Training the racing quarterhorse


Training the racing quarterhorse

The American Quarterhorse derived its name from its origin in racing short distances—notably a quarter of a mile (402.3 meters [m]). At this distance, the Quarterhorse is considered the fastest land athlete. Racing of American Quarterhorses became established in the southern and southwestern parts of the United States but now is also conducted in other parts of the world (Caudill, 2008). Quarterhorses are regularly raced on three continents, with races being conducted in the United States of America, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and Australia.

Uniqueness of the racing quarterhorse


Along with racing shorter distances, Quarterhorses are also known for their speed at these shorter distances. Despite the world record for both Quarterhorses and Thoroughbreds being within 0.15 seconds at 402 m at the time of this writing, Quarterhorses reach a greater top speed in their races (Nielsen et al., 2006). The relative lack of difference in record times is attributed to Quarterhorse races beginning when the starting gates open (Nielsen et al., 2006) compared with Thoroughbred races that officially begin when the horses cross in front of a flagman stationed a short distance in front of the gates (Ainslie, 1986). Thus, Quarterhorses are timed from a standing start, whereas Thoroughbreds are timed from a running start. Using a high-speed camera, Pratt (1991) was able to determine that it takes approximately 0.35 seconds for the starting gates to fully open and a nearly 0.6-second time elapse from the beginning of a race until a Quarterhorse has taken a step away from the starting gate. This difference in the methods used to time races explains why Quarterhorses are recognized as being faster than Thoroughbreds despite having similar record times at the quarter-mile (402-m) distance. Quarterhorses accelerate rapidly as they sprint away from the starting gates, and Pratt (1991) calculated that they reach their peak speeds by about 230 m in a 402-m race. Peak speeds in Quarterhorse races have been calculated to be around 90 kilometers per hour (km/hr) by both Pratt (1991) and Nielsen et al. (2006).

Selection of horses

To develop horses capable of such speeds, careful consideration must be given to bloodlines. Given that many decades have been spent in developing bloodlines of horses that excel at running these short distances, it is highly improbable that horses from nonrunning bloodlines would have the speed necessary to be worthy of being put into race training. That being said, a number of Thoroughbred stallions, particularly those that have excelled as sprinters, have contributed greatly to the development of the running lines of Quarterhorses. Examples include Top Deck (sire of American Quarterhorse Hall of Fame members Go Man Go and Moon Deck) and Beduino (sire of racing champions Brigand Silk, Chingaderos, Indigo Illusion, and Tolltac, as well as prominent sires Runaway Winner and Chicks Beduino). Some exceptional stallions such as First Down Dash command the greatest stud fee but have had outstanding offspring, a number of which have earned over a million dollars to justify the high cost of stud fees. In contrast, some horses that were derived from inexpensive breeding or that were purchased for a minimal amount have gone on to be extremely successful on the track. Examples of such horses are Refrigerator ($2,126,309 by Rare Jet) and Winalota Cash ($1,952,848 by Light On Cash). However, even in these cases, the horses had the racing bloodlines as well as the genetics to be fast. Even with proper genetics, having the horse reach its potential is challenging, though proper management and correct training methods will help.

Example training program

In 2008, the 2-year-old gelding Stolis Winner (Stoli–Veva Jean, by Runaway Winner) earned $1,820,437 by winning 8 out of 9 races, including the grade 1 Heritage Place, Rainbow, and All American Futurities, while achieving a speed index of 105 in the process (Figure 27-1). His earnings were more than any 2-year-old Quarterhorse in history and are surpassed by only one Thoroughbred, Boston Harbor, with earnings of $1,928,605. In addition to being chosen Champion Two-Year-Old Gelding and Champion Two-Year-Old, Stolis Winner was named the 2008 World Champion Racing Quarterhorse—one of the few 2-year-olds to ever hold that distinction. Stolis Winner is the product of the breeding program of Jerry Windham, who was named the 2008 Champion Owner and Champion Breeder. The preparation and racing of Stolis Winner involved two trainers. The first to work with Stolis Winner was Tommy Zarate, the on-farm trainer for the Windham Ranch of College Station, Texas. Zarate started the horse under saddle and raced him in his first two outs. The other trainer to work with Stolis Winner was Heath Taylor, who raced Stolis Winner when the horse left Texas. Both trainers have had great success in Quarterhorse racing and have many stakes winners to their credit. Both trainers recognize that every horse is an individual and that training must be customized to fit each horse’s personality, athletic ability, and limitations. However, both were willing to share some of their general training practices for this chapter. Although all racing Quarterhorse trainers may not share these practices, the programs detailed could probably be viewed as relatively standard among most trainers.

