Like most boys of my generation, I grew up on a steady diet of cowboy westerns. The Duke was my favorite of course, but honestly, I wasn’t that particular. There was always the customary black-hat vs. white-hat gun fight, and if I was lucky, a bronc-bustin’ scene.
Eventually it dawned on me that these mini-rodeos accomplished one of two things: proving what a tough stud the main character was, or humiliating some greenhorn who wasn’t nearly as rugged as he thought.
I haven’t seen any old westerns in a while, so I hadn’t thought much about breaking and training horses until a recent trip to The Thoroughbred Center, in the heart of Kentucky’s Bluegrass and blue-blood horse country just outside Lexington. Training high-dollar thoroughbred race horses is their raison d’être, and my hope was to discover exactly how they pulled this off.
Greenhorn that I am, I had the yeehaw image of some hombre hanging on for dear life while a rambunctious, wild-eyed colt tried to snap his spine. But on the opposite side of the imaginary corral stood the elegant, majestic colt that sold for a jaw-dropping $2.1 million at last year’s Keeneland Yearling Sale. A horsey type I’m not, but even I know that no sane person is going to spend this kind of money on a top-shelf horse and then subject him (or her) to a wild-mustang training program. So just how is it done?
I learned that training a racehorse is really a two-step process. First it must learn how to be a horse for riding, and then a horse for racing.
In the initial part of its training the green yearling must get accustomed to being handled and wearing tack: the feel of the bit in its mouth, the saddle, and eventually the added weight of a rider. This type of training is old news for the horse-riding hobbyists out there, but the next step is distinctly in the realm of racing.
Horse races begin with a loud, clanging bell at the starting gate, so yearlings must learn how to enter, stand quietly, and then break cleanly from the gate. The Training Center has a small practice gate, and before being allowed to race, each horse must earn its “gate card.” Earning the right to race requires three successful gate starts, with no shenanigans, under the eyes of a track stewart. A gate card is crucial because no matter how much a yearling costs, no gate card, no racing.
After the gate and the break, comes the running. All horses know how to run of course, but what they must learn is how to run with a jockey on board and in charge. Each day between 6-10 a.m., the horses are out on the track with an exercise rider or jockey for routine jogs or gallops. The distance and speed of the workout is determined by the trainer, and when the horse gets to a fast gallop, it’s called a “breeze.”
Our small group hugged the rail to watch morning workouts, but honestly, before my visit to the training center my uninformed opinion was there were good horses and the also-rans. But standing trackside, when a thousand pounds of horse thunders by, nostrils flared, and snorting with every breath, it was clear they were all athletes straining for perfection, and I was lucky to be a witness.
On a normal training day, the track buzzes with all classes of horse flesh: untried beginners, advanced horses, and everything in between. This variety enabled our tour guide to explain techniques for all facets of the training process. Most of the ponies trotted by like the confident steeds they were, but the sight of a skittish colt, hopping and jerking down the track at a 45° angle, had us all laughing – the struggling jockey, not so much.
The slow-moving riders on the outside rail rode closely by the tour group, with a friendly hello for everyone. Our guide explained that the jockeys were, as always, being cordial, but they were also using these close encounters to help acclimate the horses to crowds.
Once the yearlings have learned the basic skills, and good manners, then they’re ready for the second phase of training, which is how to race. This requires a different type of training and a move to a new facility. According to HorseRacing.com:
“The trainer, with his staff of grooms and assistants, create and enact a rigid program of exercise, nutrition and day to day race preparation that culminates with the horse being as ready as possible on race day.”
There’s a difference of opinion in the industry about the contributions made by the jockey vs. trainer. But trainers like mega-star Bob Baffert are proof that a good trainer is critical to a horse’s success. He trained the 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh as well as horses that won four Kentucky Derbies, six Preakness Stakes, two Belmont Stakes, and two Kentucky Oaks. The man knows how to train a racehorse.
If your travels take you to the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky, don’t miss The Thoroughbred Center. It’s a great introduction to the sport and will give the horseless, horsed, and even blogging dilettantes a chance to understand a bit about what the UK’s London Times calls “The joy and pain of owning a racehorse.”
James & Terri
1. Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives via Wikimedia Commons
13. Maryland GovPics via Wikimedia Commons