A racehorse’s life begins on a stud farm and Australia is a world leader in producing superstars of the track.
In terms of horse numbers the thoroughbred industry here is second only to America. The number of mares (21,500) and stallions (700) in Australia dwarfs that in other established breeding countries such as the UK, Ireland, Japan and New Zealand.
As with all thoroughbred breeding across the world, all matings or “covers” are done naturally, during the domestic breeding season which runs from September 1 for about three months.
While the average stallion covers about 30 mares in the domestic season, the most popular will mate with more than 200 females.
And many Australian stallions are in demand in Europe and North America so are sent by plane to cover mares during the northern hemisphere season from February to May.
As for the cost of production, one important variable is the stallion. While some stallion owners charge just a few hundred dollars for a service, a visit to Australian champion sire Fastnet Rock costs breeders more than $100,000.
This success of Australian horses on the world stage – for the last eight years a horse bred locally was named best sprinter in the world – ensures hundreds of investors visit these shores each year to buy our stock, with a view to exporting it to race or breed from in their home country. Many others have bought their own breeding farms in Australia.
The breeding industry is not dominated by big players; the vast majority of breeders –
76 per cent – have just one or two mares. In terms of production, more than half of all mares are owned by breeders with five or fewer horses.
And while there are world renowned centres of excellence in Australia , such as the Hunter Valley, Queensland’s Darling Downs, and northeast Victoria, where Black Caviar was raised, every state and territory has its own breeding industry. In fact, last year’s champion sprinter, Brazen Beau, was bred and raised in the ACT.
The scale of production here means that thoroughbred breeding makes a huge contribution to the Australian regional economy, supporting thousands of jobs directly, as well as many more in related areas such as horse transport, fencing, fodder and insurance.
Most Australian thoroughbreds will be born in the period from August to November. As with any animal, the period immediately after a foal is born is critical to its development. Staff on stud farms are always keen to see a horse get to its feet and begin to nurse.
At this stage in their life most stud farms will keep horses of the same age and gender in paddocks together. Horses will still be kept outside almost all of the time and gain a large part of their diet through the grass they are kept on.
While some horses may be sold as weanlings (around 7 – 10 months old), most thoroughbreds which are produced commercially will go to the yearling sales (between 13 – 16 months old). Before being brought to the sale these horses will undergo a ‘sales preparation’, which typically lasts about 12 weeks and includes lots of walking, grooming and handling so they look and behave their best when they enter the auction ring.
After the sales a horse will likely be sent to a property to be ‘broken in.’ This involves the horse getting used to be ridden and building up its base level fitness, preparing it mentally and physically for the rigours of a full training regime.
Some owners may expect that a horse bought at the yearling sale will be ready to run within a few months but this is almost never the case. For a start, most sales falling between January and April, and the first races for two year-olds do not happen until September. Even then most horses are not physically ready to begin racing at this stage. While some horses are bred to be successful at two years-old, the majority will develop physically and improve with age.
It is worth considering the words of legendary trainer Bart Cummings, who achieved much of his success with horses he had given time to develop.
“Patience is the cheapest thing in racing and thing most seldom used.”
Trainers will bring young horses along slowly, as their musculoskeletal system to develop and adapt to the test of training and racing.
When a horse is nearing being ready to have its first race they will be entered for a either ‘jump out’ or ‘barrier trial’. These are best described as dress rehearsals, where the horses are typically ridden by professional jockeys, but there is no betting allowed. Some trainers opt to give their horses ‘easy’ trials rather than pushing them out and trying to win. These jump outs and trials can be an important part of a racehorse’s education, while in older horses they can be a valuable way to improve fitness.
Welfare & Retirement
At one stage or another during your horse’s career, you will have to ask yourself the important question of what to do when they retire from the track. For some of the better performed or bred horses, life as a stallion or a broodmare is the obvious option. However, for those lacking pedigree or race-performance, this may not be economically viable and you will have to seek an alternative. Luckily, there are a number of options available to you that ensure your horse goes on to live a happy and fulfilling life outside of racing.read more
However, if your horse is still relatively sound upon retirement, there is nothing stopping it from continuing successfully in another equestrian discipline. On average, a thoroughbred has a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years post-retirement, meaning there is plenty of time to excel in a second career as a pleasure or performance horse. Many ex-racehorses go on to successfully compete in showing, eventing, polo and pony club. A number have even qualified for the Mounted Police, such as Group 1 Golden Rose winner Manawanui.
