The art of training a racehorse

Feb 10, 2018 Jennifer Caldwell/

Part of the continuing series 'Kentucky Derby 101' which follows a horse on the journey to starting in the Kentucky Derby.

Who was the best teacher you ever had?

Did they challenge you, provoke you, force you to think outside the box? Or did they follow a set path that provided a guide to learning?

Whatever the answer, horses are much like people. What works for one may not for another.

However, just as a human student needs to learn the basics, an equine student does as well.

All horses know how to run. That’s what they do. But in the wild this is usually in straight lines or relatively open spaces.

Horses running on a racecourse need to learn how to run in a circle, and how to channel their energy effectively throughout the whole race. Doesn’t sound too hard, right? But a vital part of that is changing leads. When a horse runs, the legs on one side of his body will lead, or extend, farther than the other side.

Racing in North America takes place in a counter-clockwise motion, meaning a runner normally will be on his right lead during the straightaways and left lead rounding the turns. A horse will tire more quickly if he stays on the same lead for a prolonged amount of time, so teaching him to change on cue is important.

Even while a runner is learning to switch leads on command, he is also being conditioned. Just as an athlete slowly prepares for an event, so do horses. They will start out with routine jogs and gallops in the wee hours of the morning. In the United States, the majority of racehorses are stabled at tracks, be they a racecourse or training center, and those venues will have a period in the mornings for horses to train.

As the horse builds up conditioning, he will gradually be asked for more in his exercise. Finally, the runner will work or breeze, meaning he’ll run at a stronger pace for a specified distance. These are timed and can indicate level of fitness and readiness for a race. Some trainers typically work their horses fast; others may let them start at a more moderate pace and finish fast.

There is one other major component a newbie on track needs to become familiar with and that is the starting gate .

Once upon a time, horses would line up, either behind a rope or as in straight a line as possible. That rope would either raise or lower, or someone would wave a flag, and they’d be off.

On July 1, 1939, Clay Puett’s first electric starting gate made its debut at Lansdowne Park in Vancouver, Canada, and revolutionized horse racing. Now, horses will be led into a gate made up of stalls, with the front and back of each stall opening and closing. The stall doors are closed once a runner is in the gate. The starter hits a button once the entire field is assembled that opens the front gates all at the same time and the race begins.

It takes times for horses to acclimate to the small stall enclosure. They’ll start by walking in and out of the gates, build up to standing for periods of time in the space, both by themselves and beside other horses, and finally learn to exit the stall at a run.

Lead changes, working and gate training are just three aspects in training a racehorse, but they are all essential.

Once again, though, each horse is different and will progress at his own rate.

Some may be lazy in the mornings and energetic during the afternoons. Others need time to acclimate to new surroundings. And a few are just plain ornery, enough to try anyone’s patience.

That is what makes training an art form.

A good trainer can develop a system and incorporate runners into it. A great trainer will get to know the pupil, try to understand them, and design a training program around them.

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To learn more on the research behind training,
read these presentations from the Grayson-Jockey Club

Training and the Musculoskeletal System

Racetrack Surfaces and Technology Integration

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