It’s National Racehorse Week - a nationwide annual celebration of the racehorse and a chance to see first-hand the love, care and attention that goes into looking after them.
In September 2022, in an experience like no other, over 140 events across the country, including training yards, studs and retraining centres, will open their doors to the public to show what life as a racehorse is really like.
We thought we too would celebrate the racehorse and have spoken to Oliver Signy for his insight into working with racehorses.
Oliver Signy who trains National Hunt racehorses from The Croft Stables in Upper Lambourn, is in his third full season as a trainer. Oliver has a string of around 25 horses for the winter and is looking forward to building the team and results. Before taking out his license, Oliver was an assistant trainer to Jamie Snowden and Oliver Sherwood, and also spent a year in America with Jonathan Sheppards.
Before racing Oliver evented up to the old three star level and represented GB at junior level. Oliver thinks this brings a slightly different approach to training racehorses and he still enjoys riding out himself, which he does almost every day.
So first question, why racehorses?
I have always loved racing and I actually bred some racehorses whilst eventing as a bit of fun. Thoroughbreds are my favourite breed, they are so athletic and quick to learn, and most of them just love being in work. Like any horse there are exceptions to the rule, but the lazy ones don’t usually make good racehorses!
Most notable horse of your career?
So far Etat Major Aulmes has been the standout horse for us, I sourced him as an unbacked three-year-old and I was so proud that my wife lead him up at Carlisle as my very first runner. ‘Al’ went on to give me my first winner at Newton Abbot and this summer did amazingly well, winning three Chases in a row for a summer hattrick. At home he is the friendliest, most cheerful horse and makes everyone smile when they ride him.
Where do you source your racehorses?
There are three main ways to get horses, most come through the sales so working with a good bloodstock agent is important as there are a lot of horses going through. The majority of my string come from English and Irish sales. Occasionally the bloodstock agent sources horses directly from foreign trainers or the Irish point-to-point scene, usually this is to fill an order from an owner who has a particular request.
My wife and I also breed some horses, which is a very slow way to get a racehorse! But it’s great watching them grow all the way from foals and get to know them. Our 3-year-old Blue Bresil has just come into training and is looking promising, whilst still enjoying cuddles in the stable.
Owners and breeders can also get in touch directly with us to send their horses to train.
What do you look for when a horse first arrives?
Physically I like them to have to a good walk: a loose, swinging, confident style. After travelling, sometimes internationally, we check they are sound and looking well in themselves.
We then take time to get to know them whilst they settle in. Lambourn is a busy environment and can be a bit overwhelming for new horses, especially if they are youngsters from a quiet farm. I also try to match the best rider for them, I like to sit on them initially so I have a better idea of which rider might be the right fit. It is important that the horse and rider get on with each other, so they both enjoy working on the variety of gallops in Lambourn.
Would you give a horse a break before training started?
It depends on what work they’ve already been doing, if they are store horses we usually back them and get them cantering before they have a break, so they can understand their new job. For older horses we make the decision based on many factors, like how much racing they have done that season. We give all new horses time to settle into the new yard, some adjust quickly and others need a bit more time – just like normal horses and ponies!
Most horses have a summer break when the ground is very quick, so the time of year and what ground the horse likes is also a major factor.
What does a typical day for one of your racehorses look like (training & management)?
I feed each morning at 4.30am so they have plenty of time to digest their breakfast before exercising. The team come in at 6am to start mucking before first lot pulls out at 7am. Once tacked up the horses have a leg stretch on the walker for 10-15 mins and head up to the gallops. The yard is about 15 mins ride away from the gallops so they have a walk and trot to warm up and cool off on the way home. When they come back they get washed off and have haylage in their stable whilst getting groomed. Lunch is fed about 11.30am and they either relax in their stable or get some turnout in small paddocks until evening stables. At 3.30pm the staff come back in to muck out and feed, finishing their day at 5pm. I usually do a late check, just walking round the yard in the evening and checking everyone is happy, if it’s colder I will pop some extra rugs on the horses who feel the cold – like Etat Major Aulmes!
How do you manage their diet? They’re all sharp aren’t they?
When in training they are treated and fed like athletes, many of them are also still developing so we feed to the level of work that they are doing and ensure we are supporting their healthy growth and development. They have plenty of forage to support their gut and help reduce ulcers. The racing feed (SPILLERS HDF Power Cubes) is specifically made for thoroughbreds who are in training so alongside chaff, forage and electrolytes they receive all the nutrients they need to support them.
When trotting to build fitness we feed HDF Lay Off Cubes, which have lower energy levels.
It is most important to feed to the level of work that you are doing, monitor each individual to check they are maintaining good condition and able to perform at their peak.
Some of the racehorses can be sharp but if it becomes silly I think there is likely an issue either with the wrong feed, work or rider combination. A healthy happy racehorse with a good shiny coat should be relaxed, vice free and settled on the gallops.
What are your top tips on race day for a successful performance?
Give yourself plenty of time because if you are rushing then you will start stressing and this will this upset your horse too. Planning ahead so nobody is rushing to load the horse or tack, ensures there is no stress before you have even left the yard.
If you have plenty of time when you arrive at the racecourse, your horse can have a bowl of feed whilst the lads take the opportunity to go to the canteen before plaiting up and winning best turned out.
The lads need to take time for themselves to eat and drink, as it’s easy to forget to look after yourself when all your focus is on your horse. Leading up means lots of walking around and they need to have energy and good shoes!
Thank you so much Oliver for sharing your great insights with us. Your level of attention to detail and care for each horse really shines through in your management routine. We wish you the very best of luck in the upcoming season!