What Makes a Good Race Horse Trainer?
For many punters, a horse’s trainer is one of the first, if not the actual first bit of information that is taken into account when deciding whether or not to bet on a horse.
They might not be the superstars of the horse racing world – that title goes to the jockeys – but the trainers get all of the respect that comes with their position in interviews and the like.
We might well compare them to football managers or film directors; the trainer is the person who steers the ship and makes the important decisions, but not usually the ones who get the spotlight.
It’s not easy to become a race horse trainer, it takes years of hard work rising through the ranks, so naturally only those that are good at the job actually end up doing it, but still, some are better than others.
They all require the same skill set, but the breadth of experience from one trainer to another can differ greatly, saying nothing of their innate ability to sum a horse up and understand the best direction for them.
Horses are just like people in that they have their own distinct personalities, temperaments, aptitude for learning, things they like and don’t like, etc. A good trainer will get to know the horses they work with, and understand how to get the best out of them and how to avoid setting them back.
In other words; a trainer’s job is not to try to turn every horse into a champion, but to recognise the strengths and weaknesses in each horse they work with and guide them to achieve their full potential.
What Skills Does a Racehorse Trainer Need?
Trainers work with a large number of horses all at the same time, over 100 in busy stables, so they obviously can’t do their jobs alone.
The trainer is just one cog in the machine; they need a fairly large team behind them which includes assistant trainers, work riders, grooms etc., and may do more overseeing than actual training with many of the horses in their stable.
They will keep detailed records on each horse though and discuss each animal regularly with other members of staff who work with them more frequently, so a trainer will know all of their horses well enough to make sensible decisions about how to train them, when to rest them, and when to enter them into races.
Really then, one of the trainer’s most important skills has nothing to do with horses at all. It is the ability to recognise the talents of others and hire good people who they can trust, because a trainer can have all the natural talent with horses in the world, but if their team is sloppy then their horses won’t perform.
Thinking more about their work with the horses though, a trainer must:
- Have patience
- Be knowledge
- Show strong communication skills
- Pay attention to detail
- Be adaptable
- Have conviction
This might all sound a little vague, but let’s look at each item in detail:
You can’t force a horse to do something it doesn’t want to do.
Some horses are ready to start training sooner than others, and the same goes for racing too, plus, just because a horse isn’t head of the class when it’s young, that doesn’t mean they won’t go on to be a great racer when they are a bit older.
Pushing a horse too far too soon can greatly slow down its’ progress and in a worst-case scenario completely destroy any potential the animal might have had.
A trainer must therefore have the patience to work with a horse until it is ready to race, even if that takes longer than they might have liked.
In the shorter term too, a horse may be difficult to work with or have a temper, so a trainer must remain calm in the moment in order to put the horse at ease and make it feel comfortable enough to train.
Even once the horse is well raced patience may be required.
Recovering from an injury will take as long as it takes, which may mean holding a horse back from a race the trainer and owner were really hoping it could run. The trainer must have the sense and patience to wait until the horse is really ready, because racing it even just a few days too soon could worsen an injury that is almost healed.
This is a combination of experience and education.
When rising through the ranks, a trainer will have studied all aspects of training and caring for a horse, which means they will be a jack of all trades to a point.
Understanding horses and training them is their main skill, but they will have acquired medical knowledge from studying the musculoskeletal structure and anatomy of a horse as well as having many conversations with vets over the years.
The same can be said for farriery, a profession which focusses on everything below the fetlock but specifically the hoof. A trainer won’t know as much as a farrier, but would be able to hold their own in a conversation.
A good trainer will recognise the signs of illness, injury, or any other problems as soon as they arise, and act on them before they can become worse.
You can think of it in a similar way to someone who has a keen interest in cars and can accurately diagnose many common problems, but is not a mechanic and wouldn’t try to fix the car themselves.
They will also have collected many tips and tricks when it comes to the actual training of each horse, and will have an encyclopaedic knowledge of pedigrees. Understanding where a horse has come from can help a trainer to figure out the sort of racer they might become, which in turn will influence the training time table.
The trainer will do a lot of watching of the horses in their yard (they don’t really ride the horses themselves) and will take cues from the horse’s physicality, build, the way they move and how they like to run as to whether they might suit sprinting, middle distance, or be a stayer etc. Again, this will influence the training going forward and eventually dictate the sort of races the horse is entered into.
This brings us neatly on to selecting not just when a horse is ready to race, but which races would best suit the horse.
Having knowledge of the different courses/races and their idiosyncrasies and then being able to match them to specific horses means retaining an awful lot of knowledge, not to mention then matching a horse with the right jockey.
