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Updated on 09/17/2011 6:44PM
Putting stallions through their paces
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Brownell Alexander is an exercise rider, but her job is quite different from that of her peers at the racetrack. Alexander, 49, works at one of the nation's premier farms, Gainsborough Stud in Lexington, Ky., where she does something many horsemen wouldn't dare to do: She rides stallions, including 2004's leading general sire, Elusive Quality.
Stallions have a deserved reputation as strong, aggressive animals. Once they retire to stud and begin covering mares, most of them never see a saddle again, and many farms would consider it too risky - for horse and human - to put their multimillion-dollar assets under tack for a ride, especially during breeding season. But a handful of farms have decided that riding their stallions is actually less risky than allowing them to exercise themselves. Regular work, these farms argue, keeps their horses fit, happy, and healthy. And that, they maintain, is a recipe for a longer, more productive life in the breeding shed.
"I think before the Second World War it was commonplace," said Dan Rosenberg, president of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky. "But then there was a labor shortage, and it sort of went out of fashion."
Three Chimneys was considered innovative when it started its under-saddle exercise program in 1985, the year champion Slew o' Gold stood his first season there. "We knew that if you're physically fit you live longer, feel better, and perform better," Rosenberg said. "These horses are athletes. They're bred to be athletes, born to be athletes, and raised to be athletes, so we thought, 'Why not keep them going?'
"When we first started doing it, our insurance company raised some questions, and we were able to convince them that the horses actually would be less likely to get injured and would live longer.
"I don't have any doubt about it. Stallions tend to be bored, obese, neurotic animals, but ours aren't. They're fit, relaxed, happy animals."
Certainly, Three Chimneys has some compelling evidence for the health benefits. Seattle Slew, for example, was still cantering under saddle on Three Chimneys' undulating wood-chip track at age 26, and he was still covering mares.
But the practice of exercising stallions under saddle is still rare, for a variety of reasons, such as lack of space, concerns over potential injury, or inability to find riders.
At Harris Farms in Ramona, Calif., the stallions aren't ridden because they exercise themselves well, according to the farm's manager, Dave McGlothlin.
"Like any other large farm, here each horse has a paddock, and there's so much activity going on around them that the horses keep active," McGlothlin said. "So, fortunately, ours haven't required riding.
"I'm not opposed to it. Psychologically, it can be very beneficial to a horse, especially if he is on a smaller farm where he might be turned out in a smaller dry lot instead of a larger paddock. But we haven't been in a situation where we've had to do it."
Alexander, Gainsborough's exercise rider, was surprised to learn about the job of riding stallions. When a friend called nine years ago to let her know the position was available, Alexander was skeptical at first. Although she was a lifelong foxhunter and show rider who also had broken yearlings, Alexander thought stallions might be tough to handle.
"I thought, 'Oh, I don't know about that,' " she recalled. "I'd been riding for what seemed like forever, but getting on stallions sounded like a whole different situation."
Over the years one or two stallions have been difficult, Alexander acknowledges, but she believes that regular riding from the time a stallion retires to stud actually increases manageability.
"As long as you can keep them bright and happy and introduce enough things to keep them interested without taxing them mentally, they tend to be open to what you ask of them and happy to respond," she said. "That makes it a whole lot easier for everyone who handles the horses.
"These horses don't need to be racing-fit, and I feel that my job is to appease them mentally as well as keep them to a certain level of fitness. They have different levels of anxiety, depending on whether they have a lot of mares or not as many as their next-door neighbor. They get a little antsy. Through riding, I can design a program to accommodate whatever each horse's psyche is at that point. Hopefully, there's a smooth product at the end, whether they have 50 mares or two mares to breed. It establishes one other outside interest that they can be involved in. It's an enjoyable diversion."
Being a stallion's exercise rider isn't just a matter of trotting around. Alexander designs a personal workout for each horse, and that workout varies as the horse's breeding schedule and physical and mental needs change. During breeding season, from about mid-February to early July, popular stallions with large books of mares may get a simple walking routine with some light jogging, while horses covering fewer mares might need more. Younger horses might thrive on harder work, whereas older stallions might need less exercise with a bit of quiet grazing.
"I don't ever work in the same pattern two or three days in a row, because you don't want to make them dull," she said. "You want to keep them interested and happy, so you have to have that feeling about where they are mentally. If they're exuberant and need to burn off energy, then go for it, do a lot with them. But if they're lethargic, they might just need a refresher."
