The Canter Connection: Helping Former Racehorses Find New Lives

Through word-of-mouth and the Internet, a Michigan-based program to help retired racehorses find new lives is thriving -- and spreading across the country.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this story was published, CANTER has rescued countless horses. Make It Happen, shown here with owner Mary Hejna in his first event, was one.

Although the majority of CANTER's work involves taking listings from trainers at the track of horses they wish to retire from racing and placing that information on their website for nonrace buyers to see what is available on the backside of the track, CANTER does actively participate in the rescue, donation and even purchase of horses at risk. When CANTER was notified that a former Michigan racehorse named Make It Happen had been sent to slaughter by a non-race owner, CANTER immediately contacted the horse's previous Thoroughbred racing trainer, Shane Spiess, at his home in Ohio.

Shane found that 11 days previously "Happy" had been sent to a Kentucky auction where he was purchased by a slaughterhouse for $390. The horse had been living in a holding pen that entire time with other horses awaiting transport to Texas.

Shane had the horse retrieved and delivered to the Michigan CANTER program. Make It Happen arrived 200 pounds underweight, dehydrated, debilitated and suffering from a number of physical ailments. He was nurtured back to health, x-rayed sound, and was purchased by Mary Hejna. In their first eventing competition in May 2001, they tied in their division for the best dressage score.

The CANTER Story
Racehorses take many paths to retirement. Stakes-winning superstars tend to go to plush breeding farms, often before age and wear take their toll. Well-bred horses with less distinguished racing records are also likely to go on to breeding careers. Some horses are lucky enough to live out their days at leisure or to find a place in a show barn or pleasure-horse stable.

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For many horses, however, the future is uncertain. While still sound, these horses can end up being "traded down" to smaller and smaller tracks where they must work harder and harder to earn their keep. Some, often disabled or otherwise unable to race, are donated to rescue groups. Horses without better prospects may end their lives at the slaughterhouse.

In Michigan, a racehorse's chances for a pleasant and productive retirement are improving.

There, more and more former racehorses are successfully taking up second careers-in dressage, eventing, Western pleasure, jumping, trail and as companion animals-while they are still healthy and sound enough to make the transition easily. A program called CANTER-Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses-founded by Jo Anne Normile, who serves as executive director, is making it possible.

CANTER is a nonprofit group that offers a free service: connecting racehorse owners and trainers who need to sell horses with horsemen in other sports who want to buy quality, registered Thoroughbreds. Funded solely through donations, CANTER takes no money from buyer or seller, and all of its work is done by volunteers.

From small beginnings
CANTER began almost by chance, at the Ladbroke Detroit Racecourse, just outside of Detroit in Livonia, Michigan. "It was the idea of the Michigan trainers," says Normile. "Really, it grew out of their work." In the mid-1990s, Normile and her husband had two homebred Thoroughbreds in race training, and Normile was serving on the board of directors of the Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and of the Michigan Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA). In 1996, Normile retired one of their horses from racing and had her retrained for eventing.

Trainers and owners at the racetrack, aware that Normile had connections in the eventing world, would often flag her down and ask her if she knew anyone who might be interested in particular horses they needed to sell. "They were showing me good horses," Normile said. "I'd help them if I could, but I only had contacts in one small eventing barn."

It became clear to Normile that many of these trainers wanted another outlet for selling their horses, but they just didn't have the connections to find the right buyers outside of the track. Normile started walking through the shedrows handing out information for six people she knew who were interested in buying ex-racehorses. "I helped sell a couple of horses and realized that the trainers really liked this," Normile says. "They don't want to have to keep selling a horse down to cheaper and cheaper tracks until it breaks down. They'd rather give their horse another option in life. But they didn't know where to turn."

To begin meeting this newly discovered need, Normile formed CANTER during the racing season of 1997. She wrote to all of the sport horse and breed associations in Michigan, asking them to place blurbs about CANTER in their newsletters. When readers contacted her, Normile asked them what they were looking for, and then she took her "horses wanted list" to the track and posted it everywhere people congregated. When a horse meeting one of the descriptions came up for sale, the trainer called the buyer directly.

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