Why did this filly put the bite on a jockey?

Gets his teeth into the­o­ries of equine psy­chol­ogy af­ter a strange event in France this week

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Racing -

n a race at Maison­slaf­fitte in Paris on Wed­nes­day, a filly, Palomba, was chal­leng­ing for the lead in the home straight when she tried to take a chunk out of a jockey, Fran­cois-xavier Ber­tras, who was rid­ing the even­tual win­ner, Lucky Ly­cra. Three times Palomba grabbed his arm.

Palomba is not the first and will not be the last to re­sort to bit­ing in a race, but such oc­ca­sions are rare.

Her trainer, Car­los Laf­fon Parias, said it was out of char­ac­ter, cit­ing the fact she had not so much as looked at an­other horse when she was third in a three-way photo-fin­ish on her pre­vi­ous start, or when she won by a head in a driv­ing fin­ish ear­lier this

Isum­mer. The most fa­mous case of a horse at­tack­ing a ri­val or – try­ing to, at least – was when Ar­ca­dian Heights lunged at Drum Taps, the

win­ner, when chal­leng­ing up the straight in the 1992 As­cot Gold Cup.

Ar­ca­dian Heights had form. Ear­lier that sea­son, he had made the run­ning in a race at Don­caster and bit a horse which came past him. Af­ter the Gold Cup, he was made to run in a muz­zle and, by the time he won the 1994 Gold Cup, he had also been gelded.

So, what is go­ing on in the above pho­to­graph and what is go­ing on in Palomba’s mind? Well, though it is just one frame, her jockey, Maxim Guyon, one of the best in France, can prob­a­bly take a bow. Just as Joe Root oc­ca­sion­ally drops a dolly, so the best jockey can oc­ca­sion­ally get in a mud­dle with the reins and he ap­pears to have dropped them, giv­ing him lit­tle or no con­trol of Palomba’s head.

What is for sure is that his whip is in the wrong hand – it should be be­tween your horse and the ri­val when you are in­volved in a tight fin­ish – and, although it is im­pos­si­ble to be sure, it cer­tainly ap­pears Palomba’s right eye is fixed on it.

Palomba was not avail­able for in­ter­views yes­ter­day so I turned to the two peo­ple I most re­spect when it comes to equine be­hav­iour; Gary Withe­ford and Kelly Marks.

Withe­ford is the man to whom many in the rac­ing fra­ter­nity go to when they have a horse with be­havioural

Palomba is not the first, and will not be the last, to bite an­other horse in a race

dif­fi­cul­ties, par­tic­u­larly those who dis­like start­ing stalls. Rac­ing har­nesses the flight response in horses but, Withe­ford says, Palomba is demon­strat­ing some­thing much rarer; the flight-and-fight response si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Marks, a trainer’s daugh­ter, hooked up with Monty Roberts, the orig­i­nal “horse whis­perer”, af­ter a chance meet­ing in a French petrol station in 1993, and set up In­tel­li­gent Horse­man­ship, spe­cial­is­ing in horse psy­chol­ogy. She is do­ing a UK tour with Roberts, 84, this au­tumn.

“Thinking with our hu­man brains, it’s nat­u­ral to as­sume this filly is angry at the jockey,” she said. “How­ever, re­search tells us that the frontal cor­tex in a horse’s brain is – rel­a­tively – half the size of ours and not only does this mean they don’t lie or plot but it also means they take in im­ages dif­fer­ently to us.

“Rather than see­ing a hu­man on a horse they’ll see one big be­ing. I’ve used this to my ad­van­tage in var­i­ous in­stances, say with head-shy horses. If a horse has had his ears grabbed by a hu­man on the ground, he’ll be­come fear­ful of hu­mans reach­ing for his head. But if you sit on an­other horse to touch round his head, you’re like a dif­fer­ent be­ing, a cen­taur if you like, and he’ll give you a fresh chance to ap­proach him.

“There is also some­thing called dis­place­ment, which is a psy­cho­log­i­cal de­fence mech­a­nism. For ex­am­ple, a big kid hits a smaller kid who then takes it out on some­one else – so the filly’s trans­ferred her feel­ing of frus­tra­tion to an­other ob­ject [which hap­pens to be the jockey].”

It was the best­selling York­shire vet James Her­riot who ti­tled his most suc­cess­ful book If Only They Could Talk. Though you can have a half-sen­si­ble con­ver­sa­tion with a com­puter these days, Dr Dolit­tle re­mains a fic­tional char­ac­ter.

So, we can have a stab at what Palomba was thinking but we will never know for sure and I am in­clined to do what train­ers have done for cen­turies; if in doubt, blame the jockey.

Teeth bared: Palomba (left) has a nib­ble at the arm of jockey Fran­cois-xavier Ber­tras

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