Holidays for horses

27 December 2023 Written by VRC

Everyone needs a break from time to time, and it’s no different for thoroughbred horses. We explore the importance of spelling, and how it might just contribute to the making of a champion.

Trainer Mark Kavanagh believed there were many factors behind his horse Shocking’s Melbourne Cup success, but not all relate to what took place in the six starts he had in the lead up to the first Tuesday in November in 2009.

Kavanagh believes his success was significantly influenced by the leisurely time he spent in a lush Queensland paddock after his second placing in the Queensland Derby earlier the previous winter.

“We spelled him up there, where it was much warmer, and he did much better,” Kavanagh recalled. “That meant he didn’t need to spell for as long as he would down here and he was able to then go through and win the Melbourne Cup.”

It is proof that, when it comes to thoroughbreds, science plays a part even when horses are resting.

A spell is the time a horse spends between the final run of one campaign and when they commence exercise for the next preparation ahead. They are important both mentally and physically to ensure longevity in a racing career.

Research conducted by the Equine Centre at the University of Melbourne confirms how important these spells from racing are to maintain bone and joint health.

“Racehorses subject their bones to extreme loads with every stride each time they gallop. The highest loads occur in the fetlock and carpal (knee) joints and consequently these are the joints that are most commonly injured. Such loads stimulate the bone to adapt, a necessary part of conditioning the skeleton, but they also cause damage to the bone. Ingeniously bone is able to repair if given the opportunity,” said Professor Chris Whitton, Head of the Equine Centre.

“But our research has shown that when horses are in full work and racing, bone repair is supressed, and this allows bone damage to accumulate. Accumulated bone damage leads to injury such as fractures or joint injury. However during rest periods, the bone repair processes are activated allowing removal of damaged bone and replacement with new bone. This does not need to be complete rest, but high-speed work should be avoided. Periods of rest from training or periods of lower level training are therefore essential to permit bone repair and as a result minimise injury and prolong the career of racehorses.”

Trainers and owners understand the necessity for racehorses to take breaks from the demands of racing and training to sustain peak performance and prevent injuries. These periods away from the track are crucial for maintaining the overall health of the horse’s bones, joints and wellbeing.

Early identification indicates a horse has come to the end of its preparation and looking for a spell can mean less time needed in the paddock, so trainers and their other handlers have to be very in tune with their horse, in order to read the signs.

A spell can be roughly categorised in three ways: a freshen up, which is a week to 20 days; a basic spell, which is anywhere from three to six weeks; and a longer spell, which might be three to six months.

A freshen up might be required simply because they’ve been a bit jaded or perhaps found a track a little hard or had a cold. The three-to-six-week break could be needed if there is shin soreness, a slight injury, or the trainer wants them to grow out a bit. The three-to-six-month spell is often after a more serious injury, such as a sprained tendon or cracked bone, where rehabilitation is vital.

Each horse is treated as an individual and observed closely, so some may be rugged and boxed at night and put out in an irrigated paddock during the day, whilst others, depending on the weather, might stay out in a paddock all the time.

Properties are generally divided up into paddocks of varying sizes, and many boast an abundance of trees and plenty of water. Quality pastures, providing plenty of green grass for the horses to enjoy, are maintained by specially designed maintenance and irrigation systems. Safe fences are a must, and tree-lined paddocks provide shelter from the wind and the heat. Many farms are set on undulating grounds, catering for all horses’ needs: from rising hills to flat plains.

The quiet and peaceful surrounds of spelling farms are the ultimate place for thoroughbreds to rest, relax and rejuvenate, sending them back to their stables healthy, happy and ready to make magic on the track.