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.
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.”