Is dressage training racing’s latest secret weapon? *H&H VIP*

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  • The benefit of multi-discipline training for National Hunt horses is increasingly being recognised — the work of jumping and flatwork guru Yogi Breisner is often talked about. But until now this type of cross-training has been almost unheard of in Flat racing circles.

    Luca Cumani, who trained last year’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner Postponed, is venturing into unchartered waters. He is teaching his racehorses dressage.

    So what has been the trigger, and how is it helping?

    “Over the years I have been disappointed in having horses hang one way or the other, or being lopsided; they weren’t born that way, so I figured it had to be a habit they learned,” said Mr Cumani, who decided to employ the services of dressage rider and trainer Malcolm Holtshausen to work with his string.

    The results have been impressive —12 Group winners in three years, seven of which came last season.

    “When big races are won by tiny margins, it stands to reason that having a horse that stays straight and is jockey compliant can give you the edge. It’s not about making horses run faster; it’s about giving them the best possible chance,” Mr Cumani added.

    Mr Holtshausen has been visiting the Cumani yard in Newmarket on a daily basis for three years, working with up to 60 horses a day in an indoor schooling arena.

    My job is to get them physically and mentally prepared for the race track,” he said. “They learn to work through their backs and become supple and straight. Even as yearlings, we follow the scales
    of training and they go in a balanced way, in a basic outline, and learn to move off the rider’s leg. We find this translates to their fast work.”

    A welcome side effect of this flatwork training has been fewer jockey falls at home.

    “It’s logical that if you keep a young thoroughbred’s brain stimulated and active, and instil into it the basics of control and submission, it will be less likely to be too fresh,” said Mr Holtshausen.

    Less risk of injury

    Another dressage rider to venture into racing is Michael Van Houben. He pays weekly visits to National Hunt trainer Nick Williams’ Devon yard.

    He believes that equine as well as jockey injury rates are lower with a varied work schedule.

    “I teach the riders how to work the horses’ core muscle groups, so they have the muscle tone and strength to allow them to do their job with less risk of injury,” he said.

    Among Mr Van Houben’s protégés is Tea For Two, the horse that hit the headlines at Kempton on Boxing Day when his jockey Lizzie Kelly became the first female rider to win a Grade One race over fences.

    “He’s a big horse. I did a lot of work with him the season before last, lungeing him in side-reins and over poles to try and improve his strength and balance,” he said.

    “I work a lot on lengthening and shortening, which is so important for a racehorse. One thing Nick’s horses all have in common is their ability to keep an even stride into a fence.”

    The other tangible benefit of all this training, he pointed out, is the horse’s suitability to go on to have a second career.

    “If a horse does not make the grade on the race track or after it has retired from racing, if it’s had this sort of training it’s a much more desirable animal for someone to take on,” he said.

    Time and patience

    Persuading jockeys and work riders of the benefits of cross-training has taken time and patience.

    “They were quite sceptical at first, but now they have seen the benefits, a lot of them come in and watch my sessions even on their days off,” said Mr Van Houben.

    At the Cumani yard, riders’ different strengths are exploited.

    “Some really enjoy the schooling and are very good at it, whereas others are better on the gallops. This means the horses tend to have several different jockeys to make the most of these different skills,” said Mr Holtshausen.

    Mr Cumani added: “Traditionally, race riders are not trained in equestrianism; they are trained in how to ride at speed with short stirrups.

    “But horsemanship is a very important — and often underestimated — piece of the jigsaw. I am a great believer in attention to detail, and this applies to every aspect of racing.”

    Ref: H&H 10/03/2016