H&H visits Gary Witheford's Wiltshire base to see the techniques he uses to 'start' a racehorse, who goes from wearing tack for the first time to cantering around with a rider on board in around 20mins

NB: Horse & Hound recommends all riders/handlers wear appropriate safety wear, including safety hat and gloves, whenever they are handling horses. Do not try to replicate the techniques shown in this video without appropriate training and advice.

How long do you imagine backing a racehorse takes? Twenty minutes is probably not your first answer, but that’s how long natural horsemanship expert Gary Witheford typically needs.

Gary prefers to use the word ‘starting‘ rather than ‘breaking’ — this process should not be seen as a battle — and in that short space of time, a horse will go from having never seen any tack to happily cantering around with a rider on its back.

Horse&Hound visited Gary’s Wiltshire base to see the process, which is quite different to the much slower traditional backing/starting process more commonly used in the UK. The horse being started on the day of our visit was a Thoroughbred yearling from Ireland, who was heading to Derby-winning trainer Marcus Tregoning‘s yard in Hampshire.

Gary will typically have a yearling like this for a week to 10 days. By that time he will have been started, ridden, experienced cantering on the gallops and with other horses to teach him to cope with what he’s going to experience during his time in training and on the racetrack.

Continued below…

How Gary starts a horse

Gary’s method starts off with putting the horse on a lunge line in a round pen with high solid sides and shooing it away, as a means of testing its flight instincts.

By the time the horse has lowered its head, and is licking and chewing, Gary knows that it’s passive enough to accept the next step — the saddle.

He lets the horse smell the saddle and pad, before putting the saddle on, doing up the girth and waiting for them to “explode”.

“I just stand back and let them do what they want to do: buck, buck, buck. Most of them won’t buck more than a couple of circuits,” he says.

By the time 20min is up, Gary has worked through each stage of the starting process (see video top) so the horse is happily working on both reins with a rider on board, as well as cantering with another horse — and is even happy to let the jockey stand up on its back.

While this method of starting a horse is not the way in which most UK horse owners will go about it, it’s interesting to see how Gary’s uses his specialist knowledge and experience to introduce the horse to being ridden in a short space of time.

Keen to find out more about Gary’s work? If Horses Could Talk by Gary Witheford with Brough Scott is now available at Racing Post books, priced at £20. Visit shop1.racingpost.com