by Allison Conte
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your involvement in harness racing and New Vocations.
I am a sixth generation harness horse person. My parents train and race horses for a living and I was in the barn just a few days after I was born. My Dad is Charley Morgan who still trains a stable of horses in Greenville, OH. My Grandfather, Ed Morgan Sr., was one of the leading drivers in the country back in the 50’s and early 60’s. My cousin is national leading driver Tony Morgan who has 14,952 lifetime wins (as of 1-21-15) and was the leading dash driver in North America from 1995-1997 and 2005-2008. I was working for my parents stable at a young age, racing primarily in OH, MI and IN, as well as fairs and did so until I left for college.
My mother is Dot Morgan, who started New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program in 1992. I have always had a passion for the horses and although I don’t own any racehorses now, I felt that the way I could give back to the sport I love was to help the horses that made it all possible. These horses literally raised and provided jobs for my family for many generations, so in 2004 when I was asked to start helping my mom with the Standardbred side of New Vocations, I was thrilled to do so.
I love the breed and having a strong foundation with harness racing as well as showing horses for many years, it was a natural fit to start boarding some retired Standardbreds at my then farm in Saline, Michigan. I placed on average 45 retired Standardbreds a year from 2004-2009 from our farm in Michigan. My family made the decision to move back to Ohio in early 2010 and I started working out of our Marysville, Ohio office where New Vocations takes in all the applications and updates as well as boards 20 horses.
Being back in Ohio opened the door for me to work more closely with my Mom, Dot and Sister, Anna Ford, who is the Thoroughbred Program Director for New Vocations. In 2012 we saw the need to help more horses and made some changes with how we ran the Standardbred side of the program. In January of 2013 we opened the Laurelville, OH facility with trainer Jennifer Daniels and we have 25 stalls there.
As racing’s changed the past few years, we sadly had to close our Michigan facility, but have hopes of opening a new location wherever there may be a need and funding. We currently have over 20 retired Standardbreds at all times as well as a rehab farm specifically for horses coming in that are not ready to be riding horses right away.
What is a ‘normal’ day like at New Vocations?
It is hard to describe a typical day at New Vocations as it is always changing. Every week I am talking with trainers and owners who have horses that are retiring from the track and wanting them to come into the program. I work daily with Jennifer Daniels to discuss each horse at length, their training process, soundness problems, photos, videos, vet, farrier, and any other issues around our horses.
We promote our available horses on our website and social media and which need updated and changed every day, so that has to be done all the time. I work closely with Dot on fundraising projects, press releases as well as our fundraising events like the Little Brown Jug Party and our annual Stallion auction. I also work on multiple projects with our staff to raise awareness of our mission. We are a charity, so all of our funds have to be raised to do the work we do with the horses. We are involved with numerous trade shows like Equine Affaire to The Rolex and at industry events like the Blooded Horse Sale, Harrisburg Sale, The Little Brown Jug and many race track events like Back To The Track and other events held at tracks all over the country. We have a great clothing line that we sell at all of these events and it is a wonderful way to get our message out about what we do.
On the barn side of things, horses are being ridden and evaluated daily. They all get turned out and brought in every day. Many days we have appointments showing horses to potential adopters. Once horses are adopted, we have to arrange the hauling, health papers etc. so the horse can get to their new home. On any given day we usually have horses arriving and or leaving. We also do professional photos and videos, so at least twice a month our team are out doing pictures.
We try to keep the same schedule every day as the horses are used to their routines, but we are also introducing them to being turned out with a buddy and learn what it means to stay outside for majority of the day, however, the routine is something they are used to and they settle in very well with what is familiar to them. We also talk to potential adopters every day via the phone and email. Thankfully we have a great team that helps from social media, updates, promotion, training and to bounce ideas off of. New Vocations is a team effort all the way.
Tell me how New Vocations is different from other groups.
New Vocations is going into our 23rd year this year of standing in the gap for noncompetitive racehorses coming off the track and placing them into approved and monitored homes. We rehab, retrain and rehome over 350 retired race horses a year, with 129 of them being Standardbreds.
We feel by transitioning these horses to riding horses gives them a skill and they are ready to be riding horses for their new owners as well as driving horses. We also do a lot of educating as we educate the racing industry about the importance of aftercare. We are educating the equestrian community about the versatility of Standardbreds and we educate the horses themselves in preparation for their new careers.
We also educate our adopters about harness racing as many want to learn what their horses used to do and I think this is so great to see and can gain new fans and potentially owners or give a young equestrian a look at what goes on in a racing stable and or the chance to jog a horse. It is really win-win for us all.
Sometimes people do not like the fact that we do both breeds, however both breeds have may retired horses coming off the track just as the humane society will take dogs and cats, we are no different. We do keep our farms, training and programs separate but we are all in the end trying to help as many racehorses as we can and get them into approved homes, which has made us the leading racehorse adoption program in the United States.
