Saturday, 5 March 2011

Equine Flow Psychology IV

"Much of the early research on the effects of stress was carried out on animals. These efforts led to the demonstration that psychological factors are an important part of an animal's response to physical stressors.

"In particular, it has now been shown conclusively that the extent to which an animal is given options to respond effectively to a particular stressor strongly influences how much physiological deregulation and breakdown will occur as a result."

Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, pp238-239 Full Catastrophe Living (Piatkus Books)


Kabat-Zinn's reference is a neat summary of a whole range of research about the integral relationship between mind and body in the animal.

The passage I quoted is apposite to the attempted conclusion of Equine Flow Psychology. In particular, the underscored section describes an important concept - also expounded by other academics - that the more free-will an animal has in dealing with a stressor, the more effective is its physical response.

This is an extremely profound result for horse racing. At once, it suggests that thoroughbreds react more fully to the task of running fast times if they have some freedom to do so in their own way.

However, the tactical demands of a race allow only so much latitude in this regard. A racehorse has little or no concept of the location of the winning-post; at most, it may learn from experience how the physical exertion expected of it varies with the rhythm of a race.

But the more it is allowed some control over the regulation of its exertion, the more it will give. "Control, a psychological factor, is key in protecting an animal from stress," Kabat-Zinn writes.

If you read how Aidan O'Brien described the psychology of his horses in the last part, you should recognise a similar idea. It has been assumed that the psychological spur for the racehorses is exclusively the flight response; this, for instance, is the rationale behind blinkers - most famously sported by no less than Secretariat, of course.

But, this as a single ideal may be characteristic of our limited view of animals and their psychology. A racehorse may have little connection with the human aspirations of racing, but its psychological relationship with the stress-and-release of it - the action and the feeling - does not start or end there.

That a racehorse should have an intimate relationship with running should hardly be a surprise. As grazing, nomadic individuals in their original setting on the plains, horses depended on the expression and conservation of energy in order to survive. Those instincts have presumably been greatly modulated in the purpose-bred horse, but man still recognises the thoroughbred as the ultimate "running horse".

Of the many examples of racehorses expressing their individual relationship with racing, the most interesting and controversial may be contained within the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

I would like to say that Zenyatta's flying finish and narrow defeat to Blame made it one of the most hotly debated races of the year. Except, of course, there wasn't much of a debate to be heard. 

Instead, there was only diatribe. And - not for the first time in this great game of ours - its subject was a jockey.

Zenyatta's rider Mike Smith was hung, drawn and quartered without a trial on the Sky channel At The Races. No doubt the same happened elsewhere. 

Whatever the motivation for this type of analysis, those who expound it how full-well how it goes down with disgruntled punters. We all all feel better if someone else is to blame for our misadventures, after all.

To my mind, the unmitigated criticism of Smith recalled similar approbation of Hawk Wing's jockey Jamie Spencer after the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket in 2002 - a horse finishes strongly, ergo it should have won if the dumb-arse jockey had made his move sooner.

When horses are so narrowly beaten as Zenyatta and Hawk Wing, it is impossible to say their jockeys could not have taken alternative action resulting in victory. But, in assuming the very high probability of this, the argument seems to rely solely on the margin between winner and runner-up decreasing rapidly as the line approached.

But, this simple effect can be the result of multiple causes. And the most evident cause of a horse finishing stronger than another is that its energy was deployed later not less efficiently.

To go ahead and excoriate Smith denies the complexity of so much that makes a race both beautiful and compelling. And to do so on the prima facia evidence of "horse finishes strongly/horse narrowly beaten therefore horse should have won" is not just a limited analysis. It is often plain wrong.

Next time, I will describe how the sectional times of the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic describe the running of that thrilling race. But, more importantly given the thrust of this series, what they suggest about Zenyatta.