by Gai Waterhouse
Five years ago, I changed my breaking in process and I changed it for the better. This change has been better for me and–more importantly–for all of my horses. My father Tommy Smith once upon a time broke in 60 to 80 babies at a time at Randwick and he did this with great success. T.J. had three breakers, and they all did the work, and my word, did they work hard. For some reason, my father's breaking-in facilities disappeared with the coming of several new apartment blocks. As such, I was unable to use these facilities when I took over and many of my of my early 2-year-old winners were broken in out on farms. Golden Slipper winners Ha Ha, Sebring and Dance Hero were all broken in on the farm, not within my current facilities.
After my husband Rob and I visited Wesley Ward in Florida, I decided that it was utter madness that my babies were not under my nose for the year round. I need to be seeing my babies every day as my father did. Since I have made this happen, my record speaks for itself. I sourced some yards suitable for breaking, found some of the best breakers in the business and before too long, I had my kindergarten class under my watch every day.
Following my father's theories, I like to keep the breaking process short and sweet. All my boys and girls like the process to take the minimum amount of time, and I truly believe that having the likes of Pornichet, Diamond Drille and Vancouver around the babies a lot of the time aids in the development.
It is a two- to three-week process to break in a yearling, a process that starts immediately after a yearling arrives at my stable. During this time, I get a horse's mind where I need it to be and get it under my control and comfortable with my pattern of training. Within this period, a yearling gets used to people, the reins, the bit, and most importantly, the barriers. The yearlings need to be comfortable with their surroundings–the big city and all of the noise. My stables are no more than 10 minutes from the Sydney CBD, a city with a population of around five million people. In the other direction it is only a short 10-minute journey to the airport. In England and in the USA, horses can be broken in away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Not in Sydney!
I need to make sure a horse enjoys the walk from its stall to the track, and of course the presence of other horses. As such, I have to make sure that all of my yearlings are comfortable around their peers. If they have a rival laying all over them in a race, they will still need to find a way to win. Getting a horse familiar with anything that can be thrown at it in a race is most important before a horse even gets close to running in a trial or a race.
The team starts with some ground work with a cavesson halter and a 12-foot lead. This allows the horse to respect the halter. Then the flexing starts. Flexing involves a breaker standing at the horse's shoulder and moving its head towards them. This in turn shows the horse how to react to pressure. While this is happening, I make sure that the breaker keeps patting the horses back gently as well as around their legs to keep them relaxed. At the end of the session, the breaker will flex the horse on both sides and then they will stand next to the horse quietly before–with little fuss–climbing on its back and dismounting on each side. The horse will be laid all over, the first step in getting them to appreciate human contact.
It is ever so important to get the babies comfortable with a work pony. If one of my established racehorses is under-performing I often threaten it and tell it 'I will make you a pony if you keep running slowly!'
By around day four of the process, it is time to introduce the big breakers saddle. After the saddle is applied, the horse will be lunged in said saddle and again driven with the long reins. If the horse is responding well to the bit at this stage, meaning it is stopping and turning and backing up, one of the breakers will hop aboard and ride the yearling around. This is also the time when I like to march a yearling on and off the float [i.e., van] and take them to the barriers by float, as to introduce them to the mode of travel they will regularly face for the rest of their racing career.
By the end of the first week of the breaking process, it is time for a yearling to experience the world outside its stable. It is at this time that I also like the babies paraded under my eye so I can keep a close watch over them. An exercise saddle is put on before one of the breakers rides the horse around the yard, then outside the yard around the pool, the tress and the bull ring. By now each of the ingredients in the process is starting to come together. A horse is now happy with its gear, it is comfortable being ridden, it is experienced at being driven and lunged and it is familiar with its stablemates and fellow youngsters that are being broken in at the same time.
Each part of the breaking procedure ushers in another. It is not too dissimilar to childhood learning. These young horses need to be comfortable with a new skill so they may use this skill in the process of developing the next one. It is a recipe that I have used for a long time. One step leads to the next, then to the next and then to the next.
By the start of the second week it is time to learn all about daily trackwork. A horse is ridden out of the yard at 4 a.m. when it is really quiet. Perhaps, on occasions, a wilful colt will need more time, but for the most of the babies it is time to be ridden over the hill around the back of the stable and around the bull ring. Each yearling is accompanied by two older horses and in all, there are five or six horses all walking together towards the track. Once at the track they will participate in some basic easy work before they enjoy a nice guided tour back to their yard. The walk home relaxes them, especially if they walk on a loose rein. It is of the utmost importance that a horse learns to work, but then learns how to switch off and relax. When it is time to race, it is time to race. But when it is time to relax, a horse NEEDS to relax. I also make sure after a good walk that the horses are hosed off when they get home. Hosing off is another thing a horse seems to enjoy and it therefore adds to their relaxation.
The final piece of the puzzle occurs when the horses are walked to the mile marker on the inside training track at Randwick. They are then worked back to where they started their walk from. After they work from the mile, a horse is walked through the bull ring barriers, both ways. In Sydney, our horses run in a clockwise direction and in Melbourne it is the opposite. A horse could end up running in Sydney or Melbourne and as such, it has to be happy and comfortable with the barriers no matter which direction it is loaded. I make sure the riders stand the horses in the barriers for a moment before they move through. After this, it is time for the first trip to the pool. A horse swims for three afternoons straight. A horse is led into the pool, led out and the process is repeated two or three times. I also like when a yearling is led off the pony after these swimming sessions.
I have been to many different racing facilities over the years, and I can assure you that no one does it better that Wesley Ward and Monty Roberts. You do it best America, and I have never seen horses behave better in barriers than they do in the United States. Monty and Wesley's attention to detail in regards to perfecting horse's manners in the barriers is second to none.
In my small way in Sydney, I have tried to replicate what happens in America. I often send some of my boys and girls over to America to learn the ways of Wesley and Monty, and when they come back, they are forever better for the experience. The breaking in of the babies and getting them comfortable with conditions that they will face on a daily basis for the rest of their careers is one of the keys to any stable's success.
Gai Waterhouse is arguably Australia's most recognized trainer internationally. Gai has trained more than 126 Group 1 winners since earning her trainer's license in 1992, including five Golden Slipper winners. Gai was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2007. She will be penning a monthly column for the TDN.