Retraining the older OTTB: Q & A with Julie Baker, founder of Healing Arenas

By Diana Pikulski, Editor,

julie baker healing arenas

Often, when we talk about thoroughbred aftercare, we focus on retraining relatively young thoroughbred racehorses, recently off the track. But some rescued/retired OTTBs needed more time off after racing or were turned out because there was no one available to retrain them. We know that many of these horses can get in shape and learn new jobs. They can often become pleasure or trail horses, therapy horses, or patrol horses and fill an important position in the community or place in your heart.

Older off-track thoroughbreds are often more of a challenge to adopt out. But as we’ve discovered, these ex-racehorses can be perfect for many disciplines, with just a little extra time and patience.

Julie Baker, founder of Healing Arenas in Escalon, CA is one of the most inspired and innovative pioneers in retraining and re-homing off-track thoroughbreds. Part of her success in placing off-track thoroughbreds comes from ability to find good fits for older thoroughbreds who were turned out for years after injuries ended their racing careers. She focuses on equine therapy jobs and law enforcement work. In both areas, she has found a real demand for good horses and the thoroughbreds fit the bill. At the time of their retirement to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, some of the horses were only pasture sound. But years later Julie found that many of these horses had healed and were candidates for retraining. We caught up with Julie at an EAGALA certification course in Placerville, CA.

TAN: Can you tell us what you are doing at Healing Arenas?
JB: I am running an EAGALA program using off-track thoroughbreds in human therapy, personal development, and corporate trainings.

TAN: Are you working exclusively off-track thoroughbreds in your EAGALA work?
JB: Except for two mini-burrows, we are using only off-track thoroughbreds. The mini-burrows help us with small children and adults who are fearful and need to meet a smaller animal before getting comfortable around the thoroughbreds.

TAN: Why do you prefer to use off-track thoroughbreds in your work?
JB: I used to train thoroughbreds at the track and later when I started off retraining them off the track, I was moved by how adaptable and open they were. Then, when I started to work with EAGALA back in 2007 and put my thoroughbreds to work in the program, I was amazed at how intuitive and connected they were- much more than other breeds. These thoroughbreds have an element of common sense and self care that other breeds do not. For all disciplines, I prefer thoroughbreds. They have the best brain and the stamina and desire to go all day long.

TAN: Have you had to address any special needs with older horses?
JB: We started with a one-eyed horse thinking that his ‘disability’ would be relatable. But, it didn’t evolve that way. The veterans did not see it as remarkable. The children and youths however are very curious and empathetic.

With respect to the normal conditions associated with age and arthritis due to wear and tear from racing, all it did was increase the amount of time we took in conditioning and paying attention to the individual needs and feelings of the horse. Police work has really worked well because it is not too strenuous. Jimmy Diesel who is now a coveted police horse was turned out for 10 years in a big herd. We had to go slow, do body work, supplement his feed and take our time getting him fit. After about 30 days, with any of them, you see what you have. Every horse is different and you need to figure out the key to that horse. Some just glide through and others need more time.

TAN: What other issues do you face with the reintroduction of work after so many years?
JB: We find that the horses really enjoy getting back to work once we get through the herd separation process. Each horse is different in this process as well. But if you do that right, it is a real learning piece, and not traumatic. Our horses live in a small herd and they are trained from the herd environment. Once they figure out that they are not leaving their friends forever and that they go back out after they work, they settle in nicely and really enjoy their work.
Often, cribbing and weaving start to show up again when the horses get back to the barn. We ignore it and keep them busy with a new activity and over time those behaviors lessen.
Go slow and don’t give up.

TAN: Is the herd environment important in your EAGALA work?
JB: Yes, it is essential for EAGALA work. In the EAGALA process, the horses are in a group. So, having the horses accustomed to herd life is important.

TAN: What about the horses’ age level and time being turned out is helpful for under saddle or police work?
JB: Most positive thing for under saddle work, they have had so much time away from stress and humans and their needs. They work out the negative aspects of that former lifestyle. When I restart horses from a herd, I wean them off of their buddies. I bring up a number of horses together and gradually get down to one. Some horses love their stalls and others are not happy about the confinement. So either way, we have to go slow but the horses have fewer issues.

TAN: Can the age of the horse ever be an issue?
JB: There are no age restrictions for EAGALA work. Viva Pentelicus (Pentelicus, 96-22-9-14 $347,000) is 24. He one of the best therapy horses we have. Police work is fine for older horses too. We just put Charane Jerry (unraced) into police work at 17 and he will be in it for 8 years or so.
Younger horses that are less worldly are not as good for police work. Most mounted officers are kind of new to horses so we want horses that are stable, more experienced and calmer. We have a horse recently off the track, Norm’s Passion who stopped racing at age 10. He is already happy to be up for retraining and he likes being ridden. He is already adopted by a guy on the police force. I will put 90 days training into him and he will be perfect.

TAN: Can you give us a few of your favorite adoption stories?
JB: No! They are all my favorites. But, I love the story of Jimmy Diesel, the first mounted horse I took from the middle of Oklahoma. He walked into the barn and wanted to work. He stood like a soldier for everything like it was his job from the day he was born.
My love is Roux be Wild (Wild Rush, 39-12-2-8 $241,919)- the ‘go to horse’ for parades, equine therapy, color guards, rodeo, jumping, reining, roping. He also on the reserve for the police force. We have been offered tons of money for him but he will never leave- nor will Vive Pentelicus.

TAN: Do you have any other exciting projects on your plate?
JB: Yes, I have entered a 3-year-old Lucky Pulpit filly into the Retired Racehorse Project! Her specialty is ranch work. She is super athletic but suffered a knee injury which ended her racing career. She is smart and perfect for all the western work. We do cattle, gates, obstacles etc. She is great at obstacles. I cannot wait to show off her skills.

TAN: Thank you Julie for your amazing work and your service to our veterans and other underserved individuals. You inspire all of us and we cannot wait to watch you at the 2018 Thoroughbred Makeover at the Kentucky Horse Park, October 4-8.