By Pat Parelli
When I was an adolescent, I used to go with my friends to the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, CA. We would get paid 25 cents to walk a hot thoroughbred horse until he cooled down. That process usually took 45 minutes, so we thought we were sitting in tall cotton making all that money.
The Pros and Cons of Hot Walkers
Years later, someone came up with a mechanical hot walker, which had its pros and cons. The pros were 1) that they did not have to hire a lot of employees to lead the horses around, and 2) that you could cool down four horses at one time. Believe it or not, there are still "human hot-walkers" hired at racetracks. It's normally an entry level job with minimum pay, but the job does exist.
The con was that a lot of horses did not know how to follow a feel and would pull back when tied to the hot walker. Alternatively, they would just stand there and stop the hot walker with their heads. In other words, the horses had learned how to use opposition reflex to be dull and unresponsive.
This also caused horses to disconnect from humans, because they just got off an emotional high galloping on the racetrack, then were led straight to a mechanical device.
The Natural Value of Hot Walkers
Every discipline that I have ever been around uses hot walkers. When I was an apprentice with Troy Henry, he disconnected his hot walker, and we just tied the horses to it. The horses would use it as a high tie, and when we disconnected the belts, and the horses were pulling it around. (They had more fun with it that way than they ever did when the engine was running!)
In 1989, at Equitana in Germany, I saw my first free walker where the horses were not tied but had gates that moved in unison in front of them and behind them. I immediately saw the value of that mentally, emotionally, and physically because the horses were not being pulled.
The horses instead had to go to and from pressure in the driving manner, and they had to read the direction and speed that the gates were going. I have found this to be of extreme value. I had always wanted one, but they can be quite expensive.
This year, I was visiting an old friend named Mark de Champlain. I had lent him one of my horses—Top Notch—for a couple of years, as he was getting too old to ride a young horse and he needed to stay safe. He was well-rounded as he had been a great trainer of Western performance horses for many decades on the East Coast.
When I picked up Top Notch in Georgia, as we walked out toward the barn, I said “What are you going to do with that hot walker?” He said, “Sell it, I suppose. I can’t ride anymore, so I guess I’m getting out of horses.”
I asked him how much he wanted for it, and he replied “$1500.” I said, “There’s no way in the world I will pay you $1500 for that antique hot walker.” He looked at me like 'Oh, here comes the bartering...' and I said, “I will not give you a penny less than $2000.” He grinned from ear to ear and we both had a good laugh.
Once transported down to the Parelli Center in Ocala, FL, it was erected and rewired, then we added some custom fabrication and paint. Now we have a beautiful, functional hot walker that my horses enjoy every day.
We call it The Carousel. As with any tool in horsemanship, understanding both the purpose of the tool and the horse’s mindset around its form of pressure is crucial for its effectiveness.