Combating Stress in Equine Athletes
The demands of physical training, the lifestyle they lead, and pressure to perform are just a few elements that can cause stress in racehorses.
Just like any professional athlete, racehorses are not immune to stress. The demands of physical training, the lifestyle they lead, and the pressure to perform are just a few elements that can take a physical and mental toll on the four-legged individual.
When people speak about equine athletes, referring specifically to thoroughbreds, they attach certain adjectives to the breed — strong, versatile, and fast. Negative connotations such as anxious, high-strung, or hot, aren’t too far behind, seemingly stitched into classifying thoroughbreds as either having the competitive edge, or being too edgy come race day.
Determining the triggers that cause them stress is important, whether the horse is showing signs of aggressive behaviour around the barn or turning in lacklustre performances at the track. Moreover, understanding how to combat the stress attached to these triggers is critical to keeping these athletes happy and healthy.
Dr. Candice Allen has worked as a veterinarian at Woodbine Racetrack for more than 25 years and is well-versed on the day-to-day care of these athletes, understanding the basic factors that can contribute to a horse’s change in behaviour and attitude during their racing career.
“In my experience, thoroughbreds probably get a bit of a bad rap for being high-strung,” Allen said. “I don’t think that they tend to be like that necessarily, but certainly maybe at the racetrack the way we house them could make them a little bit more prone to being a little bit high-strung versus say in a farm setting.”
When they are not training, racehorses generally spend a large portion of their time in stalls.
“(There is a) confinement issue — in that they’re in their stalls for probably 23 hours a day. The fact that they are a herd animal and not able to be in a herd setting where they are able to interact with their herd mates (is a challenge),” Allen said.
She notes that certain elements within a horse’s stall and around the barn can help restore that feeling of assemblage amongst their stablemates.
“There are stalls that have windows that they are able to see their neighbour. A lot of the trainers at the racetrack have small round pens where the racehorses can go out and have some free movement, and see a horse perhaps in the next paddock, or look back into the barn.”
STUFFED ANIMALS REDUCE STRESS
Allyson Walker, an assistant trainer to Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield, is also quick to note how barn life can affect a racehorse’s general disposition. “They spend 90 per cent of their time in the stalls, so we find the happier they are in the barn, the happier they are on the track.”
At the Attfield outfit, some horses may get jollyballs or salt licks in their stalls, but the standout feature are the stuffed animals or ‘teddies’ lining stall doors.
“Most of them will have at least one teddy,” Walker said. “Some horses don’t like being brushed or tied up, and don’t know what to do, so it kind of keeps them from walking, weaving or cribbing. We’ve got horses that wear their teddies on their heads. We’ve got Danish Dynaformer — he’s more of a teddy puncher and he punches it with his nose and he’s got one on each wall and he’ll hit all of them… it’s kind of his little outlet.”
A seasoned competitor and graded stakes winner, Danish Dynaformer may also be envied by his stablemates.
“He’s got two (teddies) in his stall and one that hangs in the front of his stall,” Walker said. “I ride him every single day. He walks in, he hits one with his head on the one wall and then hits the other one, and then he will turn to the third wall and stand. If you don’t let him go in and hit his teddies he will try to bite the groom while you’re taking off his bridle. But if I let him walk in his stall and let him hit his two teddies he just stands there. I don’t know whether it’s habit or comfort, but he loves his stuffed animals,” said Walker.
REPRIEVE IN THE ROUND PEN
Outside the barn another essential element to help horses relax and decompress from training is the use of a round pen. Working closely with these horses, Walker easily pinpoints a couple of horses in the barn who very much enjoy their reprieve to the pen.
“We keep both Delamar and Tiz a Slam in a round pen often. Most of our horses after they run get turned out in a round pen too, so they can get out, they can buck, they can play, they can stretch their legs and it’s still in a confined enough area that they are less likely to hurt themselves than in a big paddock. They can get down in the sand — a lot of them roll and stretch out their backs. Tiz a Slam he’s such a big horse, he spends a little bit of time each day out there, just so he has more room to stretch, and isn’t restrained by tack, a rider or a stall. He will watch the training track for hours. He’ll get a big flake of hay or alfalfa out there and he will eat and stand and watch all the horses train.”
THE ROLE OF TRANQUILIZERS
In terms of training, Allen acknowledges that the daily grind of their work regime can also play a role in their attitude. “There’s the training element where they are being fed a lot of grain and exercising them at speed,” Allen said. “So training in general for some could be considered a little bit stressful.”
While veterinarians such as Allen may use certain tranquilizers such as acepromazine (commonly referred to as ‘ace’) to keep horses calm during medical procedures such as x-rays and ultra sounds, trainers may sometimes use a tranquilizer to prevent horses from injuring themselves during training.
