Former jump jockey, Paddy Flood, looks into the reasons horses so often fail to stay on their feet.
Why do horses fall? Well the two most common reasons are inexperience and tiredness. Technique plays a part too but often a horse will jump perfectly on the bridle but as they get tired they can lose their technique.
Very few horses are naturally good jumpers but those that are tend to get very heavy falls when they get it wrong. A bad jumper is often clever at getting out of trouble when they meet a fence wrong, they throw out a leg to save themselves.
On the other hand a really good jumper doesn’t expect to fall and riding him you don’t expect it either and that is why they often hit the deck hard.
I don’t think people in general know how much work jockeys do in getting horses to jump. No two horses jump the same. On a really good jumper you could go around blindfolded but they are a very rare thing.
A very small percentage of horses can’t jump at all but there will usually be an underlying reason such as kissing spines, skeletal shape or sore legs.
Trainers don’t tend to tell jockeys much about how each individual horse jumps – I think they don’t want you going out to ride in a negative frame of mind. But if you are booked to ride one you haven’t sat on before you would always go and chat to the other lads in the weighroom that had ridden it and nine times out of ten what they tell you will help.
Three Styles of Riding
There are three basic styles of riding – positive (AP McCoy), neutral (Ruby Walsh) and Negative (minding yourself). The third one doesn’t work but the other two are extremely effective.
Ruby for me was an exceptional rider at getting a horse to jump and he did almost all of this without seeming to move a muscle. It was all about balance, legs and instilling confidence to the horse. A great example of his ability was the ride he gave Kemboy at Aintree last year. The horse pinged every fence and to me Kemboy is no more than an ordinary jumper of a fence.
Kauto Star is another horse that Ruby got the absolute best out of. He was a guessy enough jumper. Three other lads rode him during his career and he made mistakes for all of them.
Ruby had some high profile falls during his career, most notably Annie Power and Benie Des Dieux at Cheltenham, but I think they happened because Ruby had this ability to get a horse to run flat out for him without the horse actually knowing how hard they were going. The horses thought they were going better than they were and made split second decision themselves that resulted in the tumbles.
AP McCoy on the other hand got at his horses much earlier in a race. He completely made the horse’s mind up for him. Horses knew he was making them do this. They knew they were flat out.
Both styles are effective and AP and Ruby were the ultimate exponents of each. Rachael Blackmore would sit somewhere in between the two of them style-wise. Horses run for her and jump for her. The success of the de Bromhead horses, over fences in particular, has a lot to do with Rachael.
We Don't Teach Lads How To Fall
In RACE we school horses over poles, tyres and hurdles and I tell the Apprentices to ride each differently. Don’t touch the poles, get the horse to make a round shape over the tyres and get from A to B as fast as possible over hurdles.
We don’t teach the lads how to fall safely but we explain that being positive on a horse will reduce the chance of a fall. 9 out of ten horses will jump if you make up their mind for them, the other one is just stupid.
It is not too often in a race that a jockey will know his horse is going to fall at an obstacle. You can know coming into an obstacle that there is no stride there and you make adjustments to either look for a long one or just pop it. The problems tend to occur in the last half-stride when the horse just backs off and then you know Oh Shit!
When a jockey is riding well, s/he passes that confidence on to the horses. It’s a very easy job when it’s going like that. You don’t have to think about anything. On the other hand when the winners dry up or you are coming back from injury there is a tendency to over-think everything. You turn every race into a maths quiz trying to figure out what you are doing wrong.
You often hear the phrase used that a jockey has ‘lost his bottle’ well I don’t think that is actually true in the vast majority of cases. It is their confidence that is missing and that vibe passes on to the horse. One or two winners and they are off again.