My Journey into the Thoroughbred Racing World

Galloping my favourite boy, Roger in 2018.

Galloping my favourite boy, Roger in 2018.

After a lengthy career on the Arabian Horse circuit, I eventually made the switch to yet another hot blooded breed, the Thoroughbred. My interest in Thoroughbreds first began with those off the track. I got my first Thoroughbred off of the racetrack when I was just 16 years old, a 4 year old mare who had two starts under her belt. She was the quintessential hot blooded, sensitive Thoroughbred mare and taught me a lot. Soon enough, I got another OTTB, this time a 5 year old with over 30 more starts under his belt, such handling on the track created an exceptional minded, sweet horse that was an absolute pleasure to retrain and was able to learn things like bridleless riding in a matter of weeks.

Eventually, my thirst for everything Thoroughbred extended past working with them off of the racetrack. I wanted to ride racehorses and like a LOT of OTTB owners out there, I naively assumed that my experience in working with them off the track would make the transition to gallop riding an easy one. I began contacting farms to see if they were looking for riders and/or willing to teach me. Eventually, I found someone who started the teaching process. My first ride on a Thoroughbred racehorse was a bit “fake” if you ask me, because I first got on a baby, who had never raced. This meant the horse was a lot easier to ride than literally anything else I would get on. I loped around without even knowing how to properly bridge my reins, despite the trainer’s attempts to teach me. The explanation given just wasn’t there. Eventually, I got on something that had raced and was promptly run off on. Not flat out, just faster than what I would’ve wanted to go. My arms were burning. My legs aching. I could taste blood. I had literally attempted to hold back a freight train without even effectively bridging my reins and still, I hadn’t had the full dose of reality of what it was like to ride a fit racehorse.

The trainer that started my initial gallop training only worked with me about three times before sustaining an injury rendering him incapable of teaching me. This is how I found my current boss, who back then agreed to try me out as a rider and finish my training but only after reminding me that only one out of every 10 Gallop riders they try actually work out. I was determined to be that one in 10 . Upon arriving to her farm for the first time, they were astonished by my lack of ability to hold a cross and wondered aloud: “How the hell were you galloping without one?” Definitely was on some pretty easy horses… That’s for sure. Anyways, within minutes they gave me the rundown of how to use a cross and I understood it this time. The first horse I went out on was a 4 year old dappled grey gelding named Travis. We did a jog lap in company with a more experienced rider, it went great. I was feeling confident, had my cross down pat. Awesome. We started our gallop lap, back tracking (going to the right) to keep the horses less strong. We made it down one long side and around a corner before Travis started to leave. I made the rookie mistake of panicking slightly, tensing and losing half of my cross. Travis was gone.

If you’ve ever galloped a Thoroughbred and I mean GALLOPED and I mean THOROUGHBRED, you’ll know the fear that comes with losing control of one at a break neck speed. No other breed of horse can open up like a Thoroughbred. You might think your Warmblood is fast, but no, they cannot gallop like a Thoroughbred. In fact, in the case of my Warmblood, they really don’t have a gallop at all… Not like that. Thoroughbreds are freaks of nature. The wind whips your face and brings tears to your eyes, you can feel them increasing speed with every stride, completely and utterly out of control and running faster than anything you’ve ever ridden before (unless you have, in fact, ridden a Thoroughbred racehorse on a racetrack). It is TERRIFYING. The prospect of falling off at that speed feels like a death sentence. I tried and tried to pull Travis up before the next corner but to no avail. We had about 5 seconds from him getting away from me to entering the corner and completely blowing through it (our training track does not have rails), off of the track, off of the 3 foot bank and into the tall grass. I thought we were going to fall. I thought I was going to break the legs of what I imagine was a very expensive horse. Luckily, he landed fine and pulled up in the grass. Some how, we didn’t hit any holes. Incredibly, incredibly lucky. And completely utterly terrifying.

I sheepishly brought Travis back onto the track, looking over where the head trainer and owner of this particular horse had been watching. I knew right then that I was not getting hired. This was it, I’d blown my chance. I was not the one in ten. The absolute worst thing that could have possibly happened on my first horse did happen. I tried to shove the disappointment aside and keep a positive attitude. My legs and arms felt like jelly and my muscles were visibly vibrating from the immense effort they had put forth to stop Travis, the adrenaline and the fear.

Well, that was fast. Do you want to get on another?

Shocked by the offer to ride again and although part of me wanted to decline it, due to my muscular fatigue and the fear that the same thing would happen all over again, I said yes. Yes, of course. I knew that if I said no, that was the end right there, I wouldn’t be welcomed back. The next horse I got on was young and had not yet raced. This time, it went well, no bolting. And so, I earned another chance and was allowed back to ride at this farm.

