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EDGAR WALLACE

THE MIND OF THE RACE-HORSE

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First published in The Strand Magazine, November 1924

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-05-12
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THE thoroughbred racer represents the highest development in the process of the horse's evolution. He stands for something superior to his humble fellows in point of speed and quality, and it is popularly believed that, having achieved this physical superiority, he has acquired also an intelligence which places him in a sphere apart from his species.

Racing is at once the greatest national sport, and, in point of turnover, the second greatest industry in England. It has produced both a press and a literature, and yet, for some unaccountable reason, though thousands of books have been written on the race-horse, no writer, scientific or biographical, has devoted more than a chapter to the psychology of this fascinating animal, and in consequence there has grown up about the race- horse a whole series of legends which are now accepted as proved facts.

And not the least important of these is that the horse is an intelligent animal with the power of reasoning.

That a dog thinks, we know. The proof that he turns events over in his mind has been tested by every dog-lover. A dog dreams. In his sleep he lives over his fights, his joys, and his miseries. We have all at some time or other been compelled to stir some gruffly barking little slumberer to wakefulness, or have listened to his whimperings as he lay dead to the world before the fire.

But the sleep of the horse is practically dreamless. Does he think?


Mr. Alfred Day,

the Arundel trainer, says "No." Mr. Day, an old Sherborne boy, was brought up amongst horses, and is something of a physiologist, for he was trained for a doctor. His father, William Day, was the author of several books on the horse, and was one of the most famous trainers of his time.

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"The horse does not think—he is one of the most stupid of the domestic animals, and the more perfectly bred they are, the less evidence is there of intelligence. Possibly the cart-horse is the cleverer of the two varieties. Horses get credit for intelligence because they can associate consequences with causes. If a horse finds a gap in a fence that leads him to more desirable pasture, he goes to that gap the next day, though there may be half-a-dozen other openings. If he has been stopped at an inn for his master to take refreshments, he will always stop at that inn, even though it has been converted into a temperance hotel. A horse will recognize the boy who looks after him because he associates the boy with certain attentions he receives. A dog may show suspicion towards a stranger who tries to feed it, but a horse will take oats from Tom as well as from Jim—only the next time he sees Jim he will expect to be fed."

People talk glibly about "rogues"—that is to say, horses that, having reasoned out the why and wherefore of racing, decide in their minds that they will not do their best. The term "rogue" presupposes that the animals have the gift of thinking, and that their erratic behaviour on a racecourse is the outcome of reason. In effect, that a horse says to himself:—

"I don't like racing—it is a very distressing occupation. One runs until one is exhausted and then there is every chance of getting a good licking in the last furlong. I won't try to run fast—I'll take it comfortably, and although I shall probably get the licking I sha'n't run myself to a standstill."

The rogue and the cunning horse, according to Mr. Day, are more or less of a myth.

"There is usually something constitutionally wrong when a horse will not give you his best." said Mr. Day. "I have only seen two so-called rogues, and there was probably some obscure physical cause for their failure."

My own experience bears this out. Last year I leased a good young horse, that had won a thousand-pound race as a two-year old. I ran him at Lewes, and it seemed to me that he ran like one that could an' be would. For half the journey he was galloping like a lion, and then suddenly seemed to decide that racing was a fool's game. He finished last but one. The jockey told me that he wouldn't have it—several knowledgeable people commiserated with me upon my keeping a rogue in training.

My trainer called in a great veterinary surgeon, who discovered that the horse had heart disease and divers other complaints. He was destroyed a week later.

Horses have natural antipathies. Pharos, one of Lord Derby's good horses and second in last year's Derby, has a rooted objection to rain. So much so that when he paraded for this year's City and Suburban Handicap his quarters were covered with a rug to keep him dry.


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Sansovino, on the other hand, treats rain as a joke, and a muddy course is an ideal condition. There are scores of horses who seemingly refuse to do their best on a left-handed course (that is, where the turn into the straight is round a left-handed bend, as at Epsom, Newbury, Lingfield, etc.), and scores of others who show an appreciable improvement on a right-handed course.


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Here again there is no question of "thinking." I traced the history of four horses that go best on a right-handed course, and found that their first efforts on a round course were at Kempton, Gatwick, and Hurst Park, which are right-handed. Their gallops at home were also right-handed. When they found themselves bearing to the left in subsequent races they became unbalanced and muddled.

