Just like taking a horse to a few practice runs at horse show grounds – “Oh we’re not showing, we’re just schooling,” is always one of my favorite excuses for not getting a horse braided up and looking like a confused movie star – at the racetrack, the daily grind of, you know, boring everyday work like galloping really fast and spooking at plastic bags stuck up in trees along the backstretch has to be mixed up with schooling sessions.
Gate schools come first, by necessity, because there’s nothing like convincing a horse that going into a narrow metal box with sides that actually touch their skin is a good idea. In Florida, we’d take the yearlings into schooling gates, big stationary wooden structures with no doors at all, nothing to rattle or shake or in anyway intimidate the baby. They’d get used to walking through the gates, which in retrospect were probably like high-walled versions of the catch pens that they’d been fed in as foals and weanlings.
Some training centers have actual starting gates, but very few of them, to my knowledge, come equipped with a fabulous starter crew that handles the afternoon races, or a fancy ringing bell like an old-fashioned alarm clock. And these things are key. The horse has to learn that an apparent stranger is going to walk up and take him into the scary gate, and then when the doors burst open with no warning at all, a loud bell is going to go off like a fire alarm and scare the bejesus out of them.
Of course, chances are that as they learn that the gate means they are going to get to gallop flat-out, they’ll learn to appreciate the ringing of the bell. But to start, it’s just a frustratingly loud noise on an oddly confusing morning.
There is a record of every horse’s every break from the starting gate, which is important, because no horse with bad habits or erratic behavior, or who simply hasn’t proven that they are able to leap straight out of the gate in company, can be allowed to race. A horse that doesn’t school well, doesn’t get to race until they prove to the gate crew that they can do it properly.
(Let’s pause for a moment and imagine that there is someone at the in-gate at every horse show, checking off names, and saying, “I’m sorry, but the last time you showed this horse, he acted like a complete maniac and frightened everyone else’s horse, so you’re going to have to go the schooling ring and prove to me that he behaves himself like a gentleman before I will let you in there with all those other horses.” Ah. How refreshing that would be.)
So a member of the gate crew spends time with each horse before he takes them into the gate, patting the neck and reassuring the horse – “Yes, I’m a stranger, but you can trust me…” Some are recalcitrant time and time again, and the crew will go through several techniques in their effort to get the horse to go politely into the gate: first with a person well behind the horse swinging a lead strap (just a thin piece of leather that they use to hook through the bit ring), then maybe shaking a driving whip behind them, and then finally all the men will look at one another, nod, and wait for a moment for the horse to stand quietly before they link arms behind the hindquarters and shove that naughty horse into the gate. The ones that are just being stubborn will heave a sigh as they go in, because they knew all along they’d have to. It’s similar to loading up in a trailer, except, with a rider that you must be conscious of and keep safe.
And, of course, instead of a long and tedious trailer ride, (I have yet to meet a horse who genuinely loves to go on trailer rides) the reward for all this schooling is to have the gates open, and the bell ring, and the rider to shake the reins and shout, and off you go…