A haven for horses

13 December 2023 Written by Brad Waters

Just like human athletes, horses need to feel their best to perform at their optimum level. Horse Shepherd Park is a facility that prioritises happiness for its equine clients.

The term ‘happy horse’ has permeated through many interviews following racetrack triumphs. Owners and trainers have credited improvements in horses’ attitudes as the catalyst for surging to previously unreached heights in races around the world for decades.

Facilities such as Horse Shepherd Park Advanced Equine (HSP), located on the way to Ballarat at Gordon, make horse happiness their business.

Some properties offer a place to spell their horses to give them a break from what can be a daily grind in a city or provincial stable. Others provide pre-training services with a paddock for horses to rest. However, Horse Shepherd Park could be an equine utopia. 

The property has everything to please a thoroughbred, irrespective of age, experience or veterinary history. Horses can recover from injury or surgery at HSP or undergo a full rehabilitation program individually designed to get each horse home in much better shape. 

State-of-the-art equipment such as a chilled saltwater treadmill, chilled saltwater spa and even a red-light solarium are available for rehabilitation, relaxation or muscle building.

Horse Shepherd Park Advanced Equine manager Troy Best, who runs the farm with owner Anne Yong, calls the team’s work ‘active spelling’.

Best, the grandson of a South Australian trainer who has been around horses since before he could walk, said horses shed any mental tension soon after arriving at Horse Shepherd Park.

The residents are free to waltz around the paddocks alongside a random collection of pigs, geese and whatever local fauna decides to stop by.

“In the first couple of days, it makes their eyes pop out a bit when they see the place, but they soon relax and settle into the environment,” Best said. “It gives them so many things to look at, which mentally stimulates them a lot. We’ve definitely found that with stallions.

“The horses can just eat, talk to each other and have a look around. It just brings them mentally right back down to another level of relaxation.”

The mental unwinding is then mixed with an individually designed training program to strengthen the horses’ muscles rather than build their aerobic capacity through galloping.

Horses aren’t ridden – technology completes the process in a controlled but stress-free environment before horses return to paddocks for more relaxation.

“Even though horses are spelling, we might put them on the water treadmill three times a week or so and they can still spend large amounts of time out in the paddock being a horse,” Best said.

“That way, the horse gets everything they need mentally, but still stays fit.

“I call what we do strengthening more than fitness, because we’re about muscle building rather than galloping a horse.”

Best joked the horses don’t get a tan under Horse Shepherd Park’s red-light solarium, but the apparatus is vital for those that have back problems or are recovering from spinal surgery.

Red-light solarium

Red-light solarium

A place for hapy horses

A place for hapy horses

“The red-light solariums are very popular around the world, more for horses that have had things like kissing spine surgery (such as Kennedy Champions Mile winner, Alligator Blood) and those types of things,” Best said. “It’s red-light therapy to get blood flow going, which is the key to any recovery.

“They’re good to get some healing going over the back of the horse, which can be quite hard to do with a horse unless you want to put them in a swimming pool.”

Geelong trainer Michael Shepherdson swears by Horse Shepherd Park’s methods, instantly becoming a believer.

“It’s like sending a horse to the zoo. We’ve had some highly strung horses that have gone there and it really settles them down,” Shepherdson said.

“Once they’ve done the work they need to do, they just go into the yard and pigs are roaming around or geese and other animals are there.

“They just chill and it does wonders for them.”

While Horse Shepherd Park solely caters to horses from smaller stables, the facility also plays two other understated, but significant, functions for racing.

Horse Shepherd Park is also a charitable sanctuary for rescued horses, which has taken in thoroughbreds, including some unfortunate horses left without care by unscrupulous owners.

Best said HSP stood between the pro and anti-racing sectors, providing a service to extend horses’ careers which he hoped would minimise the number of thoroughbreds on the sanctuary side of the fence.

“We join the two communities and we work to keep them both happy,” Best said.

“For us, it works really well because the more horses we keep racing, extend their careers or keep them sound, even if they don’t race, the fewer horses are in our sanctuary.

“We feel like we’re contributing to both sides of it.”

Horse Shepherd Park also plays a role in educating the vets of tomorrow through a partnership with the University of Melbourne while also providing Marcus Oldham College students with a chance to enhance their education.

“Because we also have the charity side, it also allows the vet students to spend more time here,” Best said.

“We’ve met some really good young people out of that and it will be great for the industry in the future.

“When you sit back and look at it some days, we think ‘wow, we’re actually playing a part in doing a lot for a lot of people’, which is great.”