It is a question of use and temperament. There is a certain type of horse that dislikes to be alone, and when this sense of loneliness comes to a horse he makes some queer friends. Town Guard needed the companionship of a goat.. Papyrus was so attached to a plater in Basil Jarvis's stable that the commoner accompanied him to America when the Derby winner made his remarkable journey. I had a horse who would kick his box to pieces unless he had a favourite hen roosting on the edge of his manger. Do these instances prove reasoning power on the part of the horse?

One would hesitate to deny him such a faculty. If you reject the possibility of a mental equipment, then you may find some difficulty in defining that illusive and much-abused word "class." For it is the fact that this imponderable quantity is something distinct from breeding and conformation. It is the something in a racehorse which cannot be handicapped to a few pounds. In a tight finish it is represented by "the will to win," which brings a horse's nose in front at the winning-post. If he cannot be a rogue, he cannot be honest without conscious thought. He cannot be generous or cowardly.

I am perfectly sure that Tishy thought. This very good filly ran stoutly in all her races except those she ran on the Cesarewitch course. The big autumn handicap starts out of sight of the stands, and there is a gallop of a mile along a course which is chiefly remarkable by reason of the fact that there is an entire absence of spectators. In both her races Tishy refused to gallop after going half a mile, and the generally accepted theory is that at some time or other she had been badly treated or flogged at the particular point where she dropped out. Nothing is further from the truth. Being a filly, and one likely to be valuable for breeding purposes, she was never asked to do too much, and Reginald Day, her then trainer, is a particularly humane man. Besides which, horses at Newmarket are not trained on the courses—there are so many, good gallops that it is not necessary, even if it were permissible, to train on the actual course over which they will run.

My theory is that Tishy had the temperamental failing of the public performer. She wanted an audience. The only time she won at Newmarket was when she ran on the Summer course, and a description of that race published at the time says that "there were an unusually large number of spectators down the course to watch the Summer Handicap Plate." She did well at Leicester and Sandown, and probably her best race was at Ascot, where the rails are lined with people almost from start to finish. Tishy, one may suppose, had a passion for the approval of humanity. Alas! poor Tishy. It was unnecessary to take the opinion of Lord Derby. To the man from whose name the greatest of all races takes its name, a horse is almost human in its intelligence.

Another case of a too hasty classification was that of Black Arrow, who was expected to win the Derby and refused to start, though he was flogged by his trainer—since dead—unmercifully. Poor Black Arrow dropped dead soon after, and was found to be suffering from an enlarged liver.


Mr. John Watson,

the well-known racehorse trainer, is equally emphatic on the question of roguery in horses.

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"There are very few rogues," he told me, "though there are times when I suspect that horses think a lot. Horses get to know people and places, and of course they remember, though I doubt whether they think consecutively. It is certain that some horses love racing and some hate it. But, then. I think it is natural for a horse bred for racing to love it, just as it is natural for a kitten to play with a ball of wool. My own experience of the race-horse leads me to believe that he is a most intelligent animal."

It seems almost sacrilege to fly in the face of popular faith and hold up the legendary genius of the horse as a myth; the more so when we recall some extraordinary instances of what, if it is not conclusive proof of thought, is clear evidence of "intelligent association."

There is no more painstaking student of the horse than


Mr. William Allison,

the Special Commissioner of the Sportsman, and incidentally a great breeder. He manages the Cobham Stud, and was instrumental in getting that great sire Tracery brought back to this country.

"There is no doubt that horses think—but the less they think the better, so far as winning races goes Diamond jubilee thought a lot, and disliked Morny Cannon and Jack Watts. On the other hand, he liked Herbert Jones. The worst genuine rogue I ever saw was Pan, a very good 'chaser, who simply would not go first past the post. I once saw him land over the last fence at Handown about fifty lengths in front, and it seemed impossible that he could avoid winning, but he switched his tail and swerved all over the course until something else caught him up. He then cantered in second.

"Horses certainly know people who have to do with them, and they also know places—there are many who will pull up at pubs where their former owners used to stop for a drink. Horses certainly object to monotony in their gallops, and this is relieved by such changes as they find at Epsom and Brighton."

It is a fact, as Mr. Allison says, that Diamond Jubilee, the late King Edward's horse, had a rooted objection to Morny Cannon, and as violent an antipathy to Watts. With either of these humane jockeys on his back he alternated mulishness with savagery. But there was a little stable boy who could do anything with him.

"Let the boy ride," said King Edward (who was then Prince of Wales).

"But he has had no experience, your Royal Highness."

