Monday, October 18, 2010

Visual Handicapping The Physical And Emotional Conformation Of The Horse

The following article about visual handicapping was published in the September/October issue of The HorsePlayer Magazine. Look for my article on the key sire lines that have had an impact on the Breeders’ Cup races in the November/December issue of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

VISUAL Handicapping

Using the Physical and Emotional Conformation of the Horse to Complement Your Handicapping Strategies

By Kerry M. Thomas and Calvin L. Carter

Editor’s Note: HorsePlayer Magazine publisher Tom Quigley has long been a proponent of paddock inspection when selecting horses. For the last two years, he has been “Tweeting” his live paddock reports from the three major Southern California racetracks to his 700 + Twitter followers at Quigleys Corner on If you can’t be at the racetrack, Quigley’s Tweets are a great source of information on which horses look good or bad before going out onto the track.

If you play other circuits, however, this kind of up-to-the-minute observation is lacking. If you want to be a complete handicapper – and get an edge over your competition – you’ll need to do your own visual handicapping.

Visual handicapping is one of the last great frontiers in the handicapping game, and if you can become good at it, you’ll have a differential advantage over players who are just using numbers to suss out a horse’s current form.

In this article, conformation expert Kerry M. Thomas and frequent HorsePlayer contributor Calvin L. Carter help explain what you should be looking for when watching a horse in the paddock and/or post parade.

Pedigree and past performances are two of the most important tools handicappers have in their wagering arsenal – they can show if a horse has the potential to be a rising star and a stakes winner. But sometimes a horse does not live up to its breeding and performs poorly on the racetrack – and, of course, past performances are of no use when handicapping first-time starters.

A visual inspection of a horse in the paddock and post parade can be very revealing and give the handicapper a clue as to how well it will perform on the racetrack. How a horse looks physically and how it behaves can reveal if a horse is physically fit and emotionally prepared to compete in a race.


When visually inspecting a horse it is important to remember to have a checklist of things to look for. The physical things are somewhat obvious:

What does the horse’s overall physical appearance look like? A healthy horse will appear to be alert and aware of everything in its surroundings. Its ears will be pricked forward and its coat will appear dappled. An unhealthy horse will have a dull appearance and be lethargic. It will be less aware of its surroundings and its focus will be turned more inward.

Is the horse sweating or is it washed out? Sweating is a natural way to cool off but if the horse appears lathered on the neck and/or between the rear legs, it could be sign that the horse is overly nervous or that it is not in top physical condition.

Is the horse wearing leg bandages? Some trainers wrap the front and rear legs in bandages for protection, but bandages can be a sign that the horse has some fitness issues or is in pain – and that could greatly hamper its performance.

Is the horse wearing normal or special horseshoes? Bar shoes could indicate that the horse has tender feet or is experiencing hoof problems. Toe grabs on the horse shoe could mean that the horse does not have good footing or, in a matter of speaking, spins out on the racing surface. The toe grabs (which are illegal in some states) are for extra traction.

What kind of tack is the horse wearing? Some horses are loaded down with gear that may or may not improve its performance. A good example of this is Rachel Alexandra whose two losses after claiming the 2009 Horse of the Year honors came when she was fitted with a figure-eight nose band. Less gear is better.

Is the horse wearing a shadow roll, blinkers, or ear muffs? Anytime a horse wears this gear it is a good indicator that horse has some focus and concentration issues. That equipment change may or may not improve the horse’s performance.


The behavior and Emotional Conformation of a horse is just as important as the physical conformation, and it can have a tremendous impact on a horse’s performance. Behavioral issues can also be obvious, but most of the time, they are more subtle and require a closer inspection.

How does the horse behave in the paddock? How the horse reacts to noise, large crowds of people, and other horses is vitally important. It is a good indicator of that horse’s mental soundness and how it will perform on the racetrack.

A confident, mentally sound horse will be focused and almost casual in appearance. Its ears may be pricked forward. An unfocused horse that lacks confidence may be ill-mannered and agitated in the paddock. It may appear to be anxious, and its ears may be pricked backward or rapidly moving about as if expecting something.

Does the horse show any signs of nervousness? A certain amount of nervousness is okay. Some great horses had what the late, world-renowned breeder and trainer Federico Tesio referred to as “nervous energy.” But if the horse continuously acts up and lathers up, that is a sign of an unfocused horse that is not mentally prepared to run in a race.

Some nervousness and rambunctious behavior can be expected from the colts, but nervousness in fillies and mares can be a sign of an unfocused horse that lacks confidence. Of course, there are some exceptions. Zenyatta is a notable example of a mare that possesses nervous energy.

Does the horse show any signs of herding mentality? By nature, horses are herding animals, and that dynamic can be present in the paddock as well as on the racetrack. If a horse appears to be overly aggressive, but not anxious, that behavior can indicate that the horse is trying to assert its authority over other horses in the paddock. If a horse appears to be timid or unsure, that behavior indicates the horse most likely would be content to follow the lead of the other horses.

