Developing through dressage

27 December 2023 Written by Patrick Bartley

Incorporating other disciplines such as dressage into a racehorse's training routine can reap big rewards for mind and body. Just ask Melbourne Cup-winning trainers Mike Moroney and Chris Waller.

On most of his trips home to New Zealand, Flemington trainer Mike Moroney would always allow time to see his daughter, Aliesha, perform in the dressage ring in some of the most competitive levels of horse riding.

Moroney, who spent countless hours watching his daughter take her horses through painstakingly difficult disciplines, began wondering if the concept could be used in some measure in horse racing.

“The idea came to me after watching Aliesha and the work they put their horses through and their certain drills that keep horses thinking. I thought, maybe this could be brought into training a thoroughbred racehorse.

“So I began investigating some riders back in Australia who could test horses in the dressage ring and then follow the effect it has on them overall.

“As a horse trainer, you’re always looking for an activity to distract the horse, sort of take their mind off the humdrum of working and going back to their box.

“So I started to use the dressage as part of a few horses’ work. It was astonishing. The horses matured mentally and physically, seemingly overnight,” Moroney said.

Horses in Moroney’s team are given a change from their routine of slow work, engaging in a morning or a few hours of dressage to introduce variety and refresh their activities

“It’s a very fundamental philosophy. In dressage, the horses are taught to use all of their body. Every limb is important and that strengthens the gait. This gives the horses, especially the young ones, an ability to change legs in a dressage discipline. So when they come back to the races, a trotting gait is perfected.

“You’ll frequently hear jockeys, trainers, and even owners expressing frustration when their horses switch legs mid-race. But thanks to dressage, where every 20 metres they’re hopping on and off legs, it becomes second nature,” he said.

The multiple Group 1-winning trainer said that he has a long list of horses that he’s managed to improve by a week or so of dressage.  

“There are horses like Emissary, Hangman, Bermadez and Buffalo River … the list goes on,” he said. 

Moroney is aware that incorporating dressage into racehorses’ training is not an exclusive strategy of his own. Chris Waller is another fan of the discipline, and has been known to use the middle of Flemington Racecourse for a dressage session after a morning’s work, as well as an arena at Rosehill.

Before he was Australia's sprint champion, Nature Strip had a reputation for being difficult to work with. In his efforts to soothe the horse’s  temperament, Waller turned to dressage, hoping the different methods would promote a sense of calm. To further enhance the training regimen, he enlisted an equestrian mentor to develop diverse routines for his horse outside the racetrack.

Waller believed that Nature Strip, a supple horse, benefitted from staying loose, with dressage playing a significant role. He drew a parallel with his own experience of getting bored running around the track, emphasising the importance of variety to keep horses engaged. 

According to Moroney, the discipline is particularly beneficial for two-year-olds, immature three-year-olds, and older horses that have grown weary of their racing routines.

“You often hear the saying from trainers and jockeys, ‘we will trot up our horse in the morning and see how he is’. This means that you bring every horse that’s going to the track to work to trot up a short distance.

“This is an important part of the day. First, the gait of trotting will tell you if there is any problem with the horse’s legs, and the second benefit is that through dressage, their trotting gait makes them carry their heads high and gives them a certain degree of poise.

“The old horse who’s had three or four seasons enjoys using his brain to go through the motions of a morning of dressage,” he said.

While the dressage secret may not exclusively belong to Moroney anymore, his impressive track record of winners across Australasia might very well be a testament to the insight he gained while observing his daughter's consistent laps back in New Zealand.