Part of a continuing series "Kentucky Derby 101" which follows a horse on the journey to starting in the Kentucky Derby.
Anyone who has ever watched old time westerns on TV know the prescribed method of teaching a horse to carry a rider is to slap a saddle on, force a bit in the horse’s mouth and then hang on for dear life.
Times have changed, and for the better. While some may still stick to the old ways, breaking a Thoroughbred has evolved from force to persuasion, encouragement and training.
Racehorses begin “breaking-in” training as yearlings, and by this time are usually familiar with being handled, led, groomed, etc. The point is, they are used to people working on and around them.
Slowly, and the key word is “slowly,” new pieces of equipment, or tack, are introduced to the pupil and he is allowed time to acclimate to each one.
For example, a bit will be placed in his mouth and he’ll have three or four days of getting used to the feel. If not already trained in the process of lunging – where a rope is attached to a horse’s halter, a person will step so many paces away, then encourage the horse to walk/trot/gallop around them in a circle – he will be taught the process.
Each new piece of tack is introduced in a similar manner, from the saddle cloth to the saddle to the rider, etc. He is also taught to respond to the rider’s instructions, such as stop, go, turn and so on.
One might think the future racehorse is now done and ready to hit the track. He can carry a rider and answer to the basic commands. All that is left to be done is be sent to the races and run around in a circle.
One would be wrong.
A horse who races is entirely different than a horse who goes on trail rides or performs in a show ring. For one thing, they are required to run at break-neck speed in extremely close quarters with other horses. Also, the bone and muscle development in racehorses is unique to that sport.
Now that the youngster is used to carrying and listening to a rider, it’s time to begin training, to build-up the physicality needed to survive on the racetrack.
But that is another process altogether.
Learn more about how horses enter the stating gates on the First Saturday In May.