For just above twenty years I worked in various racing stables. I would like to boast that when tiredness and dissatisfaction made up my mind that the future should be searched for elsewhere, the racing industry lost someone of great value. I would like to make such a boast but I can’t. I had my moments, and the skills I possess were never fully utilised, but the truth is I was better on my feet than on a horse and it is horsemanship that is better valued where racehorses are concerned.
There were two problems I could never properly overcome, three if you include my limitations in the saddle. The first problem was that I was always a square peg in a round hole. Though occasionally, to demonstrate my versatility, I was a round peg in a square hole. I must have had an air of intellectualism about me as in my younger days people always thought I was a student on a vocational break from university. My second problem was that I had no background in horses. I did though have a deep abiding love of the sport and a knowledge of its history that filled the spaces in the brain intended as storage for the clever stuff they try to teach you at school. In those days I could recite Derby and Grand National winners going back fifty years or more. Whereas today I couldn’t go back with accuracy more than five years, and soon that will be two years.
Because of these handicaps I had no preconceived ideas about how horses should be looked after and trained and in time my overall impression was that horse husbandry was very much about personal circumstance, blind opinion and ignorance. Trainer A would do the job in complete contradiction to the methods of Trainer B, whilst Trainer C would consider himself right in every husbandry matter even though neither Trainers B nor A would agree with him. What was sacred in one stable would be a no-no in another.
Along the road – I had a really flaky personality in those days, mainly due to a lack of self-confidence – certain people and certain methods impressed themselves upon me. The people who I was in awe of were the old stablemen, the men who had served their time with training stalwarts who were sticklers for procedure. One old boy – he was so superior to the rest of us that he barely spoke to us, mainly because he had no respect for the way we did the job – used to strap his horses after exercise and again at evening stables.
Now, unlike most stable staff, I enjoyed evening stables, especially the grooming. I used to pride myself on the shiny well-being of the horses in my charge and would have quite happily groomed all morning and all afternoon. Yet despite all my efforts, my horses never gleamed with rich health as the old stableman’s. There was too much work to get done by feeding time to go ask him for advice and the trainer, his son, as it happens, didn’t seem to think his father was an example to be followed.
I think even now that grooming, and especially old-fashioned strapping, is becoming a lost craft due to the excessive amount of washing down of horses after exercise that now persists in all racing yards due to a lack of staff and time.
When I started in racing I had not even sat on a pony let alone a racehorse and after about ten years, when I was just about adequate on a horse – didn’t fall off too much or get run away with – I came to the conclusion that trotting was injurious to a horse’s back. In the wild a horse will only use the trotting gait when slowing from a canter to a walk. Bouncing up and down on a racing saddle seemed strange and without benefit. It also seemed odd that trainers did not do most of the early work with a horse at a slow, collected canter. I also decided it was perverse of racing people to dismiss the riding techniques of event riders and show jumpers as an irregular form of riding, when many horses, it seemed to me, would benefit from basic dressage.
So it was a ‘wow’ moment for me to read that Martin Pipe never had his horses trotted, not even when he used the lanes around his stables to get to his gallop. Somehow it vindicated much of what I believed in. He also believed you could not give a horse enough love and care and got through hundreds of packets of mints every week. He also believed, as I did, that injured horses were better off being able to have some form of exercise so that the whole body could be kept in good health. Normally as soon as a horse ‘gets a leg’ it is confined to its stable. I believed that as long as the horse was not in pain it was better off being walked on a lead rein, and when there is access to a horse-walker to be lightly exercised for twenty minutes. It went against accepted thinking, of course, and people thought me mad but as I found when I broke my leg the rest of the body goes to mush when you are inactive. I also could not understand why horses were deprived of water after a race. Now, of course, they are offered water in the winners’ enclosure as a matter of course.
He also believed the long summer rest was not good for a horse’s fitness, which is something else I also advocated without ever achieving a favourable response from those who employed me, though I expect when a horse is out to grass it is saving its owner a good wodge of money.
Unlike Martin Pipe, I am not a genius. Though if born with a sounder personality and if I had made better life choices there is a distinct possibility that I might have become borderline brilliant.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.