Starting Gate Training – Why and How

Unfortunately, all the sales talk that company representatives use to sell a starting gate does not guarantee that a race horse is going to enter them. Trying to reassure a race horse that it has been fitted out for his safety and that of his rider, with maximum padding and electro-magnetic mechanisms does not always convince a horse of why he wants to be in there. We have all seen sights of rearing horses, bucking and reversing away from starting gates before a race. Most people put it down to a horse being difficult, but many horses have either not been given the necessary starting gate training, or they have had a bad experience in the starting gates and refuse to enter them again.

Some racehorses are not bothered by the starting gates, while others are terrified of them. It is solving this phobia that is the key. Breaking from the starting gates is an important part of training. When doing starting gate training, the aim is to ensure that the racehorses move towards and into the gates, calmly and unafraid. While standing in the stalls, racehorses should be still and quiet, as not to cause injury to themselves or to their riders. All this is accomplished by patience, reassurance and trust.

When starting a young horse in his training for the race track, being able to lead him into and over obstacles is essential. This not only builds trust, but will also come in handy when trying to load a horse into a horsebox or trailer for transportation. The next step is to introduce noise to the horse, in his stable or around the stable yard. Rattles, banging pipes, bells and beating drums will teach the horse not to fear noise and desensitize him to noisy areas. This might sound unnecessary, but on race day there are many sounds and noises that could upset a horse and there is a lot of traffic, both human and other horses.

It is important to first lead a horse to the starting gate. Let them sniff around and gain the confidence that nothing about the gates poses a threat. Then start walking them through the gates and pass through them a few times. After the horse is comfortable to walk through the gates have a rider mount the horse and again walk through the open gates. Riders can then start to ask the horse to stop inside the gates and stand for a while before moving on. All that is left to do then is to start by closing the front gate, exercise walking in and backing the horse out and then to close both. Once the horse is completely comfortable to stand quietly in the gates, trainers often introduce other horse next to the training horse, to simulate the atmosphere of race day. The horse will then start to learn how to leave the stall once the gate swings open, first at a walk, then a run and so forth, until he is able to break away from the starting gates at a gallop.

Thoroughbreds that have had a bad experience in the starting gates never forget their fear and need to be trained from the start, as with young horses. Leading them into the stalls can retrain these horses, and giving them treats each time they have overcome a new obstacle is also beneficial. But if it is a young horse or a racehorse with a fear of the stalls, praise and trust is the only way to build their confidence. Besides, the work done during starting gate training is not only beneficial for the horse, but for owners who want to see their horses have the best chance at winning a race.