Have you ever admired the calm professionalism of Thoroughbreds entering the starting gates in front of cheering crowds of thousands? These athletes are super-fit and primed to put in a performance at speeds of up to 30 mph, yet they walk into the starting gates and stand quietly for several minutes.
The ability to break well from the gate can affect the outcome of a race, particularly in sprints, so at the Stonestreet Training we start early! If you missed our blog on backing yearlings, read it here. Once the yearlings have progressed to trotting figure of eights in the paddock, usually around 2 weeks after they were introduced to tack, they will return to the barn every day via our baby gates.
The ‘baby gates’ are a set of portable wooden starting gates, slightly wider than regulation, which we built for the express purpose of teaching the youngsters. The first step is just to walk through the gate; all our yearlings begin with the security of a handler leading them and some prefer to follow a more confident friend through at this early stage. Once the yearlings are confidently walking through alone they learn to stand quietly in the gate, they will be given a handful of sweet feed or grass as a reward for their patience. The final step is standing quietly with both the front and back doors of the gates closed. Most youngsters take this all in their stride but any horse who needs extra time to become confident and quiet will have extra sessions in the afternoons.
In the early part of the year the youngsters will start using the regulation sized starting gates that we have on our dirt training track. All of the prep work using the baby gates ensures that they take to these adult gates with ease. Once or twice a week they will visit the gates after their exercise on the track and learn to jog out in a straight line once the front door opens.
Our aim is to give a great education in the basics and send out calm and confident horses to the racetrack for the trainer to teach how to break from the gates at higher speeds.
Every major racetrack in America has a team of professionals who work with the babies during the mornings – they are known as the ‘gate crew’. Every horse must earn their ‘gate card’ before being allowed to start in his or her first race and the gate crew are responsible for awarding these. We’ll visit with the gate crew in a blog later this year.