The professional careers of elite athletes might seem like a fantasy trip for many of us mere mortals but there can be a down side after the cheering stops and they try to assimilate to regular life. One statement I recall said that pro athletes die twice, the first coming when they retire.

In some ways, the lives of professional athletes and race horses run a parallel course. Racehorses are taken away from their mothers at a young age and therefore have little time to socialize with other horses. After being trained for competition at very young ages, both racehorses and athletes are used to being pampered during their competitive careers, making the transition to civilian more difficult.

The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation estimates that at least 3,000 racehorses are retired each year, usually by age 6 if not younger. Once their racing careers ended, we had assumed that they simply retired to greener pastures, and used for breeding.

In reality, about two out of every three thoroughbreds that come off the track - even those that are sound and healthy - are euthanized, abandoned or slaughtered. According to the USDA, the export of horses for slaughter tallied about 150,000 in 2006 alone. Top importers of the meat include Canada, Mexico, Japan and European nations.

Bob Nevins, a medevac pilot for the 101st Airborne who was wounded in Vietnam, saw the parallel between retiring racehorses and returning veterans, since both must deal with a variety of physical and emotional scars. When it comes to veterans, the amputated limbs may be visible, but the invisible wounds are not.

In November 2011, Nevins invited war veterans for a three-day program that unites thoroughbreds with war veterans. The event, which was held near the race track in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., proved how the powerful healing capacity of horses can help vets learn to feel and communicate again.

Now, 28 month later the program is still going strong as it helps both the veterans and thoroughbreds begin a new chapter of life together.

By Jim Zbick

editor@tnonline.com