A lot of effort goes into getting a horse race off on time and safely, particularly on the flat where stalls are involved. Horses are very volatile animals; they could easily become agitated, so it's paramount that the stalls handlers remain calm but also aware. A vital cog in flat racing's engine that is often underappreciated, stalls handlers risk injury daily to provide us with racing and ensure that as many of the horses enter the starting gates as possible. But it's not as simple as walking a horse around, lining it up, and then pushing it into the gate… Oh no, a lot of teamwork and horsemanship is required in this business!
Why are starting stalls used?
They use starting stalls in flat racing to ensure a fair start. Some horses naturally exit the stalls faster than others, but having the horses stood in a line with no significant advantage helps to create a more even playing field. Racetech provides the starting stalls alongside other technical facilities such as photo-finish technology, broadcasting, and state-of-the-art racecourse AV installations. They work closely with the Clerk of the Course, Starter, Racecourse Officials, and the Supporting Officials to ensure the safe and prompt loading of the horses prior to the races. There is a minimum of 11 BHA accredited stalls handlers for every race meeting (which is increased for fields containing 20 or more runners) whose job is to comfort, align and then load each horse into their designated stall.
How many stalls handlers does it take to load a horse?
A horse will usually only require 2-3 handlers (which we’ll get on to shortly), but those horses that are being slightly troublesome may need some extra encouragement through the use of a hood or a coyt. The coyt is a piece of rope in a figure of eight shape that is held across the rear of a horse (5-6 inches below the dock of the tail) with a handler on either side to encourage and manoeuvre the horse forwards, but also prevent it from kicking out. There must be no hint of stress or tension when loading a horse, as this can transfer and cause the horse to become more agitated. The stalls are compact but padded so as not to injure a horse, and if a jockey gets thrown off or needs removing quickly, the handlers are on hand to do so. Should a horse go over in the stalls, it will hit padding and not metal, as many people may think.
What are the roles of the stalls handlers when loading a horse?
What’s interesting is that not all stalls handlers do the same thing; in fact, there are 3 different types of stall handlers. First, you have the leaders. These are usually smaller and slightly more agile, who will "lead" the horse into the stall and then crouch/exit from the front to aid the next horse. They put the rope through the bridle and ensure the horse enters the stall straight. Next, you have the jumpers. There are usually 2 of them on either side of the stall. They will pull the horse’s ears and attempt to keep it calm upon entry, to prevent it from trying to get under the gate and ensure the safety of the jockey on board. Finally, you have the pushers. They do what it says on the tin. They push the rear end of the horse into the stalls. A coyt is often used, as mentioned above, and put their free hand in the girth for leverage when pushing the horse in. Handlers also play a vital role in forcing the gate open behind the horse should there be a problem.
What are the fundamental characteristics required to be a good stalls handler?
So we know what each type of stall handler does, but what qualities do they have to possess in this kind of situation?
As a stall handler, there are 5 fundamental qualities that you should possess:
Strength – Controlling a thoroughbred racehorse and encouraging it to move requires a lot of upper body strength.
Footwork – Being quick on your feet is also paramount, not only for your safety if a horse kicks or bolts, but also to follow and control a horse should it try to wander off.
Flexibility – Coupled with being quick on your feet, being able to drop and crawl out of the stall once the last horse is in is important to not hold the race up and prevent horses from getting restless.
Hands-On – Communicating with the horse through touch is also important, as a pat or rub on the neck can prevent a horse from becoming distressed. They also required you to lead the horses around.
Fearlessness – As mentioned above, putting yourself behind a racehorse that could kick out is very dangerous, but having a calm and confident approach will emanate to the horse.
Putting yourself behind a racehorse that is playing fast and loose with its hooves is daunting, but stalls handlers don't think twice. They have the "don't leave a man behind" mentality and will do their utmost to get every horse to compete. They also have to think fast should something go wrong. If a horse rears in the stalls or tries to get under the gate, they have to remain calm but act quickly to prevent injury. Noting any previous issues with certain horses often helps to reduce the likelihood of this. If a horse is prone to being difficult, then that horse will be loaded first. If a horse gets agitated easily in the stalls, then they will be left until the end. Handlers are also trained in what to do should a horse get its head stuck trying to get under the stalls. Such qualities of a stalls handler ensure the horse is removed without injury by acting quickly and efficiently, but with care and patience.