“A lot of people will use a tranquilizer at the beginning of the year when the horses return to the track — just to make sure they don’t go out there and do too much and overextend themselves,” Allen said. “Then there are people who are going to use it for horses they may feel are too strong, that are just going to go out there on a daily basis and maybe do too much that could result in an injury. So they are going to use a little bit of acepromazine orally prior to training so that their exercise riders go out and do what the trainer wants the horse to do.”
It’s important to understand that a tranquilizer helps decrease anxiety, helping a horse to relax versus the use of a sedative which provides pain relief but makes a horse somewhat sleepy after being administered. It is equally pertinent to acknowledge that tranquilizing horses is done at the discretion of trainers.
According to Allen, if a horse is still a little excitable after a race, a trainer may give them a little bit of tranq.
“When the horse would come back (to the barn), and he’s cooling out and may still be a little bit wound up or geared up post race, they may give him a little bit of acepromazine just so that he can slow down and exhale and have a nice relaxing evening after his race.”
While tranquilizing does serve a purpose it remains only a temporary and short-term fix. Trainers need to think outside of the medical toolkit when a horse is constantly in a fractious state of mind.
HASTINGS’ CELEBRITY GOAT
One tried and true solution appears to be the use of a companion animal.
Enter Xola, a Nigerian dwarf goat that has taken up residency at Julio Silva’s barn at Hastings Racecourse.
“We originally bought her for a horse by the name of Veni Vidi Vici. A nice little horse that we used to have, he was a little sprinter, but he was a little bit hot,” said Silva’s wife, Claire Hills-Silva.
The couple purchased Xola (pronounced ‘Ch’ ola) four years ago when they moved to a barn that backed onto an amusement park known as Playland. “We had to move up to the top and the rollercoaster is up there, so our little horse had a real hard time dealing with it. So we bought him a goat, so he had friend and it seemed to do the job.”
While not a new discovery, companion animals such as chickens, cats, pigs, goats, mini ponies or even a pony continue to play a vital role in keeping certain racehorses calm and at ease in the barn, during their training, and travelling to other racetracks. Several notable horses such as 2010 Breeders’ Cup Marathon winner Eldaafer, travelled with his goat companions Google and Yahoo. Likewise, historic champs such as Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew travelled with his pony Steamboat, while American Pharoah travelled alongside Smokey.
Claire has found that Xola has had a positive affect on not just one horse, but the whole barn.
“They all like to hang out and eat out of their hay nets with her. She will stand underneath their hay nets and they usually put their heads down and eat the hay off the ground with her,” Claire said.
Named after a Mexican hairless dog, Xola can be found wondering around the shedrow during the day and hanging out with horses. “All the horses like her. After Vici she ended up living with our two-year-old filly and now she lives with our lead pony. He’s old, but he still works and it’s like his little daughter almost.”
BUG’S BOY’S BUGABOO
While companion animals will do the trick for some horses, others are an enigma where triggers aren’t so obvious to either the eye or ear. Woodbine trainer John LeBlanc Jr. knows this all too well, specifically with regards to one of his prior trainees named Bug’s Boy whose racing career had several bumps in the road from the get go.
“Bug’s Boy had a neck issue, which as a three-year-old we thought that he possibly had EPM. After some diagnosis, acupuncture and time off it turned out it was a pinched nerve in his neck.”
As a four-year old in his first race he took a bad step on the turf and tore his tendon. That injury would take him out for remainder of the season, but LeBlanc, who saw potential in the horse brought him back to training the following year once the tendon healed.
“As a five-year-old getting ready for the races he had issues. He was tying up, the tendon was flaring a little bit and that was part of the healing process — steps forwards and steps backwards. So there was stress there and as we were progressing and we started racing him at the allowance level and we started stepping down because he wasn’t performing.”
While conquering his physical issues were one thing, Bug’s Boy then started to develop another issue that had both the trainer and his various riders puzzled.
“Each rider kept saying he’s full of run, everything is fine, he feels great, but he started stopping down the stretch,” LeBlanc said.
The trainer finally had a better inkling of the situation when he asked jockey Simon Husbands what he thought after riding him. “At the race pole, Simon says, ‘I’m laughing, I can’t believe how much horse I have.’ At the quarter pole, ‘Oh my god I’m going to win by I don’t know by how many.’ At the eighth pole he says, ‘Uh oh, I’m in trouble, I’m hoping I’m going to get third.’ And at the wire, he wasn’t even getting fifth money.”
After giving the horse the day off, LeBlanc went back to the drawing table and rode the horse to the top of stretch to figure out what could possibly triggering the horse to stop moving forward.
“I went to accelerate and pushed him to go and hit him, his head came up and he was refusing. So I tried him again and he refused. I figured out what he was doing – he was refusing from the stick and pushing.”
