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Race Horse Training
There is nothing more exciting than watching horses racing around the track. When you watch a horserace, you hear the thundering sound of hooves and loud cries of cheer. You feel the breeze as the horses run past and reach the final turn of the track. There is nothing like seeing these equine athletes perform – to see what their years of training have amounted to.
Training a horse is not an easy process. It takes careful work to prepare a horse for a race, especially for races like the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks where the thoroughbreds are only three years of age. This means that these horses only have a year – or less – of racing under their belt.
So how do trainers get a horse ready to race at such a high caliber? Read on to find out!
About Race Horse Training
Today, there are many training techniques and philosophies behind these techniques that are used to raise race horses. But in general, the goal of training is to train a horse to accept a human rider and to perform optimally on the track.
When it comes to training, the safety of the horse and the human handlers around it is the main concern. Horses are much stronger than humans, so the horses have to be taught not to harm people.
Aside from their physical abilities, horses are ideal for racing because they have inborn fight or flight instincts that can be adapted to human needs. This means that horses are taught to rely on humans to determine whether or not they should “fight” or choose “flight”. The horse will, therefore, rely on human command, instead of reacting by instinct alone.
Stages of Horse Race Training
As mentioned earlier, there are different methods of horse training, and most trainers keep these techniques as highly guarded secrets. But generally speaking, here are the typical stages of training a race horse.
Bringing Up a Race Horse
When it comes to training foals and younger horses, the first thing to do is get them accustomed to humans. Most young horses are handled right after birth, although some trainers prefer that horses be handled for the first time after they are weaned from their mothers.
Handling the horses very early is part of the idea of imprinting. This means that the foals have to be exposed to human touch and voice. By doing so, foals will learn early that humans do not harm them, and that humans should be respected.
By the end of their first year, foals are usually halter-broke. Halter-broke means that foals have learned to allow halters to be placed on their heads. At this age, foals also learn to be led by a human, walk and trot, to stop on command, and to stand tied.
During these young months, young horses will also learn how to stay calm (and perhaps to enjoy) grooming. They also need to accept veterinary attention and care. Particularly, they need to be calm when their hooves are being trimmed by a farrier.
It is rare – but not uncommon – to find some trainers who prefer leaving young horses completely unhandled until they are old enough to be ridden. These horses are usually between the age of two and four. This kind of training usually involves more risks, and requires a very skilled trainer who avoid injury.
After a young horse learns how to accept human interaction, ground tasks can be introduced as it matures while it is still too young to be ridden by a person. At a young age, a horse’s bones and joints are still quite soft and fragile. So to prevent any joint and cartilage injury, intense work has to wait until the horse is at least two years old.
Here are some examples of ground training techniques that horses are made to do at this stage:
- Desensitization (also called sacking out) – this is a process of introducing the horse to objects like blankets. The goal is to make the horse comfortable with things it will eventually use for a race.
- Free Longeing (also called lungeing and liberty work) – this is a process of working with a horse in a small pen. The handler usually has a long whip or rope and teaches the horse to respond to commands like trotting faster, slower, or to stop.
- Ground Driving (also called long-lining) – this is a process of teaching a horse to move forward with a human walking behind it.
- Bitting – this is the process of getting the horse accustomed to a bit and bridle. Sometime, side reins will also be added, so that horses can get used to the pressure of the bit.
Breaking In and Riding
Flat racehorses are typically broken-in when they are 18 months old. By this time, horses have already been well handled and are used to having a bit in the mouth. At this age, the horses are also expected to be already used to wearing rugs and being shod.
The term breaking-in refers to the act of getting a horse to accept a rider, or a harness and cart. This is also called “backing”, “mounting”, and sometimes simply “riding”. The end goal for this stage is to get the horse to calmly and quietly allow a rider on its back and respond to commands such as forward, speed up, stop, turn, and back up.
It depends on the trainer how a horse will be broken-in. Many flat racehorses are broken-in using traditional techniques, such as long reigning. Only when this process is complete will a horse be asked to accept a rider.
Once a horse can accept a rider, it will be taught to go out with other horses. In these group formations, an older, experienced horse leads. When horses are taught to canter in groups, a trainer is usually able to learn even more about the different characteristics of each horse.
Life in a Typical Racing Yard
If you are curious about raising and training a horse (maybe you have a few of your own), there here is a simple race horse training guide.
In many ways, a racing yard can be compared to a five-star hotel accommodation. The horses are well fed, and receive top class attention and care. Personnel make sure that all needs are taken care of, and any sign that something is bothering the horses is attended to.
However, the daily life in a racing yard adheres to strict schedules. From the very start of the morning, until the day ends, the racehorses in training have fixed routines.
Here is a typical daily routine for horses in training:
- At 5:00 AM, the first feeds are given by members of the staff.
- Between 6:00 AM to 12:00 noon, the horses will be exercised. An exercise session usually lasts an hour, or an hour and a half. An exercise regime will usually include fast galloping, steady trotting, and cantering. If training happens in a jumping yard, horses usually undertake loose schooling over jumps once or twice a week.
- At 12:30 PM, the horses will be given their second feed.
- From 3:30 PM to 5:30 PM, the horses are allowed to go out for a pick or grass, or go on a horse walker. They will also be groomed and checked for any injuries.
- At 8:30 PM, the horses will be checked and some may be given another feed.
What Do Racehorses Eat When Training?
As you have seen from the daily routine above, feeding is a very important part in training a horse. Most racehorses receive three to four feeds in a day. Their food is, of course, of high quality and adheres to a scientifically formulated racing diet.
The horses’ feed contains high levels of protein and starch. For high starch content, horses are fed cereals such as oats. Horses are also fed special cubes that are packed with vitamins, minerals and trace elements for optimal health.
Fibre is also a crucial part of a horse’s diet, because it promotes good digestive health. When needed, pre and probiotics will also be given to the horses to increase the efficiency of digestion, and to maintain a healthy stomach.
What Happens on Race Day?
On a day of a race, the routines of horses are usually different than what was mentioned above. Most trainers will aim to arrive at the racecourse at least three hours prior to the event. This will give the hose ample time to relax in the race course stables, and be fed with little high-fibre feed and water.
Horses will have to walk round in front of the stalls while their girths are checked. Then they go behind the stalls and load in a specific order. These moments are crucial for the horse. A jockey must do its best to keep the horse as relaxed as possible.
Once the race is over, the winner is usually taken into a “Dope Box” where a urine sample is taken to check for the presence of any prohibited substances.
After the race, horses will still have high levels of adrenaline in their bodies, so the trainer or handler has to walk them around so that they can settle down before travelling home.