Last week I spent some time in a flat racing yard to understand how the effects of training impacted a horse transitioning from racehorse to riding horse.  I wanted to understand modern training techniques and how this translated into what I see in the ex-racehorses that I treat.  The daily routine is fairly basic and I had always imagined it to be more complicated than it is. The horses are fed very early in the morning and then are divided into sections:

  • In a string
  • On the walker
  • On the treadmill
  • Box rest

So a string will go out and work on the gallops. The walker group aren’t working on the gallops but will go on the walker at least once in the day.  The treadmill group are being worked on the treadmill either due to an injury or a behavioural issue that makes them difficult to ride and box rest is obviously for an injured horse  

The Daily Routine

The horses are mucked out as they leave the stables for their work and then fed hay on their return.  All the yard work and ridden work is completed in the morning and all the horses have a lunchtime hard feed.  In the afternoon the horses are groomed, have their feet picked out and legs checked. Their rugs are changed for the evening and they have another hard feed and their hay topped up.  It really does appear on the outset to be that straight forward. Additionally, everyday I was there, at least 5 horses went out to the races.  It is such a routine event that you barely noticed anything happening or even that the horse’s had left.  What was felt was the loss of the stable staff that accompanied these horses as these racing yards run on minimal staff, I think this is due to recruitment issues rather than a cost cutting exercise.

What are the physical implications of racing?

I suppose what surprised me the most about my experience was that simple things that can make a difference seem to get over looked.  For example, hay is fed from racks that are quite high, in my mind this just increases the strength of the underside of the neck creates stiffness and tension through the back and closes up the spinous processes.  To avoid kissing spines the processes need to fan open and the best position for this is for the horse to be eating with their head down as if they were grazing.  I’d be looking to feed lower down and opening up the spinous processes to increases the topline and core strength.  This seems quite an obvious measure to take to improve the performance of the horse.  But this might be just this one yard, maybe other yards do it differently.

Talking of hay, the horses were not given there morning hay until after they had worked, given the continued concern of ulcers in racehorses this is quite worrying.  The general advice for all horse owners is to feed chaff 20 minutes before exercise to reduce the acid splash in the stomach that is thought to contribute to the cause of ulcers.  This method of feeding goes very much against the advice given for ulcer prevention.

In my opinion, I think making a couple of little changes to the daily routine could significantly improve the welfare and future health of these wonderful horses that work so hard.


How are racing yards preventing injuries?

One of the positives about racing vs riding horses, is that in most racing yards the warm up and the cool down is usually far greater than what the average equestrian rider would do.  This is a real key factor in injury prevention.  In racing if the horses hack to and from the gallops then they are thoroughly warmed up and cooled down by the time they either reach the gallops or return back to the yard.  In this particular yard the gallops are on site. Although I felt the warm up was only just adequate, the horses are put on the walker after they’ve worked as a cool down.  And this was by no means a quick 10 minute cool down, these horses are thoroughly cooled down before going back to their boxes. I’d prefer a hack cool down over a walker simply because working on a constant circle is tougher on the joints than being hacked in straight lines.  But its far superior to what most riding horses get as a cool down.

So my lasting thoughts…

I enjoyed my brief experience at the race yard, but I had hoped to be proved wrong about some of my preconceptions and unfortunately I wasn’t.  Much of what I saw explains the conditions and behaviours that we see from ex-racehorses that have left the racing yards.  The only thing that I’m left to consider is the behavioural issues.  Within the racing yard most of the behaviour from the horses was exemplery and I wonder if the security of the string and the routine creates a security blanket for many of these horses.  The insecure and stressful behaviour we see from some of the horses out of racing may come from now being a single owned horse in a private yard environment.  I do think that this reliance on one single human is a worrying transition for them when they’re used to relying on a string of 20 horses that all have exactly the same routine which is scarcely true in most livery yards…

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