Racehorses retrained through pilot UWRF course

Posted February 8, 2022

The equine program at UW-River Falls during fall semester piloted a thoroughbred racehorse retraining program.

It all started about a year ago with an idea sparked by Michelle DeBoer, an assistant professor of animal and food science. DeBoer wanted a program that brought in off-the-track, thoroughbred horses for students to help retrain through a class.

DeBoer herself did not have the credentials to teach the class, so she asked Rachael Walker, an adjunct instructor, to step in.

“So this has kind of been an idea of mine, but it was hard to get everything together. I just don’t have the time to put all this effort into finding the right pieces,” said DeBoer.

Then, in spring 2021, DeBoer received an email from This Old Horse founder Nancy Turner with news that could jumpstart the program. Turner had received a number of off-the-track thoroughbreds and wanted someone who could work with them. Both DeBoer and Walker spent the summer in meetings with the department to work out all the details.

Everything came together swiftly ahead of fall semester. Only a week before classes started, DeBoer and Walker went to Turner’s facilities in Minnesota and Wisconsin to find the horses best suited for their program. Turner has facilities in Hugo and Cannon Falls, Minnesota, along with a new facility in New Richmond, Wisconsin.

Four horses proved to be the magic number, and not just for logistical reasons. As a Harry Potter fan, DeBoer found unique characteristics matching up with characters from the book series and named the horses Ron, Severus, Albus and Harry.

“Every equine student takes the beginning riding class, which I teach. And then you can take advanced Western or advanced English,” Walker said. “And if you take advanced Western and you’re approved, then you can also take the colt starting class where you get a baby horse that is not trained to be under saddle and you train them from the beginning.”

Clarke, a junior majoring in agricultural business with an equine studies minor, worked with Severus. She found a new sense of patience that comes from working with off-the-track thoroughbred horses.

Walker worked with three students — Mikayla Clarke, Isabelle Kreif, and Madeleine Olson — to retrain the former racehorses for other activities. Walker teaches an introductory riding class, which sets up students for advanced classes like this one.

“Restarting and training horses takes lots of patience and repetition that I’ve had to learn to be a proper leader in the relationship”, said Clarke. Clarke said she believes the class was a beneficial alternative for those who are interested in horse training, but do not want to break colts.

Kreif, a senior in animal science major with an equine management emphasis, also said she believes the course was a great opportunity for students.

“My favorite part of the program is probably that it gives students an opportunity to restart an off the track without them having to buy their own and pay for its upkeep. I think it’s a great opportunity for the students here who ride more English as the colts in training program is Western based,” said Kreif.

All funding for the program was thanks to Turner, through grants and her This Old Horse organization. Turner is also an ambassador for Purina, which supplied all the feed to get the horses on the right track.

At the end of the semester, an auction was scheduled to find homes for the horses, along with a silent
auction for other items, with proceeds benefitting This Old Horse.