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Ryan preps race horses as exerciser

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By Sam Draut

Before horses compete on race day, preparation takes place months and years in the making. Part of the responsibility falls upon horse exercisers, who work with the race horses long before a jockey mounts and heads to the starting gate.

So every morning, long before the sun rises, Chelsea Ryan is working with horses as they prepare for races. The 2009 Oldham County High School graduate works at WinStar Farm, which has ownership of three horses running in the Kentucky Derby, Justify, Nobel Indy and Audible, as well as 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming. She worked with Always Dreaming at Saratoga in 2016.

Ryan returned to Kentucky after a stint at Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, Fla.

When riding a horse for the first time, Ryan compares it to speed dating.

“You have a very short amount of time to figure out what the horse likes and doesn’t like,” Ryan said. “Some horses are easier than others, while others are much more difficult.”

Ryan won’t bring up her irons the first time on a new horse, believing in the saying ‘the longer you ride, the longer you ride.’

“Some people get on a horse and pull their irons up like a jockey,” Ryan said. “I’m not a fan of falling off.”

Typically Ryan will ride the same 10 horses every day. She learns their habits, personality and how to get along with them following the initial meeting. The trainers will plan the workouts for the horses, which vary from timed workouts and breezes, galloping certain distances or lengths, depending on the day.  

Ryan says most people don’t realize how physically demanding horseback riding can be.

“If you have never ridden before and try to ride one horse and jog it around the track you are going to be super sore the next day," Ryan said. "I ride 10 a day and I’ll be sore some days.”

She spends time in the gym between strength and endurance training. Riding demands leg strength, as well as upper body and core strength.

“Horseback riding is like a high intensity interval workout, especially with race horses,” Ryan said. “They are fit, so you need to be just as fit as they are.”

Since she gets to work with younger horses, Ryan can get a glimpse of how well they may perform as race horses.

“You can tell certain ones are going to do something well in the long run,” Ryan said. “They are a lot like people. You knew who was going to be a college or professional athlete, some weren’t going to make it at a high level.”

The horses that aren’t cut out for racing branch to different careers like show jumping, a trail pony, among others things.

For Ryan, who has worked traditional jobs, always kept coming back to horses. It’s a profession she says you have to love to be in it, but she has stuck with it because it keeps her happy.

“I wake up and get to ride horses,” Ryan said. “I get to watch the sunrise and ride, it makes it all worth it.”