In this month's edition of How To Fix, we ask the experts for their solutions to horses who lug out during racing or morning work. It's not uncommon for a green horse to struggle in an attempt to maintain a straight path or for a horse to spook at something to his or her left and shy sideways to avoid the stimulus. Some horses make a habit of it however, drifting right regularly around a turn or as they enter early stretch. The most recently-famous example was Spicer Cub, who in 2013 bolted at the 5/16 pole and went so far right he circled a starting gate parked on the outside rail before re-breaking and nearly winning the race.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and boarded veterinarian with the American College of Veterinary Behavior:
I am not an expert of horse racing – but as a behaviorist working from first principles I imagine lugging out arises because something bad has happened when they were running close to the rail. Let's say a horse is boxed in on a turn and ends up getting bumped by other horses and egged on by the jockey using his whip. That's not a nice situation. The horse remembers the bad experience and takes a wide berth on turns to stay out of the fray. As a minor form of PTSD with avoidance being a key feature, it will be hard to correct as bad memories of an unpleasant event tend to linger. Positive reinforcement of inside rail running during training might work eventually.
Dr. Bryan Waldridge, veterinarian specializing in internal medicine at Park Equine Hospital:
The medical thing is to look at their eyes and see because you do occasionally have a horse with an old moon blindness lesion. There could be scars on their retina, which you can think of sort of like a blind spot. If something goes through that blind spot and spooks them, then all of a sudden it wasn't there and then it was there.
An ophthalmologist is the best one to do this because they have all the right equipment to look in there.
Cataracts are pretty rare, but you could have a cataract doing the same thing. As a real general rule, if they have a scar on the cornea from an ulcer or a cataract, if it's central (meaning in the middle of their field of vision out of that eye) they tend to have more of a dead spot than if it's at the periphery.
Sometimes if something is hurting someplace, they will display pain in sort of unusual ways, so it's always a good idea to check the horse over and see if there's pain or injuries somewhere else.
Tim Glyshaw, multiple graded stakes-winning trainer:
There's two reasons a horse might lug out: there could be a mental reason or a physical reason.
We had a horse that last Keeneland fall meet clipped heels on the turn and went down and he remembered that spot for the next five, six, seven races. He was making a move and probably would have hit the board when that happened. He was fine and his rider was fine; he got right back up and ran off. For that situation when it's mental I imagine time off would help them.
The horse that had clipped heels, we think it made him scared of other horses. So we put full-cup blinkers on him so he couldn't see the other horses around him. Actually at first he didn't want to bear out at that spot on the track, he wanted to just stop altogether. We had the vet go over him, x-ray everything and there's nothing wrong with him. It was all in his head. But he's won a race since then.
One of the things we look at when we're claiming horses is if they have a Houghton bit that gives the jock a lot more steering control. One of the reasons they might wear it is if they're lugging out for a physical reason. You have to take that into consideration if you're claiming a horse but it doesn't always mean there's a problem. We had a horse that goes in a Houghton bit who was just tough to steer.
There are plenty of horses who will not come up the rail when there's a hole, who seem to be claustrophobic and don't like to be with horses on the outside of them. Horses like that I've seen try to get out and yank its head to the right.
Getting out is most noticeable for us in the stretch but I think most of the time it happens on the turn and isn't as noticeable because there's no head-on camera angle on the turn.
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