The success a trainer experiences is greatly dependent on the animals he or she must train. Thus, the horse having the right genetics is important. Zarate gives most of the credit to his success on the racetrack to the breeding program of Windham Ranch. Zarate concedes that he, as a trainer, cannot make a horse any better than that horse’s genetic potential will allow. His job is simply to help the horse achieve that potential. Beyond that, Zarate suggests one factor that makes a runner great is having “heart”—a desire to run and a willingness to exert maximal effort during a race. Taylor emphasizes the need for symmetrical balance in the horse. Regardless of whether a horse is large or small, if it has good balance throughout its body, this will allow it to be a better runner. Taylor also indicates that what he selects a horse for may depend somewhat on the goals of the owner. If the horse’s owner desires to win a futurity in March that is contested at a shorter distance (such as 274 m), he may select a horse that will mature earlier, as opposed to a goal of winning the All-American Futurity contested in September, which covers a longer distance (402 m).

Regardless, to help achieve goals, both Taylor and Zarate believe that it is important to provide consistent and regular riding during the early stages of training. They believe that the most important aspect of early training involves mental training of the horse, the physical conditioning aspect of it initially being less important. Typically, during these early stages, horses are ridden 5 to 6 days per week. This schedule may continue for up to 6 weeks. Most trainers conduct their first rides in a round pen and, after the horse appears ready, will progress to riding the young horse on the racetrack (Nielsen et al., 1993). This can occur within the first week of training or may take several weeks, depending on the horse. Also, as horses progress and become accustomed to being ridden and trained, riding may be reduced to an alternate-day schedule, although some individuals will require more frequent training time to allow for more successful mental training.

As the horses become conditioned, the distance they are ridden at a “gallop” (i.e., a moderate to fast canter) increases to a distance of about 1200 to 1600 m following a warmup at the trot of about 400 to 800 m. Additionally, as soon as horses start to be ridden on the racetrack, they are often gradually introduced to the starting gates. Frequently, during the early stages of training, a horse is walked through the starting gate each time it is ridden on the track. While walking through the gates, horses may be asked to stand quietly before being allowed to proceed slowly out. Once the horses are comfortable standing in and walking out of the gates, they may be encouraged to trot away from the gates, and they will eventually be asked to gallop away from the gates. Typically, at least 45 days of such training (often even several months) will occur before the horses’ trainers close the doors of the starting gates while their charges are inside. At that point, the starting gates may be manually opened (to allow for an environment in which the trainer can better control the gates to minimize startling the horse) and the horse then is asked to sprint away from the gates. After this phase of training has been completed successfully, with the horse at an acceptable comfort level, the gates may be mechanically opened and the horse asked to sprint away again. If all of this is performed correctly, the horse is ready to do the same in the company of other horses. Learning to sprint away from the starting gate is often done over a period of several weeks and is a gradual process. Taylor indicates the first two or so times he works (i.e., “sprints”) a young horse, the distance is only about 45 m and typically the work begins from a controlled gallop to allow the horse to gradually learn how to respond when asked. After that, the distance sprinted will likely be increased to about 90 m. Similarly, during early gate-work such as when the gates are being manually opened, horses are only sprinted a short distance such as 45 m before being slowed down. This gradually accustoms them to running fast with riders on their backs and helps ensure a positive experience for the horse. Only after a horse is comfortable with being asked for speed and has had several shorter sprints will the distance be increased and official works, necessary to qualify for racing, will be performed. These official works tend to be from 201 to 229 m in length. However, as the distance worked increases, the time between works also increases so that when the 2-year-old is ready to race, it may be sprinted only every 14 to 21 days. Taylor indicated that he does not like to work a horse any closer to a race than 2 weeks, thus placing great importance on the training regimen prior to race day. Also, most of the horses are being ridden only every other day at most, unless they need more riding time for their mental well-being. Although they are only galloped a few days per week, the horses are usually walked on nonriding days for anywhere between a half hour and an hour. After galloping, many are also walked for approximately a half hour or so or until the horses are cooled down. If a horse does need to be ridden more than a few times a week, the focus of training shifts from a conditioning aspect to a state of mental preparation to enable the horse to handle the mental stresses of racing. Zarate emphasizes that it is important for 2-year-olds to run error-free races, hence the importance of mental preparedness.