There are number of programs funded by the state racing organisations in Australia, dedicated to the retraining and re-homing of thoroughbreds. These organisations work alongside other equine industry bodies to educate the community and promote the breed. They have developed extensive sponsorship structures that ensure suitable incentives for retraining such as thoroughbred-only event classes and additional prizemoney, and they offer help and guidance to those interesting in re-training and re-homing.
For more information on retiring your horse and getting started with re-homing or re-education, contact your state Principal Racing Authority.
Thoroughbreds are elite racing machines, bred for their superior athleticism. They are 500 kilograms of pure strength, speed and agility and can reach speeds of up to 60 kilometers an hour when galloping. Although bred for this purpose, the high physical demand of racing can take its toll on a horse’s body and it is generally accepted that horses with good physical conformation are less prone to injury and are easier to keep fit and healthy.read more
Everyone’s idea of what constitutes as perfect conformation will differ slightly and there is no magic recipe for creating the perfect thoroughbred. However, familiarising yourself with the basic points of the horse will assist your understanding of conformation and you will be better able to follow discussions with your trainer and/or agent.
Pedigree refers to a horse’s family tree, with its paternal ancestors — sire/father — on the top, and its maternal ancestors — dam/mother — on the bottom.read more
Many trainers and agents place great emphasis on a horse’s pedigree when looking at potential purchases. The general rule is the more ‘black type’ present in the pedigree, the more successful the family is and the higher the horse’s value.
However, as with conformation, there are no guarantees and an impressive pedigree does not always result in a winning racehorse.
‘Black Type’ Explained
Within a pedigree you will note different variations of bold typeface. These signal noteworthy race-performances commonly referred to by racing enthusiasts as ‘black-type’.
When looking at a pedigree, the more ‘black-type’ the better.
BLACK CAVIAR – All upper case black-type signifies a Group or Listed race winner
Black Caviar – Lower case black type signifies a Group or Listed race placegetter
The Health and Wellbeing of Your Horse
Like all professional athletes, racehorses experience their fair share of aches, pains and the odd injury as a result of training and competition.
Education and communication are key factors in protecting yourself against unnecessary and unexpected costs. So make an effort to understand the purpose and cost of each treatment and stay in regular contact with your trainer.
Common Injuries & Ailments
EIPH or Bleeding:
Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH), commonly known as bleeding, has been known to afflict Thoroughbreds since the early 18th Century. Bleeding results from strenuous exercise and can be detected externally by the appearance of blood in the horses nostrils or internally via a veterinary scope.
If your horse bleeds from both nostrils, Racing Stewards will enforce an embargo and your horse will not be allowed to race for a period of three months. If it happens a second time, your horse will be banned from racing.
If bleeding is only detected from one nostril, your horse will be required to trial in front of the stewards before being allowed to race again.
An inflammation and enlargement of the flexor tendon at the back of the front cannon bone. It is most commonly caused by severe strain, which causes the tendon fibers to stretch and rupture, resulting in a bowed appearance.
Treatment involves a lengthy rehabilitation process and your horse will be sidelined for anywhere between six to twelve months. Unfortunately, some horses never sufficiently recover from a bowed tendon and have to be retired.
Most commonly occurs in young horses, usually during their early racing preparations. The condition affects the front of the cannon or shin bone and the majority of cases involve the front legs – horses rarely go shin sore behind.
The soreness is the result of the cannon bone remodeling and strengthening itself to better cope with the demands of training and racing. Once the condition occurs, there is rarely a repeat.
Quite often recovery requires a stint of paddock rest for approximately four to six weeks but some trainers may be able to manage the condition successfully whilst the horse remains in training.
A calcification or bony growth, usually occurring on the inside of the cannon or splint bones. It is typically caused by strain or trauma to the ligament that joins the splint bone to the cannon bone.
Splints usually occur in horses that are in heavy training that are still growing. They result in swelling, pain and lameness.
The recovery process often involves paddock rest but in severe cases surgery might be required to remove the growth.
Torn Suspensory Ligament:
The suspensory ligament runs from the top end of the back side of the cannon bone (and knee and hock), down to the sesamoid and the pastern bone – it is a vital shock absorber for the horse’s leg and one of the main supporting structures of the horse’s fetlock. Subsequently, the suspensory ligament is among the most stressed of all the tissues in the racehorse’s body and an injury of this nature is rather serious.
Rehabilitation is lengthy and will involve long-term paddock rest and significant pre-training. Various other treatments may be used in conjunction including laser therapy, ultrasound therapy and stem cell therapy.
Bone chip in the knee or ankle:
Pieces of broken bone off the knee or ankle (usually from racing stress). If chips remain attached they may not interfere with the action of the horse’s leg, but can be extremely painful and usually require removal by arthroscopic surgery.
