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“Handlers” have a skilled and dangerous job and are probably the most under appreciated workers in the racing industry.

Horse behaviourist Mike Shaw is currently the assistant starter in KZN and due to his experience he also handles the problem horses. 

He gave an insight into the role handlers play and began, “I don’t think many appreciate that after the trainer and rider have made sure the horse gets to the race fit and well and ready, the handler plays a vital role in the horse winning. If your handlers are not up to scratch the horse could be using up more energy at the start than it should be.”

The starter has a loading sheet and each handler is assigned to a horse before the horses arrive at the start. It is an advantage if the handler knows a horse and this is taken into account. 

Upon arriving the jockeys like to have the equipment checked e.g. check the saddle is tight enough etc.

Mike said, “The horses are often foaming at the bit when they get down to the start so it is nice to flush the mouth out. Some of them love this, others hate it. Some of the jockeys like to give their horse water, just to cool them off, especially in KZN hot weather. You have to remember horses are highly strung and energy levels are so high. You have to contain that energy so that when they jump they have maximum energy levels.” 

After equipment checks the jockeys must remount, which is compulsory if horses are under starters orders.

The handler’s role in this phase is to keep the horse as relaxed as possible while walking around.   

If there is a delay to the start the jockeys are allowed to dismount. 

However, it is noticeable that under these circumstances some jockeys stay on their mounts.

Mike said, “The clever ones get off. It is a game of inches and you will want to keep 55kg off the horse’s back for as long as you can.” 

Mike Shaw – a fine horseman.
The flashing red light going on indicates the starter is calling the roll.

Mike said, “In KZN we load all the odd numbers first. That came in during Covid and we haven’t changed it. The first six going up are generally the ones who don’t have a problem. After that the horses that are graded a certain way are loaded depending on their degree of grading.”

Mike heaped praise on KZN’s chief starter Solly Ngcobo, whom he said had made a massive difference to the starting stall efficiency upon retuning a few years ago from a stint in Johannesburg.

He continued, “Solly tries to put the horses on an even playing field. We try and improve their grading so we don’t have too many badly graded horses.”

Mike continued, “It is definitely a misconception that horses standing longer in the stalls puts them to sleep and then they don’t jump on terms. They are flight animals and when that pen opens it is their instinct to run. If they are missing the break it for another reason and not because they have been standing for too long. As a horse behaviourist I would also prefer my horse to load early and be out of the rush and pressure. You do have horses who are very uncomfortable inside the pens because it is a tight space. You want to keep those ones in there for as short as time as possible.”

An attempt is always made to load a horse normally. If they refuse the push is then employed using a short rope with a handle on each side. This is where the strength of the handlers comes into play. If that does not work the flick is sometimes used, in which the ankles are just touched to make them pick up their legs and move forward. However, they can lash out instead. The next option is the hood. 

Mike said, “You have then given them three solid opportunities and also you can’t take too long. Those three opportunities should take you 40 seconds to a  minute and after that it’s time up.”

He emphasised, “All horses kick. There are only two types of horse that don’t kick, a dead horse and a seahorse. And that is where the public don’t see the importance of the handler and appreciate the job we do. It is not just the handler pushing from behind, it is the one leading the horse in from the front who is also at risk. That horse can rear up and it’s scary … 500 to 600 kg of horse is going to come back down … where do you go to dodge a leg? That’s why we wear skull caps and body protectors.”

Mike said a handler pushing could feel a horse was going to kick, but a cow kick was a quick and short-actioned kick to the side and was unpredictable.

Mike has been cow-kicked a few times and it usually catches the handler on the thigh.

He was double barreled once when trying to get a fractious horse back out of the pens, leaving him with a broken collar bone and a bruised chest.

He continued, “The starter is a professional and the starting stalls are dangerous. The starter understands which horse needs to load when. He has to do so to protect the horse, the handler and the jockey. The public usually do not appreciate this. The starter is the first one they shout at when their horse gets left or a horse gets scratched at the start.”

The handler also plays a role in holding difficult horses before the off.

Mike said another common misconception is a handler holding a horse before the jump hinders that horse from making a clean break. He said in fact the opposite is true because an experienced handler can predict the start and make sure the horse’s head is “in the vee” by pushing the horse forward. 

Upon the “hands up” command from the starter the holding handlers lift their hands straight up to ensure the horse is free to jump as the gates open.

Handlers are not allowed in the starting stalls in some racing jurisdictions, e.g.  Hong Kong and the UK.

Mike believes that system should also be in place here.

He said a starting point would be to make it compulsory for a horse to be passed at the stalls two or three times before being issued with a certificate.

At present only one pass is required because the presumption is that the trainer will school the horse properly before sending a horse for a test. However, the latter is not always the case.

Therefore, a horse might pass first time but then behave completely differently when confronted with the stalls for perhaps only the second time in its life at the race course.

Mike said barrier trials were also used overseas for exactly the reason the name suggests, to give them experience of the “barriers’ (starting stalls).

Picture: Irish