Kimberly Wales has worked in the Thoroughbred industry as a jockey, exercise rider and feature writer. During the 2011 racing season, she worked mornings for trainer Larry Pierce, and occasionally helped in The Gift Horse and the track's media department. Kimberly also submits occasional feature stories about Thoroughbred racing.
A Day at the Barn
An Inside View of Horse Training
By Kimberly Wales
The spring air bites as you walk through the barn area on the backstretch of Emerald Downs in Auburn, Washington. Dodging the puddles on the blacktop, the overnight rain has refreshed and heightened the aroma of dirt, sawdust pellets, manure bins and that all so alluring scent of horses.
Hot walking machines tow at halters. Thoroughbreds dance in freedom of a morning haze. With every playful lunge by one, the others join in. Squeals ring out. Nostrils blow. Heads toss. Heels kick. Steam rises from sleek backs.
Through the eyes of a trainer, this is peace. Nostalgic and unexplainable really, it is this deep appreciation for Thoroughbreds that drives them to follow hooves across the ovals of America like so many wandering gypsies.
For the average person, a trainer's life might appear easy. Yet, beyond the glamour of the afternoon races, while saddling prancing ponies and gracing the winner's circle, there is the 24/7 grind. Though training comes with some prestige, there is certainly much more to getting a horse to the races than strapping on a saddle, giving a jockey instructions and shaking the hands of clients.
Trainers face big challenges every day. Horses compete for the same prize money and must perform well to earn good checks. So needless to say there is pressure.
Still, there is the joy. For many, the job is personally rewarding in comparison to those mundane vocations outside the stable fences. Horse training is an occupation of constant variety. There are never two days alike, for horses (unlike widgets or paper) are living breathing creatures. Trainers wear the hats of coach, parent, doctor and psychologist. Having a good eye, gut instincts and the gift of horsemanship are imperative to success. And, as the saying goes, good horses can make you and bad horses can break you.
As with any other business, race trainers must possess the skills of management, organization and customer service. They are the ultimate multi-taskers, overseeing a group of stable employees that includes assistants, grooms and exercise riders. But most importantly, they look after and care for the four-legged animals that can't speak for themselves.
A typical day starts with the alarm clock ringing at 4 a.m. Arriving at the barn after coffee, horses are haltered, and sometimes served a small breakfast of oats. Grooms armed with brush boxes begin the rigorous task of rubbing hides, removing manure and dust, combing knots from manes and tails, dodging a kick here, a bite there. Trainers and their assistants peruse stalls running hands down legs, taking temperatures, checking feed tubs and looking for signs of even the slightest overnight change in their charges.
Tack is prepared for morning exercise and the arrival of jockeys, pony and exercise riders. There are the routines of weekly breezes, starting gate approval, equipment changes, schooling in the paddock, all within individualized training plans.
Stalls are cleaned and bedded. Having completed their work at the track, Thoroughbreds stand steaming on wash racks receiving sudsy baths. Hooves are painted with grease. Legs are done up in mud, liniment, ice or bandages.
By noon, hay nets are stuffed and water buckets are topped off. Oats are cooked. Tack is thoroughly cleaned and oiled. The laundry is washed and hung and the shed row raked in careful herringbone patterns. Veterinarians make their rounds, farriers hammer shoes, horse vans come and go, and the feed men deliver weekly orders. A few hours of rest, and it's back to the barn for afternoon feeding.
A horse running in the first race adds pressure to the morning—barely allowing a trip home to shower and change clothes—while a horse running in the nightcap makes for an extraordinarily long day. In four hours the routine repeats itself.
But that by no means is it!
In between are the phone calls and questions. Things can change in a split second; a loose horse, an injured employee, a horse cast in a stall, another smitten with a virus or colic. There is tack to mend, jockeys agents to hail, visiting clients, races to enter, decisions, strategies, sales and claims, traveling, licensing, tattooing, papers. It's a red ticker tape parade.
So what drives them on? Why do trainers cling to this whirlwind carousel, missing holidays and vacations and weekends with their families? And what makes them so resilient in the face of so many demands?
Plain and simple, it's the horses. It's the intrigue of the competition, the lure of the oval. It's a horse's breath on your face, a soft nicker, the nuzzling for a carrot, and the ripple of muscles on velvet. It's that look of eagles in the eyes of a valiant prospect and the elusive dream of the ‘big horse' ridden by “Lady Luck” down the road to the Breeder's Cup, Kentucky Derby, or in the Pacific Northwest, the Longacres Mile.
Ultimately, the reward of training Thoroughbreds arrives in that glorious moment inside the winner's circle. It's the satisfaction of working for yourself, being your own boss. It's holding the head of that oh so challenging horse and knowing you've made something from nothing.
As a sculptor is about his craft, training racehorses is truly like watching clay transform into an exquisite work of art.