23rd July 2022

Catherine MacRae gives us ‘Another View’ in the Racing Post today and tells us that she is frustrated by the lack of horses saddled in the saddling boxes at Sandown and that trainers, by choosing to saddle their horses in the stable yard, ‘shrouded in secrecy’, will not help people fall in love with the sport. I have heard similar views expressed in the Racing Post  before by people who, I would imagine, have never been in a saddling box with a horse. But, rather than assume the same about Catherine MacRae, I decided to try and determine what knowledge of the subject she might have. I ‘Googled’ her and found a LinkedIn page on which she describes herself as ‘a trainee journalist at the Racing Post’ with ‘a background in horseracing’ and she tells us that she worked for nine months as a barn manager for Lucinda Russell. She should know better.

She suggests that ‘Sandown’s shaded facilities [the pre-parade ring] offer an excellent opportunity for runners to acclimatise to the atmosphere before presenting them to the main paddock  – a significantly louder and more stimulating environment’, but this is race-day, not the time for training and education, especially when you are running a filly in a Listed race and looking for her to give 100%. Once a horse is upset, even slightly, it is quite difficult to get it to relax again, especially immediately pre-race with so much going on. And saddling boxes are a very alien environment for our horses. So much so that I have to wonder when they were first introduced and how they have evolved.

If, like Catherine MacRae, you have attended a pre-parade ring with saddling facilities, you will have noticed that we lead the horse into the saddling box – a three-sided stall – and turn it to face outwards while it is saddled. Many saddling boxes, especially the older ones, are too narrow to easily turn the horse and so begins the catalogue of issues likely to upset the animal. I have, on very rare occasions, tried saddling a horse – one intent on barging out of the saddling box – facing inwards but this is fraught with dangers as the personnel have to squeeze between the horse’s hindquarters and the walls of the box to get in and out. Not a good idea if the horse gets at all fractious. And so we saddle the horse facing outwards with nothing but its groom to stop it coming out if it decides that it would rather be outside. In many cases there is little room to work on either side and it is not a nice place to be if the horse gets at all difficult.

Far better, wherever possible, to saddle in surroundings that the horse is used to – a loose box – and before the horse is presented to the atmosphere of the public areas of the racecourse. Let’s face it, I don’t think fans in other sports feel the need to have a view of dressing rooms or preparation areas.

What’s more the saddling procedure which I have described is, almost invariably,  a three-person job. Staff shortages seem to be commonplace these days in many industries, including racing, and not every trainer can afford the luxury of three people to saddle a horse. The job can be done easily by two people – even one – in the stable with little or no risk to horse or handler. Why would you do it any other way if you didn’t have to?

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