No Experience Necessary

I used to read the interviews and books about famous trainers with a degree of incredulousness. All of them, it seemed, were city boys (never girls) who learned about racehorses by hanging out at the racetrack, getting a job with a trainer, and working their way up. They just seemed to waltz into horses, with no experience! How could that be? Try getting a job with a top dressage trainer or hunter/jumper trainer with no experience at all!

And then I came to the racetrack.

And I realized very quickly that the mystique of handling horses that exists in the show horse world does not translate to the racetrack. How long did it take me to prove to trainers that I was capable of grooming and tacking a stallion? Years. And how long does it take a hotwalker who has never touched a horse to be handed the shank of a colt and sent off to walk him? A few minutes. 

hotwalking and the living's easy

Gerard hard at work grazing a dangerous racehorse. He loves their "clothes," so they all go out in scrim sheets now.

Our horses adore our hotwalker. Simply adore him. He takes them all over Aqueduct’s backside, leans on them, texts while they’re grazing (or walking). He has no experience with horses. Everyday he says something sidesplitting (to us) like “I didn’t know horses wear clothes!” ( that from his first experience with a scrim sheet.)

I think he can get away with pretty much anything with a horse. And I think one reason why, besides his admirable lack of emotion or ability to get excited or panicked about anything at all, is that he didn’t spend twenty years being told how dangerous horses are. How you have to be tough and strong and delicate and walk on eggshells all at once. 

You don’t have to be told those things here, obviously. You can pick it up by observation. The hotwalkers walk at their own pace, and give the horse a shank on the nose when he pushes the pace. When the horse stops and throws a fit, the hotwalker gets out the way and waits for the horse to stop. They might say “whoa,” they might say nothing at all. I might think they walk too damn slow, and I might think that a few behavior problems could be corrected differently, but the fact is, these are people with no equine experience, walking colts that I had to beg for the privilege to handle when I was an event groom with a decade of experience.

I can see that the racetrack still provides the unique opportunity for a horse-crazy, city-bound kid to get involved in horses. Probably to become a better horseman than a lot of the suburban wealthy kids on their white ponies. If racing had a prettier public face, if it wasn’t so daunting to figure out how to get backside and get a gig, maybe we’d have a more thriving industry. The opportunity is here, just as it was for all those trainers whose biopics today start with, “When I was kid, all I did was hang around the racetrack.”

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14 Comments

Filed under racetrack life

14 responses to “No Experience Necessary

  1. Enjoyed this post very much. I had no idea there was a difference in the two approaches. I always wanted to be that kid around the racetrack but my mother (unfortunately) misjudged everything about it and put a stop to my fantasies rather quickly.

    • I wanted to be that kid, too. And when I originally went to Ocala and started working with racehorses at the training centers, my mom was not happy. But I feel like I got a second chance this time around. And I know there are a lot of other people that just up and leave their lives behind and take that chance at the racetrack. It’s totally the equivalent of running away and joining the circus. Except with fewer elephants. And the days, surprisingly, are much shorter!

  2. Emily

    Thank you.

    When is Bloodhorse going to give you a column? 😉

  3. Great one. Tight. Concise. And funny!

  4. Sara

    Great post. I’ve long felt like the track was a lot more egalitarian than the show circuit. I’ve known a few kids I grew up with who became jockeys or trainers, and they did it through working. Now they weren’t wealthy, but maybe someone had some connection for them to get their foot in the door. In the show world, its very rare anyone is going to go pro without a lot of money backing them. Margie Goldstein Engles is the only one that comes to mind.

    My parents weren’t too thrilled about my hanging out at the track either, so I didn’t get so far. And that was back in the early ’70’s when women working at the track weren’t so numerous. Nevertheless, I did work a summer walking hots at Delaware Park, and I think I learned more about how to handle a horse that summer than I had during all my lessons. Plus I had a boyfriend at the time who trained, and I went with him all over the mid-Atlantic tracks.

    Then I gave up horses for 30 years, and now I work at a hunter/jumper stable. Yesterday we went to Calder to pick up a filly, and I went along just so I could be there. I really do miss it, but at my age, I doubt anyone would hire me!

    • I hate to be a downer, but I don’t think you can reach the upper echelons of sport anymore without being completely rich, or being willing to give up everything and going into indentured servitude to a big-name-trainer. Frankly, it’s ridiculous. No trainer is that awesome or important that they should be able to push their working students as hard as they do. Girls get burned out young from trying desperately to overcome not being millionaires. I have a huge problem with that.

      And for what? For ribbons? I wish more girls knew they could walk up the security gate a racetrack, ask for the guard to put over the PA system that there is a hotwalker available, and do it for as long as it takes until they’re in the barn and walking horses, and able to learn.

      I see genuine senior citizens at Aqueduct. I’m not saying it’s something I’d want to be doing when I’m old, but I’m saying it’s a job for the able-bodied but not necessarily the young.

  5. Well said, Natalie.

    On my journey with Bar, I have danced around the fear issue a lot. When I started the horse path with Lena 5+ years ago, I didn’t know enough to be scared. Now I’m trying to get back to that because–shocking, I know–Bar responds to me so much better when I just don’t act like stuff is a big deal.

    It must be working a little bit. I got a compliment from the trainer I got him from on our way back from last week’s beach ride. She was surprised I hadn’t been around horses all my life because (her words) I’m such a good horse person.

    I told her it was him. He’s a good teacher. 🙂

    • Ignorance is truly bliss. A few years of experience and you realize all the close calls you’ve had, when you were just be-bopping along and didn’t know you were in the wrong. It reminds me of the ‘immortality complex’ that people complain about teenagers having. I miss that. I was so freaked out just by the thought of jumping big fences, things I wouldn’t have blinked at when I was a teenager. I’m working on that now, obviously, by getting on horses that a year ago I wouldn’t have touched with a pole.

  6. carrotplease

    Loved this post 🙂 And actually it reminds me a bit of how I got into horses – by just hanging around a barn. These days I’d be chased out with a broom, but back then they just handed me the broom and told me to get to work. 🙂

  7. Zoe

    This post is so true, I love it. When I showed hunters, it was considered a huge honour to be the first person to sit on a freshly-backed horse. You approached said horse with a quiet reverence and for days afterward you glowed with pride and felt kind of like a horse whisperer.
    When I rode trackwork, it was considered the least fun job in the stable. You approached that horse with a wary look in your eye and for days afterward you nursed bruises and felt kind of like you’d been steamrolled. 😛

    • The real winners at the track are the riders who progress to the point where they don’t have to get on horses anymore!

      And you have been steamrollered – at least, if you rode in barns made of cinder-block, as I did.. slamming into a wall counts, right?

      Thanks for the observation Zoe!

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