What do you do with a racehorse that is too old or too injured or too expensive to keep? That’s where Jane Gollan steps in to help.
What do you do with a racehorse that is too old or too injured or too expensive to keep? That’s where Jane Gollan steps in to help.

The quest to save racehorses from the knackery

Power strength and speed. Thoroughbred racehorses are best known for the God-given attributes that make them unsurpassed in their line of work. But what happens when that work dries up? When the roar of the frenzied crowd fizzles, the prizemoney peters out and the constant attention, training, preening and pampering is no longer required?

The life of a working racehorse can be more micromanaged than that of a Disney starlet with not a grain of feed consumed without managerial approval. But what comes next?

A television expose aired in 2019 laid bare in disturbing detail the worst-case scenario for former racehorses. Shoved on a truck and sent for slaughter with little care or attention bar the threat of the electric prod. Terrified, alone and confused at best. Beaten and bloodied at worst.

While the expose uncovered uncomfortable yet undeniable truths about life after racing, it also inspired a new generation of activists.

Jane Gollan who rehomes thouroughbreds after the track and retrains them for general use. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Jane Gollan who rehomes thouroughbreds after the track and retrains them for general use. Picture: Mark Cranitch

It even acted as a precursor for legislative change that, while still in its infancy, will improve outcomes for all retired racehorses, particularly in the areas of welfare and traceability.

On a very personal quest for better outcomes in Queensland is Jane Gollan, 38, accomplished equestrian and wife of Brisbane racing powerhouse Tony Gollan. Her entire focus is the aftermath. Answering that question - what now? What now they are too old, injured or unsuitable? What now they are too expensive to keep?

 

Born into a racing family and brought up on a property in Bowral, NSW, it wasn't long before Gollan discovered the talents of the thoroughbred went far beyond power, strength and speed.

"My first involvement with an off the track thoroughbred (OTT) was with one of dad's retirees," she says.

"I competed him in pony club and eventing (a three-phase discipline involving dressage, showjumping and cross-country) and I saw what a thoroughbred can do.

Jane Gollan. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Jane Gollan. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

"That was it for me; it all stemmed from that love of horses and appreciation for their intelligence and athleticism. The thoroughbred has a wonderful temperament and they are so versatile. Best of all, if you give them a chance, they give you their heart."

Gollan went on to work as an assistant for legendary trainer Gai Waterhouse "doing a bit of everything" which led to her meeting her husband and, eventually, a move to Hendra where she has settled and started a family.

"As long as I can remember I always looked to re-home the horses in his stable. I got to know them and I wanted them to see a life after racing," she says. "After all the love, care and nurturing they receive while working, I felt they deserved another chance.

"All too often the owners don't have the land or the money needed to keep a retiree, or the contacts to find someone who does. I felt like I had a foot in the door of both racing and eventing, and it was the obvious thing for me to do."

The first horse Gollan helped rehome was The Candy Man Can, who went on to have an elite showjumping career.

This success and many more led her to become involved with triequithon (dressage, cross country and showjumping) , an exhibition event where ex-racehorses show off their new skills at a major race day to show owners and punters what they can achieve after racing.

Her efforts led to her winning the Thoroughbred Care and Welfare Award at the 2017 Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards and soon thereafter, the idea for her blossoming Transitioning Thoroughbreds foundation was born.

"Lots of people do great things in this space but it's so difficult when you don't have access to professionals," Gollan says.

"Thoroughbreds are wonderful but coming off the track it is not an easy or a quick process to retrain them. That's where so many people with good intentions fail, and so I decided to launch a foundation with the help of our wonderful retainers, Mattea Davidson and Kate Dreverman."

Jane Gollan. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Jane Gollan. Picture: Mark Cranitch

Davidson is a well-known thoroughbred trainer and equine reproduction veterinarian who runs Davidson Equestrian out of Kings Siding, near Toowoomba, with her husband Shane who is a World Cup Showjumping rider. Their business focuses on producing horses from birth to top level competition but they also teach young riders and compete themselves.

Dreverman started competing in thoroughbred eventing as a teenager and spent five years working in the racing industry. She is also an Equestrian Australia level one coach who competes at the highest level. Together with Gollan, and their shared passion for equine welfare, they make a formidable team.

 

Despite being familiar with all aspects of theracing industry, the slaughter yard expose was a wake-up call for Gollan, who was heavily pregnant with her second child Boyd, now 1, and busy with Jamieson, now 3, at the time it went to air.

"As shocking as the expose was, it is common knowledge in the racing industry, but it was bound to get out and while it sparked uproar it also sparked support for positive change," she says. "Launching a foundation was already in the pipeline but that show was just so confronting, so shocking and emotional, it spurred me on to launch it sooner. The entire concept of the foundation is to prevent that (slaughter) from happening. To be a bridge between the end of a racing career and a new one with the right home.

