When farm manager Ellie Dalton and assistant manager Alex Lee got to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Front Royal, Va., farm one sunny April morning, 69 horses waited. Some wanted grain. Others had misplaced their fly masks. Most quietly grazed the gentle hills of the farm’s approximately 200 acres.
Sixty-eight are Thoroughbreds (no one is quite sure how a breed-unknown gelding named Burt made it through, but he is a part of the farm now). Some were rescued from auctions, others placed here by owners. Some have sponsors who send money for care and receive photos and updates. Ten horses were between 25 and 30 years old. Forty were 20 to 24. Three were blind in one eye. None were riding sound.
The mission of the TRF, founded in 1983, is “to save Thoroughbred racehorses no longer able to compete on the racetrack from possible abuse, neglect and slaughter.” It is headquartered in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and besides the Front Royal farm, has 18 locations, eight at correctional facilities where inmates work with horses. Some, like the Front Royal facility, are sanctuary farms. The horses are pastured, with no expectation of retraining for second careers, although many are eligible for adoption as companion animals. Some 450 horses reside at TRF sanctuary farms. Front Royal, which opened in 2003, is the second largest; the biggest, in Oklahoma, houses 120 horses.
At Front Royal live horses with “origins in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Florida, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Canada, Argentina and Ireland – a true melting pot,” said Liz Bennett, TRF’s national herd manager, in an email. “Likewise, the horses living in this herd have varied lifetime earnings. Take for instance, our Florida-bred horse, Compelled – he only earned $225 on the track in comparison to our New Jersey-bred horse, Summer Swing, who earned $331,722 during his racing career.”
Sue Kenny, who helped rehome retirees when she worked for trainer Graham Motion, placed a horse named Don’t Quit Dreaming with the TRF. The gelding started at the Sykesville, Md., correctional facility, and during the pandemic was moved to Front Royal. “He’s still there because he’s having the time of his life,” Kenny said.
And that’s, in a sentence, the goal of every horse on the place. By summer the population had grown by three – 17-year-old Final Straw, 6-year-old Quixotic and 20-year-old Sassy Lad. The resident Thoroughbreds’ daily livesfollow a routine painstakingly tailored to their retired status and individual needs, from the anti-inflammatory medication Previcox to certain companions to cribbing collars. This is where Dalton and Lee come in.
In the feed shed, a whiteboard listed horses’ nutrition and medication needs. Dalton served grain and medications into color-coordinated buckets. She and Lee sometimes complete each other’s sentences, and it’s not a shock to find out that they have been best friends since high school.
They worked at the same trail-riding barn as teenagers, and since then both have had several horse jobs, including with Virginia-based former steeplechase jockey turned trainer Jeff Murphy.
Over the years, Dalton has worked with horses of all ages at St. Brides breeding and training farm, in Upperville, Va. Lee helped with night watch, mares, babies and sales prep at Morgan’s Ford Farm in Front Royal, and traveled between Florida and Kentucky as a show groom.
Both are 25, younger than plenty of the horses in their care. With help from one part-time employee, they run the farm.
Many horses who need grain in the winter put on enough weight on the grass to go without supplementary feed, but this early spring morning, there are still around a dozen horses getting grain.
“Astro! Jerry! Come on, you want breakfast?” Dalton called. The first field of the day has the most geriatric residents, because it’s the flattest on the farm, with just enough hill for horses to get some exercise. The beckoned horses moseyed over and waited, ears pricked, while gates opened. Bold Jerry, part of the one-eyed club, entered a paddock for his grain. Astro Force, the farm’s eldest resident at 30, ate too. “He’s built great, didn’t need to be fed until last year, he’s not very sore at all, and he’s a good boy,” said Dalton. “He just doesn’t like fly spray. He doesn’t like to be fussed over, either, honestly. He’s like one of those old men who have lived in the same town their whole lives and are like, ‘I don’t need help.’ ”
While the first group ate grain, Dalton and Lee went to “the middle,” an area home to three mares and a gelding named Power Choice. Two mares needed grain, and Power Choice had returned recently after some years with an adopter. He’d had multiple abscesses on the same foot, which Dalton and Lee treated. He was staying with the mares until he fully acclimated and then would go into the larger gelding field. Once Dalton and Lee had examined these four horses, they got into a red Ford F-250 to do the field check of the “upper end” field, which holds 15 mares.
