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
A great post!! It is amazing the amount of time and effort put into training these racehorses. I have done research into the training of the Lipizzan Stallions as I have included them in my next book. It takes ten years or more to train them to do the performances everyone enjoys! I was raised around horses as my dad had them on the ranch but I wasn’t a very horsey person. We watched Ascot on TV this year for the first time. (Well I watched for the hats of course) It was most impressive.
Thanks Darlene. After talking to the trainers here, I understand how much time and effort it takes to train thoroughbreds to do what horses naturally do. Given this, I can believe that it takes years and years to train Lipizzaner stallions to perform what must surely be amazingly unnatural acts. And when it comes to horse people, I think you either are or aren’t. I’ve only known a few horse types, and they are were very passionate about their animals. ~James
I used to love westerns, but, I don’t think they’ve made a good one in years! And I hate remakes! It sure is quite the process to train those horses. A lot of time, work and of course – money!
Modern westerns, while much more realistic that the oldies, are sometimes a bit too realistic for me. I don’t need to see blood spraying from a gunshot wound to know that someone has been shot. And I still don’t understand why “Unforgiven” got an Oscar. ~James
First of all, aren’t they gorgeous?! The shiny coats, the muscles rippling underneath, the regal posture. I am a horse person – always dreamed of owning one, rode as a child, and learned to take care of them – but I have never raced or been part of that horse world. Have you read Seabiscuit? If not, please do – it’s so good!
Lexie, it’s funny that just about every horse we saw had a shiny coat, and of course, well developed muscles – and they were gorgeous. On our tour, we visited the equine therapy pool, where the horses swim for therapy and exercise. I shot a great video which will probably end up in this series. The pool manager said that trainers use the pool a lot at this time of year to get the baby fat off the yearlings so they look buff at the annual auction. Also, I have read Seabiscuit, and in fact, I recently bought a used copy to read it again. ~James
I am a sports fan, so I remember when Sports Illustrated named Triple Crown winner, Secretariat, their ’73 Athlete of the Year. Then Seattle Slew won the ’77 Triple Crown. Being from Seattle, I could not help but get swept up in the hometown pride wave of admiration. It is interesting how a horse’s name can make such a difference.
This is a fun and informative post. Thanks for sharing the experience.
Mike, my brother-in-law worked in TV here in Lexington some years ago, and wangled a private visit with Secretariat and his trainer. To this day, he has a hair from Secretariat’s tale taped to his computer monitor for good luck. I suggested that he keep it in safekeeping for his great-great-great-great grandchildren. Cloning may be successful by then and they can re-create a stellar thoroughbred horse. 🙂 ~James
2.1 million dollars? Almost hard to imagine. I too have had the image of riders hanging on for dear life in the ‘breaking’ of a horse. Oh the influence of old movies. 🙂
Sue, 2.1 million is particularly amazing since this is a totally untried horse. Good genes don’t always equal good performance. BTW, these horses are lots easier to “break” than wild mustangs. From day one, these foals are coddled and cared for by their owners, so they are accustomed to being around people. ~James
Those horses are beautiful as some of the cow ponies from the old westerns were.
We still watch western movies on T.C.M and the ones from the late 30th are fun to watch especially the fights.
Joyce, these old westerns are comical in their simplicity. When I see reruns of Bonanza the sets are so obviously fake that it’s funny. And in those days, if you got shot, you just fell down with no blood to deal with. Not like today, that’s for sure. Love, JH
I found this post so very interesting. When we were in KY my highlight was to have someone who worked at the track take me by the hand over to the winning jockey and get my photo taken with him. I felt like a giddy kid!
I know what you mean LuAnn. I was trackside at Keeneland last year and got a great photo of a ticked-off Calvin Burrell, three-time Derby winner, whose horse had just run dead last in a field of 11. Even a good jockey can’t rescue a mediocre horse. ~James
Thanks James & Terri, that was a great post. You really have to admire those lovely creatures.
Leslie, thoroughbred horses are notoriously temperamental and injury prone. But the one thing they do well, they do REALLY well. ~James
They are so beautiful.
Hi-yo Silver Away! Very interesting post James and Terri. Thank you. I’ve driven through the area doing genealogical research and seen the beautiful horse ranches (and they are gorgeous) but never stopped. If I get back that way, I’ll be sure to include a stop at The Thoroughbred Center.
Curt, the horse business, particularly at this level, is a world unto its own, and that’s one reason I find it so fascinating. Also, it’s a sport where the longshot can, and often does, win. One of the trainers said it this way: “Owners are all optimists. They’re only one horse away from the big one. ” ~James
Laughing. I like that kind of optimism, James. Of course its a bit dangerous if you are gambling.
