Breaking In - laying the groundwork with the racehorses of the future
By Frances Karon
While the Thoroughbred racehorse has evolved through methods of breeding, raising, feeding, vaccinating and training, one thing that has remained fairly constant is that they must be broken in with great care and patience if they stand any chance of doing what they were born to do."
We can breed for speed or distance, to race or sell commercially, or to zero in on superior ancestors, but whatever the sire’s covering fee is, it’s like that down-to-earth reminder that our shoes, be they Armani or knockoffs – go on the same way. All horses must be taught to carry a rider on their back and to respond to a bit in their mouth. Someone figured out a long time ago that Thoroughbreds do not react positively to the American cowboy way of “breaking” a horse – literally, breaking its spirit – leading the way for a gentler, more personalized breaking in process. There are subtle differences in the approach but the desired ending is to produce a horse who accepts a rider with the confidence that only good early experiences will give it.
In Camden, South Carolina, Mickey Preger Jr. has been breaking young racehorses-to-be for 15 years, though his education began long before. The son of the trainer of 1983 Eclipse Award-winning older mare Ambassador of Luck, Preger grew up on the backstretch of Belmont Park, where his father shared a barn with Northern Dancer’s trainer Horatio Luro for 20 years. Preger later spent years working for Ruffian and Forego’s trainer Frank Whiteley Jr. During Preger’s tenure, Whiteley broke Rhythm, Seeking the Gold and Preach.
Preger is based at the Camden Training Center, which used to be the place of choice for many trainers to winter their racehorses. Now, it caters more towards young horses learning the ropes but it has what Preger calls a “racetrack atmosphere in the country. There are enough horses here that they’re acclimated to everything when they leave here – the traffic of the track, horses jogging the wrong way.”
Preger circles October 1 on his calendar every year as his target date to begin the breaking in his new stock. The process itself is rudimentary and painstaking. He says, “I would say the way we break them is still very old school.” It is a matter of tackling one idea at a time and giving them three or four days to acclimate to it. Slowly, in this way his horses get used to a bit, lunging, lunging with a surcingle, with a saddle and with stirrups, each as an individual step. At this point they are well into their lessons and Preger will line drive them “until we put a good mouth on them, probably around four or five days. We take our time, and if a horse needs a couple more days we just give them a couple more days of whatever they need.”
The horses have already been introduced to a rider jumping on and off both sides, first in the stalls before graduating to the shedrow, jogging figure eights in small paddocks and learning directional changes in larger paddocks. Preger drills the same thing into their heads repetitively, stepping it up a level every few days as they become mentally prepared. In this fashion, the horses reach the stage where they begin jogging over a gallop in the woods before cantering on a polo field to try out lead changes.
The babies move on to gallop over a half-mile track, where they will generally remain until just after January 1, after which it is on to the more serious business conducted on the mile training track. When the horses ship out to racetracks around the country, most will be advanced enough to where their new trainers can breeze them three-eighths out of the gate at the end of their first week.
The majority of Preger’s clientele sends him homebred horses they intend to race, such as Grade 1 winner Mossflower and multiple graded winner Distorted Humor, but he does occasionally prep one that is earmarked for a late two-year-olds in training sale. His attitude toward the end use of both types is the same. “We don’t really do learning stages any differently, though we might have to speed up the process over the open gallops. You just probably have to kick on a little earlier to make the sales.” The season at the training center ends in mid-May, so the average horse in his care receives seven months of pre-track schooling.
An expansive ocean away, near Marlborough, England, ex-jockey Malcolm Bastard performs the same basic service as Preger with some slight distinctions. Bastard deals in a greater number of sales horses than his American counterpart, but also has plenty of horses going directly to trainers. Many of his influx have come out of yearling sales and he begins work as each comes into him and sends them out when they are properly broken, meaning he deals in cycles and can handle a greater volume than Preger’s 20.
“They’re pretty easy to break these days, especially if they’re sales prepped, then they’re half done.” Half done perhaps, but far from ready for the racecourse. In the case of a homebred, who will not have been handled to the same extent as a sales horse, Bastard commences at square one. “It goes in the horsewalker and we get it used to that for a few days, and then we put a rug on it.” These stages take a few days each, and once the horse is compliant with the rug Bastard introduces it to breaking tack, consisting of a bit, side reins, a bib martingale and a saddle, in one session. “We are looking after two things. The side rein stops them getting their head too far down and makes them carry it in the right place, and the martingale stops them getting their head up too far.” The ultimate goal, he says, is for the horses “to carry themselves in a nice position.”
Fully tacked, the yearlings spend 25 minutes on the horsewalker followed by a short spell of four or five minutes being lunged, with an additional 10 to 15 minutes of line driving in the indoor school adjacent to the lunge area. The duration of this phase “depends on the character of the horse.” This is the key to any good horsebreaker’s program, the point which Bastard is continually stressing, that no step is complete until the horse is fully accepting of what he is being asked to do. “As long as you know what you are doing with them, you gain their confidence while being firm but kind. They’ve got to trust you and you’ve got to trust them, and if you get a good relationship then they come a lot quicker.” Two current three-year-olds Bastard broke in for George Strawbridge as yearlings that attest to Bastard’s ability to establish that trust between man and animal are Group 1 winners Lucarno (by Dynaformer) and Mrs Lindsay (Theatrical), each by sires whose progeny are known to be difficult. Yet Bastard modestly brushes off his skills as “just very straightforward, basic common horse sense. I think everybody finds it straightforward, just hard work.”
