How our steeplechasers get the best treatment

The recent National Racehorse Week sought to draw attention to the care and attention lavished on the thoroughbred racehorses that run for our pleasure – and occasional profit – each year. The brainchild of trainer Richard Philips, who bemoaned that our horses can’t talk for themselves, the day attracted tens of thousands of racing fans to racing yards all over the country, and looks set to become an annual event.

Our racehorses are better looked after than ever before PHOTO: Mat Mingo/PPAUK


It’s an odd thing, but much of the lore of looking after horses is handed down from personal experience and from aural education. In nearly forty years of following racing, rarely have I seen a publication focused on how to train a racehorse for steeplechasing or hurdling. Which may explain why when Martin Pipe burst on the scene in the eighties with interval training, he was able to steal a march on his rivals with a greater degree of fitness.

The best horse racing guide I ever saw that would show a comparative novice how to train and ride a racehorse was John Hislop’s Steeplechasing, published by J A Allen in 1951. For the younger reader, J A Allen was a wonderful old bookshop in Victoria Gate, opposite the Royal Mews in London, which closed in 1999. Although riding styles have changed somewhat since John’s day ( no full boot in the iron now, just a toe on the edge of the stirrup), much of the premise of caring for a horse remains unchanged even now.

The Science of Feeding

Knarled old stablemen will continue to swear by the use of Guinness or raw eggs in horse feeds, but today’s reality is driven by science. A trip to Connolly’s Red Mills laboratories in Goresbridge will show you the granular detail of the nutrient content in oats, barley and other foodstuffs that is assembled in the right quantities to provide the optimum feed resource to top athletes like our horses.

The national hunt horse must have enough stamina to stay a distance and also enough speed to accelerate in the final furlong. Slow work is supported primarily by aerobic respiration. This means the muscles use oxygen to produce energy. Faster work is fuelled mostly by anaerobic respiration (without oxygen).Thoroughbred racehorses have high skeletal muscle mass which can increase and adapt in response to exercise. Racehorse diets high in protein help to support an increased rate of muscle protein synthesis and thus improves both muscle mass and strength, and there is a subtle difference in the feeding regimes between developing young horses running on the flat and the older chasing type.

The same food science that has been applied to our human athletes is now readily available to horses, and a majority of trainers are fielding regular visits from feedstuffs experts to iron out the particular foibles of some of their horses that have more sensitive digestive systems. This is a fascinating world, where the appliance of science to nutrition is enhancing performance year on year.

Hoof care

“No foot, no horse” is an old adage loved of farriers, and if there’s one thing that trainers of thoroughbreds will agree, it’s that the quality of hoof has deteriorated overt several generations of thoroughbred breeding. Larger yards will employ their own farrier, but changing shoes frequently does nothing for the quality of hooves.

Hoof care is as essential as feeding


Gary Pickford runs the largest team of farriers in Lambourn, numbering over 25, to service trainers, studs and other equestrian competition horses all over the west Country, sometimes even abroad. This includes the stock services of shoeing for exercise, the use of light steels or aluminium plates for racing, and podiatry problems in thoroughbreds that prevent them from running to the best of their ability. Gary and his team saw Altior through all his racing career, and also handle other nearby trainers like Neil King and Warren Greatrex.

Becoming a farrier is no quick fix. An apprenticeship with the Worshipful Company of farriers takes 4 years – considerably more time than it takes to become a fully-fledged jockey!  And such is the nature of horse care nowadays that farriers will liaise on an ongoing basis with feed companies to verify that the feeding regime is compatible with good footcare too.


Grooming & stable care

The biggest issue facing trainers presently is the recruitment and retention of reliable staff,especially among the smaller yards, where stable bonuses are smaller and pay and conditions more demanding. Under the Rules of Racing a percentage of the prize money pool is allocated to the stable staff depending on where the horse is placed in the race. at a little over 1%, this doesn’t sound very much, but if you are Paul Nicholls, with over £2m in win and place earnings, this can amount to a nice end of year fillip. Small wonder that the larger yards then are better staffed than smaller ones where a winner remains a novelty, hard earned.

Racing is one of the few employment sectors where getting a qualification from one of the racing schools in Newmarket or Doncaster guarantees you a job. But nowadays, there are as many immigrant workers from eastern Europe and Asia working in yards as white Caucasians. This is no enlightened anti-discrimination stance by our professional trainers; merely a realization that the modern day English and Irish workforce no longer finds weekend and evening working a positive element to a career move into horseracing. Lads like Madan Lal, Muhammed Zahid and Jalam Singh, who all work for trainer Tom George, have found English working practices easier than in their home countries, and they are far from alone.

However, the staffing crisis in racing has also affected the ratio of horses per lad. In Edwardian times, lads were charged with two horses each, because each horse would enjoy a hour’s strapping at evening stables to improve muscle tone. Nowadays, lads are overseeing five, even six horses each, especially at the height of the season when other staff are travelling horses daily. Strapping as a form of finessing fitness has disappeared.


Riding work

During the eighties, even our foremost trainers left plenty to work on a horse in its first race. An unfair assessment might be that they were “carrying condition”. A horse would run into form when a race allowed his belly to tighten and fat turned to muscle. Martin Pipe changed all that.

His interval training approach of shorter gallops repeated rather than endless steady cantering, made his horses much sharper from the off. “Make all” were his instructions for a majority of his runners in the years before other trainers realized he wasn’t using magic potion, but had trained his horses to be fitter from the get-go. If you view any race including a Pipe runner from the eighties, the chances are that Scu would be leading the field from the off, and would stay there.

The advent of all-weather surfaces both for training, and on the racecourse, has also assisted this general move toward a higher level of fitness. It takes a blizzard or a gallop washing away to prevent a trainer conditioning his horses on the gallops nowadays, and grass is used often to sharpen a horse’s mental fitness – as much a change as a rest from the woodchip every day.

There seems little doubt that improving the fitness of our equine athletes has added to the competitive nature of the sport. Our horses are running a little more frequently each season, starting younger and finding a new career by 12 or 13 – time enough for a second career outside racing. And with monitoring of where those horses go at the end of their racing career, surely, the thoroughbred has never had it so good.