The learning curve for gallop riding is steep. You either start to get it or don’t. You have to figure it out pretty damn quick or bolting is a frequent occurrence. I got on easier horses for the next few days of learning to gallop but eventually the time came where I was asked: “Do you want to get on Travis again?” I didn’t, but I said yes anyways. My heart was pounding the first time I got back on him and I’ll admit, I was pretty scared of the same thing happening again but ending worse. I was prepared this time, though, and while he was still very strong, he was controllable and from overcoming my fear, getting on him again and having it go well, my confidence began to grow. I started to get thrown on harder horses before I was completely thrown to the wolves a month into my gallop riding when the head gallop rider at the time went on vacation for over a month. I was galloping at least 10 horses a day, 6 days week, many of them a lot more difficult to ride than the ones we had now. I did get run off on a few more times. Just not as fast. Not as out of control and everyday, I learned more and more tactics on how to control a bolting horse or how to stay on a horse that was completely and utterly losing its marbles.

That entire first year of galloping, I never stopped being sore. By my second year, getting fit again after a winter break was easier. I had an easier time maintaining the horses. I still got taken for a ride by a few horses that year. First was Indy, an absolute freight train of a gelding built like a linebacker. He took me for a blitz down one long side, making me reminisce about Travis for a short time before I got him pulled back and under control. Next, a horse we had in for the beginning of the season, named Spinner, took off on me right when I was in the middle of pulling her up and we blasted by the other gallop rider and all the way to the back corner of the track before pulling up. Every time this happened, my heart was racing and I was incredibly alert. Afraid. Utterly aware of the exceptional athleticism of the Thoroughbred racehorse and just how quickly they can accelerate and get away from you.

Indy, the freight train.

Indy, the freight train.

The more I learned about their athleticism through their ability to run like the wind in the blink of an eye or their ability to be airborne and turned around in .2 seconds, the more I respected the Thoroughbred horse. They can walk on two legs, you know. They can also bronc better than a lot of the rankest horses and do all sorts of acrobatics that would probably astonish the average person. These horses are too athletic for their own good and you constantly have to be aware of what you’re doing and ready to think yourself out of a dangerous situation in a matter of seconds. You don’t have time to question yourself, you have to make a decision and just do whatever you can to diffuse whatever situation you find yourself in this time. You have to be clever and confident in your decisions. You have to be able to swing your leg over yet another horse after the last one scared the shit out of you. This job really isn’t for the faint of heart and if I hadn’t been so cocky going into it, maybe I would’ve done better. I don’t think anyone can fully paint the picture of how strong, agile and active these horses are until you’re physically on one. It isn’t like a jumper rider saying “oh, my horse is strong” , the comparison is moot. Your horse who is arena broke and never ridden on a track where they can accelerate to their full speed is nowhere near as strong as a racehorse.

My third season galloping was the first one where I never got bolted on. Sure, horses would scoot forward for a few strides or spook. Sure, I had lots of moments where my horses showed me some incredible acrobatic movements, but, I never lost control of one. Being bolted on by a Thoroughbred far outweighs any fear I’ve ever had in moments where I’ve almost been bronced off, reared on or in some cases, nearly had horses flipped on me. Bolting at mach 10 still takes the cake for the most absolutely terrifying thing ever, especially when it is on a private track, with no rails and no outrider to come and save you.

I’m now starting my fourth season as a gallop rider and am pleased to say that we have some of the nicest horses we’ve ever had. A lot of the silliest and strongest ones have either calmed down and grown up or have moved onto different trainers or different careers. In getting on the number of horses I have the last 4 seasons, though, I’ve learned an incredible amount about quick thinking, problem solving and bravery. Out on the racetrack, you cannot plan or prepare for things that will happen to you. There are far too many variables. Different things that can set your mount off. You just have to be ready to deal with them when the come. Galloping racehorses has vastly improved me as a rider. If I can stay on in a paper thin gallop saddle, I can stay on in a regular English saddle. If someone’s show horse tries to bolt on me, I laugh and ask them why they dare test me when I get on racehorses. I’m more prepared to handle situations that would have scared the daylights out of me in the past and I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about wound and leg care along with wrapping and other aspects of taking care of athletes or rehabbing them from injury.

