Talk to the animals
A pat on the head, a positive word in their ear … just how do our top jockeys communicate to their equine companions on race day?
If the pandemic taught us one thing, it was possibly this: that Damien Oliver is very vocal in his races when encouraging his horses.
To call it “yelling” might not be accurate, for it suggests he’s angry at them, and that he’s using words. He “noises” at them, sounding something like a rather excited crow. Not too early, mind, only in a driving finish. But amid the abnormal quiet of fan-free racing – eerie at first until becoming another new normal – the champion jockey’s urgings echoing off the empty stands became an arresting, if not humorous, lockdown side-effect.
And it provided food thought for those who watch the spectacle about what we can’t witness – normally – in the communication between rider and horse. In this case the form was audible, the decidedly unmusical chorus of Oliver. But there are various ways a rider will bridge the obvious barrier – language – between human and horse, to “talk” to the animals and build trust, especially when meeting for the first time. Likewise, horses “talk back” by sending their own signals.
Not all jockeys shout out. Indeed Oliver seems to be in a noisy minority. But some of the veteran’s other tactics have spread.
“I’ll always walk around the front and give a horse a pat on the head and the face before I get on,” says triple Melbourne premiership winner Luke Nolen. “Just to introduce myself, even with horses I’ve ridden before, so they know who’s getting on them.
“I learned it from observing Ollie, and he’s the GOAT, so it can’t hurt. I’ll usually say something – tell them they’re wonderful – and I’ll chat with the strapper. If there’s idle chit chat going on, it can relax a horse without you talking directly to the horse.
“You’re only going to be on them for a short time, so you’ve got to bond pretty quickly. I’ll also try to make eye contact before I get on. You’re treating them like a blank slate: ‘I’ll be good for you, I hope you’ll be good for me’,” says Nolen, who also gives his mount a close look at the winning post and its surrounds once on the track, so they won’t be spooked by it when it counts.
“You’ve always got to be calm and relaxed, because they feed off your energy. They’re a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for.”
Mostly that’s a plus, but it can also present challenges. The old axiom says the best racehorses are the most intelligent, but sometimes they’re a bit too smart, says prolific jockey Linda Meech.
To have your horse in a mindset to give their all, it comes back to working with that famous quality – horses sense – and not against the animal.
“Firstly, I don’t usually have a lot of problems with the horses I ride. They’re generally well behaved,” says Meech, the first woman to claim the Victorian Jockeys’ Premiership, in 2018-19. “If you do have one who’s a bit reluctant, you’ve just got to stay really positive and get along with them.
“There’s no point getting upset. You don’t want to transfer that energy to the horse. You try to be confident, but you don’t want to try to bully them. If you’re going to the barriers and you want the horse to go left but he doesn’t want to, think of something else. Go right. You might do a circle and end up where you wanted to go.
“If they’re happy standing still, let them stand still, although not for too long. As long as their feet are moving, they’re generally happy. Standing still can give them a chance to think too much and get overawed.”
Michael Dee, who hit the heights riding six Group 1 winners last season, also likes to keep his horse moving en route to the gates, but in a certain, disciplined, way.
“I try to trot a lot of horses,” he says “If you bowl off in a strong canter, when you pull up they can be a bit tense. If you make them come back to a trot, it helps them relax, stay focused, and they sort of acknowledge you’re the boss.”
As opposed to Nolen’s pre-race pat, a key for Dee is to “place myself down quietly and gently on their back” rather than risk a jolting jumping-on. He’ll also keep his feet out of the stirrups for prolonged periods, in the mounting yard and behind the barriers.
“I find they stay a lot calmer when your feet are out of the irons,” he says. “Then when you put them in, they sense it might be go-time.”
Jockeys will pat their mounts, and talk to them, as tension builds in the gates. Dee also has another way of respecting the fact the horse is a tactile animal.
"I’ll just use one finger, while holding the reins, to give them a little scratch on the neck. It helps keep them calm and remind them you’re there.”
In a race, our three riders said they’d mostly stay quiet while conveying messages to their mounts via the reins, and with heels and calves to squeeze them into action. That’s not a blanket rule, though.
“Some jockeys love talking during a race,” Nolen says. “Greg Hall never shut up: ‘I’m not gonna get stuck here’, or ‘What are you doing that for?’ You’d just listen to him, and in turn his horse would be listening to him too.
“You can hear Ollie screaming. A couple of others do it. I tend not to, but sometimes I will if I’m leading into the last furlong or so – just making noise. You’re trying to get every advantage you can.”
Finally, most jockeys will give a winning mount a pat to remind them they’ve done well. Meech goes a step further.
“They know when they’ve won a race, so it’s good to give them a good feeling about that,” she says. “But I’ll get off and give them a pat even if they get beat, especially if they’ve tried their guts out, and especially perhaps if it’s a little filly. It helps them feel good.”