Keeping equine athletes sound and conditioned for competition often involves a complex union of people in various roles and occupations. After all, the health of the business comes down to the health of the horse. While veterinarians are equipped with the tools and expertise to diagnose and treat most ailments, the heaviest burden of good health and performance is often shouldered by those who spend the most time with their hands on the horse: the trainers.
It’s a responsibility not lost on renowned racehorse conditioner Graham Motion, who spoke candidly about the trainer’s role in horse safety at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at Keeneland on June 27.
“As a trainer, you’re constantly worried about the wellbeing of a horse,” Motion said. “We are there to protect them. There’s no one else that can do that. And that comes with tremendous responsibility, and I take it very seriously.”
The physical demands of racing are certainly unique compared to most sport horse disciplines, but Motion’s sentiments can be applied to trainers across the board. Specifically, navigating the fine line between conditioning and rest, knowing when something is “off” and pinpointing the problem. While veterinary science has come a long way, training horses is still very much about trial, error and intuition. Motion used a recent example from his own barn, Irish War Cry, to illustrate this point.
The 4-year-old graded stakes winner was pulled up in his most recent start, the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 16, on a day when the heat index pushed triple digits.
“His career is very checkered,” Motion admitted. “He either runs extremely well, or extremely poorly. It’s taken us longer than perhaps it should’ve to realize that he had electrolyte imbalance. It’s probably something that I had not rationalized how significant an issue it is for a horse to deal with until this particular horse, and now I’m very aware of it,” added Motion, who noted that Irish War Cry is perfectly fine and will point to a fall campaign in cooler conditions.
In addition to dealing with the horses themselves, trainers must also navigate the occasionally delicate communication with owners.
“As a trainer, one of the hardest things we have to deal with is passing on bad news to the owner,” said Motion. “From a trainer’s perspective, you have to get over the fact that horses are going to get hurt and it’s not your fault, so don’t be afraid to pass on this information when you feel it’s enough, whether it’s through injury or not wanting to race anymore, you have to know when it’s time.”
To that point, Motion acknowledged the growing connection between the racing and sport horse communities, as the demand and awareness for careers beyond the track continues to climb.
“I think we’re so much more aware of injuries and trying to avoid injuries than we used to be,” said Motion, who has notably helped broker second careers for a number of horses under his care. “We, as an industry, have become so much more aware of when horses should be retired, and how many opportunities are available to them when they retire.”