Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Learning the horse business

This time of year I speak with a lot of newcomers to breeding. Even though I tell them mostly the same things over and over again, I really don't mind. They often apologize for so many questions, but I tell them their questions are always welcome--and I mean it. Better questions before, than wishing you'd asked them later.
Even though there are equine courses taught at colleges and universities, horse breeding is largely self-taught or passed on by experienced breeder-mentors. Horse breeders are some of the most generous people with their time and expertise of any people I know. Many are continuing the practice of handing down their knowledge to the next generation, as it was handed down to them.
As a kid in southern California, back before all the old ranchos went down to development. (Yep, they paved paradise and, put up a parking lot.) I was lucky enough to live near several working horse ranches. And being a horse crazy kid, I propped on the top of many a corral fence watching the ranch hands, most of whom were Mexican, as they went about their business. That was my introduction to horse breeding.
Years later, when I had my own kids and they had playmates over at the house during breeding season, I'd pick up the stallion's chain shank and head for the barn to tease or breed mares. One of the kids would hear the chain rattle and say to their friends, "C'mon, you gotta see this." And a little trail of children would join the dogs following me to the barnyard. Like the old vaqueros who didn't shoo me away, I figured it was a good lesson in how babies are made. Nobody's parent ever called to complain.
When I went to the racetrack I first worked as a groom, learning the basics of horse care, including how to properly clean a stall, grooming and leg work, feeding, tacking and most importantly, assessing a horse's mental and physical condition and relaying important details to the trainer. Has the horse been digging in his stall? Might be sore or colicky, or bored. Did he pin his ears and go to the back of his stall when he saw you coming with the tack? Might be sore or sour, which is usually caused by being sore. Being a groom is one of the very best ways to learn the horse business from the ground up. They are the often unsung heroes of the horse industry. I love it when a top trainer hails their groom as the reason for their success.
When I was training racehorses myself, I never missed an opportunity to learn from other trainers. Even the "worst" trainer might have some nugget of advice that you can use. The old guys were especially willing to sit in the shed row on a hot summer afternoon and let me pick their brains. I learned so many tricks of the trade that way, and still have the little recipe book of liniments and cures that I wrote them down. When I once asked a prominent trainer the secret of his success in developing so many top class horses he had a one-word answer that I regard as the key to raising and training horses. "Patience," he said.