7 July 2020

It’s 5am – the dead of winter. In the dark, a strapper finishes preparing a horse for its morning trackwork and a track rider mounts it. In the cold and darkness, the horse is put through its paces, its breath puffing clouds of fog as it completes its gallops. To the horse, it is just another day.. But because keeping an elite athlete such as a racehorse happy, healthy and injury free is paramount, some allowances and adjustments are made in the colder, wetter seasons.

The early starts don't change in the winter. The team still goes out at 5am and sticks to the same routine. The warm-up is important, and the only change may be that sometimes the usual swim will be skipped, especially for younger horses.

At all stables, success comes from dedication to training and care. Keeping tabs on the horses’ fitness and health is all-consuming at any time of year but in times of inclement weather, some extra care is taken...

Routines change from stable to stable, but a typical morning might see horses be given a warm-up on the walker before being saddled up and walked or ridden to the track. After exercising for around 15 minutes – this may be a light trot or canter, or sometimes a gallop – they are walked back to the stables where their gear is changed. It’s then that they often do a couple of laps of the pool – a step which may be omitted in winter due to the risk of the horse catching a cold – before warming down on the walker for another 20 to 30 minutes. After the roughly two-hour process, the horse is put back in its box where it is dressed with rugs to ward off any chills. A heavier blanket, an all-in-one type that is like a doona and covers the horse from neck to legs, is used as opposed to a canvas rug or cotton sheet like those used in summer. On really windy or chilly days, the box will be shut up tight to prevent drafts.

Chestnut horse in stable

Image by Karen Photography 

The horses are then periodically checked and brushed throughout the day to look for injuries or any treatments needed. They are taken out again in the afternoon to prevent cabin fever and to stretch their legs. While ordinarily they may be taken for a swim at this time, in winter they might be walked instead. 

Protecting the horse from infection is of great importance, as the respiratory system is paramount to a horse’s ability to exercise and perform. Much like a human, horses can start showing signs of cold in the months leading up to winter, including at the onset of autumn when the air starts to turn chilly. But it doesn’t just stop at the chest. Other seasonal problems that stables need to be aware of are skin infections and foot problems. 

Longer hair is one such issue. As longer hair means that it takes longer to dry, especially under rugs, which may cause heat rashes, boils and rubbing or chafing, those with longer coats are often clipped in winter, depending on the horse. Clipping can also cause issues, as the skin’s direct contact with rugs can cause infection. For most stables, it is a case-by-case basis and they often don’t end up clipping too many.

Wet conditions can also play havoc with another vital part of the horse – its feet. As wet tracks and mud can cause the outer covering of the foot to deteriorate, hooves need to be checked regularly to look for cracks, splits and abscesses. Oil dressing of the hooves which is usually performed daily is also often limited, as this can contribute to softness. 

Some horses may be raced lightly in the winter to prepare for spring and summer campaigns, while others may be prepared for heavier and rain-affected tracks. And while head-to-tail maintenance is nothing new for trainers and their staff, different seasons do call for different methods of care to ensure that their charges are in nothing but peak condition for race day.