"Slaughter is an unfortunate reality but so many horses can be saved from bad situations and yes, even death, by putting them through a program with professionals who can look at their strengths and weaknesses and match them with the right adopter. Just like a child starting school, they need patience above all and not everyone has the time or money to provide that.

"Sometimes the idea of getting an OTT doesn't match the reality and, despite best efforts, a few months down the track it all falls apart and the horse is moved on and then on again creating traceability and welfare issues."

Jane Gollan. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Jane Gollan. Picture: Mark Cranitch

This is where Gollan's retrainers Davidson and Dreverman come in. After potential horses are assessed physically and mentally with the help of vets and farriers, the retrainers provide a heavily discounted 12-week program with the retrainees treated as one of their own and given the advantage of their years of experience.

"They are essentially volunteers because you couldn't put a price on what they do for these horses. What they are paid is nothing like what they would charge a private client," Gollan says.

"They do it because we have the same goal of helping these horses.

And as for Gollan, she has worked full-time on the foundation for over a year now in a completely voluntary capacity in addition to helping her husband with his business, her own competitive riding and looking after two small children.

"We have been very fortunate so far that the owners of our graduates have kindly contributed towards the program," she says.

"The rest is all public donations and donated time, and that is the biggest problem; we can't take on more horses that we can pay for."

This is something Gollan hopes will improve through the implementation of the recommendations of the Queensland Government commissioned independent inquiry into the management of retired racehorses (the Martin Inquiry), which was launched in the aftermath of the uproar caused by the abattoir expose on ABC's 7.30 program.

It handed down 55 recommendations around improving outcomes for retirees, particularly in the areas of tracing their whereabouts, welfare, retraining and rehoming, all of which were supported in full or in part by the Queensland Government.

"I definitely welcome the changes," Gollan says. "One of the things that will make a huge impact out of the inquiry are the rules around traceability and owners having to make two attempts to rehome their horses before they can be disposed of. And if they do end up going for slaughter, there will be tighter rules around time spent on trucks and in holding yards, better knackery conditions, it's all being looked at.

Retrainer Kate Dreverman in action.
Retrainer Kate Dreverman in action.

"There are bigger issues around the numbers of horses being bred and I believe until that is capped some horses will end up in the knackery, but even still, we need to know what happens to these horses; they deserve a dignified end.

"They are born into it and racing might make up only one third of their life. The industry has to do better. It's up to us all.

"I know we are still talking small numbers but every horse we take on is one less on the truck to the abattoir and we are very hopeful we can get more support for our work so we can do more.

"I would love to leave a legacy of 200 or more happily rehomed horses, even one day see a purpose-built facility in Queensland for retraining.

"We would even love to work with country trainers and perhaps even war veterans because we know that horses have a healing effect for those who have suffered trauma.

"There is so much in the pipeline and it's a really exciting time. There really is a huge amount of work being done.

"What we saw in the expose, that is the truth, it exposed the truth. But out of that came a reminder that horses are not just units, they are animals who touch our lives and, while we can't save them all, we can try, one at a time."

Jane Gollan assessing a potential retrainee.
Jane Gollan assessing a potential retrainee.

Responsibility for implementing the Martin Inquiry recommendations is shared between Racing Queensland (RQ), the Queensland Racing Integrity Commission (QRIC) and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF).

The Queensland Government has provided $6 million to support the implementation of the recommendations and is currently co-leading the development of a national horse traceability register with a working group expected to provide its recommendations in early 2022.

Of that $6 million, $1.2 million will go to the QRIC for additional resources to enforce animal welfare compliance and deliver an education program for owners and breeders.

QRIC has implemented three of the 10 recommendations it has responsibility for including the recruitment of two stewards to enforce retirement and death notifications, and a penalty standard for the failure to do so. The QRIC is aiming to publish annual injury, death, euthanasia, slaughter and retirement data for racing and retired thoroughbreds and standardbreds on the QRIC website this financial year.

Over three years $4.7 million of the $6 million has been allocated to DAF, which has implemented 13 of the 14 recommendations it has responsibility for including making the use of an electric prodder on a horse an act of cruelty and ensuring Biosecurity Queensland reviews knackery procedures and practices, undertakes an audit of knackery yards and facilities, and addresses any animal welfare issues.

RQ was entrusted with the responsibility to lead 21 of the recommendations and all are currently in progress including work to establish a national registration and traceability scheme, and incentivising owners to keep retired racing horse ownership and location details up-to-date, including details of their deaths.

