Punters who understand and use horse body language as an aid to their handicapping are giving themselves an edge. They are getting a second opinion on the horse's ability, not from papers or the tipsters, but straight from the horse's mouth.

Pre-race observation of a horse's body language can help reduce your losses to a minimum by allowing you to limit your bets to horses who are fit and at good odds on the day. It helps you to recognise prerace behaviour of likely winners.

There are two types of horses you want to be able to recognise at a glance, the ones that are ready to win and the ones that are ready to lose. The horse's body language is telling you this is the horse with the best chance of performing well on the day. Tie this in with your own analysis of the horse's current form and you have a system that allows you to pick winners.

The horses fall into four main groups.

* The first is the horse fresh from a spell, brought to peak condition off-track by the trainer looking to pick up good odds for his connections with a first up win. It can be easily picked out from its competitors by its general presentation and the way it tends to over exaggerate its body movements. It gives the impression that it is walking on a razor's edge.

This is the sharp, healthy, race read horse. So eager for competition is it, that the horse gives off the air of being ready to explode out of the starting gate and lead all the way to the finish. It may sweat. It may dance and wheel around, but the impression is still the same.

Highly keyed up, sweating or not, this horse is the picture of physical well-being. The coat is extremely shiny with noticeable dappling. The tail and mane gleam, the body of the horse is neither over fleshy nor bony. The haunches have a particular rippling action which stands it out from the other horses. It is a bundle of energy waiting for the fuse to be lit.

The horse's attention will linger on the crowd as it is led into the mounting yard. Its tail is slightly raised, ears pricked forward, head tucked down towards its chest with an arched neck, prancing on its toes, continually sniffing the air, trying to take in as much as it can with all its senses.

Led around the mounting yard before being mounted, the horse is positively showing off dancing on its feet, alert ear movements, neck arched and nostrils flaring. As the jockey is mounted the horse's feet become even more restless, the body and feet movements even more exaggerated than before. The muscles may start to quiver due to the excess of pent-up energy.

At this point the prancing may include a sideways dancing movement with the horse trying to face the crowd and the noise. Kidney sweat may have started. This is not caused by fear, but by the excitement building in the horse itself.

As the horse breaks into warm-up canter it displays a special and definite kind of body language in its first two strides. The tail goes up, the muscles of the hind quarters and legs gather, the rear feet dig into the ground, and the horse may rear slightly and try to lunge straight into a fast canter.

The horse's chin will be touching its chest under the restraining hold of the jockey who is standing in the saddle. The tail is up allowing unrestricted movement of the hind quarters, the ears continue to alternate between the fully pricked-forward position and turning backwards trying to listen to the jockey.

Waiting to go into the starting gates he may dance around a bit, but gives no-one any serious trouble. When his turn comes, the ears are pricked fully forward, the nose points straight at the starting barrier and the horse charges in ready to get the race started. While waiting for the starter's orders he stands quietly, the rear feet are planted firmly on the ground ready to explode out of the starting barriers, the front feet have a tendency to be slightly restless.

If asked to wait for any period of time in the starting barrier, the horse will grow impatient with the delays, he starts to get more and more restless. The direct result is the horse will overheat, channeling the excess energy into becoming unmanageable, and harder to control in the stalls as well as on the track lessening its chances of success.

*The second group contains the horses who have passed this stage and are now ready to get down to the serious business of not just racing for today, but for the duration of their preparation.

The main difference between the two horses is the amount of eagerness shown and the exaggerated body language. The sharp horse is healthy and impatient, tending to over-react to delays and its surroundings. The no-nonsense, ready horse is healthy and content, it's prepared to put up with little inconveniences without losing its racing edge. Its coat has a good healthy shine to it; seldom does it have the mirror finish coat of the fresh sharp horse.

Its behaviour is quieter, nowhere near as impatient to get the race underway. The horse will glance towards the crowds, but its attention does not linger there long, returning quickly towards its handler. When led into the mounting yard it walks out willingly, with little dancing and tail movement, the head is forward or slightly sideways, the ears flicking in response to the noise around it. The horse is in control of itself, it doesn't allow itself to be
distracted by its surroundings.

The prerace warm-up is a relaxed run to loosen up; the jockey has no problems controlling the horse from a sitting position, there is no need for him to stand up and lean back on the reins. The horse enters the starting barriers willingly; it tends not to lunge at it the way a sharp horse does. Once in, he will stand quietly, shuffling its feet. The hind feet are rarely planted firmly.

This is the horse that will win the majority of races as its group outnumbers the sharp, fresh horses.

Of course, the third and fourth groups are the horses that lose. These are roughly divided into two equal groups of horses, those horses who have yet to reach their peak after a long absence from racing, or the horses that have achieved their peak and are starting to lose form. Included in this group the horses suffering from a minor ailment or with the beginnings of a mild infection somewhere. Horses that are starting to lose form, or have a minor ailment, are fairly easy to spot. Their coat has a slight shine to it, but nowhere near the shine of the other groups; the coat may even appear to be slightly rough to look at. It moves willingly enough, but is flat footed, it lacks that springy prancing movement. The neck is not arched.

When entering the mounting yard it tends to ignore the crowd and the noise, showing very little interest in its surroundings. If any interest is shown, it will be very brief with a minimum of head and ear movement. A little light sweat could start to show along its neck, but none in the kidney area between the hind legs.

Once the jockey has mounted he will try and liven the horse up by rattling the bit, shifting his weight in the saddle, slapping it on the neck with his bare hand, sitting and standing in the saddle, and in extreme measures the use of the whip.

In the warm-up run the horse will start out with an awkward shuffling canter forced upon it by the jockey. Rarely does it break into an easy relaxed canter. The neck is not arched and the head is up. The horse will stop for any excuse and be difficult to restart.

This is the sort of horse you see taking short speed runs along the back-stretch, having been started by the whip. It generally will hesitate entering the starting barriers long enough to require the help of the attendants.

Once in, the horse tends to stand flat-footed and show no outward signs of excitement or emotion. There is no shuffling of the feet, or shifting of the body weight. Head and ear movement are kept to the minimum and generally the horse will be one of the last out of the barriers. The horse has no interest in racing.

The difference between these horses and the ones that are yet to reach their peak is once again the amount of willingness and interest they show in their surroundings. The up and coming almost in-form horse will show a livelier walk as it enters the mounting yard with a great deal of head and ear movement, the tail will swish from side to side.

Generally it carries a little more weight and appears to be a little fleshy in its overall appearance. Sweat will appear along the neck and in the kidney area. The horse needs very little encouragement once the jockey is mounted to break into a warm-up canter.

It tends to enter the starting barriers easily with very little assistance and shows signs of impatience at long delays. It will shuffle either its front or rear feet or both, shifting its body weight searching for the best position in anticipation of jumping out of the barriers.

It jumps well from the barriers and will show some pace in the early stages, but unless it is racing against poorer company or over very short distances, it will be overhauled by the horses who are better conditioned on the day.

By Steven McAllister