The farm has stalls, but Dalton and Lee do their horse tending out in the fields – minor wound ministration, dentistry, farrier visits and veterinarian calls. The practitioners who come to the farm know, for example, that they won’t be able to tie a horse while they’re examining his teeth. This minimizes distress for horses used to being together and outside. Each day, Dalton and Lee patrol the fields. They check waterers. They groom when there’s time and use checklists to make sure they look at every horse every day. If something’s wrong, they treat it.
"Anybody standing weird, I’m watching, waiting,” said Lee. “Are you going to move?”
“If they’re laying down, it’s, ‘Are you colicking? Or just sleeping?’” said Dalton.
“Some of them are field sound,” Dalton said, “but once they start trotting or cantering, you think. . .”
“Don’t ever do that again,” finished Lee.
Dalton pointed out mares as they gathered around the truck, investigating, or grazed in clusters. She knows every horse’s Jockey Club name, and listed a nearby group easily. “That’s Kona Code, Mighty Reward, Superb Surprise. The two girls with the cribbing collars are Denville and Tack Room. This is Elegant Alex, Secret Motive, Pumpkin Spice and Gitem Willie.”
Mighty Reward, Dalton said, is the farm’s highest-earning mare, with $114, 281 to her name. The 14-year-old New York-bred won three races – one at Saratoga. Another, Pumpkin Spice, was underweight and skittish when she arrived. With time and patient handling, the now 18-year-old became more brave and easygoing. Each positive interaction between the managers and horses, said Lee, is part of “the bank of trust. So then when we have to make a withdrawal to do the bad, it’s not so bad.”
“Because you’re always putting in,” said Dalton. “It’s not the well of trust, it’s the bank of trust.”
Although Thoroughbreds’ birthdays are, of course, all marked on Jan. 1, Dalton and Lee keep a record of the residents’ actual foaling dates. On those days, they take the horses treats and sing to them. The celebrations show that not every interaction with people means they will get a shot from the vet or must stand for the farrier. “It’s just nice, every once in a while, for those horses that aren’t exactly social to think, ‘Oh, I just got a little bit of grain and then they drove off? No bad experience, no wormers?’ ” said Dalton.
After checking the mares, Dalton and Lee drove back to the horses who’d finished eating and were now ready to rejoin the herd. One, Bi Flash, needed wound treatment for some proud flesh on a cannon bone. Lee expertly wrapped the horse’s leg while he stood, distracted by some grain. “Thoroughbreds, you teach them something once and they remember it forever,” she said.
The managers roach manes, to minimize burr snarls, but keep forelocks and tails long. In the spring, they hand-wash blankets in a trough with Borax, then place a ladder across the top of a stall and hang the blankets from the front buckle to air-dry. Nutritionists and forage experts visit the farm regularly. To keep the horses’ details in order, Dalton and Lee use a Google form they can access on their phones. It shows the horses’ names, nicknames, birthdays, tattoo numbers and overall descriptions. There are tabs for the farrier schedules, medications, wormer, vaccinations, Equibase links. There is a tab for dead or relocated horses. Another lists the members of the various groups that congregate in each field.
Dalton also takes and sends photos of the sponsored horses, keeps receipts and sometimes does transport. She might review a different farm, using a checklist of fence and horse conditions. She sends in hours, does the hiring, and decides when a horse’s illness or injury requires a veterinarian. She schedules worming, vaccinations, farrier and dentist visits.
In the Big Pond field, the next stop, geldings have worn visible paths to their favorite scratching spots and stands of trees. “What’s up, Gupgup,” said Lee to Delaroi, barn name Guppy. The New Jersey-bred, now 19, was head shy when he arrived at the farm, and usually only Dalton could handle him easily. But on this day he just looked mildly around.
