Monday, June 11, 2007

How Instincts Played into the Tragedy of Ruffian

In yesterday's post, A Salute to Ruffian - Thoroughbred Racing's Greatest Filly I tried to explain the human dynamics of what went into the demise of Ruffian. Today;, I want to address the herd dynamics and instincts of the horse that played into this tragedy.

Unless you're really tuned into horses and their interactions, I'm sure you're wondering what herd dynamics or instincts could possibly have to do with the great thoroughbred filly's accident. While most people who love horses enjoy them and interact with them, many do not really understand how horses think, what drives them to do what they do.

If they did such "horse whispers" as John Lyons, Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, Clinton Anderson and Tommy Garland, Gawani Pony Boy to name a few, wouldn't be able to draw such huge audiences or sell nearly as many books, videos and DVDs. The movement of natural horsemanship taught by all these horsemen is very much based on the language of the horse and its instincts.

So what instincts played into this accident. The first thing that comes to mind for me is the herd instinct. Horses need to be in a herd. They seek companionship. If you put horses together on a track, for all intents and purposes, those horses are now a herd. If one runs off, the others will follow because their instinct tells them safety is with the herd. No matter how threatened or injured a horse might be, its instincts tell it it must keep up with its herd.

The second thing that comes to mind for me is the desire to be as high on the peeking order as possible. Some horses have a stronger desire than others to be the lead horse but all horses are looking for their opening to move up the peeking order. A race horse looking for an opening is looking to move up the peeking order.

I know when I breed for show horses one of the attributes I want in my horses is attitude. A big attitude translates to presence in the show ring. A horse with presence goes into the ring radiating it's attitude/presence and commands attention. Horses with great presence do not get overlooked by the judges.

I would guess it is the same way with thoroughbreds. The horse with the biggest attitude is not going to allow itself to be outrun by another horse. The bigger the attitude the stronger the heart that horse will have as a runner.

In both cases, these horses are competitive. They want to win. Out in the field, they're in charge. Out on the track, they give everything they've got and more. In the show ring, they know the score and they understand what that ribbon is about. They all want to win.

Frank Whiteley didn't want Ruffian to run in a match race because he understood the depth of her desire to win. He also understood that with the field whittled down to only two, the intensity would be magnified. Both horses would feed off of each other and there were no other herd members to spread the focus out, slow it down, make it manageable.

Frank Whitely understood to take two champions with the desire and heart of Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian head to head was like asking them to duel to the death. Each horse was so driven to be the winner, they wouldn't be smart or safe, they would attack that race with a vengeance with total disregard for themselves, running to win at all costs.

Ruffian broke out of that gate with nothing more on her mind than making that colt eat her dust. The more dust she could make him eat the better. She may have felt a twinge in her leg before it actually broke, but if she did, she didn't care. All she cared about was leading and lengthening that lead. The harder Foolish Pleasure tried to catch her, the more driven Ruffian was to stay ahead. Her instinct to be the alpha mare was at a feverish pitch.

Once the leg broke, the filly was still guided by instinct. Even if she did give up the idea of being on top (which it sounds like she did not) she still would have been driven by the instinct to stay with the herd. The more badly a horse is hurt, the more desperate the horse would be to stay with the herd. An injured horse's safety could only be in numbers and injured racehorses are known for trying to continue to run. Ruffian was no exception.

The third thing that comes to mind for me is the flight or fight response. Any horse that is startled or frightened is going to flee or fight to protect themselves. Most people know that but they don't think about how it expresses itself in their relationship with their horses.

Horses that are put under anesthesia are dangerous when they are coming out from under the drugs. They are dangerous to themselves and others. The reason they are so dangerous is because they are disoriented and their flight/fight instinct kicks into high gear. All they know is they feel threatened and they react according to that instinct. Most fight for all they are worth. Ruffian fought harder than most, breaking her other leg.

The tremendous instincts of Ruffian are what made her an incredible racing filly in the first place. Her desire to be the best, the fastest was so strong it made her what she was. But it was also the depths of those instincts that destroyed her in the end.


  1. I have an interesting story to post regarding this topic. Friday, his mare Max Seen (the favorite), stumbled coming out of the gates and the jockey was thrown. Max Seen charged down the track, edging over and giving her challengers the eye as she went by. She was determined to win this one and did by about a length, which is alot for quarter horses. The track played it over and over on the replay and the crowd loved it. She had a small cut on her pastern from her fall, but she is doing ok. Amazing heart.

  2. It's amazing, isn't it? That will to be number one that some of our horses have? We witnessed that in the adoption corrals last weekend. There were two pens of mares, and of course one top mare in each pen.

    Then came along this mare who'd been previously adopted. She was there late in the afternoon and was moved into one of the pens. All the other mares immediately cowered in the corner away from her, including the former 'boss'. Later in the weekend, when horses were going home, the pens got shuffled around and that same mare ended up with the alpha from the other mare pen. Again, she had everyone cowering within minutes, including the formerly very snotty alpha mare.

    She was most definitely a bold, couragous mare who'd go far in something such as eventing, but man what a booger I bet she'd be to train!

  3. I remember that and when it happened. I was 12 years old at the time and already very much into horses. I remember Jess and I being just devastated over the tragedy.

  4. photogchic, I have seen horses finish the race without their jockeys as well. It really is amazing how they're driven by the desire to be in front.

    tracey, I would have been surprised if you had said you hadn't seen horses behaving like that at the adoption corrals. Wherever there are two or more horses, there's going to be a leader, which I know you as a horseperson know. But lots of people don't have a clue and your example at the corrals of mares moving from one herd to another in the pens and the power shifting is a great example of herd dynamics.

    I know from experience that those dynamic horses (mares and stallions both) can be a real challenge to train but when you get through to them, they are the most amazing friends! Well worth the struggle.

    callie, I remember this incident like it was yesterday. I don't know how anyone who loves horses couldn't have been devestated by this event. I think had Ruffian survived her recovery, there would have been the same kind of outpouring that there was for Barbaro. Certainly, the world held its breather waiting to hear of Ruffian's fate. What a tragic day for racing.