VERSAILLES, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Kentucky Derby is considered the greatest horse race in the world, but just like humans, if a horse wants to be a top athlete, it has to train like one.
“It's a rough haul getting to the Derby," said Kirsten Johnson, owner of the Kentucky Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center. "I mean, that's quite an accomplishment. It's what every thoroughbred breeder breeds for: to run in the Kentucky Derby.
“The thoroughbred race horse is the heartbeat of what we do here in Kentucky."
That’s where KESMARC comes into play.
“I still walk in and go, ‘Wow this is so cool,’” Johnson said.
Johnson started the Versailles facility 30 years ago. She dove right into water therapies.
“Get a lot of blood flow up and down the leg, and then also cardio vascularly, it's a great way to get a horse fit," she said. "And water is magical when it comes to healing. It's just magical."
If you've never seen a horse swim before, it’s quite the sight to see. Some horses appear to be smiling as they take their laps around the pool. Johnson said every horse swims differently.
KESMARC also has a water treadmill, where the horses have 60% buoyancy. The water exercises mean less pounding on the ground, and it's not as hard on their airways.
“There are some horses that start on the aquatred then go to the pool," Johnson said. "There's some horses that go to the pool then go to the aquatred. Then there's horses that do both every day. It just depends on the individual's needs and why they're here and what they're trying to accomplish.”
KESMARC treats horses of all varieties and disciplines. Some come here for a competitive edge and others come for rehabilitation.
The facility also has a cold salt water spa to help the horses’ tendons and keep inflammation down. And then there's a hyperbaric oxygen chamber big enough for a horse.
“I brought hyperbarics to Kentucky, and there's four chambers in town now,” Johnson said.
She said it's an effective tool for training and to accelerate the healing process for a variety of conditions.
“It's a much more efficient way to recover an athlete after competitions, so we use it a lot for that,” Johnson said.
KESMARC also has a vibration stall to stimulate blood circulation and hoof growth.
“Horses that come here that will be running in the Derby, trust me: There's nothing wrong with them or they wouldn't be running in the Derby," Johnson said. "But they do come here for recovery and to kind of make sure everything is going in the right direction for them."
Train and prepare all you want, but this Derby will have an unexpected element: crowds.
“Those horses — any other year — would have been acclimated to huge crowds and a lot of people around them," Johnson said. "These horses come to the Derby, and if they have a decent crowd there, it'll be the first crowd some of those horses are exposed to. Isn't that wild to think about? And that's a huge thing for the horses to get through."
But only time will tell which horse has what it takes to become Derby royalty.
Copyright 2021 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.