RQ has also overseen the implementation of a 1 per cent prizemoney levy for thoroughbred and harness racing to support equine welfare based on the principle that "those who benefit, pay". The levy has generated almost $1.7 million to date.

This fund will be managed by the Queensland Off The Track (QOTT) board established in late 2020.

While in its infancy, the board has appointed two staff members and last week announced Samantha Phillips as its inaugural Program Manager. "Samantha boasts extensive knowledge with off-the-track horses - along with complementary tertiary qualifications," QOTT chair Sharon Cowden said.

It also announced a pilot program to support acknowledged retrainers, a subsidised lessons program to educate new owners of retired racehorses and an Off-The-Track grants program to assist existing rehomers. A program aimed at stimulating demand for retired racehorses has also been confirmed.

The board will also report on the number of horses accepted, retrained, rehomed, euthanased or sent to slaughter through the QOTT Program.

 

 

Trainer Mattea desensitising a retrainee using a flag, this gets the horse used to new experiences and helps in their new career.
Trainer Mattea desensitising a retrainee using a flag, this gets the horse used to new experiences and helps in their new career.

For those in the saddle though, the challenges and rewards are far removed from the work of the officials driving change. It involves a lot more dirt, dust and unfailing determination.

During the Transitioning Thoroughbreds retraining process, each horse is taken right back to basics and rewired via exposure to new environments while slowly being introduced to their new tasks.

Horses are given a minimum of five training sessions a week ranging from horsemanship and ground work, basic dressage and flat training, eventually progressing to jump and cross country schooling with hand-picked riders on board.

The horses are desensitised by constant exposure to sounds, sights and experiences they would never previously have had.

A recent Transitioning Thoroughbred social media post shows current transition candidate Purton being introduced to a cow and very sweetly finding it all rather interesting.

Retrainer Kate Dreverman laughs at the question of whether her work with the Transitioning Thoroughbred horses is a business.

"I'd love to do it full-time but financial stability and horses is a difficult balance to strike so I work full-time (as a supply planning manager for Kilcoy Global Foods) and fit in looking after five horses and competing around that," she says as she rides one of her charges late one evening before hopping off and continuing the conversation while preparing feed buckets.

Dreverman, who grew up with horses and worked as a track rider before turning her attention to training and competing eventers is a self-confessed, diehard, horse-loving tragic.

"It's not about flipping them and making money," she says.

"There are people who do that and it's not doing us any favours because the horses aren't ready for their new job and it fails.

"What I want is for them to find the perfect home so my retrainees get the same attention my own competition horses do.

Jane Gollan. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Jane Gollan. Picture: Mark Cranitch

"We start off with a lot of ground work and desensitisation with plenty of variety in the work to let their minds and muscles develop differently to how they were while racing.

"It's all about consistency, patience and kindness." Dreverman also urges anyone considering a thoroughbred to be aware they are not "like having a fat pony in a field".

"The old adage is true; a green rider plus a green horse equals black and blue, but we aim to close that gap by giving the horse a great foundation before they move on and that way there's a much better chance of a successful partnership," she says.

Prolific Queensland runner I'm a Rippa's new owner Kiah North, 29, a veterinary nurse from Purga near Ipswich, couldn't agree more.

"When you take on an OTT you are not paying thousands for the work someone else has already done - you are starting at the bottom and working towards your goals as a team and that's what is so rewarding," she says.

"It's tough, but when it starts to click it's amazing how fast they transition."

North describes herself as "that horse-obsessed kid who had posters all over the walls" and returned to competition as an adult after a break. She was delighted to find her "gentleman" I'm A Rippa, who she says has taken everything she has asked of him in his stride, with the pair set to move up to 95cm showjumping in the coming months.

"He was my perfect match, and that's something Jane does so well, matching horse to rider," North says.

"She's given him, and me, a new lease on life.

"I've actually noticed a massive change in the past several years with the number of people taking on OTTs and doing it the right way.

"It helps that there are now prizes for retired racehorses … but it's more that people see their intelligence and athleticism and want to give them a life after racing."

Transitioning Thoroughbreds has had two graduates to date, I'm A Rippa and Bombarding, and three more currently in training; Purton, Articus and Galtero.

"The first was I'm a Rippa, who won over $1.5 million during his career," Gollan says.

"It was great to have him as he was such a recognisable Queensland runner and he is now out eventing with his new owner so he was a huge success, not just for the horse but for the owner who gained a new best friend.

"These horses love to have a job, they want to work, they want to please, so finding them that happy ending is just the best feeling in the world."

 

Originally published as Racetrack to abattoir hell: Inside quest to save racehorses from knackery