"He understands Jones, and Jones understands him," said the King. So Herbert Jones, an unknown boy, was put up on Diamond Jubilee—and won the Derby.

"He went like a lamb for me," said Jones, when I was talking to him two years ago at Goodwood, "but that was because he knew me."

And in this respect Diamond Jubilee resembled another horse that ran at Ascot before the war. There was a jockey he did not like, and he was so suspicious of some trick being played on him that he never left the paddock without screwing his head round and taking a good look at the lad on his back!


Bernard Carslake

is one of the finest judges of horses in this country. A fearless rider, an exceptionally strong finisher, he has also trained and owned race-horses since his childhood.

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There is, by the way, a stupid legend that "Brownie" is nervous of riding on downhill courses such as Epsom, probably due to the fact that he did not win the Derby on Tetratema—a horse that only stayed about seven furlongs in a true run race. Tetratema ran his races in one breath—that is to say, he did not draw a second breath from start to finish. Carslake in point of fact is the most unnervous jockey riding.

He does not agree with Mr. Day's view.

"You have only to watch a steeplechase and note how careful horses are not to step upon a fallen rider to realize that they think. A horse will throw himself over to prevent himself touching a man on the ground. Moreover, a horse recognizes and remembers. When I was in Austria-Hungary before the war, I used to ride an animal which for some extraordinary reason took a violent dislike to me. I never punish any horse I ride, and this fellow in particular was always treated well by me. But he loathed me. Whenever I appeared in the saddling ring he went mad. Any other jockey he would tolerate, but for some mysterious cause he would play Old Harry just as soon as he saw my face or heard my voice. It is impossible that he did not think. There are other horses I call to mind who are calm and collected just so long as their riders are in their ordinary clothes. But the moment they see them in racing colours they are in a blue funk. Other horses can stand the colours but break into a perspiration as soon as they see the crowd."


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Carslake's view is, however, not inconsistent with Mr. Day's theory. The memory of the great jockey's face and voice might conceivably be associated with a day when the animal was not feeling his best, and when the last thing in the world he wanted to do was to race. It is not so easy to explain the extraordinary care which, as he rightly says, horses display when meeting a fallen rider. One has seen this happen a hundred times, but in all probability this reluctance to step on a man is traceable to the instinctive caution found in all animals. The horse is reacting to the first law of nature. He "knows" that to touch an obstacle may bring him down, and it is certain that he would as assiduously avoid a small bump on the ground or a fallen horse. In the case of a jumper the association of ideas connects touching an obstacle with a fall, and we know that where this lesson has not been learnt horses have stepped upon fallen riders. A brilliant young jockey was killed at Chester in May from this cause.

I have seen a horse being brought out of his box to be destroyed stop dead and, planting his two feet squarely on the ground, refuse to move, his trembling frame telling clearly that he knew the fate that was in store for him. In this particular case the old fellow was given a reprieve, and, from being an incorrigibly slow animal, improved so well that he won a five- hundred-pound hurdle race.

One could multiply instances of horses that were sent to run their last race with a sentence of death hanging over them, who have either won or so improved in their running that a respite has been granted.


Mr. Stanley Wootton,

a famous rider in his time and now the most successful of the younger school of trainers, is equally emphatic that horses reason.

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"Although his thinking is not confined to feeding time," he said, "the one fact which convinces me that he gives certain matters a weighty consideration is his fastidiousness in the matter of feed and water.

"Horses undoubtedly have marked likes and dislikes for individuals, and their antipathies are more or less mysterious. I have known horses that could not bear certain stable boys near them."

A year ago there was a horse in Wootton's stable who hated the inoffensive boy and made several attempts to kill him. One morning he dragged the boy from a horse he was riding and knelt on him. When the boy was rescued and sent home on a hack, the horse broke loose and, chasing the injured youth, dragged him off again!

Stanley Wootton is one of those thorough trainers who keep their eyes on every horse in their stable, and it is impossible that the boy could have hurt the horse in any way without his knowing. One thing is certain, that horses never get over their dislike of those humans who incur their displeasure, and not even the elephant, whose memory is proverbially long, can retain an animosity for a greater length of time.

In racing circles they call Alec Taylor of Manton "the Wizard," and in so far as he can get to the very inside of a horse's mind this nickname is justified.

"Bought one of Taylor's horses, have you?" said a well-known sportsman to another. "I wish you luck. Personally, I never want to buy horses that Taylor is finished with—he speaks their language, and they tell him when they're no good!"