From the time the horse is initially started under saddle to when it can first race may be as short as 120 days if nothing interferes with training, but Taylor suggests it may be advisable to plan on 5 to 6 months to have a young horse ready for racing. This additional time allows for issues that may arise, for example, various types of lameness or respiratory issues, to be resolved while still allowing enough time for a horse to be properly prepared for racing. Because the largest monetary purses are offered in races for 2-year-olds, a large percentage of Quarterhorses are started under saddle in the autumn of their yearling year. In the United States, Quarterhorse races for 2-year-olds do not begin until March. On commencement of racing, it is unusual to race more often than every 2 weeks, and often, the horse is given a break of several weeks to a month between races. The frequency of racing is usually dependent on soundness of the horse, whether the horse is being prepared for stakes races, and whether races with appropriate conditions are available in which to enter the horse.

Compared with the unraced 2-year-old, taking a previously raced horse and returning that animal to training involves a shorter training period before racing. A sound older horse that returns to training in good condition may be able to race in as little time as 45 to 60 days, although 90 days may be the more common time frame. Both Zarate and Taylor use a combination of trotting, galloping (typically a distance of about 1600 m), ponying, some form of swimming, or all of these to return older horses to racing form. Sprinting of older horses is not an often-used training technique, with the primary occasion being an official work. If an older horse is racing somewhat regularly, sprint work may not be needed between races.

A hallmark of Quarterhorse racing is the use of time trials associated with stakes races, in which the horses with the 10 fastest times from the time trials run in the finals of the stakes race. By having larger numbers of horses nominated for a stakes race, a larger purse is generated through the nomination fees. A trial heat 2 weeks prior to actually running in the finals is required, and therefore, proper management to help ensure that the horse runs well in the finals is crucial. A major issue that trainers encounter is the soreness experienced by horses following the trials. If the horse is sore and if it is not a problem that can be resolved or remedied within the 2-week period, the horse may need to be removed from the finals, in which case it will typically receive last-place money for the finals. Assuming that the horse is not removed, it is important that the animal is well rested coming into the finals. Taylor likes to rest a horse for at least 3 days after racing and may gallop a horse only two or three times between the trials and the finals. Zarate states that he may do more with a horse between the trials and finals than do many other trainers, as he likes to get a horse out of its stall and keep its body loose. As he rides his own horses, he has the advantage of knowing how they feel and what adjustments they may need in their training program. Being able to determine what a horse needs is important, and Taylor points out the great variation in horses, with some requiring little training between races while other horses may work better if they frequent the track regularly. Hence, the trainer’s job is to do what it takes to help the horse keep its appetite and interest in racing so that the horse is happy and healthy and peaking at the time of the finals.

Another distinguishing factor about Quarterhorse racing is the importance of the start of the race. Quarterhorse races are run in a straight line for a short distance relative to Thoroughbreds. As a result, getting away quickly from the starting gates is critical, as the race does not last long. Leaving the gate last may result in situations where the horse may have to adjust its course and, therefore, sacrifice running the ideal straight-line path. As a result, having a horse stand calmly, but alertly, at the starting gate is important to having a successful break when the starting gates open. Both Zarate and Taylor often stand a horse at the starting gate at times other than when the horse is racing. This helps eliminate the horse’s anticipation of a fast start and decreases the likelihood of the horse acting up at the starting gate and making a mistake. This process involves loading the horse at the starting gate, typically on just a regular training day, and letting the horse stand at the gates for a couple of minutes before being led out. By not being asked to sprint away from the gates, horses will typically be calmer the next time they are loaded. Taylor typically stands all of his horses once before each race—typically 2 to 4 days before racing. Although certainly not a requirement, such a practice helps reduce the nervousness of a horse at the starting gate on race day.

Both trainers appreciate the importance of turnout time. Because he is located on a training farm away from a racetrack, Zarate is able to provide some turnout for his young horses through the majority of the initial training. Also, Zarate often turns a horse out after a hard work when it is tired, and thus, it is less likely to hurt itself by playing too hard in the pasture. He feels this is especially useful for the mental state of the horse, as this allows “a horse be a horse.” Zarate recognizes that the risk of a horse getting hurt during turnout is always present, but he believes that the benefits typically outweigh the risks. Taylor also appreciates the benefits of turnouts and feels that “more would be perfect.” But he recognizes the challenges one faces when having a horse turned out, especially for longer periods, because of the potential difficulty in getting them back into race condition. Regardless, he would like to see all horses turned out at least once or twice a year to give them a break from training.

Such a break from training is a necessity if an injury develops. Both Zarate and Taylor indicate that knee and ankle chips are the major problems they encounter. Bucked shins (dorsal metacarpal disease) can be a problem with racing Quarterhorses, although Taylor suggests that a tremendous difference may exist in incidence rate among trainers. As with Thoroughbred racehorses, respiratory problems are encountered in Quarterhorses also.

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Jul 8, 2016 | Posted by in EQUINE MEDICINE | Comments Off on Training the racing quarterhorse

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