The unbreakable bond between man and horse

This week's Cavanman's Diary

First, a confession. I don’t really know anything about thoroughbred racehorses. Sure, I back them and can understand what the myriad of numbers and letters beside their name in the form guide means.

I can bluff with the best of them about course and distance wins and days off the track, the distance a trainer may have travelled to the course (an indicator, sometimes, of whether their horse may be out to win), whether there is a tongue tie or noseband fitted for the first time and whatever you’re having yourself.

And that’s just the animals themselves. Mug punters like me tend to think that horsey people themselves are almost a different species, too.

I imagine them as some sort of secret brotherhood, like the Cosa Nostra, the Italian name for the mafia which translates as “our thing”. This is their thing.

The horsey set all seem to know each other. They wear tweed jackets and trilby hats and all seem to be married to other horsey people. Some part of the ordinary, casual racing fan believes they know something we don’t.

And then, every now and then, there is a moment where we are briefly invited into their world and it’s fascinating. The fourth wall is lifted and we see behind the curtain, even just momentarily.

In March of last year, during the Cheltenham Festival, there was one such glimpse. A colt named Sir Erec, a high profile National Hunt recruit from the flat, “spread a plate” (lost a shoe), before a big race.

Colts can be jumpy – I know that much – and it was amazing to see the farrier tenderly cradling his leg as he fitted the new shoe and jockey Mark Walsh patting his neck, rubbing his head and talking to his mount in reassuringly soothing tones.

This was something that usually happened in a quiet yard, not at a racecourse in front of tens of thousands and before a TV audience of millions. The affection between horse and rider was obvious.

And then, midway through the race, Sir Erec cleared a hurdle and landed awkwardly. “Oh, Sir Erec has gone wrong!” exclaimed the commentator, using the racing lingo.

This beautiful, serene specimen had suffered a terrible injury and had to be put down. A veil of silence fell over Prestbury Park. The loss of a magnificent animal like this hit home, hard, for all involved.

Last Friday week, I happened to catch a brilliant hour-long interview on Off The Ball with the well-known trainer Tony Mullins, whose filly Princess Zoe (above) had just completed a rags-to-riches story with a Group 1 win in Paris. Mullins was in discussion with Ger Gilroy and Johnny Ward and his skill as a raconteur was obvious immediately as he regaled them with a few yarns.

The bond between man and horse was evident in a story Mullins told about his father, Paddy, the legendary trainer, bringing a horse to the Curragh.

“We had the old double horsebox, the type you’d have behind the jeep, and he went out and painted out all the windows and air vents and that with black paint,” he recalled.

“Loaded up the filly, told one of the lads ‘you’re driving, I’m getting in the box’ and he stood with her. He was 84, maybe 85, he stood with her in the box the whole way to the Curragh and the whole way home… And she won the Oaks.”

Only from a place of love and affection can such madness be produced. An 85-year-old man standing in a horse box so as to keep the animal company!

Mullins continued on the theme.

“Aidan O’Brien, Paddy Mullins, Willie Mullins, they can talk to horses,” he said.

“And everyone thinks, ‘ah yeah, they go on with this auld load of baloney’ – they can talk to horses!

“I feel as well that I can speak to my horses and get them to answer me, to tell me how they’re feeling. Are you well enough for me to be hard on you so you can win a race next week?

“The whole point with horses, and I’m sure it’s the same with athletes, is never to push them until they’re ready to be pushed. You see soccer players, they might have to play three matches in one week and if they’re not fit enough, they won’t be able to do that.

“If you push a lad early in the season, maybe his knees go, or something goes… You push them when they’re not ready for it, you’re going to do damage. So you have to know when you’re pushing the button that your project in front of you is ready for it.”

The dilemma facing Mullins was whether to return to France for another big race within the fortnight. So, he talked to Princess Zoe and asked her was she okay with it.

“I ask her to do little things and I judge by her reaction. She doesn’t say to me, ‘Tony I’m not ready!’,” he laughed.

“From the things you do with her, you watch her reactions. You watch the amount you feed her – we usually give about 12lbs in the evening feed.

“I’m over and back every two hours seeing how long it takes her to eat that 12lbs. When they’re very well they will have it eaten in four hours… if they only barely have it eaten before breakfast tomorrow morning at half six, then you’ll know… I’ll watch her when she goes out on the gallops, is she hyper which means maybe her blood is a little high or is she dead in herself so she’s tired?”

It goes way beyond sport, Ward interjected. “It’s a special thing,” he said.

“What drives me mad," replied Mullins," and really turns me off a person is a person who believes a horse is just a dumb animal. That just drives me off my head. Horses are very, very intelligent. The dumb person that’s looking at them only thinks that because they can’t read the reactions of the horse.”

Horsemanship is not an exact science, he intimated. It’s about feel and gut instinct – and instinct brings with it a certainty that cannot be replicated.

“The one thing about a horse, he hasn’t got within his DNA to be dishonest,” he mused.

“What he might have is a problem that the human can’t decipher. Any horse that’s refusing to do something, it is because you haven’t realised what his problem is and gone about fixing it. I am adamant about that. I mean, I know it for sure.”

And the horses under his care know it too. What a marvellous thing that is.