Thoroughbred Trainers Can Learn from Gold Medal Hurdler

American Aries Merritt won gold in the 110m hurdles this week, and immediately afterwards gave credit to an adjustment to his training program.

Throughout his career, Merritt entered the starting blocks as above; with his dominant (stronger) leg forward in an effort to explode when hearing the starter’s pistol. This practice led him to the first hurdle in 8 steps, but his race performances were inconsistent and the injury bug was always around. Rather than continue to fight the same battles, he changed this offseason to a 7 step approach – which forced him to start from the blocks with his weaker leg forward – a dramatic change in technique.

After some early struggles, he ran world-leading times of 12.93 three times in 2012 before this week’s triumph in London. Prior to the switch, his career best effort was 13.09 back in 2007. Now, what can the US thoroughbred industry learn from this seemingly unrelated sport?

Horses don’t start from blocks, obviously – but they do run around left hand turns exclusively in racing and in training here in America.

According to Florida-based racing consultant Earl Ola:

“America’s dirt racetracks are by necessity slanted down to the inside rail for drainage necessary to facilitate daily racing, plus our banked turns are slanted even more. Slow motion video clearly shows that the right legs of American trained Thoroughbred racehorses always hit the ground before their left legs. This situation is exacerbated by American Thoroughbred’s training and racing counter clockwise (left turn) only.  Left turn only racing and training on slanted (one slant) racetracks is the primary cause of our far too high breakdown percentages. Their unbalanced action is further exacerbated by the fact that most American Jockeys and many exercise riders ride acey ducy placing their weight slightly off center on our racehorses back.”

To think of this practice in another manner, NASCAR racing does the same thing – constantly practicing and competing around counterclockwise loops at very high speeds. How do they adjust? THEY MAKE TIRES DIFFERENTLY FOR THE RIGHT AND LEFT SIDES! They also inflate and tilt tires differently on the right and left sides to improve cornering and lower the risk of blowouts.

Now, horses are different than racecars – their bones and ligaments/tendons are alive. When they only make left turns at speed those tissues remodel to support that action – which causes the imbalances that can contribute to injury. But, if not stabled trackside – you can train in alternating directions, like Kenny McPeek does at his Magdalena Farm:

“The course has two steady inclines designed to strengthen your horses’ heart, lungs and muscles. We have the option of training your horse either left or right-handed in order to change their routine. At Magdalena we have many more options, keeping your horse mentally and physically together for a longer period of time.” –

I believe, but am not sure, that the track is U-shaped instead of oval, which I imagine lessens the chances of someone heading in the wrong direction.

Immediately after winning his gold medal, Merritt credited his new methods for improving muscular power in his previously weaker leg – which gave him a greater balance, improved race times, and decreased injury. I would imagine those things would serve a racehorse just as well.

Coincidentally, this week Steve Haskin penned a neat piece about Medaglia d’Oro and his early work in the Arizona desert:

“He’d go two miles with rings on, then breeze three furlongs in :35 1/5,” Jensen recalled. “You just didn’t see young horses breeze in :35 1/5 after going two miles. It was nothing to him. He had an unbelievable stride. I trained him like I would a 3-year-old.” –

The article seems to insinuate that those long gallops took place in the desert. Not being confined to a farm/training center in the early stages of his prep served him well, I’d say – it wasn’t too long ago that Stonewall Farm sold their interest in the now-famous stallion of Rachel Alexandra to Darley for $40 million. At one point Stonewall stood both him and Leroidesanimaux, who sired Derby champ Animal Kingdom, a few blocks from where I lived in Versailles, KY. Even that breeding success was not enough to save the farm as it was foreclosed on a few years back and now sells for around $10 million.

I used to jump the fence and jog around that empty farm on Midway Rd., imagining all the world-class horseflesh that used to inhabit those grounds. There is an overgrown training track in the back that would be a perfect location to condition the equine equivalent of Aries Merritt – perfectly balanced, powerful, injury resistant, and a world champion.



About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on August 10, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Mr. Pressey,

    First of all, I have completely enjoyed your blog for quite some time now! The subject of how racehorse’s are conditioned is a constant source of frustration that leaves me shaking my head! My family is exhausted by my lengthy rants hitting on the exact points you have made in this article. I would like to share with you a personal experience that I feel totally applies to this topic. I swam competitively a few years ago and was coached by 2 time Olympic Gold Medalist, Courtney Shealy. She was adamant about finishing our long swims with sprints. I would swim approximately 3000m broken up into 200’s, 400’s of various strokes and exercises, each one ending in a sprint. Of course, swimming is not on a turn. However, working both sides of the body equally played into every aspect of the swim. Thanks for sharing all your research and keep up the great work!

    • Thanks Bunny-

      Sports are inherently about creating these imbalances; one must exert huge forces repeatedly with the same muscles, often overlooking the antagonistic muscle groups. Humans are just starting to figure this out – I know of a javelin thrower who started training his off arm. He naturally throws right, but he now started practicing with his left. His left handed throws are only 20% of his dominant side, but the training serves to balance out the 2 sides of his body – leading to longer throws right handed and less injuries.

  2. Another excellent article. It amazes me why trainers don’t use the information that is out there to improve their horses. The proven techniques from other sports seem to be ignored.

    On a related point, just watched a harness race where the winner was a 10 yr. old gelding that had a record of: 255 starts 44 win 38 place 36 show. He won by daylight. Perhaps you CAN train horses differently and get remarkably different results.

    • Harness horses are amazing, aren’t they? Standardbreds have improved their race times over the mile by nearly 12 seconds in the past 40 years – while thoroughbreds in the 1.25 mile Kentucky Derby have only improved 2 seconds in the same time frame.

  3. Stirrups out of balance in both vertical and horizonatal planes around left turn only, plus colic and ulcers from poor feeding schedules etc. etc. Yes, a cynical review of methods is worthwhile. A wildlife feeder portioning grain over 12 to 24 feedings would be worth a look to limit digestive upsets; Zenyatta was apparently fed seven times a day.

  4. Seattle Slew’s early training included Dressage to strengthen and balance is body, and protect a mis-shapen leg. One has to wonder how many other racehorses could benefit from such conditioning.

    • That is so interesting, Karen. I’d love to read more about his training as dressage training and his mis-shapen leg. I just watched a short show on Slew on HRTV….what a great horse he was!

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