Body Language for Racing Horses
The soft rays of the sun were bouncing off their well-brushed coats. The setting in of dusk was providing much-needed relief from the heat of the sun and I could see them all trotting with pride, each more majestic than the one before. The riders and the guiders were curiously looking toward me as I sat there, taking notes from Adhiraj Singh Jodha, an able horse trainer and a fine gentleman who had spared me time today to teach about how racing horses get trained to obey their masters and how the master communicates with his horse, be it the trainer or the jockey. Many a time, seated behind the wooden stands of the Mahalaxmi Race Course, watching the horses whiz past at breakneck speed, I pondered how interesting it would be to learn about the style of non-verbal interaction where the language of the communicators was so different! Finally today I had gotten my chance.
Our conversation began from the day the horse turns two at the farm and is bought by its owner and then handed over to the trainer for grooming. The beginning days see the young horses walk around in a circle and when they are tired enough, a bit is put in his mouth and a saddle is laden on his back. The reward for the horse for enduring this new weight on his back is his favorite food alfalfa. As Maston’s experiment goes, the horse is thus conditioned into bearing weight on its back. The fact that all horses go around together in a circle helps keep the horse company and comfort in a strange milieu. Trotting is followed by hack canter, then canter, then gallop, and finally the pace for the races.
This is the time the jockey pictures into the scene, I am told. He begins his first interaction with his horse by holding his reins and walking with him. A slow and lengthy process of gradual training ensues where the trainer and his boys patiently “break in” with the horse. The trick really is to make a 500-kilo beast understand and remember that a 50-kilo rider would be his master and it would have to obey the master at the pull of the reins. Ultimately these work rider jockeys would be replaced by specialized race jockeys who would be between 50-52kg to minimize the burden on the horse while racing.
What makes a great jockey and horse pair? A temperamental horse might do good with a weak jockey since he might not be able to handle someone commanding him too firmly. However, a weak horse and a weak jockey is a lethal combination, doomed to failure. The trainer gets to decide which jockey to put in with a horse depending on how good the jockey is with his controls and with pushing the horse with the reins.
How do you gauge the strength of each horse when it came to deciding which race to put it in, I wondered aloud. Jodha told me some horses were meant for short speed racing, some for long-distance racing. Much of this depended on the pedigree of the horse but the trainer would keep a sectional timing at every 200 meters when the horses practiced actual racing. Also, he kept a sharp lookout for the fitness of each horse during its daily early morning and early evening canter around the stables. I got a confirmation of this last fact from Jodha’s shifting gaze every few seconds during our conversation, as each horse passed us by in turn.
You need to watch the ears of the horse, I was told. This straightened up my ears as I sensed we were now approaching the bit of conversation that would be the most critical part of my learning today. If the ears are pricked up, the horse is alert. If they are droopy, it can either signal that the horse is relaxed or lazy. The race watchers generally get a sense of which. Pricked back ears are a warning signal that the horse is irritable and finicky and might not perform his best. A horse on toes tells the watcher that he is excited. This is not a good signal since he is basically using up the energy that would best be preserved for the race. The horse also has to be in “confirmation”; any horse having crooked legs cannot be a good racer.
“The weight of the horse is also an indicator of how well he will be performing for the day”, adds Jodha’s grandfather, who has been listening in so far. He was a jockey in his prime years. “The past weight of horses has printed in the books which horse betters refer to. The present weight would be displayed on the boards. If there is a drop in the weight of a slightly plump horse, it can mean he would perform better today.”
On the race tracks, there are several ways a jockey communicates with his horse. Some jockeys use a strategy called “turn afoot” where they keep the horse racing at a comfortable pace during the first half of the race and then make him pick up the pace during the latter half. A horse that is not good at following such a strategy is a “one-paced horse”.
Here jockeys generally try to put him in front during the starting point of the race so that he can maintain his pace and lead on the race right from the beginning. Jockeys themselves lend their bodies to help the horse maximize his speed by crouching inwards and towards the front. The same force of aerodynamics works here as it does for airplanes – cut through the air with greater efficiency.
I inquired further if talking to the horse really helps, as I had read a lot about it. The jockey generally gets a sense if the horse is nervous before a race, even if he has never ridden it before. Talking in a smooth tone helps during such times for sure. Females are generally more moody and might need to get calmed down.
Young horses perform the best, giving their peak performance in the age bracket of 3-6 years, the average being 4 years old. The specialized nutrition available to horses presently makes them better paced than horses of yesteryears. When they are being trained, the trainer prefers to use flat land for the training sessions. Grass paddocks are the best since horses are grazers and need to habitually feed at frequent intervals. The mere fact that he has not been fed for three hours might be enough to signal to the horse that he was being readied for a race.
So who among the trainer, the jockey, the horse race watcher, and the race better, can best gauge the horse and understand what he is trying to communicate, was my last question to Jodha. He gave it a lot of thought. It is the trainer, he concluded with a smile. I left the stables with a mesmerizing scene of the coat of mighty beasts being brushed, to prepare them for another big day tomorrow.
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