Elusive Quality, whose book has grown as his runners - most notably the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Smarty Jones, who will stand his first season at Three Chimneys in 2005 - have been successful, is a good example of how a stallion's exercise changes with his breeding trends. In 2003, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, Elusive Quality covered 143 mares. That's well up from his least-busy breeding season, 2001, when he bred just 56 mares.
"Elusive's work with me has been reduced, considering the volume of mares that he has to breed now," said Alexander. "It's partly my responsibility to not get him worn out before he appears in the breeding shed. He's been breeding three times a day, so he exerts energy doing his job. So I'll walk him a great deal and do figure-eights and serpentines and circles, stop and walk, change directions a great deal. And I graze him a little before he goes in, which is something special he looks forward to, eating that clover.
"He was more energetic with fewer mares to breed, but then he was younger, too," she added. "I was able to jog and canter him both ways, make him use both leads, vary the work patterns and the speed. That variation is important to me, because at the track they get tacked up, go to the track to gallop, then come back to their stalls. I don't want them to think that this is a repeat of that training. They shouldn't associate this with racing, because it's more about manageability and maintaining a level of fitness."
Though few farms exercise their stallions under saddle, the methodology can differ significantly. At Three Chimneys, the stallions are exercised on a wood-chip track that runs up and down gentle hills. The horses are sent on what Rosenberg calls "a nice, easy canter." Gainsborough has an indoor arena, where Alexander often puts horses through workouts more reminiscent of dressage than racing.
"It's a give-and-take situation," she said. "You have to cooperate with them, and they have to cooperate with you. They definitely can overpower you, and if you ask them to do something that they don't deem to be in their plans, then you need to figure out another way to divert their attention and then reintroduce your request from a different angle. If you're persistent and gentle with them, it usually pays off. You don't ever want a battle on your hands, because that's a battle you can't win. Even if you did, then that's going to put a bad taste in their mouths for the next time you come to work them."
Young horses arriving from the racetrack tend to be somewhat excitable and more inclined to bucking and spooking, Alexander said.
"They're all like that until they're in the program, and then they get to know the situation and get comfortable in it."
The Gainsborough stallions' routine varies according to whether or not the stallions are in their breeding season. Alexander starts each morning at 8, but during the breeding season, stallions with morning appointments are bred before being ridden.
"They like them to be bred before being ridden so that they don't get worn out before going to the shed," she explained. "Generally, I'm done riding by about 10:30 a.m."
Alexander rides at Gainsborough all year, because only one stallion - Elusive Quality - shuttles to the Southern Hemisphere. The rest require their exercise every day, during breeding season as well as in the off-season.
"Their behavior is indicative of whatever yearly stage they're in: pre-breeding, mid-breeding season, or post-breeding season," she said. "In winter, they do associate the breeding season with the change of seasons, and you see it in their temperaments. Their awareness and energy level goes up, then they level out again once they start breeding. There's a little rising anxiety before the breeding shed opens, and then when the sheds close, for a couple of weeks they act like they're wondering where all the girls are."
During those transition times leading into and out of the breeding season, Alexander said, "They are a little more uptight and overrespond to things you ask them to do, and they like to look out the windows a lot.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, you don't have to ride them during the breeding season, do you?' But I do. And I think it's good, because it's not just about keeping them fit, it's about relieving anxiety, and I think this is one way to do it and level out their emotional swing."
Alexander sees results over time in the indoor arena at Gainsborough, as her mounts gradually settle into their riding routines. But the payoff for this unusual form of stallion exercise also comes in the breeding shed, according to Rosenberg, president of Three Chimneys.
"By allowing a rider on their backs, the stallions are making a submissive gesture and allowing a degree of control that they wouldn't allow otherwise," he said. That, Rosenberg believes, translates into a more manageable stallion in the breeding shed.
Gainsborough's crew tells Alexander the same thing.
"They're a lot easier to handle in the shed when they're being ridden, at least according to the guys in the breeding shed," Alexander said of the Gainsborough stallions. "They have one-track minds, but if you can get them to respond to what you want them to do, they'll get a whole lot out of it."
"I don't have any doubt that it's good for them," Rosenberg said. "And I know the horses love it."