One of my favourite things about being present on social media with my horse, and writing posts about Harness Racing and Standardbreds, is answering questions. It’s a great way to get that one on one connection with other Standardbred owners, and find new topics for future posts and articles. That’s exactly where this article comes from.
Frequently, when I’m asked about ways to help off track Standardbreds learn various skills or why they do the things they do, the answer involves something to do with their life as a racehorse. Following that, I’m often informed that the asker’s horse didn’t race or only raced once or twice, and therefore racehorse things aren’t relevant. There seems to be this odd concept circulating that because the horse doesn’t have an extensive race history that they were never taught any of the skills, or learned any of the habits, they would have acquired in a lengthy career as a racehorse.
This is not the case.
While I was familiar with the day to day life of an active racehorse, I admittedly was less exposed to the life of the up and coming race horses, that is the unraced, racehorse. So I asked around and found out many of the steps the trainers go through while prepping their future racehorse to enter its first race. Here’s what I found:
Before they enter their first race, many horses put in a lot of miles of just jogging with a cart before they even start training and developing any sort of real speed. These horses can take anywhere from 300-500 miles of just jogging before their trainers feel comfortable pushing them for more. This not only makes sure they’re fit enough for the task and intensity of ‘training’, that is working at racing speed, but also gives them plenty of time to become accustomed to the jog cart, and being driven. Think of it as the equivalent of jogging 300 miles before even going to soccer practice, never mind playing in an actual game.
With jogging, and training, comes a giant list of other skills that are necessary to be a functional racehorse. Bathing, grooming, standing for the blacksmith/farrier, and all sorts of other daily maintenance care such as having liniment and bandages applied to their legs. In addition to being accustomed to wearing a harness, they also need to learn patience. In order to be harnessed, bridled, and cared for after working they have to figure out how to be patient. Grooming, harnessing, shoeing, wrapping – all of this work is done while standing in the crossties. These horses learn at an early age that this is part of their job.
Race horses are accustomed to much more maintenance and regular every day care than your average backyard horse. They are treated for most ailments as promptly as possible so they can be in their best health. This means they’re quite used to many procedures including needles for things like vaccinations and electrolyte jugs, teeth floating, and scoping, as this is all part of their routine care programs. They are very thoroughly handled and are used to people being around and all over them to monitor their well-being. The majority of this care and attention is carried out either in front of or in their stalls, so as another benefit, most racehorses are quite comfortable in close quarters.
These are horses that have also become accustomed to working with and around other horses. As part of their daily pre-race training they work both alone, and in groups to expose them to as many scenarios as possible before entering an actual race. This means training at speed, in full gear, in a group with other horses who are also travelling at high speeds. Because there are often multiple horses at different stages working at the same time, these horses understand that when another horse is working at high speeds, they are still expected to listen to their trainer regardless of what’s going on around them. Whether there’s a tractor behind them, a starting gate in front of them, or an outrider beside them, they have a job to do. These horses are so comfortable with having other people and horses in their space, that warm up rings (although sometimes exciting) are often not upsetting for Standardbreds like they are for many other non-race horses.
On a related note, the environment at the track is a busy one. There are tractors harrowing the track, and moving manure and bales of hay around, people and horses constantly coming and going, children, umbrellas, yelling, running, literally everything that equestrians have traditionally been taught to fear while riding – these horses have all seen before. Often times daily. Growing up in the racing world has taught them that even with all these ‘distractions’ happening around them that the work still continues.
Many of these skills are often attributed to the Standardbred’s chill demeanour. While that is absolutely a factor, their incredible work ethic, exposure to different environmental factors, and ability to be so thoroughly handled is truly a result of long hours and hard work put into these horses before they’re even entered in a race.
So while having an unraced racehorse may seem to initially exempt these horses from being racehorses, it’s simply not true. All of the factors and skills mentioned above are frequently taught to the horses before it’s even determined whether or not they’d be fast enough to be competitive. It’s the basic skill set they’re expected to have before entering their first race, and it’s not fair to discredit the hard work and endless hours that were put into them by their grooms, trainers, owners, and the horses themselves just because they never actually entered a race.
If you have any questions, or suggestions for future topics you’d like to see me cover feel free to message me on Facebook, or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org!