Reading the Wager: I'm All Ears at the Kentucky Derby

Posted by Loren Hebel-Osborne on Mon, Jul 28, 2014

Reading a horse's body language can be a big deciding factor when placing your wagers on the Kentucky Derby. Different movements, specifically within the ears, can be a telling point when it comes to how the horse is about to perform.

Take a look at the most common ear movements you'll see at a race as big as the Derby, learn how this connects with what is going on with the horse internally, and see how this translates into the horse's racing.

What Do They Mean?

I often make notations about a horse's ears in the review of a race performance - ears being forward, pricked, back, turned, and pinned are a few of my descriptions. In physicality handicapping, the ears give the best clue to know where the horse's attention and mind is focused.

In nature, a horse's keen sense of hearing is critical for it's survival to flee from a predator. Further, movements of a horse's ears are a prime method of communication within the herd. Therefore, much can be observed about the horse in a race from his "ear language."

The conditions established prior to and during a race are all very chaotic for the horse. To put things in perspective, let's imagine that you're driving in rush hour traffic, the radio is blaring, kids are in the back seat and you're late! Even if this is a horse's home track that he trains on every morning, just like your normal driving route, adding stress factors change the experience entirely.

My observation of ears begins pre-race in the walk-over and inside the paddock. I watch for a winning horse's ears to be turning toward its handlers. Horses listen for the lower vocal tones of assurance and the steady, rhythmic breathing patterns of their grooms. An experienced groom can be a huge factor in keeping a horse calm and focused.

Ears should be relaxed and listening, but not erratic. Ears pricked forward are also positive as it indicates interest in what's happening and happiness for what they are doing.

1010709 Reading the Wager: I'm All Ears at the Kentucky Derby

Reading the Race

Reading the Wager: I'm All Ears at the Kentucky Derby

Once in the body of the race, I watch for the horse's ears to be relaxed, but active - scanning to know where other horses are behind them or to their sides, similar to us using our mirrors to change lanes while driving.

The best jockeys are able to get a horse to relax, find cadence in breath and stride confidently like they train - thereby not having the cars focus on the chaos, but rather the task as hand (tuning off the radio and the kids in the back seat!). 

It is the final 1/8th that I am most focused on the ears. There are numerous descriptions and ear positions that express fatigue, exhaustion or fear of being "rear-ended or run over."

But, when a horse has not yet fully extended himself and has "more in the tank," the ears are still relaxed, scanning and listening to cues from the rider.

In some cases, the winning horse will prick its ears forward again as soon as the rider changes his position, stands or changes his breathing pattern to a longer exhale. Very fit horses or ones who completed the race well within themselves will have energy to keep their ears forward and alert versus looking more drooped from exhaustion.

I often draw a comparison of the ears to the position of a human runner's shoulders after a race. Until the horse can talk, the best way to know if a horse is on the top of his game is to be "played by ear." 

These communications, combined with several other body language cues often reveal a finess, maturity and confidence level for a winning performance on his next start. 

Learn more about picking a Kentucky Derby winner and physical handicapping»

You're Ready for the 2015 Kentucky Derby!

Now you know how to read a horse's ears for social cues and how it affects your wagers, you're ready to attend the 2015 Kentucky Derby! With Official Ticket Packages direct from Churchill Downs, you can experience the running of the 141st Kentucky Derby from some of the best seats at the track, with exclusive in-track hospitality access complete with open bars, gourmet food buffets, celebrity meet-and-greets and so much more! 

Get more information on how you can attend the Kentucky Derby today by calling 1-888-384-7088 to speak with a representative or by visiting Derby Experiences website for more information. It's time to start your Derby experience today!


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