Harness Racing Tips for Newbies

Harness Racing Tips for Newbies

There’s nothing more exciting than the thrill of a good horse race. For people who love the sport and want to get more involved, however, the path isn’t always clear. Horse racing is not like other sports. You can’t just drop by a track and try it out. There are no beer leagues for this, for obvious safety reasons. So how do you get from watching a win to being in the winner’s circle? Let us guide you through a few possibilities with some harness racing tips for newbies.

Become a Driver

If you want to be in the driver’s seat yourself, you need a valid license. The licensing system is graded so that as you gain more experience as you move up the ranks. To get your first license, you’ll need to be a member of your national racing association and be able to provide at least four references from top-ranked drivers.

Once your references are approved, you’ll have to pass a medical test, as well as a written test followed by a practical test. Harness racing licensing is governed by different associations in every country. In North America, check out the United States Trotting Association or Standardbred Canada for information on their specific licensing requirements.

Become a Trainer

Maybe you’d like to be part of a horse racing team but don’t want to be the one hurtling down the track at 35 mph. You might consider becoming a trainer—someone who oversees the horse’s athletic development and prepares it for competition. Just like a harness racing driver, a trainer needs a membership with their national racing association and a valid trainer’s license.

The process for getting a trainer’s license is similar to the process for getting a driver’s license. An entry-level license will let you train horses that you or your family own. As you move up the ranks of trainer’s licenses, you’ll be able to operate your own training facility where you take in clients. See your national racing association for details on trainer’s license requirements.

It’s probably clear at this point that these aren’t positions for newbies. So how do you get to do them?

Tips for Becoming a Driver or a Trainer

horses standing at fence - harness racing tips for newbies

Most drivers and trainers get their start in harness racing either because they come from a racing family or because they’re already involved in the horse industry in some way. If you don’t have that background yet are serious about becoming a driver or a trainer, think about getting an entry-level job in the harness racing industry first. Try contacting tracks and training barns in your area and ask who might be hiring. The horse industry often relies on social media to post job openings, so scout for local groups or post your own job-seeking ad.

Entry-level jobs in the horse industry usually mean mucking stalls, cleaning the barn and learning how to handle horses. Expect long days, exhausted muscles and minimum wage. In this field, if you want learning opportunities you have to pay your dues. Be upfront about your goals and hardworking in the stable, though, and you’ll be surprised at how many people will make time for you to learn the things you want to learn.

Generally speaking, people in the horse world are usually happy to pass on information to a new generation of harness racing lovers. That’s not going to be true of every single barn and every trainer you meet, though. Give the job a few months to see if it’s a good place to learn and if it’s not, don’t be afraid to say you’d like to do more or to move on if it seems like no one has time to teach you what you want to know.

Some colleges (like Olds College in Alberta) offer programs that teach students the basics of caring for racehorses. If you’re having trouble finding a position, look for reputable programs close to you that might give you a good leg up.

Become an Owner

You don’t need to pass any tests to own a horse but you do need some money. Standardbred racehorses (the breed of horses used in harness racing) can cost anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you want to race the racehorse you’re considering buying, you’ll need an owner’s license and a membership with your national racing association.

As a racehorse owner, you’ll be responsible for all of the costs associated with its health and well-being. That includes boarding (i.e., daily feed and care at a racing stable), training, vet visits, equipment, entry fees—the list goes on. Also consider this: a racehorse’s career is only a short part of its lifespan. You’ll need to plan for its retirement. All of these things are costly but owners think of their horses as an investment—the risks might be great but the rewards might be great, too.

Tips for Becoming an Owner

Make sure your money is well-spent: educate yourself before you buy. Learn about breeding, conformation and biomechanics. Talk to trainers and other owners. Read racing publications. Immerse yourself. The more knowledge you have the better you can evaluate a potential horse and understand its history. Note that it’s always a good idea to bring a reputable trainer horse shopping with you, but it’s essential if you’re buying a horse for the first time.

Think about co-ownership. It’s common for owners to form partnerships or syndicates in order to share the financial load and the financial risk. That means that you might be able to join a syndicate with other people more experienced in the industry than you are. Even trainers who own the horses they train will sometimes offer shares in a given horse as a way to help fund that horse’s career. As you can imagine, it’s not a partnership to get into lightly, but it can be a lot of fun.

With some research, some hard work and some luck, your first steps into the harness racing world might be the most rewarding steps you’ve ever taken.

image 1: Martin Damboldt; image 2: Jean Alves

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