Racehorse Training – What Is Involved?
Horse racing is many things: a sport, an industry, a hobby and a social outlet. Predominately, it can be broken into two sections: flat and jumps. We have taken a look at what is involved in getting a horse from the paddock to the winners’ post!
Flat racing is a form of horse racing which is run on a level racecourse. It is run over a predetermined distance which can vary from five furlongs up to three miles and is either a test of speed, stamina, or both.
In the majority of countries, flat racing is split into two distinctive bands, conditions races (group races and listed races) and handicaps.
When it comes to breeding and training a horse to race in a flat race there are steps involved previous to running at a track.
The breeder is the first point of call. Without the breeder – there simply would not be a racing industry! The male parent of a horse, a stallion, is commonly known as the sire and the female parent, the mare, is called the dam. Both are genetically important, as each parent provides half of the genetic makeup of the ensuing offspring, called a foal.
The breeder is the person who owns/looks after the mare(s) and chooses the stallion in which they wish the mare to be covered. In this day and age, there are thousands of stallions standing at different studs around the world, for a breeder to choose from, whether they own a hundred broodmares or just one!
It mainly depends on the breeder’s (owners) future plans and intentions for the foal, whether they go into prep for sale, or are hoping to keep the foal for their own use/put into training.
If the breeder plans on sending their foal to the sales, it is a decision that must be made early on. For example Doncaster sales in the UK take place in November, however, the entries must be in as early as April.
Preparation For Sale
Some horses are sold as foals and yearlings by spectators looking to make a quick profit the following year or two, however, National Hunt sales are for three and four-year-olds or store horses.
Preparation is essential for a sale as the potential racehorse needs to be primed and ready for the big sale day, but not overdone so at to detract from his/her future racing career. The youngster will have probably spent most of their life grazing in a paddock up until now, so now it must learn to thrive in a stabled environment.
The importance of nutrition, grooming, and exercise are very important in this part of a racehorse’s life. The more the young horses are handled, the easier the sale process is.
When one prepares a yearling for sale it is important to understand the nutrient requirements of the horse and the critical balance between feed intake and exercise as they impact condition and soundness.
The physical exercise starts from Day 1 with the foals, where handling is key. If a stud farm or the owners know they want to send that particular foal to the sales, they need to start preparations immediately.
I’m not saying they do anything major but the quicker a horse learns to walk beside you the better! This is achieved by one person leading the mare and then another guiding the foal behind them. This makes life easier when it comes to teaching a horse to walk up well. As they will need this when they are at the sales.
Most of the equipment used to prepare horses for the sale are covered below. However, the difference is these horses won’t be ridden by anyone as they haven’t been broken in yet. They will be lunged in a sand ring to get them slightly fit and ensure they have clear breathing.
This process begins as soon as the sales are concluded. Or if the horse is homebred, the process usually begins when the horse is a year old or a little older, depending on the career plan for the animal.
By now, many horses will be used to lunging and tack due to prep for sale. Again, if the horse is homebred then this introduction must be gradually made.
Generally, trainers go through this process themselves, but there is an increasing number of pre-training establishments also available.
Some racehorse owners like to use pre-training yards, to prepare their horses for the track. Here, the horse is educated – thought how to be handled, led, driven, lunged and ridden.
Obviously having a horse riding is the most important part and is the most difficult. The jockeys have to be brave as most horses will look much like “Buckaroo” when you first sit on them but they eventually get used to having someone on their back.
Once they accept being ridden, the process of getting them going forward and carrying their head in a nice position begins. After this has been achieved(usually 3 months), they will head to the training yard.
Assuming a horse has been pre-trained and broken to ride well and arrives at a yard healthy and in good condition, work can begin immediately. The training process depends on each individual horse and yard.
The decision on what career a racehorse will have depends on a number of things. Firstly, the breeding – what the sire/mare was used for and success at. Then, how a horse is training is another important factor.
Racehorses are athletes. Thus certain conditions will suit different horses. Some horses who travel better at longer distances (known as stayers) while others are sprinters who compete best in short, fast distances.
It will only become clear what distance a horse will run over while they are being trained. A trainer will start each horse off cantering slowly on the gallop and slowly build up their fitness. After around 3 months of slow work, a horse will have built up enough muscle and fitness level to start doing fast work. This work will show is the horse a quick horse that doesn’t keep going or a slow galloper that can stay going at the same pace.
While certain ground conditions suit different horses. For example, some horses love mud while others prefer better ground conditions.
Some yards combine both flat and national hunt training, others are more specific on the genre of racing in which they train. While some yards just cater for mostly point to point horses.
Racehorse training has become quite sophisticated in recent years, the days of cantering your horse on the beach twice a week and going racing on a Saturday are disappearing
All trainers will use a gallop with varying types of underfoot surfaces used and different shapes. Along with this nearly every trainer will use a walker which helps to exercise the horses and warm up/cool down after exercising. the use of a lunging arena is essential and in particular, it’s beneficial when breaking a horse.
Another element of training becoming more common is the use of swimming pools which is hugely important when dealing with a horse that has leg problems. The swimming pool means that a trainer can skill exercise the horse without putting strain on their tendons.
If you as a human go on a diet or want to get fit, you’ll weigh yourself before you start to see what you want/need to lose. The same is true in racehorse training now with many trainer investing in weighing scales so they can accurately monitor the weight of their horses. This is also used pre/post races to evaluate how much a race is likely to take out of a horse.
Flat horses have to start their races from starting stalls and you can read all about it below:
A starting gate also called a starting barrier or starting stalls is a machine used to ensure a fair start to in horse racing – it is also only used for Flat Racing.
Prior to horses starting their race from the starting stalls – much stall training must be undergone – to allow the horses to understand how to go in and start from the stalls.
Jump races are races that include obstacles for the horse and jockey to jump. These can be small ones known as hurdles or large ones known as fences.
While jump racing occurs all year round, traditionally it takes place in the Autumn, Winter, and Spring. Jump racing’s official name is National Hunt racing, a reference to its origins.
Jump races are a test of stamina and jumping ability and so the horses that take part tend to be older than Flat horses. They look bigger and more developed than the finer, more elegant flat horses. They are also older in age than the majority of flat horses.
Jump races are held over a variety of distances from two to four and a half miles and under certain conditions with eligibility based on the sex, age or ability of the horse. Some races may be restricted to amateur or less experienced jockeys, known as conditionals.
The highlights of jump racing include the Cheltenham Festival in March and the Grand National Festival in April.
National Hunt Training
The format of breeding/purchasing a National Hunt horse is very similar to the above stages for a Flat horse. However, National Hunt horses are started at a slightly older age when it comes to training and the added need to train horses to jump.
Most horses are absolute naturals over jumps and the training of them starts at home perhaps over a pole or a barrel whichever is the preference of the specific trainer. There are two main types of jumps racing hurdles and fences, you may have heard the saying “He’s built for fences”. In general smaller horses tend to be better over hurdles and big imposing horses excel overs fences, that’s not always the case but it’s a rule of thumb.
Point to point Training
For many horses in Ireland, the first time they will see a jump in a race it will be in a point to point. These are the training grounds and starting point for so many good horses. They are normally run over three miles and over sixteen fences.
These point-to-points are used to educate horses and have become hugely popular so much so that for many trainers this their main source of income. If you can manage to win a point to point in impressive fashion and clock a good time, then you could be looking at €200,000+
This is a mix of training and proper racing and means that purchasers of these horses know they’ve got a nice horse to have some fun with.
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