The Science of Horse Racing: The Psychology of a Racehorse
Stand in the paddock on a given race day and you are going to see a variety of behaviors from the horses being saddled. From ears flicking back and forth to swishing tails, just what do all these behaviors mean? Understanding what you are seeing whenever you watch a horse go from paddock to post parade to the starting gate can help you place those bets the next time you spend a day at the races.
For this month’s Science of Horse Racing, let’s explore a bit of horse psychology and contemplate just what is going on inside your favorite Thoroughbred’s head.
Horses First, Athletes Second
The horse has evolved to be a prey animal that finds safety in a herd. Because they are pursued by predators, they have developed physical and behavioral attributes that contribute to their ability to stay safe in a variety of environments. Their range of vision, their sensitive hearing, and their speed are assets that can help them escape danger. Since their domestication six thousand years ago, those attributes have become part of the jobs that humans have given them.
Because they are attuned to their environment and because they lack the ability to communicate as humans do, we must interpret their body language to understand their messages. Horses convey information with their head carriage, their ear position, the position of their tails, their mouths, their noses, and more. If you have a horse of your own, you can interact with that horse on a regular basis and you get to know their signals. At the racetrack, though, you do not always have that kind of information. With that in mind, here are some tips for appreciating the behaviors you are seeing and what they might mean.
For more insight into reading pre-race behaviors, bloodstock advisor Kerry Thomas, whose THT Bloodstock looks at both the physiology and psychology of horses, advises considering what a horse’s behavior is telling you about their “mind to body fluency,” i.e., how their senses read their environment and then how their physical body responses to the stimuli around them. Racing asks horses as herd animals to act independent of the herd. Some horses will respond to that and perform despite those herd instincts. Others will have to use their physical talents to outrun that herd dynamic which informs their behaviors.
How can you tell if a horse is reacting negatively or positively to the scene around them? Her are some cues to look for.
From Head to Tail
At the top of the head, the ears are one avenue into a horse’s mood.
“Think of them as part antenna, taking in all that’s going on, part outward expression of what’s going on as well,” says analyst and handicapper Caton Bredar. “If you watch, talking about their ears flicking back and forth, they’re looking for something to keep them occupied.”
If you see a horse’s ears flicking back and forth, they are trying to take in the sensory information around them, as they would out in the wild. If they do this continuously, they may not be integrating that sensory input enough, expending valuable mental energy ahead of a race. Yet ears up and focused can be a positive, just as ears flat against the head, or pinned, can be a negative.
“If you see a horse’s ears pinned, I want to shut out what’s going on around me,” Bredar says. “It’s definitely a sign of something negative.”
For Thomas, those signals tell observers something specific.
“When they’re stressed, the mind is doing one thing and the body is doing something else. I tend to not want to bet on a horse where their ears are moving very rapidly. They’re trying to navigate their environment and not succeeding,” he says.
A horse’s tail can give similar signals. Physiologically, horses use their tails for pre-race and for swatting away flies and other annoyances. The position of a horse’s tail can indicate mood as well. A swishing tail, especially in closed-in spaces like the starting gate, can signal annoyance or frustration.
“Every once in a while, you will see a horse in the post parade or the paddock with a limp tail or laid flat against their flank,” Bredar says. “There’s something not right there. Maybe it’s physical, maybe it’s mental, but there’s something wrong.”
Ears and tails are the easiest to observe as each has a fluidity of movement that is easily observable and not entirely dependent on being in close proximity with a horse to see. Other cues can come from the way a horse sweats or how they use their feet.
From Top to Bottom
If you see a horse not sweating on a hot day, that can be a point of concern as they may have an issue that prevents perspiration, which can compromise performance. If you see a horse sweating on a chilly day, especially if they might be the only one, then that could indicate a level of anxiety that is not conducive to an optimal performance.
“Horses are like people in their ability to handle heat,” Bredar says. “The question is, how much is physical exertion or nerves is contributing to the sweat? How much of it is nerves or is it something else?”
A horse in the post parade with visible sweat on their neck and down their legs can be nerves or heat and looking at the horses around them or even their pedigree lines can help you discern just what that means for their upcoming performance.
How a horse uses their feet, kicking or pawing, can also indicate mood ahead of a race. Excessive kicking might indicate a physical issue or even anger. Some horses might kick ahead of a race, as a sign of dominance, especially stallions, whereas pawing, especially in the starting gate can be a sign of readiness or anxiety.
“Pawing is more a tendency of their nature, an expression that, yes, can be caused by emotional stress building up,” Thomas says. “But of and in itself is not something that concerns me as being a negative trigger, kind of like me chewing my fingernails.”
As both Thomas and Bredar point out, though, some of these behaviors might be part of a horse’s personality at times rather than a definitive indicator in one direction or another. For those handicapping their next day at the races, studying a horse’s past behaviors can give valuable information ahead of that next race.
“It’s better to take six horses that you like to watch and studying the heck out of them,” Thomas advises. “What’s normal for one horse is not necessarily normal for another.”
A Matter of the Individual
Like elite human athletes, Thoroughbreds have their quirky behaviors and habits that are indicative of their personalities and their preparation. Zenyatta had a habit of performing a series of dressage-like moves in the paddock and in the post parade that allowed her to channel that pent-up energy as she readied to run. Whitmore had to give his customary kick as he loaded into the starting gate.
Studying the cues of your favorite horses before you see them race next can make a difference in how you decide to wager. When you do not have the chance to do that kind of preparation, understanding the basics of a horse’s expressions, from ears to tail, can be one way to get inside their head and maybe find that today is the day that they are going to bring home the win.