Horses with Jobs: Racetrack Outrider Horses
By Margaret Evans
Job Description: Racetrack outriders and their horses provide the valuable service of helping to maintain a safe environment during workouts and live racing.
“I have been outriding at Century Downs Racetrack [in Calgary] since it first opened in April 2015,” says Janice Lea of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. “However, I started doing back-up outriding at Stampede Park in 1994.”
Lea rides “Slicker,” her 16-year-old registered Paint “CB City Slicker” who, she says, has done just about anything a horse can do. He was in film production prior to Lea acquiring him, and had been used on drill teams for rodeo performances as well as many other activities.
“He has a brave heart, a willing disposition, and energy to get out and go. He is well-suited to the job as he pays close attention to the activities on the track, even watching the horses race. He also likes the attention from the crowd and isn’t afraid to get up close to the action in the stands or on the track.”
The day starts with mucking out Slicker’s stall while he enjoys his breakfast, followed by grooming and tacking up.
“Once we are ready to go, we don our safety attire such as ‘flak jacket,’ shin boots, bell boots, and of course, a helmet. Slicker likes to partake in a bit of stretching and we are off to the qualifiers. Qualifiers are when the racehorses must prove to the vet, judges, and racing officials that they are sound, fit, and ready in all ways to be entered into future races. After qualifiers, we take a small break before the races start. There are approximately 10 to 12 races scheduled in a day. A race runs in just under two minutes, but the day lasts around five hours. We parade-marshal each race, meaning we lead the way for the horses in each race past the grandstand for the bettors to view. Once the racehorses and drivers are on the track, I am there to help horses that are nervous and need a buddy, or to pony a horse that is having difficulty turning and needs assistance before the race. I also carry a radio for communication with race officials to notify them if there is a delay in the race due to equipment failure or if a horse needs to return to the paddock for adjustments. Some horses need help being led to the gate and if the need arises, I may have to catch a loose horse or a runaway. Slicker has a calm personality when a horse needs a hand calming down and just needs a buddy, but when a horse being ponied tries to bully or lean on him, he is not afraid to lean back.”
She said that racehorses naturally have a high-strung disposition, especially on race day when they sense the anticipation and excitement.
An outrider helps Calvin Borel warm up Rachel Alexandra before her win in the 2009 Woodward Stakes. Photo: Shutterstock/Sean Donohue
Slicker is brave, calm, and has the energy needed to do the job. Photo courtesy of Janice Lea
“Two-year-old horses are greener than horses with experience on the track, but I can’t assume a seasoned horse won’t need help. If they do, Slicker can handle them. One of the biggest challenges of [outrider] riding is finding an equine partner who is brave enough and has the drive to do the job. The horses need to be willing to get up to a noisy race bike [sulky] at a 45-degree angle while running full out. Being too far ahead can cause the horse you’re trying to catch to swerve behind you, and too far behind can cause a bike wheel to hit the back of your horse’s legs, so they need to be able to take this in stride. Some of the headgear the race horses are outfitted with makes it challenging to grab them, such as head polls, overchecks, blinkers, blinders, and other equipment that is meant to keep that horse safe and steerable. Typical accidents don’t involve just one horse, there are usually multiple horses, but you can only help one at a time.”
Lea is proud that Slicker is such an ambassador for the sport and that he has many fans. Being approachable and handsome, she says, is definitely the easiest part of his job and he gets to pack flags on stake races and for Canada Day celebrations on the track.
“The best part about outriding is it gets you out on your horse and it develops a bond that is hard to describe. We find confidence in each other and are continually working on our skills. The energy of the industry constantly encourages me to want to improve. Being surrounded by other horse people reminds you of the true versatility of the equine world.”
Main photo: Slicker and Janice Lea help the horses that are nervous or need assistance at Century Downs Racetrack in Calgary, Alberta. Credit: Evelyn Sabraw