A lightbulb moment for the trainer, LeBlanc sent out the horse in a $25,000 claiming race on Nov. 30, 2008 giving Husbands specific instructions not to push him. While the new method worked for Bug’s Boy, who ran his best race finishing a game second, the plan unfortunately backfired for both the trainer and jockey.
The stewards felt that the jockey wasn’t persevering with the horse and possibly because Simon’s brother, Patrick, who won the race, was riding for the jockey’s title.
“We got beat ¾ of a length and our horse ran the best race of his life, in our opinion, if you knew the individual and you knew what was happening and the history of his very first race to where we were,” LeBlanc said.
Simon Husbands was handed a one-year suspension for that ride, but appealed and was exonerated later that year.
“The stress factor of figuring him out and knowing that it was the push and the hitting that made him stop,” Leblanc said. “So Simon followed my instructions to a tee. I told him why I wanted him to do it that way and what I felt was happening. After being beaten ¾ of length, he said ‘John, I was so tempted to hit him and so tempted to push, but I remembered what you said to just keep picking his head up and letting him feel like he’s running off and he kept running forward.’”
Bug’s Boy who finally broke his maiden at 6, went on to win the 2011 Halton Stakes two years later, beating Charles Fipke’s champ, Society’s Chairman. The dark bay gelding ran 55 times over his five year racing career and retired at the ripe old age of nine, banking just shy of $300,000.
Not too shabby for a horse that was originally purchased for $2,711 and also had the hosts of issues the trainer had to tackle while he was in training.
Looking back, LeBlanc knows that he was simply trying to understand why the horse was failing to fire.
“His trigger was being pushed and being hit at a learning stage and he didn’t understand why he was being hit or pushed, and that was a huge factor to Bug’s Boy.”
LeBlanc also acknowledges several other factors played a role in the gelding’s stress level.
“I had to be very careful training wise because he would tie up (i.e. muscles cramping up). I’m not sure if it was his neck — which it may have been early stages,” Leblanc said. “Heat was always an issue. I never trained him in extreme hot weather – that’s why I always trained him early in the day, because after the break he would tie up. I always related it to the heat of the day. But it could have been other factors. He sat there in the stall waiting for two hours to train as opposed to an hour and that can build up the lactic acid within the system and can contribute to tying up.”
Nonetheless, LeBlanc never gave up on Bug’s Boy.
Owned by his wife Maggie and son Douglas, the family understood how crucial it was to know which triggers, whether it was a prior physical ailment, his environment, or part of his training regimen, that could upset the gelding’s behaviour and performance.
“It’s an important piece, we think. Bug’s Boy, the stress of what he went through and the transition of him dealing with stress and us understanding his stress, had a huge impact on his career,” Leblanc said.
MUSIC THERAPY FOR HORSES
While Bug’s Boy enjoys his retirement and residency on LeBlanc’s farm, the trainer has had other quirky individuals to deal with, including a bay gelding by the name of Rocket Plan. Owned by Ron Gierkink, the 2016 Queen’s Plate participant presented a different type of challenge for the trainer.
“In his last race going into The Queen’s Plate he was running great, he took the lead with authority at the top of stretch and down the stretch, but the crowd got to him and he totally lost focus. Simon couldn’t get him re-focused at all and it was the crowd noise. Then after the race, Simon said, ‘I would run him in the Plate.’ My dilemma was the crowd noise was going to be 20 times greater than that day and how to get him over that crowd noise.”
Getting creative, LeBlanc used a bluetooth speaker during Rocket Plan’s training session to simulate more noise and expose the gelding to a colourful array of music that he would encounter on Plate day.
“We have bagpipes for The Queen’s Plate. I Googled bagpipes and played those. I played hard rock. I played just a radio station so that the music changed and it went from rock ‘n’ roll, heavy drums — AC/DC type of thing — to the radio announcer, then back into another song,” Leblanc said.
While the music did help combat some of Rocket Plan’s stress, LeBlanc also learnt that his trainee enjoyed a different type of companionship on race day.
“He was running forward in the race and we took the lead in the race before, so he was out there all alone. In the Plate he never got the lead, he was in the pack and he was a lot more comfortable. He’s certainly a herd animal and he’s always in the herd.”
While various elements may trigger and cause a racehorse distress, the common thread to combat that stress circles back to the idea of the herd. In contrast to other professional athletes, equine athletes don’t get to step off the field, head home and hang out with their family. Thoroughbreds literally, eat, sleep and live at their workplace, returning to their family or herd only when an unfortunate season-ending injury occurs, or the end of the season comes calling.
Having a companion close by could be the best fix to combating stress in equine athletes. More importantly, that ‘companion’ may differ for each horse, whether it’s seeing their stablemates walk the shedrow, sharing lunch with a funky little goat, or simply having a fuzzy teddy to play with after morning training or a busy race day