Living on horse sense

Updated: 2016-04-19 07:35

By Wang Yuke(HK Edition)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

 Living on horse sense

Chan Siu-wing, the horse handler, believes horses can read people's love to them. Photos by Edmond Tang / China Daily

Living on horse sense

Living on horse sense

Race horses could be quite a handful. Chan Siu-wing, however, is a pro at handling the stars of the racing circuit with kid gloves. Wang Yuke got to see him in action.

As the cargo truck drew nearer, photographers lifted their cameras and started jostling for the best vantage point to shoot two superstars - Lovely Day and Nuovo Record. The arrival of two highly regarded race horses from Japan was a significant moment, and eagerly anticipated.

The chestnut mare, Nuovo Record, whose dun-color mane highlighted her white blaze, was met by Chan Siu-wing, a member of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, who has spent much of his working life escorting overseas thoroughbreds from the airport to the quarantine stable at Sha Tin Racecourse.

Living on horse sense

Chan walked the 5-year-old a bit, gently patting her back and whispering in her ear, as cameras clicked and flashes flashed. When the time came to walk her up the short ramp to the horse trailer, Nuovo Record was skittish. Chan walked her some more. On the second try, the horse was cooperative.

The 6-year-old Lovely Day, a dark bay with a white star, voted Japan's Best Older Horse of the Year in 2015, stepped off the truck in a bright green halter. He was better behaved. Without much effort, he trotted into the trailer with a measured gait.

The pair had arrived by air from Japan. They will run in one of the premier showcase races of the Hong Kong racing season, the Group One Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup (2,000m turf), on April 24.

International racing events are the busiest times for Chan. He often commutes between the airport and the Sha Tin Racecourse five times a day, escorting thoroughbreds arriving from afar. If incoming flights are delayed, he has to stay overnight at the airport.

"The airport is my second home," laughed Chan.

He also trains horses. For example, most enter the starting gates with no hesitation. Many horses, however, are terrified of the starting gate, and need to be trained and reassured to be ready for race day. Chan also does "hair styling" for the horses.

His affinity is an integral part of his life, dating back to childhood when his father, a stable assistant at the Jockey Club, would talk to him about horses. "As the racecourse was off-limits to children, I waited outside, just to catch a glimpse of the horses," he smiled.

Breaking the ice

Horse trailers can be just as daunting to some horses as starting gates. Chan tries walking the horse first round and round in a circle until it loses orientation and no longer shies at the trailer. If that doesn't work, he tries a blindfold and if they still won't go, he injects a sedative, as the last resort.

He doesn't use heavy coercion but goes for an "emotional exchange" with the horse, "willing" it into the trailer. A forceful approach would scare the horses, making them more intractable, said Chan.

"We treat them like humans. They have personalities, tempers and affections. Just like children, they love to be fondled and cared for, they like physical touch and emotional interaction." He's noted that horses like to muzzle against a trainer's upper arm. They sense the trainer's body temperature, learn his smell. That's how they identify and recognize people.

As a handler, Chan has only fleeting acquaintance with the horses. "But they can recognize me a week after we first meet! It's real! They respond to my whistle," Chan said enthusiastically.

Living on horse sense

He has had to deal with naughty "boys" and "girls", as he calls them affectionately. Once it took him more than half an hour to coax a particularly difficult filly into the trailer. He finally got her in by walking her, talking to her, stroking her, singing to her and giving her little food treats.

The thoroughbreds coming to Hong Kong for major, annual racing events usually have won big money on the international circus, so they have status and high value. Nuovo Record earned HK$500,000, by placing second in last year's Hong Kong International Races. Guaranteeing the horses' safety and ensuring they are in top shape for a race is essential. The fact that people invest their cash by betting on celebrity horses puts Chan under pressure. Then, there's more pressure from the fact that the horses come here representing their countries and regions, "so we can't afford to have them sidelined due to injury."

Then and now

The work is easier now than back in the days when horses landed at the old Kai Tak Airport. People crowded around in the airport parking lot, where the horses were unloaded. That scared some horses leading to temper outbursts. Back in those days, the horses coming here often were not trained and sometimes unbroken.

Since the 1980s horses have been unloaded into a secure area, and the horses arriving today are all thoroughbreds, well trained and usually obedient.

Horses coming from all over the world have different tastes and eating preferences. That has to be taken into account. They are fed what they like and what they're accustomed to at home.

They also get special care when it comes to stabling, said Chan. Horses from Japan and European countries are used to a cooler climate. Australian thoroughbreds like higher temperatures, so the air conditioners are turned off for them, unless the temperature hits above 25 C.

Even the horse trailer is meticulously designed. Trailer can accommodate up to three horses, with partitioned areas 1.5 meters (length) by 0.7 meters (width) by 2.4 meters (height). Handlers don't want the horses having enough space to kneel, because getting them back up on their feet again from a narrow stall can be a devil of a job.

Horses are accompanied by veterinarians on their travels. Sensations of weightlessness during airplane rides can panic a horse which can panic other horses, so when one horse starts to panic, he gets an immediate shot of sedative.

Chan, in his 60s, is supposed to retire by the end of the year. "It is time to take a break and enjoy retired life," said Chan. After a pause, he added, "I can't imagine life without horses." Chan hopes he will be asked to stay on.

He's worried about those left who will take his place. Not many younger handlers have all the training they need. He's had dozens of apprentices over the years. Most of them quit sooner or later because they get worn down from the back breaking work.

Some people are afraid of horses because they mistake them as remote and aggressive, he remarked. "Actually, they have emotions, temperaments and characteristics. If you treat them well, they know you and love you back."

Contact the writer at

Living on horse sense

(HK Edition 04/19/2016 page8)