Training a horse requires solid theoretical knowledge, a great deal of practice, observation… and feeling! Courtesy of this subtle cocktail, it is possible to understand and be understood by an animal which, although very sensitive, cannot tell you what it is thinking.
Preparing a novice colt for competition takes an average of eight months to a year. During the course of this long apprenticeship, the subject undergoes both gymnastics courses and lessons in good behaviour. Contrary to common belief, the first phase of work deals not with speed but with basic endurance. In tandem with this, it learns to become handleable and to listen to its entourage. Only then will it be possible to fully channel and exploit its speed, a natural quality of the racehorse.
Every morning, the horse goes out with his training jockey (regular rider), accompanied by several of his box companions, the term “lot” being used to describe their team. Most stables break up their work into two to four lots, with the first lot going out just before dawn. It is customary for this lot to consist of the best horses or those due to run over the coming days. The size of the lots varies according to the size of the stable, and the morning sortie lasts between an hour and an hour and a half. Usually, the horses start off at a walk. After having walked for a long time, the real warm-up is generally commenced with a sequence of trotting. It is then time for a swinging gallop, a reduced-speed gallop that gets the horse breathing well and forms muscle tone. It is then time for a break. During this period of relaxation, the horse’s partner shortens their *stirrup strap, thus switching from a rider position (seated in the saddle) to a jockey position (upright on the stirrups, raised above the saddle), which is much more propitious to speed. After this transition, the horses carry out a "canter" (a warm-up gallop at sustained speed that is also used to get to the start at races). In this case and that of the swinging gallop, the horses work one behind another, with gaps of several dozen metres between them. The real “work” required a maximum of twice a week is a “gallop” over a distance of 4 to 15 furlongs (800 to 3,000m), depending on the horse’s aptitude. The horses undertake this work as a group at a steady pace, finishing with a second burst of acceleration in imitation of race conditions. The best performer generally finishes ahead of its stable mates.
In jumps racing, the training process takes place in stages, the first of which consists of stepping over, at a trot, a simple bar placed on the ground. The future jumpers are then gradually introduced to jumping hurdles at a canter. This exercise is practised while following behind an old hand, a former racehorse retrained as a “schoolmaster” and entrusted with the task of showing novices the ropes. Then come the series of jumps taken as a group, at a faster pace.