Becoming a stalls handler: Have you got what it takes?

Features | 8th July 2015

There is a little red rope that stops you from being able to go and physically touch the Mona Lisa, such is the fear of damaging the painting which was valued at £60m in 1962.

Yet that is pittance compared to a job which requires you to get much more hands-on, with assets that can dwarf the price of da Vinci’s masterpiece.

Stall handlers in Britain have been loading horses into the starting stalls for half a century, with the first race being contested at Newmarket on July 8th 1965.

One of the most valuable stalls-load of horses is believed to be the 2012 Juddmonte International Stakes at York when the likes of St Nicholas Abbey, Farhh and Twice Over lined up against the superstar Frankel in a race which had approximately £150m worth of equine talent on display.

The men tasked with loading these horses in to the stalls need a more specific set of skills than Liam Neeson’s character in the film Taken – so what is on the checklist?

–       Strength – The old saying goes that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Being able to control a thoroughbred horse and lead it into the stalls makes core upper body strength is a must.

–       Footwork – This is an animal which weighs half a ton, if something catches his eye and he wants to wander off, he will. Being nimble on your feet could save you from being stood on or knocked over.

–       Flexibility – Once the last horse is in their stall, the handler is required to drop down and crawl out of the way so the race can start as soon as possible. Those who can remember the ‘stop, drop and roll’ fire alarm technique from their school days will have a distinct advantage.

–       Good with your hands – As well as needing to use them to lead, a stalls handler’s hands can be one of the best forms of communication. A reassuring pat on the neck can help to calm a horse and prevent it getting spooked.

–       Be fearless – You might think that unplugging a USB stick before clicking ‘Safely Remove Hardware’ constitutes a dangerous thrill, but approaching a thoroughbred horse which could kick you back in to next week is far more daunting. That said, a horse can tell if you are nervous, so a fearless and confident approach will give you an advantage from the outset.

July 8th marks the 50th anniversary of the use of starting stalls in British Flat racing. At the Newmarket Moet & Chandon July Festival (9th-11th July), stalls handlers will wear gold skull caps to celebrate the anniversary.

Stalls Stats

–       Newmarket’s Chesterfield Stakes on 8, July 1965 was the first race in Britain to be started from stalls.

–       Four coach loads, several private cars and 500 racegoers on foot made their way to witness the start.

–       Alec Marsh was the licensed starter in charge.

–       The race was for two-year-olds over a distance of five furlongs and won by Track Spare ridden by Lester Piggott.

–       Third in the race Great Nephew went on to sire two Epsom Derby winners – Grundy and the ill-fated Shergar.

–       There are 34 sets of stalls in regular use in Britain.

–       Dimensions – The internal length is 2.45m,width is 0.9m.

–       Starting stalls are made by Steriline in Adelaide, Australia.

–       Each set takes up to eight weeks to manufacture, six weeks to ship and up to six days to assemble.

–       Each race meeting on the Flat requires a minimum of 11 fully trained and BHA accredited stalls handlers.

–       RaceTech stalls handlers have travelled as far afield as Saudi Arabia to deliver bespoke training programmes.