Gina Schick has developed a busy lifestyle and business retraining racehorses for a new life off the track. The dedicated horsewoman has hundreds of thoroughbreds coming through her gates at Event Stars in the Waikato each year, preparing and placing them into new homes around the country.
Years ago, during a dinner in Hong Kong, one of the world’s leading jockeys said to me matter-of-factly, “many people think racehorses are like casino chips.”
It was an appalling statement loaded with harsh reality. He bluntly stated that to many owners, the horse was merely considered a means to a financial end, and any respectful connection with the animal was lost in the mad scramble to be first past the post.
This statement we know is untrue to almost all who live and breathe a career with these incredible animals, but confronting in its perceived reality to the mainstream masses.
Wind forward to 2019 and this dangerous perception is being forced to change. Focus on the welfare of the horse, especially after its racing career, is at an all-time high.
Racing jurisdictions such as Australia and Hong Kong are leading the way when it comes to after-care, and there are incredibly passionate and well credentialed horse men and women all over the world contributing to the process.
In New Zealand, one of those people is former trackwork rider Gina Schick. Married to Windsor Park Stud’s Rodney Schick, Gina is a trailblazer when it comes to the rehoming of racehorses.
During the past decade she’s established herself as the number one go-to for racing stables throughout the country and has helped place thousands of retired thoroughbreds into happy new homes through her ‘Event Stars’ operation. It’s a bustling business with transport trucks arriving almost daily at her property delivering horses on their journeys toward meaningful lives beyond the racetrack.
“I never look for horses, they find me. I am probably now bordering on turning them away," said Gina.
On average Gina accommodates up to 30 horses on her 10-acre farm wedged in the heart of the Waikato. From 8am - 4.30pm, five days a week, it’s non-stop action with a team of skilled riders working anywhere up to 18 horses daily.
“I love going to work. When we have a horse come off the truck it’s like a Christmas present and unwrapping it and finding what it’s good at.”
During childhood she worked with Kaimanawa ponies, the wild horses that roam New Zealand. She broke in, educated and sold them on to help fund her university education. There’s little doubt that hard start working with horses right from scratch equipped her with the necessary skills for what she does so well today.
Working with thoroughbreds was something that all came about by chance for this gifted horsewoman.
“I found a newspaper ad for a 2-year-old hack, free to good home. He was a Faltaat horse that failed in the wind. He was not long gelded and absolutely stunning. I got him and he went on to be a 3-star eventer and in fact one of the better eventers in the country.”
That horse taught her one of the greatest lessons she could ever learn.
“It was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me. I had no idea about wind issues and it taught me not to put horses by the wayside because they have something wrong on the track.”
It was this experience of unearthing and helping develop a future star of the equestrian world that inspired her to focus on working with more off-the-track thoroughbreds.
“I thought, well, if they are out there and needing homes and already broken-in they are a bit easier than doing kids ponies,” she said.
Many top-line equestrian horses have since gone through Gina’s system at Event Stars with one ending up in the hands of one of New Zealand’s most revered equestrians, Olympic rider Tim Price.
Only a handful ever make it to elite level with the majority being placed in loving homes with grassroots level riders.
“My favourite part of the job is when I get messages from people saying they thought they never would own a thoroughbred and proving they can be good sensible horses with the right retraining.”
Quite literally, graduates of Event Stars must jump through various hoops before being placed into new homes.
“We far prefer a horse that has raced and been through a system and done mileage and proved they have a good enough brain to be in racing. A good horse is a good horse and an athlete is an athlete.
“There is still the impression that people want a horse that is unraced. For us, I would always take a horse that has raced and been sound enough and proven it has got the mileage in its legs.
“They have had the stress on their bodies to see if they can stand up to it. If they can stand up to racing, they can stand up to most things,” she said.
Horses are kept outdoors in yards and paddocks and go through a two-week basic education program.
“From the day they arrive it will be jumping and out on the roads and down the farm the next day. It’s a baptism of fire to see how they cope. As a general rule they are pretty amazing really.
“You would be surprised how well they cope. We always laugh as the girls are forever falling off the cross-bred ponies and rarely coming off the thoroughbreds. They are pretty sensible and intelligent animals and I think they thrive on the challenge.”
The key to their adaptability is ensuring that sensible horse management practices are adopted.
“We give them plenty of fibre and keep them on a sweet mix. They are paddocked in twos and threes so they have company, and that helps them settle well.”
Beyond that, the rest is up to the individual horse and its natural ability.
“We try to figure out what they will be good at. Some we try to aim for a competition career or plenty that will be a nice happy low-level hack.
“We will tailor what we do by putting some over bigger fences and cross-country schooling and otters that seem like they will be easy we give life experience to and take them to the beach and find them a good home.”
Five years ago, Gina’s talents were recognised by the Hong Kong Jockey Club and she now has an annual contract to re-home up to 50 horses from their racing system.
“It’s a big change for them. A lot I will turn out for two months as downtime for their bodies and brains. I’m lucky enough to do that because of the nature of my contract with the HKJC.”
After coming from such an institutionalised and congested racing environment it can be a shock to the system when Hong Kong horses arrive in the lush green Waikato.
“It’s a huge change for them and credit to how quickly they adapt. It’s funny when they see sheep coming towards them, it can be a bit of fun when you are on top.”
Gina believes there are also a lot of misconceptions about Hong Kong horses.
“I get a full report on each horse and a lot of the time it will say they are quite aggressive in the stable or highly strung and the next thing the girls are riding them bareback and riding them in the sea. They are different horses in this environment.”
Outside of her arrangement with the HKJC Gina works mainly with NZ stock and says there are certain stallions from the region that consistently produce quality performance horses.
“Anything with Grosvenor in its pedigree is phenomenal. The Rip Van Winkles can jump - but Rod wouldn’t want me to say that,” she laughed.
“The Guillotines are my favourite. I have had some super eventers by him that are doing well.”
She’s also managed the transition into equestrian for some of NZ’s highest profile racehorses of recent times including the likes of Sangster and Military Move.
By her own admission she’s a softy when it comes to accepting all types of retired racehorses at Event Stars.
“I tend to not say no. Sound and sane are my only criteria. I wouldn't want to rehome a horse that I wouldn’t buy. Rarely we get one that we wouldn't rehome. They’re good with us and living out and using their brain in a different way.”
If, for whatever reason they do not work out in their new home, Gina is happy to take them back.
“If it doesn't work out, we give them their money back. I would rather that than see them get flicked from home to home.”
With so many success stories Event Stars is only getting bigger. Gina’s husband Rodney is now sending the odd racehorse her way when they need to draw some improvement from them on the track.
“We are doing a little bit of schooling of a few racehorses as a change for them. Kingsguard from Windsor Park has been here and we give older racehorses some variety in their work over winter.”
A mother of three children all under the age of 10, life is hectic for Gina, and Rodney is often there to lend a hand.
"He’s very supportive and he’s the one that said to me you have got to do this and do it properly. I'm always calling on him to pull off a sprung shoe or he will go down early and load up or muck yards out for me. He’s a good side-kick.
“The only problem is, he’s always finding me more horses. I never answer my phone so everyone starts to ring him,” said Gina.
Whilst the phone might run off the hook, the Schicks will always have a safe place for a horse at Event Stars. - Jo McKinnon, TDN AUSNZ