horseracing starting gates
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And…. They’re off! Or… are they? Actually, no. They’re still at the starting gate. Well, trying to get into the starting gate. Well, trying to resist getting encouraged/forced/shoved into the starting gate. Maybe it’s the jockeys who are off—on the ground after falling from racehorses who absolutely, positively Do. Not. Want. to go into those starting gates.

And meanwhile, throughout the stands, racing fans who also happen to be animal behaviour scientists are sighing and thinking, Learning theory, anyone?

While racehorses undergo training to enter starting gates before their first race, that training isn’t always optimal, according to Gemma Pearson, BVMS, Cert AVP (EM), MScR, MRCVS, RCVS Advanced Practitioner in Equine Medicine at University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, in Scotland.

If the trainers don’t master the use of aids like whips and halter/bit pressure, they could be unwittingly encouraging the horses to resist entering the gate. And that, Pearson said, can create safety issues for the horse and the rider, poor performance on the track, and even a bad image for the racing industry.

“The racing industry is very PR (public relations)-conscious and keen to be seen promoting good welfare for the horses,” she said during her presentation at the 14th Conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) in Rome, Italy. “So for all these reasons—safety, performance, and the public eye—young Thoroughbreds need good training based on learning theory for entering the starting gate.”

Speaking on the research initiated and carried out by Samantha Miles, BSc BVM&S, also of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Pearson said they evaluated nearly 300 colts and fillies during initial gate training at the Woodbine Racetrack in Ontario, Canada. They noted that 71% showed behaviours that indicate conflict, including stopping, backing up, rearing, and kicking when approaching the gate. Trainers used various methods to try to get the horses to enter, including pulling on a halter with a nose chain, making cracking noises with a whip, or tapping the horse with the whip.

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A critical finding of their study was that the more times trainers attempted to get a horse into a gate, the longer it would take each time to get into the gate. “This suggests that the current training techniques aren’t working to improve horses that are reluctant to load into the gate,” Pearson said.

According to learning theory, horses learn well when pressure is released immediately after they make the choice we want from them—for example, moving towards the starting gate. However, if a trainer continues to whip a horse or pull on his halter even after the horse made a move towards the gate, the horse won’t associate his decision with a relief from pressure.

“Timing is critical in horse training, as learning theory shows,” said Pearson. “Poor timing of reinforcement delays learning, causing confusion for the horse and leading to more conflict behaviour and fear. If racetrack gate trainers had a better understanding of learning theory, that might lead to more effective gate training of young racehorses, resulting in fewer conflict behaviours, better performance as the horse leaves the gate during a race, and safer conditions for both horse and jockey.”

Incidentally, horses calmly entering a starting gate before a public race would give an impression of a well-prepared horse who is ready to compete, she added. While trainer assistance isn’t allowed at the starting gate during an actual race (in most countries), a horse could still show dangerous conflict behaviours before the public eye, leading to criticism from a welfare-sensitive public. Other studies have shown a high incidence of jockey falls happen before a race starts, and conflict behaviour at the gate can lead to disqualification and possible injuries as well.

“We clearly need further research in order to define concrete methodologies for optimising start gate training,” Pearson said.

The findings were presented at the 14th International Equitation Science Conference in Rome. To download the full proceedings click here.

Find out more about equitation science.

 

Christa Lesté-Lasserre

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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