Is the horse aware of everything in its surroundings or is its focus of attention solely fixated on one horse? A horse that demonstrates this type of aggressive, targeting behavior has a very narrow range of focus, and it will actually target and “buddy-up” with another during a race.

How does the horse behave when it is saddled and prepped for the race? A confident, focused horse will freely accept its tack and bridle while an unconfident horse will resist and struggle with its handler. A horse has to feel comfortable in order to perform at its best. The equipment it wears can become a source of discomfort, resulting in behavioral overcompensations, which is when a horse alters its natural running style due to a physical or an emotionally perceived restriction.

How does the horse behave when led by the groom? The groom should be able to lead the horse with a loose hold on the lead line while the horse comfortably follows a few feet behind the groom. If the groom has to have a tight grip on the lead line and take aggressive action to control the horse, that is a sign that the horse is not focused to the task at hand, and it is an indicator as to how the horse will perform on the racetrack.

If the groom has to continually reassure the horse by contact or if the horse bunches up next to the groom while being led, that is a sign that the horse has some herding mentality issues and is also an indicator of how that horse will run on the racetrack – in the middle of the herd where it has a feeling of safety and security.

How does the horse behave in the post parade or at the starting gate? Anytime a horse acts up, especially at the starting gate, it can be a sign of an immature, unfocused horse; an ill-tempered, hard-to-handle horse that has space issues; or a horse with deep-seated emotional issues that can only be evaluated after much study. A horse that demonstrates this type of behavior is a classic example of a horse with low focus ability.

However, the opposite can be true as horses from the Hasting sire line which include Man O’War, War Admiral and Hard Tack were hard to handle and well known for their pre-race antics. The great War Admiral delayed the start of all three 1937 Triple Crown races.

Does the horse have a lot of ear movement? One of the key indicators that show a great aptitude for mental fitness and a high level of focus agility is the ability of the horse to constantly, but not anxiously, move its ears back-and-forth and side-to-side while moving about in the paddock, post parade, and even during a race. The ability of a horse to interpret stimulus in smooth transitions during a race is a sign of a high level of focus agility and a key to maintaining pace.


Visual handicapping is truly a study of herd dynamics at the racetrack. The horse that is the most focused and mentally sound is usually the winner of the race. Knowing what to visually look for in the physical and emotional conformation of the horse can reveal what is not readily apparent from the pedigree and past performances and reward the handicapper with a nice payday.

KERRY M. THOMAS is the founder of the Thomas Herding Technique and a researcher who studies the psychology and Emotional Conformation of horses. For more information about Emotional Conformation and Thomas’ research, you can visit his website at

CALVIN L. CARTER writes about juvenile thoroughbreds on his blog at


  1. Kerry and Calvin,

    Great read.

    In the end, knowing a horse's "usual" appearance and the trainer's success/failure with equipment changes are the best tools. The variables you mentioned, taken independently, could be positive or negative signs for different horses/trainers.

    For example, LIBERIAN FREIGHTER in the Oak Tree Mile...he looked done as they went into the gate. Washed out at the neck and kidneys. He ran down COLGAN'S CHIP at big odds.

    Carl Nafzger added front wraps to STREET SENSE for the BC Juvenile to the tune of an emphatic 15-1 win. Clearly, he was worth the risk to include on top of most likely winner CIRCULAR QUAY. STREET SENSE ran in them the rest of his career for a record of 8-4-3-0, including a Derby win, narrow Preakness defeat, and Saratoga wins in the Jim Dandy and Travers.

    The most bittersweet win was playing against BARBARO in the Preakness. I suspected something was amiss after front wraps went on for the Holy Bull win, his first main track start which happened to be on a sloppy/sealed track. He won the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby without them next out.

    Healthy, right? No.

    In the Derby, BARBARO stumbled at the start and was able to finish strongly (:24 1/5) because he was able to cruise to the mile mark with a :25 3/5 split because the field tired at :26 1/5.

    I could never have predicted the catastrophe that befell him. However, BARBARO was not a picture of health to me while many labled him as the next Triple Crown winner.

    I never felt so bad about correctly betting BERNARDINI to win at 14-1.

    I'll check back to read if you uncover any compelling equipment changes.

  2. Amateurcapper,

    Excellent points on knowing about the trainer success or failure rate with equipment changes. Having that information in the handicapping arsenal would, indeed, be valuable.

    Thanks for the contribution.

  3. This is the sort of thing we need alot more of. Huge edge for the players who take time to learn it.

  4. LetItRideMike,

    Thanks for the compliment. I had a lot of fun co-authoring this article with my friend. Kerry M. Thomas.

    Thanks for following the blog.