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Dirty Jobs: Hot walker

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Round and round and round and . . . seems like that’s all we ever do at the racetrack, just keep turning left! But no one goes round and round more than the hot walkers.

Thoroughbred trainers like George Weaver, Jerry Gryczewski, and Bobby Frankel hail from all over the map and all different walks of life but each started their racetrack experience as hot walkers. California Horse Racing Board Veterinarian Dr. Tim Grande touched a racehorse for the first time when he worked as a hot walker. Many people who have little or no horse experience but all the desire in the world begin their careers in horseracing as the all-important but often overlooked hot walker.

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You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink! No one knows this better than a hot walker.

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Chrissy, a retired exercise-rider-turned-hot walker, holds for a bath.

The hot walkers number one task is to cool out the horse and he or she must be waiting for the horse when it returns from the track. The exercise rider will stop the horse in the shed row or stall and remove the tack (saddle, bridle and all the fixins’) and the hot walker will put the halter on with a lead shank and maybe a blanket of some kind, depending on the weather, and then walk the horse to cool it out from the jog, gallop or breeze it had. Hot walkers walk the horse inside in the barn or in an outside oval walking ring and will stop every lap or so to offer the horse water. When the horse has caught it’s breath and stops drinking it will be brought into a wash area for a bath from its groom.

After the bath most horses will be walked from 20 minutes to one hour as per the trainers instruction. Sounds boring? Well let me tell you from personal experience, it is! However it’s an absolutely crucial part of the horse’s daily care and it requires horsemanship skill that can only be learned through experience.

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This frisky horse may require and expert hot walker!

Walking “cold ones”, horses who have the day off from training and are often times leaving their stall for the only time that day, can be the most challenging. These horses have not let out any steam by going to the track so they are frisky and can be quite a handful. The sheer excitement of fresh air and new scenery can be overwhelming! They want to leap, snort and strike in delight. Hot walkers must have expert intuition to prevent an exuberant horse from getting loose. It also helps to be fearless, as some colts prefer to walk on their hind legs pawing the air. They can easily give a hot walker a painful metal shod paw or snag the lead shank with a hoof and tangle themselves requiring the hot walker to partake in some fancy footwork or let the horse go. Loose horses are a danger to themselves and others. It’s the last thing you want at the racetrack.

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Graded Stakes winner Wilkinson is walked with a blanket called a cooler in the early morning light.

In addition to cooling steaming horses and walking cold ones, hot walkers are often in charge of washing, drying and folding horse laundry, raking up the barn area, and assisting the grooms. They do the little things that no one notices but keep the barn ticking. Even things like feeding a barn cat or bringing a groom a new roll of tape from the tack room make a huge difference in a busy morning.

On race day each horse has a hot walker in attendance as they make their way to the paddock and saddling area. While the groom leads the horse, the hot walker often carries a bag adorned with the stables colors and inside will be the chamois, girth channel, a tongue-tie, towel, blinkers if necessary, a small sponge and maybe a blanket and a small bucket to hold water to sponge the horse on a hot day. If the horse wins the hot walker will cool the horse out in the private test barn before heading back to their own stable on the backside.

This low paying job is often a springboard to bigger and better things. Many hot walkers learn how to groom and will begin to care for one horse at time while they learn the ropes, eventually stepping up to a full time grooming job. Hot walkers may go on to become foreman, assistant trainers and trainers. Needless to say, understanding every job at the track will only make a trainer better able to run his or her business.

Walking hots is a great job for young people who want to learn the racing industry even if they don’t plan on working hands on with horses in a future career. For example photographer Marcie Hecox worked as a hot walker for Ron McAnally, James Cassidy, Howie Zucker and Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer so she could expand her perspective of horse racing.

“I could write a whole blog post just about my newfound respect and understand of both the horses and the people after doing that job,” said Hecox.

It used to be very common for high school and college kids to work seasonally at Del Mar and Saratoga. Can’t think of a better environment or a better way to lose that Freshman fifteen!

Many hot walkers were once grooms, exercise riders or foremen and take a hot walking job as they head into retirement.    Other hot walkers use the jobs to supplement their spouses job and keep a bit of jingle in their own pocket. All little fresh air, a little exercise, a little money, your daily dose of horse, could be worse.

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