By Britney Grover
Known as CANTER, the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses is now a nationwide effort to help find off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) new homes, and has succeeded in transitioning over 25,000 OTTBs nationwide. CANTER is run 100 percent by volunteers both at a national level and in each of the 18 independent affiliate chapters — including CANTER Kentucky, where Amanda Graham works a full-time job in addition to her role as executive director.
There are two components to the CANTER KY program. The first is a free online listing service where volunteers meet with trainers and owners to take photographs and gather information about their available horses and then offer them for sale to the general public through their website, canterusa.org. The second component involves horses donated directly to their aftercare program that are then rehabbed, retrained and rehomed — usually into sporthorse careers such as eventing, hunter-jumper and dressage.
“It’s very important for CANTER to have a chapter in Kentucky because Kentucky is considered the horse capital of the world and we have racing year-round here. Therefore there is a need for Thoroughbred aftercare and organizations that can help promote and transition these amazing athletes to a second career. Most ex-racehorses can transition to new careers once their racing careers have ended,” Amanda said. “Most Thoroughbreds have a strong work ethic and want a ‘job,’ so even if they’re no longer competitive on the racetrack, they can easily excel in a variety of disciplines outside of the racing industry. CANTER KY is in the unique position of listing horses available for sale at the racetracks and by private owners, in addition to taking Thoroughbreds into our aftercare program where they’re given time off, evaluated, retrained and put up for adoption to approved homes.”
Though the awareness of OTTBs as sporthorses continues to spread, CANTER KY faces some other challenges, as not every horse gets adopted immediately. “A lot of really nice smaller-sized horses get passed up because people have the misconception that larger/taller horses compete or look better,” Amanda shared. “Also, many times people don’t want to take the risk or put the time into rehabbing a horse that may need some time off because of an injury.”
While CANTER KY may be able to take in and rehab some of these horses themselves, they can’t do it alone. Since its creation in 2009, the CANTER KY chapter has received an outpouring of support from Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Turfway Park and The Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington and many private donors. But funding continues to be a challenge.
“Most of our funding comes from grants,” Amanda said. “We’re always looking for fundraising opportunities, but one of our biggest challenges is finding volunteers who can help seek out and organize fundraising events that would benefit our organization.”
CANTER KY is actively in search of volunteers to help with everything from grant writing, fundraising and marketing to helping at the barn grooming and spending time with the horses that are available for adoption. “We also need volunteers to help at the local racetracks and meet with local trainers/owners to promote CANTER and take listings and photos of their horses that are available for sale and looking for new careers outside of the racing industry,” Amanda said.
Most of CANTER KY’s volunteers come from an equestrian background and find the volunteer work very rewarding. “One of our success stories is a Thoroughbred named Jay that came from a bad situation at one of the racetracks,” Amanda said. “He had a severely bowed tendon and was very lame. We took him into our aftercare program and gave him lots of love and rehab for the bowed tendon. Jay had pretty much given up on people and was very skittish, afraid and didn’t like to be handled or touched. He was adopted and is now a star athlete at a local barn and used for their lesson program. Jay is bright-eyed, happy, enjoys people and has a totally different personality and new outlook on life. That’s why we do what we do — we love seeing these athletes transition to great new homes and careers once their racing days are over.”
Once taken into the CANTER KY aftercare program, horses enter the care of trainers Ashley Watts and Kalena Richards of Liftoff Equestrian in Versailles, Kentucky. “They put lots of time and retraining into our retired Thoroughbreds so that they have a solid foundation once they are adopted,” Amanda said. “We give all our horses a minimum of 30 days off once they arrive from the racetracks so they can just hang out and be horses before they start their retraining. We believe that lots of groundwork, good nutrition and patience is key to a healthy, happy horse. We don’t rush our horses and, on average, a horse is in our aftercare program from three months to a year.”
CANTER KY has a very low return rate on horses they put up for adoption, due to their diligence in screening potential homes for each individual horse. “We are picky about who adopts our horses and we do our absolute best to try and match horse with rider and ideally find forever homes for our horses,” Amanda said.
Despite its success, there is still more CANTER KY could be doing. With more funding, exposure and volunteers, Amanda hopes CANTER KY can expand its mission of transitioning racehorses to new homes — because in the end, it’s not just the horses that are influenced by the program. “We adopt our horses all over the U.S.A. and love getting updates and success stories, but most of all, we enjoy seeing that special bond between our horses and their new owners and seeing them succeed in their new homes and careers, whether it’s as a sporthorse prospect or as a pleasure/trail horse.”
For more information, visit canterusa.org/kentucky
Photos by Margaret Fitch, unless noted otherwise