Roll out the barrel for ex-racehorse Aspen

Jennifer Wittridge has retrained former racehorse Aspen to become very successful at barrel racing.

Jennifer Wittridge has retrained former racehorse Aspen to become very successful at barrel racing. Picture: Jennifer Wittridge. - Credit: Archant

Many of them may not have made it as racehorses but that doesn’t mean the 7,000 thoroughbreds who leave the sport each year have nothing to offer. Sheena Grant finds out about the work of the charity Retraining of Racehorses and one horse in particular, making her name in a very different kind of racing.

Oliver Hood and Gateshead won the Racehorse to Riding Horse title at the Horse of the Year Show.

Oliver Hood and Gateshead won the Racehorse to Riding Horse title at the Horse of the Year Show. Picture: Real Time Images - Credit: Archant

As Annaley My Darling she was never going to set the world on fire. She raced 10 times, being placed second twice and third three times, but in her last two starts she finished almost last and was retired after two seasons, at the age of just three.

But Annaley now has a new name and a new life doing a very different kind of racing, at which she has proved much more adept.

Known as Aspen, she’s been retrained for western riding and excels at the sport of barrel racing. In fact, with owner Jennifer Wittridge, Aspen has qualified for next year’s National Barrel Horse Association world championships in the US.

“She is a very special horse,” says Jennifer, who bought Aspen five years ago when she left racing.

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“I had given up horses for many years before I had the opportunity to own my own horse again and my main aim was to look for a young former racehorse, knowing that they are the most trainable. I had always been interested in barrel racing and was looking for a horse to discover western riding with.

“Following a nasty accident that set me back for a long while I came across Aspen in 2013. She had good conformation, good feet and a great eye and my mind was made up: she was coming home. I gave her a year off work to grow and put on weight before I began to introduce her to ground work and then to being ridden western, which she grasped with all four feet.

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“My former racehorse is now one of the best barrel racers in the UK. The sport has given both Aspen and me a new lease of life. As far as I am aware, she is the only former racehorse to be competing in this sport and doing so well.”

But Jennifer, an experienced horsewoman with a background in county showing, producing ponies and horses, breaking and schooling, is quick to point out that there’s been a lot of hard work involved in getting Aspen to where she is today and says former racehorses would not be suitable for a complete novice.

“Training for barrel racing is sensible and sedate - we never actually race until race days. Balance, technique and agility are paramount. When I first started lunging Aspen she could barely move around a corner. But ex-racehorses are so versatile and so trainable. They are often totally misunderstood. In the right hands, they can do anything, providing you do the foundation work and have the right combination of horse and rider. When I first started competing we were getting seconds and thirds but in our last five competitions we’ve been coming back with firsts.”

Jennifer, who lives near Dereham, is still in touch with Aspen’s former owner, one of many who work hard to find their horses good homes and new careers when they leave racing.

The versatility of former racehorses has also been showcased in the last few days by a Zoe Turner-owned gelding called Gateshead, ridden by Diss-based Oliver Hood, who took the 2018 SEIB Racehorse to Riding Horse title at the prestigious Horse of the Year Show.

Nicolina MacKenzie, SEIB marketing manager, said: “The Racehorse to Riding Horse class just keeps growing in both the numbers and standard of horses. When we set up the series our aim was to help give these wonderful thoroughbreds a chance at a second career. It is wonderful to see how beautiful and versatile they are.”

There are 19,500 racehorses in training - many of them in Newmarket - in the UK this year and around 7,000 retire annually. In 2000 a charity called Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) was set up to safeguard the welfare of retired racehorses and now 2,800 horses enter the RoR system each year. Many former racehorses will also be used for breeding or are rehomed without RoR involvement. Animal rights organisation Animal Aid reckons 1,000 are slaughtered each year but RoR says there are no official figures.

RoR raises funds from within the racing industry to support its retraining and rehoming work, promotes the adaptability and versatility of racehorses for other activities and runs a programme of competitions and educational events across the country with the aim of maintaining a balance between the number of horses leaving racing and the number of enthusiastic, suitable new homes.

There’s a chance to meet former racehorses and learn what they do after racing in RoR’s flagship yard at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art at Palace House, Newmarket.

RoR also supports former racehorses judged to be vulnerable for a variety of reasons, including an owner’s financial circumstances, other welfare issues or needing more time or specialist expertise before rehoming, through a link-up with a number of equine charities, including Norfolk-based World Horse Welfare.

“Clearly not all racehorses go on to star in a different sphere but RoR hopes that on seeing what can be done, more riders will think about taking on a racehorse when they are looking for a new horse,” the charity says. “This will help racehorse owners and trainers, equine charities, retrainers and, most importantly, the horses to find secure and knowledgeable new homes.”

To find out more, visit For more on the Racehorse to Riding horse competition go to

Things to consider before taking on a former racehorse

Be realistic about your ability and experience and don’t be afraid to seek advice.

Former racehorses are usually good to load, clip, shoe and have good stable manners but will not be accustomed to being tied up outside a stable so are likely to fidget and become anxious.

Racehorses are also generally not used to standing still when mounted because lads and lasses are often given a leg-up while the horse is walking.

Racehorses are used to being ridden but not in quite the same way as a riding horse. Shortening the reins is usually a cue to go faster.

Racehorses will be used to riding out in company which means that hacking out on your own you could encounter problems in relation to insecurity. Riding in company can also present its own issues as may be associated with a training gallop.

Barrel Racing explained

It is believed competitive barrel racing was first held in Texas in 1948 by a group of women looking to make a name for themselves in the sport of rodeo. Two barrels are set 90ft apart from a third barrel, 105ft from both, thus forming a triangle.

Horse and rider attempt to complete a clover leaf pattern around the barrels in the fastest time, showcasing a combination of the horse’s athletic ability and the rider’s horsemanship skills.

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