Dr. Geoffrey Hutson's breakthrough book Watching Racehorses is out now! Learn about behavioural handicapping: how head tossing, pawing, salivating and other behaviours provide telltale clues about a horse's readiness to run.
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Western Health Community Race Day

December 11th, 2010 0 comments

You’d imagine that a seven-year-old entire stallion that has had 84 starts and has won over $700,000 would handle race day in a breeze. And you would also imagine that this is a horse that I would have seen being saddled before. And of course you would be wrong, on both counts. For the first time in seven years I watched Jungle Ruler being saddled. I suppose one reason that I haven’t seen this before is that Jungle Ruler is a dead set wet tracker and I avoid wet tracks like the plague. So our paths probably seldom cross. Today I noted that he was restless in his stall, was kicking and had a stallion chain. So I had already crossed him out for unruly behaviour. But to restrain him while he was being saddled the strapper used a twitch. This causes immobility of not just the head but the whole body.

I looked up that marvellous reference work Watching Racehorses to see what it said about twitches. Apparently, the principle is to apply pressure to the sensory nerves of the upper lip, near the incisor teeth. The usual explanation for its effectiveness is that the pain and discomfort it causes diverts the horse’s attention while it is being saddled. It is a similar technique to pinching and twisting a handful of skin on the neck or behind the shoulder, or the ear twisting method used by barrier attendants on recalcitrant horses.

There is no doubt that a horse can cope with and quickly recover from a short burst of pain, but I still regard it as a bad sign. Obviously, the horse has an underlying behavioural problem. There has been an interesting Dutch study of the twitch which found that it reduced heart rate and the behavioural reaction of horses to a painful stimulus – a needle prick. So it is possible that the twitch may activate some of the mechanisms involved in pain relief, since it appears to induce both analgesia and sedation, and it may be more akin to acupuncture. If you look carefully at Photo 1 you will see that Jungle Ruler has his eyes nearly closed.

Jungle Ruler finished tenth, but obviously wasn’t suited by the Dead 4 track. I wandered past his stall again after the race and overheard a strapper describing him as “the meanest horse in Melbourne”.

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