I’m pleased to report that my new off-track-Thoroughbred, Happy, and I are well into our third month as a pair and things are going well, despite what has been a brutal winter. My red horse has finally claimed me as his person. It took a few weeks of a skeptical expression of, “Hey, it’s you again. Why are you always here?” before he seemed to make the connection.

Photo: Courtesy Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

The light-bulb moment (and, yes, I’m anthropomorphizing) happened during our first farrier visit. It was dusk and my farrier, Chris, and his colleague were determining Happy’s sole depth, foot shape, heel status, and going over our now-till-spring foot care strategy. Right when the sun was falling behind the horizon, pulling the temperature with it, Chris began the process of boxing a shoe on the grinder, which produced an impressive light show.

Happy’s eyes grew in size at the sparks, but he stood calmly and for the first time revealed his “slow snort” as I call itthe noise he makes when he isn’t so sure about what’s going on but is choosing to trust that everything’s fine. He repeated the slow snort as Chris boxed the second shoe, this time nestling his forelock into my shoulder. 

We moved out of the cold and under the barn lights to finish up his hind trim, and Happy stood there looking very settled and calm, blinking at me with an expression of: “Sigh. So, clearly, you’re mine. Are they done with my feet yet?” (Yes, anthropomorphizing again.)

At that point I feel Happy and I became a team of sorts—we had begun accumulating shared experiences.

In the past month Happy has grown some more hair, despite the late start on his winter coat. His gleaming racehorse coat that he wore in Arkansas has slowly transformed to that of a contented slightly fluffy mammal living in Central Kentucky. Do I miss the sheen? Oh, yes. But now I’m losing less sleep over whether he’s getting chilly. (Adding up the fill of this blanket and that liner in my head and comparing it to what I’d find in a second, heavier blanket purchase has become a weekly pastime for me). The key has been just watching him and seeing if he’s, well, happy, and adjusting layers accordingly.

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Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

We’ve gone for a few rides when the weather has allowed and he’s been remarkably calm about everything from a clucking white hen in a usually empty chicken coop to a plastic bag flapping in the wind during a short hack in unfamiliar territory. Oh yes, there was a slow snort or two (for example, when a child ran up behind us unexpectedly), but he gave and continues to give a nice big exhale before settling within a few minutes. I have to brag on him: He trots through big arena puddles confidently, which makes me feel good about our cross-country water jump potential, and he almost always walks flat-footed and calmly on our little hacks from our barn to the arena next door (save a few little bobbles when the wind was blowing and he was feeling good!).

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Probably the biggest hurdle for me as a new-again horse owner has been adjusting his diet. After retirement from racing last summer, Happy continued traveling with the rest of the horses in his barn and was ridden daily for retraining. He was on a grass-alfalfa hay mix and a complete feed and arrived very fit. Here the weather and frozen ground haven’t permitted regular work, but he’s remained active in his field. He’s now on locally grown grass hay and spends his days outside in a pasture and nights in his stall.

My last horse, a Warmblood, was an easy keeper, seemingly gaining 50 pounds on air. So far Happy isn’t like that … which isn’t surprising for a Thoroughbred coming off the track and moving to climes 30 degrees cooler in the dead of winter with dormant grass.

The barn manager and I both know he needs to eat constantly to stay warm, so he’s been getting lots of hay. I weighed the approximate amount he gets in a day, and I’ve adjusted his feed accordingly, being sure he’s consuming his daily nutrient requirements and also watching his weight. (This has meant taking off the blanket frequently to spot-check.) This is a little different than the way I used to feed my horses growing up and even as an adult 12 years ago: I used to just eye it and do what felt right. Now (a product of my career, probably!) I’m weighing things and doing math to get the rations just so.

And about those rations: There was a dizzying array of choices when it came time to switch him over from the complete feed he arrived on, which was intended to give him everything he needs without hay, to a concentrate, which is designed to be fed along with forage. (I am thankful for the input from equine nutritionist and freelancer Kristen in weighing the options and making decisions.). Don’t tell Happy, but he’s eating a senior feed: Yes, he turns 9 on Thursday, but the nutrient profile of this feed is great for him—with its fat levels, prebiotic, and controlled sugar levels. I’ve also got him on soaked shredded beet pulp for extra fiber to support his hindgut health, and he’s also on a digestive supplement for that purpose.

It works out great, because the feed provider is on the way to the barn for one of the barn managers, so rather than trying to work around business hours, I can call and pay for the feed over the phone and ask the barn manager to pick it up for me on his way to work.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

It gives me great peace of mind to have Happy switched over and to see him intent on inhaling his feed and hay: I’m very, very lucky that my horse is a great eater and drinker. I know that’s a huge blessing with the wacky temperature changes and change in general. It’ll also help us notice if things are ever amiss with him. For now, it’s hay and more hay and adjusting that ration to keep that weight on until spring!

What have been your biggest challenges when bringing a new horse into your herd, or getting a new horse after a break from ownership?