10 Things I Learned on the Backside

Two-year-olds in race training. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld. Two-year-olds in race training. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

When I first signed on to be a CANTER Volunteer, I had little interest in horse racing. I’m embarrassed to say my head was filled with negative stereotypes of what life on the backside of a racetrack entailed. I assumed racetrackers were lesser horsemen because they did things differently than sport horse people. But I quickly discovered what a great resource most are, and when we’ve needed assistance for horses, it is always fellow racetrackers who are first to help.

  1. Heart overcomes X-rays any day of the week. X-rays are important — I am a big proponent of them — but they do not paint a complete picture. What a horse (or person) lacks physically can often be compensated by his drive. A horse with heart is the one you see running or jumping aggressively after fatigue, with injury or against all odds. He can defy diagnoses and conformation to do a job he loves. A horse like this is irreplaceable.
  2. The most fancy, expensive products are not necessarily the best or most effective. Keep it simple; your horse doesn’t care whether your wraps are color coordinated, whether you’ve purchased every gadget out of the tack catalog or whether you buy name brands. Use common sense.
  3. All that glitters isn’t gold. After seeing so many horses be passed over for minute blemishes, big ears or plain coloring, my personal criteria for horse shopping has changed. It’s easy to swoon over the fit, shiny, chrome covered beasts, but don’t they all deserve good homes? Perhaps if we could open our hearts to a horse who may not have been the color or size we envisioned, or if we would be willing to put a little maintenance into a horse who is a little banged up, more horses would have promising futures.
  4. Experience often trumps educated theory. Racetrackers are a great resource in that they generally handle more horses in a year than sport horse owners handle in a lifetime. These horses are in a physically demanding environment, so grooms and trainers see significant soundness and health issues on a daily basis. They’ve tried techniques that you may have not known existed.
  5. Love of horses spans all demographics. It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you grew up or what tax bracket you are in, horses can take hold of your heart. When you’re at the racetrack, it doesn’t matter who you know; it’s about the horses, how they are going to run and who you are betting in the next Pick 6.
  6. Respect the horse as a horse. We are drawn to horses for the partnership and communication until they use a form of communication we don’t appreciate, like biting, kicking or rearing. Keep in mind, these are all normal horse behaviors and rarely are they done in malice.
  7. Enjoy what you do! Working on the backside is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle and a tough one at that. Early hours, late nights, unending work for minimal pay. Those that work on the backside came there out of a love of horses, and in the toughest times they still remain dedicated.
  8. Sit chilly. The skill I value most in a good exercise rider is their ability to sit quiet and provide confidence for a fractious horse. They diffuse dicey situations without creating confrontation, adding anxiety or upsetting a horse’s balance.
  9. The world is not black or white. It would be easy to categorize people or horses into good or bad, sound or unsound, but life is more complicated than that. Try not to assume that one action defines someone, two-legged or four-legged.
  10. Life can be turned upside down without a moment’s notice. Living with horses is a life of highs and lows. Relish in the high points and remember that the lows won’t last forever.