The Fate of The Small Trainer and Average Horse
All morning whilst riding out I have been thinking about writing a blog and addressing a couple of issues, which may be uncomfortable for people to read. I have been thinking, should I or should I just go home and clean the bathrooms? (to be fair the bathrooms nearly won) However I thought why not? Anyone that knows me, knows I say it as it is and if this blog can help one person or one horse, then it will be worthwhile.
This morning I saw a post on our BHA admin site from a smaller trainer for lower grade hurdles for horses rated 0-100 as they are few and far between and every race has 50 plus entries and that got me thinking, which is never a good thing…
I want to talk about the mental health of trainers, the demise of the small trainer and the fate of the lower grade horses, which are all inextricably linked.
Before I start, let me just say I am in a far better position than most small trainers, I have a wonderful partner who does well as a builder, a very kind and generous friend/owner in Mrs Brown and we live a quiet, low maintenance life, however finances are never easy but I can afford to still train a few horses for now.
I ran a horse nearly two weeks ago now and she was dreadfully disappointing, she had been working very well at home in blinkers and a visor, schooling superbly, it was her first run in a handicap hurdle and it was her first time on good ground over 3 miles. We had hoped this change from her early runs on very soft ground would bring about an improvement. The mare had a dreadful experience first time out in her bumper, resulting in a chunk of her back foot being taken off when another horse clipped heels with her, she ran on pure fear and adrenaline but showed some ability.
Fast forward through my bad time of virus and horses being sick and on to a new yard, healthier horses etc. We thought the mare would run like she had been working and yet I failed to foresee that in a field of 12 others, going at a speed way quicker than she would have experienced before in a race, with the banging of the hurdles and the noise etc, that shutting her vision down with a visor, no matter how well she had gone at home in one, this genuine little mare would scare herself half to death at the first flight and would never be at the races.
The shame, the humiliation, the sheer disbelief that had happened was massive in my head. As a trainer I don’t send horses out unprepared, we try our hardest to cover every eventuality, however we also sometimes forget that the horse has its own brain and with the best will in the world, they will do what they do and there is nothing us or the jockey can do at that point in time.
Rewind 10 years and that mare would have another chance, I would have gone back to the drawing board, found a track and a race that she could pop out and dictate without getting taken on early and I would probably have won a race with her. But now those races do not exist like they used to in the summer, which was historically where we could claw back some wins. The speed with which the lower grade handicaps are run is terrifying, only the brave or stupid survive!
So now I am selling her as a riding horse, and she is one of the lucky ones.
I made that decision after the race, I knew the owners were disappointed and as I have a share in her I was devastated and completely understood. As one of the owners pointed out to me it was embarrassing and there in lies the rub.
Owners do not want to own average horses now, with small trainers. The cost of keeping a horse in training is massive, the cost to me of doing it is huge, the wages have risen, the staff hours (and rightly so) have decreased, the prize money has decreased and the competition is fiercer.
This pressure to get results is rising by the day, due to many factors – covid being one of them – and I think this is going to cause a huge horse welfare problem and there are going to be a lot of small trainers who are mentally pushed to their limits before quitting.
There will be those who say so what? The smaller trainer is insignificant anyway, we do not need them.
But I beg to differ, the smaller trainer can offer owners a much more personal service, they can train their horses as individuals and give their staff more training as they are more hands on. However, racing is the only industry where you are only as good as the horses you train, the circumstances of the race as it unfolds and the people who stand by you.
The new trend is for big, middle of the road (and I mean this in the most respectful way) trainers, who have upwards of 50 horses and who can spend upwards of 50k on horses, who run during the summer months to boost their win/run ratio and why wouldn’t they?
However as soon as those horses have done their job, they are moved on, if they fail to make the grade and break, they are moved on, time is money and it’s a numbers game as I am told often. The pressure that us as trainers are under, to produce results quickly, without injury, without giving the ones that need it time, is immense.
The bottom line is if more money is not put into the sport across the board and filtering to the lower levels then there is going to be a lot of bad press for racing in time, due to the welfare of the horse. Those lesser horses will have no smaller trainers buying them and giving them a good life and the the chance to win little races and pay their way.
I understand for Saturday racing the quality of the race is important for the media and it needs to attract a following but there are those who watch it for the love of the horses, who love the stories and love the behind the scenes information.
My horses are the lucky ones, in that I have time to school them for other jobs, mostly I find them good homes for life and I keep track of them always, however I am having to sell Into the Mist so we can afford to buy another one, and to pay one of the owners out who don’t want to keep going.
Yesterday I had a 13 year old boy come and try Into The Mist – she only ran 10 days ago – and she was brilliant. Just think about that for a minuet...A fit 5 year old mare was ridden by a 13 year old boy in the style of another discipline and he jumped her and cantered her round a massive arena, took her in and out of water and she looked and behaved amazingly.
That was only possible to do by being a small trainer who had the time to give that mare, to make her an attractive prospect to future owners outside of racing, thereby giving her the best chance of another life.
Just lately I have answered a few questionnaires from the BHA trying to find out the impact of Covid and whether we felt there was enough support for trainers’ mental health and wellbeing? Erm the answer to that would be no.
How can there be? We are in the harshest industry, we are judged constantly, our past success are a distant memory when things are rubbish, we open a racing post/social media and see write ups (which we know the owners will read) that make us bow our heads and cringe, we run the risk of horses we know will win, that we have nursed through countless problems being sent to other trainers (that one is a kicker!) and we find ourselves feeling constantly guilty or ashamed…
We have to charge so much owners complain, but we still don’t cover our costs, we don’t have the time to give every owner when they want to chat, guilty we don’t give our families enough time, guilty/horror/shame when a horse disappoints, when they get ill/injured, when we have to sell them. And don't even get me started on trying to attract owners...
The heartbreak for me is when I must give up on a horse, I have been guilty of being the eternal optimist with my horses and more often than not, in days gone by I have been right, but time/pressure and money don’t allow that anymore.
So trainers mental health is never talked about but I can tell you first hand that there are many of us out there who are fighting a daily battle with ourselves and yes of course there are resources out there for us through racing welfare. But I wouldn’t call them, shame still rules our emotions. I do seek help when things are tough, privately through a sports psychologist and he has helped me loads. I’m lucky in that I grew up around depression and I understand it, there are many who don’t.
But even knowing all of that, when that horse runs badly and knowing every other trainer out there has similar days, it is very hard to keep positive when every runner counts and we have so few that each bad run is a nail in the coffin of our training career and that horse’s career.…It’s a numbers game…
The time has come for the BHA to help the industry more, as I have stated before; could they run race series for trainers with less than (number of horses) to allow the smaller owner/breeder/trainer a chance?
However the prize money is the key to a lot of the industry’s issues, if this was raised to levels higher than the early 2000’s (seriously we are running today for less than then) maybe we could continue with a job we love and enjoy, which we got into because we love the horse, not the money but as they say, money can’t buy you happiness but it helps...
For owners we need some kind of return, how can we keep expecting them to pay and pay and pay with no return, especially with average horses. Do those owners who can't afford the 50k horses not matter???
I am one of the lucky ones, I have had the chance to develop another business called Equissistant, which is a bespoke record keeping program for stable yards, we are about to launch it and I will run this around training a few horses. If anyone wants to know more go to www.equissistant.com and have a look, my partner Dan and I will happily come and give you a demonstration and arrange a 3 month free trial.