So, to OTTB owners out there interested in galloping: Do not be like me. Do not kid yourself into thinking that riding your OTTB around the arena is even remotely preparing you for the racetrack. I would get on even some of our silliest horses bareback in a halter in an arena, I don’t care, where can they really go? The racetrack is another story. Make sure you’re physically fit and I mean FIT if you want to have the easiest time picking up galloping. I’m fitter than I’ve ever been in my life right now, from galloping and riding dressage and because of this, galloping has gotten easier and easier for me every year. Make sure you’re brave. Don’t kid yourself, be honest. If bucking, spooking, rearing etc scare you in an arena, I can promise you’ll it’ll be a lot more terrifying on a racetrack, especially when dozens of young horses are galloping and being silly around you, thereby further setting off the horse you’re on. Galloping is very much the art of just sitting there as quietly as possible, waiting for the bomb between your legs to diffuse itself. People who have a tendency to grab onto their horses’ mouths, tense or get nervous often make the situation much worse, just like I did with Travis.

I don’t fall often, but when I do, you can pretty much guarantee that it’ll be at the racetrack. One of the babies we had last year dumped me more times than I stayed on. He would literally throw his head down and pull my whole body over his head while broncing. Never trust a 17.2hh baby horse. Other times, horses have been galloping and then suddenly decide to start their reining career with an impressive sliding stop and roll back, leaving me hovering mid air on an invisible horse much like Mermaid Man, before lightly hitting the ground and wondering where the hell my horse went. Luckily, none of my falls have really been anything dangerous. The worst of them have just gotten the wind knocked out of me, I’ve been very lucky. My worst injuries have been from sport horses (like my own, the lovely Milo). But, injuries on the track certainly are not uncommon and as far as jobs go, gallop riding is definitely the most dangerous that I’ve had. I’ll keep you guys posted how this year goes for falls, so far we are looking good!

The other thing to keep in mind when pursuing a career as a gallop rider, or any type of rider, for that matter, is that your position is largely irreplaceable. To put this in perspective, it means that unlike with a food service job or customer service, you can’t just call in sick… Unless you’re like, actually dying. Unless you’re working alongside a group of other gallop riders with flexible availability, farms can’t just call in someone to ride and work the horses like you do. They simply can’t. This year, I have more help than I did in the past but while working as the main gallop rider for this farm, I’ve ridden while horribly hungover, while sick and with a broken hand (not from the racehorses but from my shithead show horse, Milo). The same goes for a lot of jobs in the horse industry because no one can replace your knowledge of the horses you work with and your knowledge of the job in general. This job, for many years, was a 6 day a week job waking up early and heading right into training. At the beginning of the previous two seasons, I was working 7 days a week. This year, because the trainer has cut back the amount of horses and because I’m pursuing more work in the sport horse realm of the industry, I won’t be galloping quite as much once the races start but generally speaking, this is a job that you are at day in and day out. You have to remember that people count on you and if you get into the industry, you really don’t want to let them down. It has taught me a lot about a work ethic because of this and has really forced me to learn the value of hard work and

You can be an absolutely incredible rider, too, and never be able to pick up galloping. Some of the best riders I’ve ever known have struggled to pick up the knack of holding back a racehorse. It doesn’t make them bad riders, just a different kind of rider. People who boldly ride at 1.40m jumps without batting an eye may be terrified when they get on a 3 year old ticking time bomb with a rearing problem. It takes a certain type of rider, perhaps a crazy one, or one who is willing to ignore their fear like I did until it subsides completely (honestly, if we took a scan of my brain during hectic rides, people would probably be concerned at the lack of reactivity at this point… sometimes, it concerns me).

Getting into the racing world has absolutely changed me as a rider for the better. Knowing how these horses are handled and ridden on the track has greatly improved my ability to retrain them for new careers and to problem solve when certain behaviours arrive. It has also given me an immense appreciation for the Thoroughbred horse and how absolutely incredible they are. I stated before that they can be hard to manage on the track, which is true, but there are so many things about young Thoroughbred racehorses that are superior to even seasoned show horses. These horses see so much at the track that for their age, they often are not really spooky. Also, the biggest thing I’ve noticed this year is their adaptability. Our horses went from October to February off to being tacked up and immediately having a rider legged up on them. Even my show horse would have a bronc fit and act like he’d never seen a saddle before, let alone a rider, but not these racehorses. They march out to the track like they’ve never had time off and cope with coming back into worth like all stars, no lunging required. Our horses roar around the track next to a busy road, ignoring semi trucks and load vehicles. Going past coyotes when they make their way onto the track. While they scare and humble me sometimes, Thoroughbred racehorses are truly incredible horses and there isn’t any other breed that I would feel safer on out on the track, getting on after months off.

Thoroughbreds are it.