PHOENIX — Ears pinned back, kicking her hooves at the water splashing on her, a dark brown 2-year-old horse made her way down the walkway of an equine pool at Turf Paradise.
It was the filly’s first time entering the racetrack’s pool, which helps horses with their cardiovascular conditioning without incurring the normal stress to the legs associated with on-track training.
But despite any benefits it could have for her, the filly wasn’t going in the pool without making a splash of her own.
Jumping into the pool, she caused nearby Turf Paradise veteran pool coordinator Chris Thornton to shake his head.
“We don’t want that,” Thornton said. “We don’t want them to jump. They can’t see that hole down there so they take a leap like that. We want them to walk right down because we got mats down there. If you can walk down those mats, you feel comfortable. And then they swim off. I’ve never swam a 2-year-old ever. This is my first one.”
The 2-year-old filly is one of 30 to 50 horses who will use the pool on live race days.
This year, Thornton said the equine pool has seen more horses than ever before.
One of only a few located on the property of horse racetracks in America, the oval-shaped pool is 30 feet wide, 60 feet long and 14 feet deep. Some other racetracks with equine pools are Northfield Park and JACK Thistledown Racino, both in Ohio.
In addition to the equine pool, Turf Paradise has about 1,800 horses in its stables and about 1,800 people daily on the racetrack grounds. From jockeys, grooms, trainers, owners and more, these individuals operate to keep their horses in top shape.
Thornton said letting horses swim in the pool can help relieve the toll on various parts of their bodies. Just as athletes use their whole body while swimming and interval training, race horses do the same while using the equine pool.
Thornton compared the pool treatment to getting in a sauna for horses.
“The concussion on the ground takes its tolls on its ankles, its knees, their shoulders,” Thornton said. “This (pool use) is concussion-free. All you do is swim and actually you enhance their lungs if you don’t do it too much because they have to use their lungs. And they use other parts of their body that they don’t use to gallop. So you are doing a really good thing with swimming.”
The pool was created in 2003 under Turf Paradise owner Jerry Simms, and it has been a big hit with trainers and owners at the track. It is open from sunrise to 10 a.m. on race days. Horsemen licensed by the Arizona Department of Racing can bring their horses to the pool to get in their swimming workout for a $9 fee.
Licensed owner and trainer Kim Rushton, 48, brings a handful of her horses to the pool.
“It seems like they get a better cardiovascular workout if they can get to the pool or have any extra pains,” Rushton said. “It kind of relieves the stress in the joints and doesn’t make the pain any worse. We kind of think it lengthens their strides.”
Rushton said she usually brings three horses to the pool when it’s open and within two weeks, all her horses will have been in the pool at least once.
One of Rushton’s mares has been swimming at the pool for two weeks. And while she hasn’t raced since starting her water training, Rushton believes “it’s truly going to help” on race day.
Licensed owner and trainer Fred Tunks, 56, said since he’s been having his horses swim in the pool he’s seen “a happier horse.”
“My old stud horse didn’t like (the pool),” Tunks said. “We had to put a (lip) chain on him and back him into the water a few times. Right now, he just jumps in there. He’s happy to do it.”
The reaction from the Tunks horse is typical. Most horses don’t like their initial experience with the pool.
Thornton said first-time pool horses are often tranquilized because they often “act very stupid.” Some equine pools have a long walkway that allows the horses to walk in and begin swimming.
The Turf Paradise pool does not. Instead, it instantly drops to 14 feet after the first few steps.
This sudden drop has caused its share of mishaps.
One horse leaped over the wall surrounding the entrance to the pool. Despite the horse weighing about 1,200 pounds, a trainer managed to guide the horse back into the pool.
“The horse is naturally going to fly and get away,” Thornton said. “That wall over there is the only thing they have to get away from. We only had one (jump the wall), but that was enough. Scared me to death.”
Thornton, 63, has spent his whole adult life in the horse business. But his equestrian experience began before that. At 18 months old, Thornton’s dad propped him up on a saddle on a horse.
“My grandmother was watching out the window and he had me in the saddle,” Thornton said. ”And the saddle slipped under the horse and the horse went a-bucking and my grandmother wanted to kill her son.”
And while Thornton might have had a rough start to his long journey around horses, his love for horses only grew throughout his career.
“We’ve had some fun times here,” Thornton said.