In anticipation of the National tomorrow, I watched the show ‘how to win the grand national’. As well as being a petrol-head, I am also a ‘horse-head’ (but not in The Godfather way). The two passions are best summed up as an appreciation of horsepower. In the channel four programme (no I do not work for channel Four’s press office btw…I genuinely have enjoyed their schedule this week), the presenter looked at the science of what makes a winner and, being a veterinarian, studied the genetics of champions. What was harder to pin down through science was what makes horses like Red Rum and Mr Frisk, run, jump, run and run some more until their arteries are fit to burst.
In the interviews with jockeys they talked about horses being very much like people – some just want to sit in the chair, while others want to jump it. Some are angry and spiteful, others affectionate. So horses, like humans have varying degrees of competitiveness. When I read the book on Seabiscuit and Secretariat, two champion American racehorses, they had a common personality trait – they had to be ahead of the herd. Seabiscuit’s trainer was tuned into the horse’s motivations and encouraged the jockey to let Seabiscuit ‘eyeball’ his competitors and then the jockey would not need to raise his whip because Seabiscuit had all the motivation he needed.
That is part of the reason why Teaforthree’s trainer allows her racehorses to be turned out and experience behaviour as close to being in the herd as possible and, you guessed it, the horse who likes to be first in the pecking order is Teaforthree. It is this mentality that translates onto the racetrack.
Formula One drivers, marathon runners and members of the elite military task force also have that higher than average need to be the best, it is survival of the fittest.
What is so special about racehorses is that they combine their grace and athleticism and herd instincts with a unique partnership with their rider and this is a bond similar to that of a marriage or friendship with its ups and downs but with a bedrock of trust. Trust has to be there to tackle such huge fences as well as the willingness to take risks together.
That is why AP McCoy cried when Synchronised died – it was a gamble they both took which didn’t pay off. But the sad thing is horses don’t break and mend as easily as humans, which is why we have a responsibility to ensure we don’t ask too much of these beautiful creatures. I believe there is a difference between a challenging course and an unnecessarily dangerous one. The National should be a challenge but not a death wish, so I hope everyone has the 3 miles of their life tomorrow, but not their last 3.
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