When the Kentucky Derby comes around each May, public attention focuses on the glamour of Thoroughbred racing. But reports of abuse and performance-enhancing drugs also have people asking questions about how those horses are treated — and what happens to them after their racing days are over.
Horses are living creatures, after all, not disposable commodities for gambling and sport.
"If the industry wants to survive, it can no longer treat after-care as a charity that can or cannot be supported," Susanna Thomas said. "It's a sustainability issue that will not go away."
As director of the Maker's Mark Secretariat Center at the Kentucky Horse Park, Thomas works with a mostly volunteer staff to retrain about 40 retired racehorses each year for new careers as hunters, jumpers and pleasure riding horses.
Thoroughbreds have a reputation for being high-strung and hard to retrain. But Thomas said the problem is often not the horses, but people who lack the knowledge, skill and patience to help them make a difficult transition.
"It's sort of like taking a soldier who's been in heavy-duty combat in Iraq and putting him right into a job on Wall Street," She said. "He's going to want to dive under the table every time bells go off."
The center was created in 2004 in a partnership between the horse industry and the distillery, which raised more than $600,000 for it through the sale of special bourbon bottles.
Thomas became the center's director six years ago, bringing a diverse skill set and background to the job. Raised in New York City and Europe, she is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert K. Massie, a Lexington native, and Suzanne Massie, a Russian expert and presidential advisor who taught Ronald Reagan the phrase, "Trust but verify."
Thomas had worked in journalism and non-profits. She is married to James Thomas, who before retirement in 2005 spent 41 years restoring Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. She has a degree in comparative literature from Princeton and speaks several languages. "Now I speak Equus," she said.
Thomas has always been fascinated by the intellectual and spiritual relationship between people and horses.
"As a rider, I was never interested in chasing ribbons," she said. "I was interested in how can I understand this animal better and be in partnership."
She got a hint at her future when, as a child, she saw carriage horses being abused in Naples, Italy. Thomas told her parents that when she grew up she was going to come back and save them. "I didn't do that," she said. "But I save whatever horses I can here."
The center's 24-acre campus has a variety of facilities for teaching Thoroughbreds used to running lickety-split on flat dirt or turf to slow down and handle more varied terrain. There are hills, woods, a creek, a cross-country course, two specialty pens and a riding arena. A lot of time is spent getting horses to trust their new trainers and desensitizing them to noises and distractions.
"As a responsible trainer," Thomas said, "you have to figure out a way to make the right way easy and the wrong way hard and to build (a horse's) confidence so he'll understand it better."
When a horse is donated to the center for retraining and adoption, Thomas and her staff begin by assessing its physical and mental condition according to a system she developed.
"Every horse gets a horsenality assessment," Thomas said, which helps determine its best future role, the most effective retraining methods and what kind of new owner will be a good match. Thomas won't approve adoptions she thinks are a bad match.
The average horse spends two months at the center at a cost of about $2,000. Thomas keeps a "baby book" on each horse that includes its expense records. New owners are asked to cover those expenses as the price of adoption.
"The horse's job is just to cover its expenses," Thomas said, adding that the rest of the center's $300,000 annual budget comes from grants and donations.
"Every horse that comes through us can go on to be an ambassador for this breed at any level in a variety of disciplines," she said. "We're talking from Pony Club to the World Equestrian Games."