June 11, 2008, New York Times, The Rail
Horsemanship and Horse Racing
By SID GUSTAFSON
I have to be careful writing about jockeys and riding as I still do veterinary regulatory racetrack work from time to time representing the horses and jockeys safety and welfare on race day. I try to stay out of debates involving riding strategy, so as not to have jockeys lose confidence in me should I happen to perform regulatory work at their track in the future. In order to effectively carry out regulatory duties, veterinarians have to maintain trusting working relationships with the jockeys. On the other hand, proper horsemanship is essential for horse racing safety, and regulatory veterinarians are certainly responsible for that.
I teach natural horsemanship at the University of Montana Western, where I have the good fortune to ride in all of the horsemanship classes. We study the nature and behavior of horses and base our training on this understanding of horses.
After the gate opened in the Belmont Stakes, Kent was dealing with a Big Brown anxious to sprint to the lead. Brown seemed to shy sideways to the right away from the starter standing in the track after he slipped out of the gate. Kent reacted and Brown did not respond to the rider’s initial reaction and instruction like Kent had anticipated, and the rider had to apply a large amount pressure to the reins, repeatedly, wrestling the horse in one direction then the other. The early issues between horse and rider cascaded, and the partnership between horse and rider deteriorated out of the gate well into the first turn.
It seemed that the Brown team knew that a deficit in the connection between Kent and Brown existed when they last observed Kent gallop Big Brown. It was reported by the trainer through the media that the horse was all over the place on a morning gallop with Kent aboard.
The general horsemanship belief is that once a horse gets his way with an unassertive rider through the course of a gallop, the horse will attempt to have its way with the rider on future rides by ignoring the cues the rider gives with the reins and legs. According to the news media and Dutrow, Brown got the best of Kent the last time Kent galloped him. Kent was not able to get Brown to respond to his cues on the gallop.
Apparently, the trainer observed the horse get his way with Kent on the last gallop and did not take measures to correct the racehorse’s relationship with the rider before the race. Subsequently, the horse did not respond to Kent in the race. In essence, Kent had to retrain the horse to respond to his cues through the first quarter mile.
If Brown understood he could get away with refusing to answer to Kent’s cues appropriately on gallops, Brown is not going to react any better to Kent’s cues in a race.
Dutrow’s description of Kent’s last gallop of Big Brown seemed to match the subsequent race ride Kent gave Brown, which is what horsemanship studies would expect, and even predict. In trying to find answers as to what might be done differently to prepare Big Brown for future races with Kent up, the horsemanship issues between horse and rider regarding response, connection, and communication need refined before the race.
Nothing is simple in horseracing, and most race finishes are the result of many, many factors and sequences of factors. Horses’ reaction times are lightning quick. However practiced, a human’s reaction to a horse’s reaction is not always a rhythmic thing when extenuating pressures and surprises arise, or when preparation has been lacking. In retrospect, it now seems that it may have been inappropriate to let Brown get away with a disobedient gallop with Kent up before the race. Brown also could have been better prepared mentally for the race, so to have been in a partnering mood with his rider. This is of course all very complex, and horses regularly fool horsemen. Developing a better understanding of equine behavior is the goal of all horsemen, but much of our learning is trial and error.
I do not share these horse behavior observations to place blame, but to clarify an aspect of horse training and memory. Certainly, losing the race was not Big Brown’s fault. He is in the hands of people, the training, the riding, the conditioning, the medication; everything the horse does is at the hand of man.
In natural horsemanship, we teach that the horse is never wrong. Riders have to develop partnerships of confidence, respect, and connection with each horse they ride, and consistently maintain all aspects of those partnerships to ensure a responsive partnership. If people are not consistent with horses, horses will not be consistent for people.
Not only was Big Brown unwilling to respond evenly for his rider, Desormeaux, Big Brown did not work as evenly as hoped for his regular exercise rider, Michelle Nevin, before the race. Horsetraining is in order for Big Brown, refinement of the basics of confidence, respect, and connection going both ways between horse and rider, all Brown’s riders. The owner and trainer’s idea to resume medicating Big Brown with Winstrol is a mistake, as anabolic steroids are notorious for making horses less trainable and responsive. Big Brown needs to get more connected with his riders, and anabolic steroids can contradict that goal.
If Desormeaux rides Big Brown in the coming races, the horsemanship issues between the horse and rider should be refined so that the horse and rider connection is more secure when the Haskell or Travers roll around.
Sid Gustafson is a novelist, social commentator, and former thoroughbred attending and examining veterinarian licensed in New York, Washington, and Montana, where he has had significant experience in the regulation of racehorses, especially as it pertains to soundness and breakdowns.