Shane Matheson trains racehorses — pacers to be precise. I could say he does it in his spare time, but he really doesn’t have any.
I’ve never been to a racing stables before but I’m fascinated by the whole horse training process. So it was thrilling to visit Shane and his partner Lisa at their Balfour stables to find out what makes a racehorse trainer tick.
A Good Trainer Knows His Horses
It’s easy to tell that Shane Matheson loves to train horses.
He speaks about them the way a good teacher talks about the children in their class. You can hear love and affection, frustration and pride. And, most of all, a deep understanding of each individual personality and what makes them tick.
The frustration comes from seeing potential go unrealised.
“I know it’s in there,” he says of one horse. “It’s just how to help him get it out.”
But that’s a skill that Shane has honed over years, and it seemed to me that he is pretty good at it.
Horses And Sheep — Somehow Shane Does It All
Racehorse training is a time-consuming life, and yet only the big guns can afford to make it a career. Smaller trainers have to fit the horse work around their other full-time jobs.
We see Shane several times a year, when he brings his crutching trailer to the farm.
Crutching sheep day after day is hard physical work — and the travel time takes its toll too. Shane and Lisa start early and often arrive home late.
But no matter how full of sheep the day is, they always have time for their horses.
How Do They Do It?
That’s why on most days of the week you’ll find Shane rolling out of bed at four in the morning. His first priority is always feeding the horses. Then, all too soon, it’s time for the truck and crutching trailer to roll out the gate.
Usually the horses are out in the paddocks — they thrive on being outside with freedom to move. It gives Shane extra distance to cart the feed buckets, but less time mucking-out the stables.
However, dishing out up to 17 breakfasts isn’t the only morning chore.
“The horses need to build up their fitness,” he explained, “so they go jogging most days.”
A Racing Stable Needs A Team
Shane doesn’t have the time to exercise the horses in the morning. So, usually, friend and neighbour Jane Orr comes in to help.
“We simply couldn’t do it without Jane,” Lisa told me, and Shane nodded a fervent agreement.
Jane and Lisa are largely responsible for keeping the horses fit.
Separately or together, they hitch the horses to the jogging trailer which tows behind the ute. That way they can lead up to seven horses around the track at the same time.
Each one needs between 10 and 30 minutes of jogging time a day depending on their stage of fitness.
You can see how getting fit could take a good chunk out of the morning.
Lisa and Shane’s son Tristan is another vital team member. With so many of their daylight hours taken up with crutching, Tristan’s often the one you’ll find doing the night-time feeding round.
The teamwork continues onto race days as well. Sadly, for Shane, he often finds himself crutching on racing days while Lisa does the trainer duties at the track. That’s where 19-year-old Tristan comes to the rescue once more, by taking Lisa’s place as chief rousie and sheep-mover.
Training On The Home Track
Of course, Shane would rather be in the sulky than crutching sheep so each day he’s the one you’ll find behind the harness doing the training runs. The horses love their newly-sanded home track. Since Balfour’s so far inland this is the closest they’ll get to training on the beach.
There are many things for a pacer to learn, but the most important is to love the whole experience.
Keeping The Horses Fed And Happy
Every trainer has his own magic mixture to feed his horses. Shane’s includes crushed barley, Betabeet, various oils and plenty of seaweed.
Seaweed is said to prevent mud fever* in horses. Shane can’t swear that’s true. But he can say that the horses haven’t had mud fever since he started them on seaweed.
The horses may be lucky enough to spend much of their time in paddocks but they’re still fed morning and night. And not all the horses get the same mixture.
What they eat depends on a whole lot of other factors. This one’s ready to race; that one’s looking off-colour. Another horse is pregnant… each one has a different brew.
And occasionally a new horse will arrive with some interesting foibles.
Shane pointed to the farthest-away tree in the paddock.
“One horse would only eat over there when he first arrived,”
It’s the coldest, windiest spot on the farm. But every morning Shane had to lug the heavy feed bucket across the wet grass to that chosen tree. In every other spot the horse turned up his nose.
“We got him out of that habit pretty quick, Shane admitted. “He’ll eat anywhere, now.”
Where Do They Come From?
It’s expensive to own and train a racing horse and many people want their horses to win early on. So quite a few of the Matheson’s horses are ‘cast outs’ from bigger stables.
Shane, on the other hand, takes a longer view.
We went to see another horse who’d lately arrived at Shane’s stables a little depressed and refusing to eat. Now, he gobbles his food along with the best of them.
“The potential’s there,” Shane said.
“But this year my priority is getting him fit, healthy and enjoying himself. We’ll give him lots of joyful experiences now so that he’ll be raring to go out and reach that potential.”
We watched as Shane harnessed him into the training sulky. “I’m not sure how he’s going to go,” he admitted. “This is his first run in a while.”
Shane must already be working his magic. Two minutes later that horse was flying around the track and loving every minute of it.
2004 — A Race To Remember
When you’re running late something is bound to go wrong. Take the day that Happy Gilmore was entered into the Tuapeka Cup.
“We got a speeding ticket dashing through Clinton.”
That’s enough to put anyone in a tizzy, but worse followed on the Dunedin motorway. Happy Gilmore began rearing in the box.
You can’t scream to a halt in a horse box, and by the time Shane had pulled over Happy Gilmore’s leg was completely stuck, and his stablemate was not impressed.
“So we had take the other horse out — with cars zooming past — so we could manoeuvre the leg back out.”
It was no easy task.
“By the time we finished he was holding up his leg, looking really sorry for himself. And I thought ‘Damn, we’ll have to scratch him.’”
But they still had another horse — and his race came first.
Gradually, Happy Gilmore seemed to improve so into the sulky he went. Horse and driver galloped off down the course. Enough was enough! Shane decided to go for a drink.
As it turned out, it was just as well he did.
Happy Gilmore refused to settle. The stipes (stewards) decided that Shane would have to withdraw him from the race. So the call went out over the loudspeaker: “Shane Matheson, report immediately.”
In the bar, Shane was oblivious to the fracas holding up the whole race.
Eventually the driver took matters into his own hand and galloped the horse back to the start. This time, as soon as racing got underway, Happy Gilmore paced beautifully.
And, in the best of horseracing traditions, after all that, he won the race.
What’s Next For Shane
Shane’s cautiously excited about his current team — both horse and human.
He can’t say enough about Sheree Tomlinson, his regular driver, and with good reason. Sheree’s the top junior driver in Australasia, and Shane thanks his lucky stars that she’s an integral part of his racing team.
The horses are pacing out of their skins too.
Hurricane Banner set the scene at Gore on February 9th with a come-from-behind win in the last race of the day.
I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Reading More On The Blog
Shane’s day job is running a busy crutching trailer business. He’s an expert who makes our farming lives easier by doing the job quicker and better than we ever could. You can read more about life on the farm here.
Our communities are full of people who bring great things into the world by following their dreams. Some create beautiful or useful things. Others – like Shane – bring joy through sport or entertainment. Still more own small businesses which serve others with useful and innovative products. You can read some of their stories here.
“The Shane and Jane Show” by Harness Link
Sheree Tomlinson at the 2018 Australasian Young Driver’s Championship
*Mud fever causes irritation and dermatitis on a horse’s legs. Wikipedia, as usual, has a comprehensive explanation.