Thursday, August 14, 2008

An Eye for the Future ...

O! to be in Saratoga … This season I had the great pleasure of bringing my horse-crazy neighbor Danielle to the backstretch of Saratoga. It was her first visit. As Danielle snapped pictures of the morning activities my own fond memories of the same brought a smile to my face and tear to my eye; nearly 30 years ago there stood I mesmerized by Seattle Slew. I still marvel at the old Kodak photos recalling the moment as yesterday. Though the Slew is long gone from the green barns, his greatness lives on in his four-legged descendents and in the hearts of those whose eyes he graced. As Danielle and I turned from the track we karmically walked right into the Slew’s trainer Billy Turner.

Danielle is an aspiring equestrian with dreams of becoming a jockey, she is a smart and fearless rider so I have no doubt she will excel with thoroughbreds. As we watched the dance of thoroughbreds in their daily work, Danielle quizzed me on every aspect of galloping racehorses. In doing so, she inspired this blog entry.

I have galloped racehorses since the age of 14 and have had the enormous privilege of sitting atop major stakes winners and working for leading trainers Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher. Riding for Bill and Todd reaffirmed my own conviction that every step and every breathe a racehorse takes in each training session must be designed to specifically serve that individual horse when he or she races. Anything less is wasted time, energy, effort and money.

For a trainer to effectively train a horse, the rider must be skilled enough to feel what that horse is doing and make adjustments while in the irons to ensure balanced strides and keep the horse straight and moving from hind to front. He or she then must be able to articulate the details of the ride back to the trainer. Ideally, the “exercise rider” is an extension of the trainer aboard the horse. Riding racehorses is a finely crafted skill. It comes by some naturally, for others it is honed from years of experience around horses; watching, riding, showing, grooming, training, hot-walking, etc. It is the consistent application of adjustments that emanate from what the trainer sees and the rider feels that are the magical ingredients to everyday progress with a horse.

Horses are intelligent, living, feeling creatures with unique individual personalities. They are curious animals and like to be out and about grazing, playing and watching other horses; this is hard to do 23 hours in a stall and on a track with blinkers! Great trainers, who are real horsemen & women know this, and they make adjusts with each horse to gain optimal performance. These adjustments may include changing surfaces, distance and direction of a morning outing, adding long walks or jogs under tack, working on hills or practicing dressage movements, afternoon grazing, equipment changes, and/or a rider change. Horses really try to communicate with us and if you really watch them and listen they will tell you what they need.

Everything you see in a horse at the track is symptomatic of his or her training regimen. From a lifetime of experience, I can look at a horse and tell you if he or she is being ridden properly, correctly shod and rightly fed. It shows in the horse‘s expression, body language, step, stride, weight, coat and musculature.

In a nutshell, a properly ridden racehorse will have a strong well-muscled back and hip, with definition through the hindquarters and a well-curved large gaskin. These simple indicators demonstrate that the horse is galloping by pushing from his hind end. Inexperienced riders can be seen hauling on a horse’s mouth and letting the horse pull around the track with his or her front legs, as a result, these horses usually have ankle problems and weak hind ends.

A horse that is correctly shod is a blessed animal at the racetrack! Most racetrack shoeing jobs are too fast and too poor, they do not serve in the best interest of the bio-mechanical function of the horse. Those adding toe grabs, trainer or farrier, should simply be ruled off the track. I have strong fact-based opinions on shoeing and I am in full support of a complete ban on toe grabs. Click here to read more on Toe Grabs.

Everything we do with a horse in the morning is all that horse has to draw on at post time. Every step, every breathe critical to crossing the finish line first. Great trainers know this. It is evidenced in their results. In the morning, look at horses walking from the stables of Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Jim Bond, Kenny McPeek and Todd Pletcher; there you will see happy, well-muscled horses, quiet riders, rhythmical strides and glistening coats. There you will develop UR eye for the future …