By Jennifer Morrison for WoodbineEntertainment.com
TORONTO, May 4 – Laura De Bellis has lived just minutes from Woodbine racetrack for many years but she had never visited the home of the Queen’s Plate. In a twist of fate, the 52-year-old, who has made a living travelling and teaching in the medical profession, is one of the newest students in the innovative Horsemanship Training Program.
More than a dozen members of the community are close to completing the Introductory Hotwalker course, funded by WEG and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, and presented in conjunction with Groom Elite.
On May 15, the three-week Groom Program begins and De Bellis is hoping to move on to that next level.
“I got laid off from a job that I loved,” said De Bellis. “I had travelled and taught doctors about pacemakers and defibrillators. This landed in my lap so I decided to make a change.”
This is the second year of the Horsemanship Training Program and the first time that the two courses have been separated and instructed by four of Woodbine’s trainers. Dr. C. Reid McClellan, executive director of Groom Elite, a Kentucky-based education program also instructs and assesses students.
“We started this program last year to help train people from the community to come to Woodbine and work safely with horses,” said Jessica Buckley, Vice-President Corporate Affairs and Community Relations for WEG. “Trainers have a shortage of workers at the track and these are jobs that you need experience to deal with these Thoroughbreds daily.”
Last year, 14 people graduated from the program and nine found jobs on the backstretch.
Each course requires a $50 down payment with $25 returning to the student at the completion of the course.
Renee Kierans (cap) working with a group of new students…
The Hotwalker course (a hotwalker is a person who cools down a horse after exercise) introduces registrants to the basic handling of a horse including how to put a lead shank on, how to lead and walk a horse and be comfortable, yet aware around the animals.
“We have men and women from all walks of life signed up,” said Buckley. “People who just want to make a complete career change. We had someone who was a painter in a hospital who has always wanted to work with horses and now he’s working as a groom for one of our instructors, Jamie Attard.”
De Bellis admits she was intimidated by the track ponies that are used in the course at first but says she has learned a great deal during the Hotwalker course.
“I’m wanting to learn about the industry,” said De Bellis. “I had a chance to visit the backstretch with another student and watch the morning routines. I have just loved it. This is a beautiful course they are offering.”
Renée Kierans, a trainer, former amateur jockey and television personality, is an instructor along with Attard, Sarah Sullivan and Paul Attard.
“We need people on the backstretch,” said Kierans. “We need a workforce of hotwalkers, grooms and exercise riders to work with trainers. With the number of horses back there, there just aren’t enough people to go around.”
Kierans enjoys teaching the newcomers about basics of horsemanship in this first course and will be taking on a group of her own for the Groom Program
“I find that people aren’t that afraid of horses, they just need the knowledge. The commonality among all of them is the love of the horse.”
There are still spots available for the Groom Program. For more information, click here.