We’ve never been to Kentucky but you can bet when we visit the Bluegrass Region that the Thoroughbred Center will be at the top of our list of places to visit. It’s amazing to think of the thousands of hours, expertise, training and money that go in to the “sport of kings.” The horses are truly the stars and magnificent but kudos to the star makers too! Anita
Anita, I’ve never spent much time around horses, but after my recent experiences here, I can say that “magnificent” is the perfect word. They’re animal athletes and with their selective breeding, most of them are beautiful as well. Their shimmering coats and incredibly developed musculature make them sculptures in motion. ~James
Thanks Terri and James! I had goose-bumps reading and drooling over your photos. When I worked at the race track in Trinidad (much more primitive and rustic) I loved working with the babies best of all. They were wobbly going down the track and so easily scared but the good ones were honest and had tremendous heart. Loving this series!! Your shots really bring it alive.
Martha, you more than anyone, can appreciate the unruly yearling I mentioned hop/skipping down the track sideways. The jockey was bouncing around (which jockeys never do) and trying his best to get the horse pointed in the right direction. It was funny for onlookers, but the jock was deadly serious. As you know, horses are a labor of love, and what a pleasure it must be when it works. ~James
Wow – that was really interesting! I know virtually nothing about horses. They’re big, and kind of scary to me … but the art and science of training horses is fascinating! Of one thing I’m sure – there’s a LOT of money involved!!
Joanne, like you, I knew very little about horses. My grandparents were all farmers and were more of the muley rather than horsey set. Still, I find the thoroughbred business fascinating. And for every American Pharaoh, there are thousands of hay burners that never pay their way. But there’s nothing like an afternoon drinking a few cold ones, betting on long shots, and throwing money away at the track. ~James
I’ve only been to the track a couple of times, but I had a blast each time. I could get a lot of entertainment value out of a $2 bet 🙂
What a great post! You magically transported me out of Ecuador and zapped me into the equestrian world. I was one of four girls in my family, and ‘later’ people might ask, ‘Were you the one who was always on the horse?’ Yes, yes, but my natural preference was to ride alone in the woods/countryside, but the competitve side enjoyed the weekend shows with barrel racing, pole bending, etc. Thanks for transporting me back, and for teaching me things I’d never known about thoroughbreds.
Those horses, btw, are gorgeous! Great photos!
Thanks Lisa. It’s great to hear from you. I hope that things are going well for you in Ecuador. This chance to learn a bit about thoroughbred horses and racing has been a real pleasure for us. There are 450 horse farms surrounding Lexington, so there are lots of opportunities to see wonderful farms and lots of beautiful horses. It’s very big business here. BTW, have you fully recovered from your bout with dengue/chikungunya? ~James
Hi again, and no, the mosquito-vector viruses have been quite mean, and i often say that ‘chikungunya is an evil virus.’ over a year later, and my hands are swollen and hurt every morning for the first hour or so… it’s like i have clubs for hands, and another friend in nicaragua (and her husband) said they have the same problems. they are now suffering with zika…
my little community of ‘jama’ was one of the areas hit hard by the earthquake, though the zika has hit there as well as bird flu,… others have dengue, and many of my friends are still lving in tents.. though torn w/concern for them, i’m happy staying in the cloud forest and out of the epidemic areas. my immune system is stil shot, and i have good days and not-so-good ones, but bsically i’m grateful to be more healthy than ill.
my biggest problem aside from teh hand pain – is fatigue, and i listen and rest when my body demands ‘slow down.’
i hope that’s the last bout with mosquito viruses forEVER! thanks, lisa
Lisa, I’m so sorry to hear that you are still suffering from these nasty viruses. And I hope that your hand problems aren’t affecting your art. I wonder what it is with these mosquito-born viruses that make them so long lasting. Both times that I had dengue, fatigue was the longest-term side effect that I had to deal with. Also, I’ve never had malaria (thank God), but I understand that once you have it the side effects can re-occur throughout your life. I was wondering if your area was badly hit by the earthquakes and I’m sorry to hear that it was. At least you have a temporary respite in the cloud forest. Take care, be well and hang in there. ~James
Such gorgeous animals, James. I’ve never had anything to do with horses, but I’ve always admired those jockeys and how they manage to stay on. 🙂
Sylvia, I’m not sure how they keep these horses’ coat so shiny, but with the shiny coats and rippling muscles, they are sculptures in motion. And the jockeys have to be just as strong to stay on board when they run. ~James
You always teach me something when you post, and this time I now know what a “gate card” is. Training racehorses is fascinating stuff, and you’re right there asking the right questions, taking the right pics, and showing us how it’s done — rightly.
Thanks Rusha. This was a fun post to write. I hadn’t realized it until our visit, but a gate card is a very big deal. It seems that in every horse race that I see there’s always at least one stubborn, skittish horse that doesn’t want to enter the gate. Meanwhile, the rest of the field is standing around, getting nervous, and these can be the things that win or lose races. So if I owned a horse, I’d want everyone else’s horse to behave, which is what they learn at the Thoroughbred Center. ~James
Hmmm. This is kinda like the start of school! We want every kid to behave . . . at least at the starting gate!