In the next installment of our blog series on how equine welfare is prioritised at all times throughout all the stages of a racehorse’s life, we hear from Jim Boyle, of Jim Boyle Racing at South Hatch Stables in Epsom about how the horses always come first.
Epsom Downs is the home of the Derby, Britain’s richest horse race, but for me for the last 16 years it has been our home, and home to the 21 racehorses that we have living with us here at South Hatch Stables, along with our team of 7 full time staff. Once a year on Derby day, it seems the world and their friend comes to visit, and millions more tune in on the television. Meanwhile, every single day we are lucky enough to work with a team of equine athletes, putting them through their paces on the beautiful rolling downs right here on our doorstep.
Like every other training yard all around the country, our day starts early. Some start plenty earlier than us, but for us it’s normally a 6:30am start when one of our senior members of staff will check round whilst feeding, meticulously checking the general health and wellbeing for every horse. Legs will be felt looking for any untoward heat or inflammation, feed pots and water buckets will be checked to make sure that the horses have eaten and drunk normally, and the horses will be observed to check they are looking bright and alert.
If all is well, first lot will be tacked up ready to head to Epsom Downs for their exercise, pulling out at about 7am. It takes about 20 minutes walking and trotting to reach the gallops, during which time there is the opportunity for myself and the rider to check that the horse is moving and feeling well before it goes on to do any faster exercise. Any problems can lead to a change of exercise, or the horse being taken back to the yard to be more thoroughly checked over.
Epsom is a lovely relaxing place to exercise the horses. We have just two roads to cross on the way to the gallops and both have a dedicated horse crossing. It is important that the horses have a clear safe run to the Downs. A recently changed rule preventing dogs from being exercised off a lead before midday has made the Downs an even safer place to exercise our horses, as previously there had been several incidents of dogs chasing horses on the Gallops. After completing their exercise, the horses come back to the yard and are either washed down or brushed off depending on the temperature, and how sweaty they are, and are then returned to their boxes to rest. Some horses will also spend a bit of time turned out, or on the horse walker during the rest of the day.
A lot of our stable management is centred on making sure the horses have healthy lungs. We believe in mucking out the boxes whilst the horses are out exercising, so that any dust will have settled before the horses return. Modern thinking is that stables need a good flow of fresh air to help make sure that the horses maintain healthy lungs, and to this end we are in the final stages of applying for planning permission from the local council to build brand new, purpose built barns to make sure that our horses and staff benefit from modern facilities which have the highest welfare standards.
We have an equine spa on site, which cools the horses lower limbs with ice cold salt water, which the horses seem to enjoy. It is very useful in preventing minor injuries from becoming bigger, and it also helps in treating various aches, sprains and bruises. We also use massage rugs, and have a weekly visit from our physiotherapist who treat any minor musculo-skeletal injuries.
The horses are checked over several times daily when they are fed, hayed and watered, and are also groomed and skipped out every evening. There are no other domesticated animals that are looked after so well. I’m a big fan of giving them little breaks and holidays every so often. They will often be turned out into a nearby field for mini breaks, or longer holidays at certain times of the year. They are still fed and checked over regularly throughout the day to make sure they are fit and healthy.
Most of the racehorses that pass through our yards will also have an interesting second career after they have retired from racing. My wife and I spend a lot of time helping to re-home racehorses, finding the right place to suit their skills and personality with people who know how to look after them properly. They go on to do all sorts of things from polo to show-jumping and everything in between.
So whilst racing is often seen to be about the big occasions like the Epsom Derby, it is also about the daily job of caring for these beautiful creatures in the outdoors in a great environment. The high moments are fantastically exhilarating, and there is nothing better than watching a racehorse that you have trained (and even on some occasions bred,and kept from a foal) crossing the line in front. They are spectacular athletes and it is a real privilege to work with them, but caring for their welfare is a responsibility we all take extremely seriously, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.