When do you feel most fulfilled?
I love seeing these horses come from the track and continue to shine in their next career as riding horses. When each one gets a new home it is a testament to the breed as well as harness racing because they have so much to offer that many breeds cannot. The daily hands on training they get at the track makes them wonderful family horses, show, trail, parade, police, driving horses and the list goes on.
They are first of all very well trained athletes which makes them very versatile horses, but their sturdy quiet demeanor makes them very appealing to the average horse owner. I also love seeing the great people that make up our sport also see the value in our retired horses and get very excited to see a horse they knew on the track that is now doing something new. This is always very inspiring.
How is retraining Standardbreds as riding horses different than retraining Thoroughbreds?
Retraining the Standardbred is quite a bit different than retraining a Thoroughbred for many reasons. The two breeds are polar opposites to begin with. Thoroughbreds are more sensitive to everything most of the time and are taught to run. Standardbreds are stronger and have more bone. They race on a hard surface so can withstand the effects of racing and it is why they can race every week and a Thoroughbred only races once a month.
A Standardbred has had thousands of miles in harness training which gets them acclimated to so many outside things like tractors, crowds, noises on top of daily hands on care so to transition them to a saddle is fairly easy. They just need to get used to the idea of a person on their back and that usually takes a few rides. They are very accepting and quick learners. In a short amount of time they can be taught to walk, trot, pace, rack and canter under saddle. They really just need to learn the aids a rider is asking on their back and once they have a firm grasp of what is expected most just really excel to riding in short amount of time.
Very few Thoroughbreds can be raced and then brought to the show arena in a few short months. I have seen many of our horses do this and do it well. Another huge difference is with a Standardbred you get a horse you can ride and drive!
What makes the Standardbred breed special to you?
It is said all the time and is very true for me, that it is in your blood and you can’t get away from it. I also feel it is important for our daughters to understand both racing and riding the Standardbreds and we love going to the races all over the United States as a family.
Clara who is 11 years old and Aviana who is 7 years old ride and drive. Clara has attended the HHYF driving camp at Scioto Downs, driven on the Delaware County Fair track and both have shown Special Report ($1.5 million earner, now retired) at Standardbred shows in Ohio. I want both of my girls to also love this breed and understand what their family has literally done for many generations. I also love that they can do just about everything on their own with these horses by themselves. They have learned to harness, do up legs, get on, lead, bath, hold for the farrier and vet. The horses themselves are just amazing teachers for them.
You’ve told me you try to avoid the term ‘rescue,’ why is that?
I always feel we are educating our adopters on what we do. On our Facebook page we get comments thanking us for “rescuing” these horses. I know the general horse public has no idea about horse racing and their information is very jaded. All of us at New Vocations feel it is important to educate these people why racing is not bad and we very rarely are rescuing a horse from a bad situation.
We take horses that are coming directly from the tracks so they are not coming from a sale or auction lot, which is an entirely different case. These horses are horses someone paid a lot of money for as a yearling or two year old and then thousands of dollars in training. The horses have had the best feed, vet care, training, and over all care possible and they are coming to us from professional stables that love what they do and are successful at what they do.
With that being said, we are providing a service for the owner who may not have a farm to retire the horse to but wants to see their horse go on to a second career. Many love to see what their former racehorse is doing now as a riding horse. Bottom line is we are getting these horses from the tracks and they have been well cared for their entire lives, therefore we are not rescuing them from a bad situation, but rather teaching them a new skill to go on and do something else.
What would you like to see change about the way that people and the ‘mainstream’ world view horse racing?
I think some people have a negative perception of the horse business because they really have never been around it and have no first-hand knowledge of what goes on at the track and have only heard negative stories of racehorses suffering at the track, breaking down etc. I think racing in general needs to work hard to portray all the positives of the sport.
As I mentioned earlier, our family goes to the track together. This is something we can do together and harness racing is made up of families running a business and some, like mine, have done this for years. Not many sports offer that perk. So again I think education is the key here. I think if more people can get to the track or meet a Standardbred in person they can be hooked.
I applaud the tracks that offer events like “Back To The Track” or where horses are available for the public to see and pet at the track or at equine expos. I also feel that anyone can learn to drive a horse. You may not be able to ride, but you can sit in the cart and drive one. Not everyone can play football, soccer, gymnastics, or be a runner, but anyone can sit behind a horse. I think if we can give more people the experience, they will love it. I feel New Vocations gives each adopter a chance to do just that and that is own a racehorse and see how great these horses are.
Once they have a horse, so many are interested to learn what their retired horse used to do. They learn to look up pedigrees, maybe visit the breeding farm where the horse was born, go to their local track, meet trainers and drivers and if they want, they could go to any of the driving schools put on by the USTA and HHYF. In addition many states offer Standardbred specific shows which are another great way to get people involved and compete against their own breed. This opens many new doors and allows people to get hands on experience.