoroughbreds or when a rider takes the reins of her retrained racehorse for the first time. Watching hundreds of trainers showcase their ex-racehorses during the Makeover is “magical,” he says. Still, he sees himself taking a step back from the RRP in the coming years.

He wants to get back to his horses.

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