If your horse requires surgery, they will be sidelined from racing for a number of months while they complete their recovery and rehabilitation.
The sesamoids are two small, delicate bones located at the back of the fetlock, held in place only by ligaments. These little bones located just behind the pastern serve as pulleys over which the deep digital flexor tendons pass. Subsequently, they are under stress each time a horse takes a step.
Prognosis for future racing depends on the severity of the fracture. Fractures at the top of the bone are more easily treatable but your horse will require surgery and rehabilitation will be lengthy.
A hard enlargement on the rear of the cannon bone immediately below the hock. It begins as an inflammation of the plantar ligament and the inflammation leads to a thickening of the ligament.
Curbs develop as a result of heavy strain to the ligament through training and racing or they can result from poor hock conformation and structural defects.
Colic is a general term used to describe pain in the gastrointestinal tract of a horse. Colic can happen any time to any horse and has many causes. Treatments vary depending on the type of colic and its severity.
Horses recover from mild cases of colic relatively quickly and their training regime may not be interrupted. However, horses with severe colic may require surgery and will subsequently require time to recover.
One of the most common problems associated with horses. Hoof abscesses are a localised accumulation of puss within the horse’s hoof and they cause sudden and severe lameness. They are the result of bacteria entering the hoof and this can be caused by a small cut or a piece of foreign debris.
Treatment of a hoof abscess usually involves opening the abscess and allowing it to drain. Sometimes a special ointment or poultice will be applied to encourage the abscess to break out on its own. Keeping the wound dressed and clean at this stage is vital.
In most cases, foot abscesses are easily treatable and don’t cause significant interruption to your horse’s preparation.
A bruise to the sole of the horse’s foot. Bruises can result from a variety of factors, ranging from literally stepping on a stone (external bruising) to landing with a high level of concussive force when racing on a hard surface that the bones of the inner foot bruise the inside of the sole (internal bruising).
Stone bruises can cause severe lameness but like all bruising, heal with time.
Physiotherapy and Massage:
Racehorses are considered elite athletes in their own right and trainers will often engage an equine physiotherapist to treat horses in training to assist with recovery and injury prevention.
Equine physiotherapy follows the same treatment principals as human physiotherapy and to become a qualified equine physiotherapist you must first complete a bachelor of science in human physiotherapy before going on to specialise in horses.
Horses in training will often experience muscle tightness, restriction in joint range of motion and may develop areas of soreness and weakness. Physiotherapy treatment will help alleviate these symptoms and help your horse perform at an optimal level.
In addition, equine massage can be used to relive tension and stress, increase circulation and to assist with the removal of toxins and waste products causes by exercise and injury. It can also assist with tissue repair by stimulating the body’s own healing process.
Horses in training often experience back pain due to the high level of physical demand placed on their bodies.
It is not uncommon for trainers to engage an equine chiropractor to perform spinal adjustments on your horse. Chiropractic care can be used to increase flexibility, improve performance and decrease pain and muscle spasms in horses.
Horses need regular dental care if they are to get the maximum benefit from their feed and perform well.
Horses aged 2-5 years should receive dental check-ups at six month intervals. After the age of five, when a horse has developed a full set of permanent teeth, check-ups should be annually, if not more.
Teeth problems can lead to weight loss, loss of coat shine, behavioural problems, irregular chewing patterns, quidding (dropping partially chewed food out of the mouth), head tossing, lack of responsiveness to the bit, swelling of the face or jaw and reluctance to drink cold water.
Ensuring your horse’s feet are properly looked after should of prime importance. If your horse can’t run, you are in big trouble!
Your horse will receive regular farrier attention throughout its racing career and it is not uncommon for them to be shod every few weeks when they are in full training.
Not all horses are the same when it comes to shoeing requirements. Below are a couple of common charges that you might see on your bill:
Trim– refers to the trimming of the hoof wall, similar to trimming your fingernails. Prevents cracks and other hoof abnormalities. Trimming balances the foot to ensure weight is evening distributed and helps prevents leg injuries related to uneven weight distribution.
Race Day Plates – typically made from aluminum, race-day plates are a lighter version of a traditional horse-shoe. They protect the horses hoof whilst they are racing, while minimising weight strain on the horse’s legs.
Bar Shoes – are a specialised type of horse shoe that helps to raise the heel of the hoof and reduce strain on the suspensory ligament.
Glue-On Shoes – are shoes that are adhered to the hoof using a very strong bonding agent, instead of the traditional method of using nails. They are useful on horses with thin hoof walls, and horses which are chronically sore in the soles of the feet.