What incidents have there been recently relating to starting stalls?
Getting a kick here and there is nothing new to a stalls handler, but there have been a couple of unfortunate accidents to occur on the racecourse in the past few years. The first was in July 2017 at Haydock Park. This was a freak accident that didn't involve a stall handler being injured by any of the horses, but in fact, the stalls themselves. Stephen Yarborough was hit by the stalls in the build-up to race number 4 that afternoon. Towed by a tractor, the stalls were being manoeuvred into position when they collided with Stephen, knocking him to the floor. The police confirmed that tragically he was pronounced dead at the scene. This is a very unfortunate incident that further outlines the danger the stalls handlers put themselves in daily.
Just a few years later, in October 2019, a stalls handler had a scarily close call at an evening meeting in Dundalk. The handler was one of the “leaders” and was exiting underneath the stalls, following the last horse being loaded. The stalls then flew open before he was out of the way, causing him to be knocked sideways by one runner into the others. Fortunately, the stall of the horse he fell in front of seemed to open slightly later, and the horse avoided the handler on the ground. He came away with nothing more than a few bruises, avoiding serious injury. This is just another example of where a handler has risked serious injury when going about their day-to-day work.
There have been many a time when watching racing that you see a horse become agitated behind the stalls and it kicks out. There have also been many occasions when a stalls handler trying to calm the horse has been caught by a flying leg. Although only a minor incident, it happens all too often and poses a threat to stalls handlers on a day-to-day basis. The above incidents were freak and uncommon, but the job poses a constant risk which many fail to appreciate.
Why is it important to have stalls handlers and use starting stalls in flat racing?
To get an idea of what an important job they do, let's look at a meeting at Leicester in June last year. New Covid-19 lockdown rules had just been introduced, with several trainers withdrawing their horses, and all but 4 of the required stalls handlers refusing to work. Despite social distancing protocols being put in place, many didn’t see it as safe, vouching that the meeting should’ve been abandoned. It did, however, go ahead, and with no stalls handlers, it meant they started the races using tape. As mentioned above, the use of starting stalls helps to create a more even playing field, so taking them away means a more uneven start for the runners.
The first few races of the night were 5f-6f sprints, and starting these races using the tape led to some very ragged-looking contests. Katie Hills, spokesperson for Racetech, said: “When the announcement was made, some of our stalls handlers said they were uncomfortable about working this evening. At that stage, it was really difficult to find replacements. It's a skilled job and we need 11 people to do it. So, we had to respect their decision."
Although the reason for not using starting stalls was related to the Covid-19 pandemic, the effect of not using them was clear for all to see. Messy starts, uneven breaks, and a lack of control meant that the quality of racing on offer was poor. Not only did this spoil the viewing pleasure, but it also made it near on impossible to pick a winner. Running over such short distances, the way that a horse starts a race has a tremendous impact on where it finishes. Should a horse miss the start that badly, its chance is as good as gone. Although there is still a risk of this happening when using starting stalls, 90% of the time the horses break level (or at least somewhat on terms with each other), creating an even opportunity for all. Not only does having staff to look after the welfare of the horses play a big part, but they are also vital in ensuring a fair race for everyone.
There are several reasons that flat racing uses starting stalls and stalls handlers as discussed above. The safety of the horses and the jockeys is paramount, but not having stalls handlers to control the starts of races leads to very unorganised and messy affairs. I think it's about time that stalls handlers got the recognition that they deserve. An often underappreciated but vital cog in the machine that makes horse racing what it is. No matter the danger they could find themselves in, they provide us with the quality of horse racing that we are so lucky to have, and I think we all owe them a massive thank you for their efforts in their respective job roles.