There are many routes a horse might go down from the time they first start their training to the time they enter their first races, and thousands of decisions to be made along the way. The knowledge of the trainer should hopefully get each horse on the right route for them.
Harking back to the first point we made about a trainer needing to be exceptional at spotting and hiring talent, they must also be able to communicate with those people effectively.
A stable with 100+ horses in it will hire a lot of staff, so delegating jobs is important and information might go through a few different people before it gets to its destination.
Being able to communicate clearly and concisely is therefore paramount.
It’s often about fine margins when training race horses, so getting the details right really matters.
For example, a racehorse needs around 35,000 calories a day (twice as much as a regular horse), but it’s not just about the number of calories, it’s about exactly how those calories are made up.
A race horse’s diet needs:
- Fibre – For maintaining healthy digestion and providing slow release energy.
- Starch – For quick release energy to balance things out.
- Fat – To keep skin, coat, hooves and joints healthy, as well as providing energy.
- Protein – To build muscle and aid tissue development and recovery after exercise.
That’s a lot to consider, and it may well change before race day so the horse has plenty of energy to give it their all on the field.
A horse also needs to maintain a healthy weight, so balancing their food and water intake is a constant process which would be easy to get confused if communication was not on point.
It’s not just staff either; trainers need to arrange races for their horses, transport, care instructions at the track, and of course communicate with owners and write progress reports.
In order to keep their business thriving, a trainer must be able to communicate effectively on all levels.
Attention to Detail
A lot can go wrong with a horse.
They are complicated animals in many ways and not the same as humans – for example, they can’t breathe through their mouths – so it can be easy to miss when a horse is perhaps not feeling 100%. They can’t exactly tell someone if they are feeling ill, can they?
A good trainer needs to pay attention to all of the little ‘tells’ a horse gives off so they can recognise when there might be a problem.
There could be a serious issue brewing under the surface but very little evidence of it on the outside, so spotting a horse behaving out of character, moving slightly differently, or perhaps just seeming a bit down in the dumps is a critical skill.
Equally, while training, a horse might show a like or dislike for something and the trainer needs to be attuned to that so they pick up on the horse’s mood and adapt the sessions accordingly.
Horses are sensitive beasts and it’s best to take their cues rather than attempt to bully them into doing something they don’t want to do. A trainer needs the horse’s trust, and to get that they must listen to the horse and respect them.
This attention to detail must be present when trainers write training programs for a horse too. This ties in with communication skills above, since written communication is just as important as verbal.
Written instructions need to be detailed enough so that they cannot be misinterpreted, as mistakes here could lead to the wrong training exercises being carried out, or pushing the horse too hard before race day, or getting the feed wrong, etc.
As you can probably already tell having read the article so far, a race horse trainer is always making changes to a horse’s training schedule, or feed, or maybe trying a new rider with the horse, etc.
Being adaptable is an absolute must because they are working in an ever-changing environment with many moving parts.
There is a plan for each horse under their care, regardless of whether they are mature enough to race or still a yearling, but things happen.
Injuries, illness, owners pushing for change or even pulling their horse out to send it to a different stable, and then of course there are the races themselves.
Perhaps the weather turned and the ground is no longer favourable, perhaps the horse is not looking very happy once it arrives at the course, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
A trainer has to make big decisions sometimes with very little notice, and those decisions can be costly and very disappointing for the team behind the horse.
However, at the heart of those decisions is always the wellbeing of the horse. The horse is the most important consideration.
A good trainer can and will change their long-held plans if they need to, so long as it is for the good of the horse.
So much of training a race horse comes down to instinct, backed up of course with knowledge and experience.
Therefore, a trainer needs the conviction to listen to their gut and stick by their decisions unless there is a very good reason not to.
This doesn’t mean they ignore the recommendations of their team; the trainer should be able to listen to others too, but if they have a strong feeling about something based on all their years of experience, no amount of pressure should be able to dissuade them.
This sort of pressure might come from a big client for example, an owner with several good horses at their stable who is pushing for a particular horse to run in a particular race.
The trainer doesn’t have to do what the owner wants, but if things got heated and the owner started making demands and threats, the trainer would need the conviction to stick to their guns. They would almost certainly know better than the owner, and since the owner is the person with the financial interest, their motives might be financial first and the horse’s welfare second.
In connection with this, a trainer shouldn’t doubt themselves after the fact or beat themselves up if they make a decision that has a questionable outcome.
We are all of us always learning, no one is perfect and even the best of us can make mistakes or misjudge a situation.
If this happens to a trainer, they must have the confidence to shake it off and get back to business, so that one error does not turn into two.