HANDLING WITH CARE

By Pat Bartley


It’s often said it takes a village to raise a child, and the same could be said of teams of professionals who dedicate their lives to caring for thoroughbreds. Routines may vary slightly across different stables, but the roles day-to-day – and the passion – are almost exactly the same.

Every morning, hours before the sun comes up, trainers, horse attendants and track riders descend on racing stables across the nation. Their sole concern is the health and wellbeing of racehorses that compete at racecourses each day.

At about 3-4am, trainers examine each feed bin to see what their horses have left from the night before. This check-up provides a significant clue as to the health of the horse. Not unlike a child who doesn’t eat their nightly dinner, there’s often an underlying problem if something is left behind.

As the trainer measures the horse’s feed allocation against what’s left, the horse attendant busily takes the horse’s temperature in another tangible display of checking on their health.

After the trainer is happy with both the horse’s appetite and temperature, the track rider will mount-up and both horse and rider will make their way to the training track. Generally, each horse will have 15 minutes of walking and trotting as a warm-up before the horse embarks on their serious work for the day.

On slow mornings (Monday, Wednesday, Friday and sometimes on Sunday) the horse will build fitness through pace work, which is mainly trotting and cantering. On fast mornings (Tuesday and Saturday, and sometimes on Thursday), the pace will quicken to a full gallop, with the length of the gallop dependent on whether the horse is a sprinter or distance galloper.

This process usually takes between 10 and 15 minutes, and then the horse will be walked home, which takes another 20 minutes.

Track work at Flemington racecourse

While the horse is training, their attendant will thoroughly clean their stable and empty and scrub their water bucket to remove any debris that may have fallen in overnight.

When the horse returns from the track, they have 10 minutes of relaxing and rolling within a large circular sand roll as an essential part of the morning schedule. Rolling releases any physical or muscular tension a horse may have, not unlike a human stretching or receiving a massage after exercise. It also gives them a nice big scratch on the back, especially in soft sand, which relieves any itches without bruising any boney points. Rolling is also often the indicator of a healthy horse, as one with a good strong back will roll happily and vigorously. If they don’t seem to roll as easily, it could be a sign that something needs to be checked.

The horse is then hosed down and shampooed before using the walking machine for another 30 minutes of exercise.

By this time, the sun is well and truly up, and the vet and other professionals will examine each horse if required.

Ailments can range from a high temperature to small injuries sustained during training. The vet will thoroughly examine any issues, with a range of sophisticated treatment options available, from antibiotics to probiotics, massage, acupuncture, and anti-inflammatory medication. 

Vets will occasionally scope a horse’s airways to check their breathing is uninhibited, and run their hands over the legs of horses to ensure there is no heat or swelling that indicates an injury.

If there is a hint of heat, four or five laps of the 50-metre horse pool and the application of anti-inflammatory gels may be used as remedies to counter any swelling.

The horse will then return to his or her stable, which is now thoroughly cleaned. There will be a new feed poured into their feed bin, and fresh hay provided for the roughage that is vital for a horse’s digestive wellbeing.

The farrier may attend to dress their feet, with most horses in training being reshod at least every four weeks. Horses must wear aluminium racing plates for race day, while they will have harder-wearing steel shoes during the early part of their campaign.

Other professionals will regularly attend the stables and treat horses as required during this quiet time after trackwork is complete, with options including a physiotherapist, chiropractor, masseuse, and/or nutritionist.

In the early afternoon, the horses are walked, taken for a pick on green grass and possibly swum in the pool. Swimming and walking near parklands where they can feed on the fresh green grass are parts of the training regime that the horses particularly enjoy.

Back in their stable in the late afternoon, feeds are again sent around with the amounts carefully measured and notarised on each horse’s chart.

The charts are an essential insight into the progression of each horse. They record the daily intake of feed and can help reveal any abnormalities with the horse.

At night, many trainers prefer to break up the monotony of the day feed by adding a mixture of hot water and molasses to sweeten the night feed.

The feeding regimes can vary from trainer to trainer, but the basic contents will be oats, other grains and chaff, with vitamins generally mixed with the wet feed of a night.

Generally, the only variant to this schedule is on race day when horses are equipped with long padded boots on their legs as protection during the float rides.

On their return to the stable, ice boots and cooling clay may be applied to their legs to aid the horse’s recovery after a long day at the races and competing at top speed.

Each team member working in a stable has one ultimate aim: to ensure these equine athletes are happy, healthy and loved.

(Photo by Karon Photography)

Track work at Flemington racecourse