Mr. Alec Taylor,

like his father before him, has an extraordinary knowledge of the thoroughbred and studies his peculiarities with the patience of a scientist. His view is that the horse has a mind. No man pays less attention to the popular view, and he has kept horses in training which, according to every authority on racing, have been incorrigible rogues. A recent case in point was Stratford, a wilful, unreliable animal, whom, after costly failures, he coaxed into winning.

If at any race meeting you see a well-dressed young man with an umbrella hooked to his arm, leading a horse out of the paddock, you have seen a man to whom every horse is a thinking wonder.


Mr. Jack Jarvis

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trained the One Thousand Guineas winner and the second in the Oaks.

"Of course horses think! Put a nervous rider up on a horse and see how quickly the animal knows! If he didn't think, it would make no difference to him whether he was nervous or as bold as a lion. The straight-thinking horse is a joy to deal with. He is equable in temper, honest in running, and he likes his bit of fun just the same as a human."


Mr. P.P. Gilpin,

who trained Pretty Polly, and who had Town Guard in his stable and many other fine horses, writes sardonically, hinting what he thinks of the horses in his stable, for this is one of the lean years that come to every trainer.

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Yet Mr. Gilpin has had quite a number of "thinkers"—from the placid Pretty Polly to the mud-larking St. Louis.

There is a story that there was a horse in his stable which on one occasion was narrowly beaten by a very good horse in a race, and thereafter, when he found himself in a race with the same animal, took one look at him at the "gate" and refused to start!

I once owned a race-horse that on the morning of a race was found to be lame and was sent home again. The trouble was a minor one—it yielded to treatment in a few days, and a fortnight later he was sent over to a neighbouring racecourse to run in a small plate. That morning he was galloped on the course and went like a lion, but when the trainer brought him out before the race he was dead lame. An examination was made, but no injury could be discovered. Again he was sent home, and this time, without any treatment at all, the trouble disappeared. For a third time he was sent to a course, and for a third time, just before the race, the lameness came on. His number was in the frame, and the stewards were approached to allow him to be withdrawn. But one of them said that he had seen the horse walking about without trouble and permission was refused. I thought the steward had been mistaken, but on interviewing the boy in charge of the equine scoundrel I learnt that the moment the trainer and I had left him he had frisked about like a two-year-old. On the appearance of the trainer, however, the lameness came on. He literally limped to the post—and won the race by three lengths!


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This might have been due to stiffness, but a few weeks later he fell shin-sore. You test a horse for this complaint by running your hand down the cannon-bone. If the horse flinches he is shin- sore. He flinched. What is more, for months after, whenever a hand touched his leg, he flinched. On the second occasion I'll swear that he was no more shin-sore than I was, but he knew that by flinching he avoided a hard race.

Shin-sore or not, we ran him and he was beaten two heads; the next time out lie tried both the lame stunt and the shin-sore flinch. Subsequently we took no notice cf his malingering unless he went short in his gallop. Happily he never learnt this dodge.


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There is at the moment a horse in training who can leap like a deer; no fence is too high for him. But for some extraordinary reason he refuses most resolutely to jump the last fence—preferring to take the short cut to the winning-post, which disqualifies him—for every fence must be jumped. I have seen him ten lengths in front with the winning-post in sight. He is not distressed, he is galloping comfortably; he has cleared water jump and rail fence without an effort, and then—

"Watch this horse run out," says the man on the Press stand.

It is the last fence. He is coming straight for it full of running—a violent swerve and he has come triumphantly through the gap, despite the agonized efforts of his jockey.

He knows, of course, that if this performance were not varied with a very occasional win he would most surely find himself in the hands of a veterinary surgeon, and that a humane killer would be fixed to his head, there would be a "plop!" and he would kick himself through the gap that leads to the horses' heaven. And when he is given his last chance, and his trainer tells him solemnly that this is his final appearance on a steeplechase course, he wins!

Is this instinct or thought? Is there some thing in the trainer's tone which reaches his brain and causes him to readjust his plans? If you believe this, you must believe that he reasons, and I think you would be right in so believing.

The deeper one probes into the mystery of a horse's mentality, the more convinced one grows that the horse is a thinking animal. There are many physical reasons why a horse cannot demonstrate his intelligence as readily as a dog—it is impossible to imagine, for instance, a horse leaping up and pawing a human friend or licking his face; but that he has his moments of rumination and that he can give physical expression to mental conditions is, I think, proved beyond doubt.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.