The Secret Life of Racetrack Jack
A Goat Among Thoroughbreds
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Are calming goats real? To answer that, let me introduce a goat named Jack. Born on a thoroughbred farm, Jack has befriended racehorses his entire life. Jack’s owner, Dan Hendricks, doesn’t know what breed Jack is or how much he weighs. He just knows racehorses do better with a companion, and for many horses, the best person for the job is a goat.
Goats and Racehorses
According to Dictionary.com, the term “got your goat” comes from a tradition in horse racing. “Thought to have a calming effect on high-strung thoroughbreds, a goat was placed in the horse’s stall on the night before the race. Unscrupulous opponents would then steal the goat in an effort to upset the horse and cause it to lose the race.”
Trainers now use goats as full-time companions to the racehorses, rather than just the night before a race. Mac McBride of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club tells me they have many goats living at the racetrack. He says an estimated 25-40% of their trainers keep a goat at the farm as companions for racehorses.
“If a trainer has a particular horse that is showing signs of nervousness, and there are various ways they can do that, they can stall walk, or weave, or start bobbing from side to side upfront, the trainer will try something like a goat,” Mac told me. As shown in many pet therapy programs, goats make good calming companions for more than just horses. “One trainer told me it makes the difference between night and day. They see a remarkable change when they have a companion like a goat. Many different kinds of animals have been tried, but by far the most successful is the goat.”
Born to the Job
Jack was born to be a racehorse companion. Trainer Dan Hendricks has used goats with his horses for thirty years. When one of his goats died, he asked around to see if anyone knew where he could get a new one. A friend on another thoroughbred farm had a doe who had just given birth.
“He said they just had three at the farm and they don’t need them. So myself and another trainer said we’d take one each.” Dan took one of the buckling goats back to the racetrack and named him Jack. “I think it was the first time they’d ever been touched when they were put on the van back to the track. So when we got them at the track they were wild. They were really scared of people. It took us a month before we got him where he would accept us.”
Taming of the Goat
Dan and his team tied Jack near a stall with a long-enough rope he could walk into the stall, but not get tangled up with the horse. That quieted Jack down at the same time he started quieting the horse. They found treats that Jack liked and soon he realized these humans would feed him and be nice to him.
I asked if Jack had been wethered. “Oh yeah,” Dan answered emphatically. “He stunk and was terrible. You know how they are.” It didn’t happen right away, though, because the vets at the track specialized in horses, not goats. “It’s been, usually, since school that they gelded a goat, if they even have, so they wanted to be very careful. So they called friends and studied up on it to make sure that they treated him the right way and, and didn’t harm him at all.”
Most companion goats don’t pair with one horse for life. Jack goes to whichever horse needs him most until that horse retires or gets sold. Then he gets matched with another one. For the past few years he worked as a companion to a bay gelding named Morgan S. With good breeding and training and the calming presence of Racetrack Jack, Morgan S. won his very first race at Del Mar racetrack in 2017. He raced well for two more years before Dan decided to give him some time off. Jack moved on to an up-and-coming racehorse named Matson. “Matson doesn’t really need him,” Dan said, “but it keeps them both company, so it can’t hurt anything.”
A Day in the Life of a Racehorse Companion
Jack’s day starts at 5:00 am when the help arrives at the stable. They give him fresh water and everyone who walks by says hello to him and gives him a pat on the head.
At 10:30 am, Jack gets fed when the horses do. He gets the same feed as the horses, but in his own feeder so he doesn’t have to compete for it. Throughout the day there are always bits of loose hay and grain he can snack on.
Jack stays in the stall with Matson all day “except for a short half-hour to hour of quiet time when the horses are done training before we feed,” Dan says. “Sometimes we will turn him loose, just let him wander around the barn, and he kind of hunts for food and visits a few other horses, but other than that he’s usually near the horse he’s assigned to.
Can A Goat Help A Horses Win?
Racetrack Jack isn’t a guide goat. He has never actually been on a racetrack or even watched one of his horses race, but his presence and the presence of many other goats are seen there. So what do goats do to help horses win? “Anything that keeps the horse calm and happy will help them to their full potential,” Dan said. “So yes a goat does help get the most out of a horse.”
Originally published in the November/December 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.