Life of a racehorse
Racehorses have a busy life even before they reach the trainer’s yard as yearlings or in the case of National Hunt horses, three-year-olds.
Many foals will have travelled with their dam to the next appointment with a stallion within their first month, and probably seen more in their short lives than the average horse sees in a lifetime!
Thoroughbred racehorses can be sold as foals, yearlings, two-year-olds at a ‘Breeze Up’ sale or later as stores, or at the Horses-in-Training sales. Sometimes the breeder will send their horse straight to a trainer without ever going via the sale ring.
Breaking in and Riding Away
Flat racehorses are broken-in at around 18 months of age, having already been very well handled and used to having a bit in its mouth, as well as usually having been lunged and led out in hand. They will also be used to wearing rugs, being shod and generally examined by a variety of people.
The way in which a horse is broken-in will depend on the preferences of the individual trainer. Many horses are broken in using traditional methods such as long reining. Only when this stage is fully understood will the horse be asked to accept a rider.
Once the backing stage has been completed the racehorse will be ‘ridden away’ and taught to go out with other horses usually led by an older experienced horse. They may be taught to canter in groups upsides other horses, this way the different characteristics of each horse can be recognised. They are also asked to trot figures of eight and ride away from the other horses.
Once this vital process is completed the horses will be given a few quiet weeks over Christmas to relax and develop physically and mentally. Work starts again in January (with them now officially being two-year-olds) when they are trained quietly and allowed to come to themselves whilst being educated and taught how to quicken and gallop. They are usually ridden in long stirrups in walk, trot and canter going on a different rein (direction) each day to help the muscles to develop evenly.
Once the horses are at a reasonable level of fitness they may visit the main gallops which often rises in a gradual incline, helping to build muscle strength and cardio-vascular fitness. At first the horses will only hack at a steady canter then gradually increasing the speed until they are ready to do what is often called ‘sharp’ work. This involves jumping off and ‘breezing’ over 2 -3 furlongs (400-600m) which teaches the horse to ‘jump and run’ – something that the horse will be expected to do in a race.
Often this work is done with another horse alongside which teaches the horses to ‘race’ but at the same time they are taught to ‘settle’ and listen to the jockey on top rather than gallop blindly without any control of pace. When they are nearly ready to run the young horses will be taught to enter and jump out from the stalls.
General Riding Rules
- Racehorses are ridden differently from the average riding horse and once the initial breaking in period is completed very little time is spent ‘schooling’ the horse in a conventional way, the emphasis being on fitness and speed work.
- In general, racehorses hack to and from the gallops on a loose rein, with very little interference from the rider. They usually go out in a string and are used to following the horse in front.
- When going onto the gallops the rider takes a contact with the horse’s mouth and leans forward slightly, standing up in the stirrups, which indicates to the horse to move off in canter. The rider ‘bridges’ the reins giving him a secure hold and allows the horse to ‘lean’ against the rider’s hand.
- If the rider ‘changes his hands’ in other words, changes his grip on the reins or shortens them, the horse will take this as a sign to go faster, hence it is unwise to ever ‘change your hands’ if you do not wish to go faster than you are already going.
Life in a Racing Yard
Racehorses live in the equivalent of five-star hotel accommodation. They are well fed, rugged up and receive top class care and attention. Daily life on a racing yard usually revolves around a fairly strict routine beginning at first light and ending after dark.
In most racing yards, horses will be looked after by the same lad or lass so that they can get to know them and any habits or idiosyncrasies that they might have.
Typical daily routine
5.00am – First feeds given by a key member of staff
6am to 12noon – Mucking out, and riding horses. Each horse will generally be exercised for 1 to 1½ hours. The trainer will oversee three or four ‘lots’ (strings of horses) a day, sometimes more.
12.30pm – Second feed
1.00pm to 3.30pm – Quiet time when the yard will ‘shut down’ so the horses can rest, and the lads have lunch and may also have a sleep; hard work and a good social life being integral to a life in a racing yard.
3.30pm to 5.30pm – Evening stables when the horses are skipped out, groomed and re-checked for injuries, inflammation etc. Some horses may go out for a pick of grass or go on the horse walker. In the summer those horses who have been turned out in small paddocks will come back in for the night.
8.30pm – Late night check and some horses may have another feed.
The weekly exercise regime in the peak of the season usually consists of fast gallop work twice a week, steady trotting and cantering the rest of the week, with Sunday often a rest/quiet day depending on the schedule of races planned for each horse.
In jumping yards the horses may undertake loose/ ridden schooling over jumps once or twice a week.
Feeding is a one of the most important parts of a horse’s training regime and most racehorses receive three to four feeds a day of a high quality scientifically formulated racing diet.
The feed will contain high levels of starch and protein balanced with vitamins and minerals to provide optimum performance. Fibre has long been recognised as being crucial to a horse’s digestive health and well being, however it is often difficult to get a fit horse in training to eat sufficient fibre in a day.
On a race day the routine is slightly different although the horses will always be fed at least one hour before they are due to travel.
When a racehorse travels to the races it will unload as soon as it arrives and go into a racecourse stable so don’t be surprised if your former racehorse doesn’t want to stand around in a horsebox or trailer all day at a show! You may have to practise short trips to start with until the horse understands that he is not off racing every time he goes in a horsebox.
Most trainers aim to arrive at the racecourse at least three hours before the race during which time the horse can relax in the racecourse stables and may be offered a small, high fibre feed and water.
Any food and water is removed at least one hour before the race when the horse is taken over from the racecourse stables to the ‘pre-parade ring’ and then saddled up in the ‘saddling boxes’. The horse will then be walked into the main parade ring where they will usually be surrounded by crowds of people and often other attractions such as brass bands, etc, so it is incredible that the horse manages to stay calm and get down to the start safely, and still have enough energy to run in a race.
At the start the horses will be expected to walk round in front of the stalls while girths are checked. Once the loading up begins the horses will walk round to the back of the stalls and load in a set order. It is often during this pre-race period when horses can ‘boil over’ and it is very important to try and keep them as relaxed as possible.
Once the race is over, the winner will usually go into the ‘dope box’ where a urine sample will be routinely taken to check for the presence of any prohibited substances and the horses will be washed off and walked around until they are dry and have stopped blowing. A horse will still have high levels of adrenaline running in its body and they require adequate time to settle down and relax before travelling home.
The next day the horse will be trotted up to check for soundness and most horses will have a couple of days off training and may be turned out or be on walking exercise.
Training winners is the name of the game but not all horses can be as good as others. For most racehorse owners, to win a race with their horse is a dream come true. Winning a race at Royal Ascot or Cheltenham may be the ultimate dream, but many horses may only be capable of winning a little race at a smaller racecourse.
The job of a racehorse trainer is to maximise each horse’s potential in a relatively short timeframe. In flat racing a trainer may only have two years in which to get the best from each horse from the age of two to three-years-old. This may seem unrealistic but if a horse has not shown any ability to win a race by the time it is three-years-old it unlikely that any owner can justify the cost of keeping it in training. Some racehorses have lengthy careers, this often being the case with National Hunt horses.
(Written by Vicky Smart, wife of racehorse trainer Bryan Smart and owner/rider of Differential and Chivola, RoR Show Series qualifiers. Photographs courtesy of Robins Farm Racing, James Davidson Photography, Bryan Smart, Newsells Park Stud and Trevor Jones)