Their “hard work” sees Bastard and his crew go from line-driving to riding their horses in the pen for 10 or so days, with a second person stationed at the horse’s head for its comfort and the safety of everyone involved. Having already proven themselves agreeable to someone jumping on and off them in the stable, once emotionally stable over a matter of days the horses move out to the indoor arena. As with Preger, regardless of where the horses are supposed to go after they leave Bastard’s stables, “they all get treated the same. With the breeze-up horses we don’t do anything different with them but start to sharpen them up a little bit more.”
Bastard retired from race riding in 1990, having ridden primarily for his boss of 14 years, Fred Winter, and began to pinhook his own horses, which eventually spiraled into breaking in other people’s horses. As a young boy, Bastard worked for showjumper Ted Williams, who Bastard credits as “an absolute genius of a horseman” from whom he learned to do things what he calls “the uncomplicated way. A lot of people try to make things complicated but that’s not the way we do it.” The main focus for Bastard is to “try to make things very simple, and the horses get into a routine and they enjoy that routine.”
One man who has been innovative in dealing with unbroken or even wild animals is Buck Wheeler. He uses his patented Stableizer to facilitate the breaking process. On a beautiful morning in Kentucky, Wheeler demonstrates on an unbroken yearling at Ramsey Farm. Wheeler joins the colt in the round pen with his gear, consisting in part of a long whip with a plastic bag fastened to the tip and a lasso that elicits a raised brow from the observer, not to mention the nervous colt eyeing him apprehensively. Wheeler secures the Stableizer under the colt’s lip and tightens it above his ears, hitting acupressure points that quickly begin to relax the horse. Wheeler inserts a chifney bit in the mouth because with a chifney, as opposed to a more traditional bit, “it all falls into place, all right in line” where the horse turns with his entire body as one instead of turning with his head with the rest to follow. He begins to lunge the yearling.
With every step, the colt is allowed to sniff the new equipment, and Wheeler reassures him with a rub on the forehead and by blowing in his nose that everything is okay. The two become fast friends, the colt recognizing Wheeler as the alpha leader, and whenever the colt is turned loose he trails as Wheeler zigzags around the pen with his back to the animal.
Wheeler, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation through his mother, was raised on 8,000 acres of Indian territory, with some 80 horses at his disposal. “I learned from the Indians – they weren’t called trainers then, they were just horsemen.” His father put him on a horse and said, “You’re going to learn to ride like the Indians before I buy you a saddle.” Wheeler laughs and fills in his adult interpretation of his father’s philosophy: “I think he was just too tight to buy the saddle. But one thing I realized later on in life was that he was absolutely correct because it learns you to be part of that animal. You are literally part of the horse. You can feel things that happen before they ever happen. You learn to watch their eyes, you learn to watch their ears, because those are their telegraphs.”
Perhaps most spectacular is what Wheeler does to close out the training period. To show how relaxed and desensitized the yearling is, Wheeler stands in the middle of the pen with the horse turned loose against the fence, and he twirls the lasso over his head and ropes the colt around his neck. The colt shies backward at first and Wheeler flicks it around his neck a second, third and fourth time. After the second, the colt stops flinching and simply watches with interest as Wheeler reverses the steps and untangles the rope from some 15 feet away.
“Because of the euphoria that’s induced by the endorphins he’s remembering this as a pleasurable experience instead of something that he’s being forced into, or having a bad attitude.”
The premise is elementary. The endorphins released by the pressure points on which the Stableizer rests enable Wheeler to handle the horse from all sides, getting him comfortable with having a rope tangled around his back legs or the plastic bag on the whip blowing in his face and over his body. When it is time for the saddle, Wheeler encourages the gray colt to satisfy his curiosity before he puts it on his back and cinches the girth by himself and with little effort. The stirrups dangle well below the horses belly; Wheeler threads his lines through them and drives the horse around in a circle. The yearling is frightened by the strange sensations and noises for the first two or three turns around the pen before he puts his head down and trots calmly and with a straight head as Wheeler steers him from behind with his fingertips.
The Stableizer is a shortcut to dealing with horses of all ages and in any capacity but is best described as an aid to promote good experiences for the animals. “You don’t have to go out there and jerk and holler and scream and fuss around. It’s the physiological aspect of what it does” with the endorphins. “If you hurt a horse in their training process – and it doesn’t matter if they’re little or big – they remember that, and sometimes it’s ten times tougher to go back in and try to break that fear.”
Trainers of the caliber of Clive Brittain and Carl Nafzger have observed Wheeler in action and are proponents of his Stableizer. Street Sense is Wheeler’s current poster boy, though Nafzger’s Unbridled and Lady Joanne and Wayne Lukas’ classic winners Grindstone and Editor’s Note have modeled the Stableizer as well. This is a successful tool that honors Wheeler’s Native American teachers by inventing a new way to emulate their old approach. His method is not necessarily different than the ways in which other people break horses, but assisted by the Stableizer he is able to accomplish the successful introduction of a rider within an hour of working with an unschooled horse. Or mule, zebra, llama – all of which on whom Wheeler has used the Stableizer.
Preger sums up his opinion of the breaker’s role in the racehorse’s career: “If a horse is going to perform well he’s got to be happy and healthy, right? I like to give credit to the people that train horses at the track. We work as a team, put it that way. It all has to work together.”
Although there are variants among people who break horses on global and even local levels, the certainty on which all will agree is that the horse’s emotional wellbeing during the learning stages is tantamount to its ability to perform to the best of its capacity.