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Rehoming Is Where the Heart Is for Southern Belle Thoroughbreds

Courtesy of Katie Larsen

It was a banner 2023 for Southern Belle Thoroughbreds.

When Katie Larsen looks back on the year that was, she exhales briefly, perhaps a perfect encapsulation of the busy times that were for the matching service that pairs off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) who have competed at Woodbine or Fort Erie with new career and life opportunities away from the racetrack.

In all, Larsen, along with Chelsea Clouter, an exercise rider at Woodbine, and Natalie Frost, who represents Southern Belle at Fort Erie, found a home for every horse, all 156 of them, who came through their organization this year.

“There was a period, just over a month ago, where we were so overwhelmed,” she recalled. “I had 11 calls in one day from people wanting to find a good home for their horses. Chelsea went and took photos of all 11 horses that same day, and we had them all rehomed within two days. That was the most we had ever done. Being able to stay organized and find them the right homes—these horses weren’t going to go just anywhere. We do our due diligence to make sure they are going to the proper places.”

Another telling sign of the year Southern Belle experienced was, most appropriately, a sign that is prominently displayed at Angelstone Showgrounds in Erin, Ontario (about an hour’s drive northwest of Toronto).  

“They put up a banner for Southern Belle Thoroughbreds in their big show jumping ring,” started Larsen.

“They have an event for Thoroughbred-only horses. They are getting behind us. Before, all the horses in the ring were Warmbloods, $100,000 imported types. Now these Thoroughbreds are coming in and winning. People will tell me, ‘Thoroughbreds are making a comeback.’ I have been hearing that for over five years now. And they really are.”

That also means long hours, little rest, and a near-constant influx of emails, texts, and phone calls for Larsen and Co.

Despite the hurdles, challenges, or anything else that comes her way, Southern Belle is a labor of love for Larsen.

Every Thoroughbred, from stakes winners to maidens, allowance-level types, and lower-end claimers, who are provided to Southern Belle are treated as equals.

“You might think I would get tired of the feeling of seeing these horses find a new opportunity to live their best life, but I don’t, and I never will. The adrenaline rush, that feeling of comfort and happiness in knowing these horses will get to live a happy life is an amazing feeling and one that is hard to put into words.”

Larsen, who has longstanding connections to the equestrian and show jumping worlds, founded Southern Belle Thoroughbreds in June 2017.

It was an off-track horse named Mia Bella Amore who was the inspiration behind the creation of the organization.

“Mia Bella Amore was my first Thoroughbred and I was just very interested in where she came from,” said Larsen, who began her equestrian career at the pony ranks before competing at the Trillium level and ‘A’ circuit in the 1.10-metre jumper division.

“I ended up going to Fort Erie—my first time at a racetrack—and got in touch with her old trainer. That sort of opened my eyes to the backstretch and how alive it is, and all of those beautiful horses. I ended up getting my exercise rider license, started galloping and fell in love with it. This wasn’t an intent, to start rehoming racehorses, it started with one horse of a trainer who I was riding for.” 

It’s become a beloved career for Larsen, who worked in the financial industry for 10-plus years before changing pace.

2022 retiree Silent Thunder competing in the Hunter Ring at the Angelstone Silver Series. All images courtesy of Katie Larsen/Southern Belle.

Business has boomed since Southern Belle first got out of the gates six-plus years ago. In all, over 1,000 Thoroughbreds have been rehomed, including approximately 350 in 2022 and 2023 combined.

“The more owners that I work with—usually, the trainers tell the owners about us—truly appreciate and understand the need to find their horses a good home. Now, I have owners who are on their second or third horse with us, and they are very grateful. They love seeing the updates too.”

Southern Belle’s Facebook page regularly showcases those updates, photos accompanied by stories of horses and the new chapter in their lives.

Big Executive, a six-year-old roan son of Big Screen-Executive Affair, is a recent example.

“People send us updates. I like to post feel-good stories on our Facebook page. It was a long trailer ride for Big Executive to his new home. The people made a video of him when they brought him off the trailer and put him in the arena. He was bucking and he ran around for about 10 minutes. He would lie down and then get up and start bucking and running again. It’s like he knew that he landed in a good place. That’s the best feeling for me.”

As always, the goal of Southern Belle is to experience more of that same feeling.

“I try to send the trainers or owners, whoever I am dealing with, an update of the horse that they trusted us with. They appreciate that. The trainers spend the whole season with these horses and get them to the races. I know they all feel a duty in their hearts to make sure they have a good life. It’s hard for them to manage that process, so that’s why we are here.”

And that’s where she will stay.

“Now that I know what we can accomplish, there is no way I could ever walk away from it. Knowing that we can place this many horses, I could never turn my back on it, even if I was in another line of work, I would still do this for the rest of my life. We have found an efficient way to do it and there is more and more demand for what we do.”

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