“Maybe I’m not actually a feral goblin child,” said Lee, as he approached.
“Maybe I’m domesticated,” Dalton said.
Stevie – Seeking Revenge – came over. “These two have great personalities, but they are criminals,” Lee said, looking at 18-year-old Maryland-bred Stevie. “You are a criminal.”
Dalton and Lee returned to the truck, and drove beneath a rise in the land, so they were largely hidden from the herd and could quietly feed multiple stakes winner Summer Swing, the one gelding in the big pond field who gets grain. He tucked in, and they watched the rest of the herd.
The weather had been dry, and the pond was largely mud, but a chestnut called Sunapee was attracted to it anyway, pawing and stamping until mud spattered his chest and neck. Stevie wandered over to stand beside him. Sunapee kept pawing.
“Look at Stevie,” said Dalton, who quickly read the horse’s mind. “ ‘Get out. I want to be in there.’ ”
Laird Angus, called Ripley, approached, standing up a slight incline, regarding the other two.
“Look at Ripley,” said Lee. “He’s like, ‘You all need to move.’”
"Stevie’s like, ‘Don’t touch me. We’re not friends. Can’t you see we’re doing something?’ ” said Dalton.
“Ripley’s going to make a move,” said Lee. “I guarantee it.”
The 23-year-old Ripley made a move, edging closer to the other two. They shifted away from the mud puddle.
“Wow, Ripley,” said Dalton, “you really went all the way down there to say no?”
If the managers ever sense real danger in horses’ interactions, they intervene. When hay is out, for example, they monitor who’s on which bale, and if horses begin to fight over certain bales. For the most part, they work things out.
“They have to establish a friend group,” Dalton said. “It’s harsh for us to see when they correct each other, but to the horses that’s normal talking. That’s them getting a chance to speak horse with other horses.”
Both believe that the farm horses are content in their herds, and not needing to work or be brought into a stall.
“They have independence, and it makes a world of difference,” said Lee. “These guys are a joy to handle compared to any other horse jobs I’ve ever had,”
Today, things are quiet. The horses are healthy and enjoying the sunshine. But given the age and, sometimes, pre-existing conditions of the population they tend, Dalton and Lee often face tough days. They notice which horses struggle to stand, or to lie down, and start worrying. Questions are always there. What if they were to fall down and couldn’t get back up? And the day that they fall it’s snowing, or sleeting? They work with veterinarians to try to end horses’ lives before those days.
“Better a month early than a day late,” Lee said. “It’s incredibly taxing emotionally.”
She keeps a scrapbook to remember the ones who die, but also knows it’s part of the job.
“Unfortunately, you get better at being stronger for them,” Dalton said. “We try not to cry or act like anything’s wrong until they’re completely under and no longer conscious. Then we can let it out. But until then we try to be as normal as possible. It’s just a regular day. So they’re not suspicious of anything.”
Dalton and Lee think often about their roles working at a rescue in the Thoroughbred aftercare world, something that not everyone understands. They wish they had more win pictures. It can be difficult to see aged horses’ Jockey Club numbers vanish as they age.
In a larger, not breed-specific sense, she said, “People underestimate how many horses do have to be put down because they can’t even make it to the rescues. The more we’ve worked here the more we know some people would be horrified to hear how bad it is for horses that slip out of caring hands. It happens so quickly,” said Dalton. “It’s so easy for a horse to slip into neglect, and more people need to be talking about it.”
The TRF position is a job of course, but there’s much more to it.
“I genuinely love these horses,” said Lee. “The only sad part is that when you work with [younger horses] you dream about what they could do. With these horses, you dream about what they could have been.”
Every horse at Front Royal is what they are. And OK with it.
The sun climbed higher in the sky. In the Big Pond field, Savealife, a 24-year-old California-bred gelding whose five starts came at Rockingham Park and Suffolk Downs, stretched his head over the fence, investigating a visitor. Behind him, several horses walked in a nose-to-tail procession toward the shade trees. Ripley stood on a small rise, surveying the scene. Then he joined the line, seeming to hustle the others along, his tail swishing easily back and forth.