Do you go to the mounting yard at the races and watch the horses as they walk around before the start of a race? It's surprising how few punters do so. Those that do probably just enjoy looking at the horses without knowing which ones are the fittest.

There's a lot to the 'body language' of a racehorse, and you don't need to be an expert to become proficient at spotting those gallopers which are likely to perform well, and those which are off the boil. You have to keep a few key things in mind, and after a while you'll become something of an expert at the 'body language' business.

The manner in which a horse walks is often a giveaway to its condition, or its muscle formation. In his book Winning More, the professional punter Don Scott says: "The neck should look firm and strong, and the muscles of the shoulders and hindquarters should ripple when the horse moves. When the horse walks away from you, its hindquarters should look strong and ample."

Scott advises to look out for brightness of the eyes and coat, and warns that generally 'sweating' is not a good sign. However, he rightly concludes that sweating is not always a sign that a horse is unfit or will run a poor race. On very hot days, he points out, 70 per cent of the horses will sweat, some because of nervousness.

Widespread sweating, though, can suggest that a horse is short of peak fitness. A bad sweating area is considered to be the inside of the hind legs.

Noted horse expert Bonnie Ledbetter says punters should look for a calm, collected animal, who moves straight down the track, head down and tucked in, and looking as if it wants to participate in what is about to unfold.

Kidney sweat, she claims, isn't that bad a sign but when it is combined with sweat along the neck, plus lather, then the horse is what she calls 'washed out'.

Ledbetter says a 'happy horse' will first drop its head, then fling it high with a full, skyward circle. Its behaviour is eager, interested, alert, with lots of play and responsiveness. An arched tail, she says, is a sign of playfulness, while the tail of a playful youngster will curl over its back.

She adds: "If you spot a racehorse that approaches the competition strutting, with an arched tail, you'd better believe that horse is happy about the whole thing, including the noise of the crowd. This is a proud horse, and it will register its satisfaction by prancing with ears straight forward, nostrils flaring and tail arched.

"The head will be pointed downward with a curving neck and, at a canter the horse raises its hooves with easy coordination and stretches its legs straight out in a smooth, eager stride, with the neck remaining arched and head down."

Ledbetter maintains that this behaviour is true body language and you would be looking at a horse full of pride, an eager horse who may even show some impatience by stomping a front foot, then a hind foot, along with a shake of the head. A sideways dance shows he is ready for action.

When a horse is healthy, she explains, a horse's glowing coat reflects light. The mane and tail are soft, not matted or lumpy, and the horse tends to be playful, responsive to attention and interested in everything about it. This is what she calls a 'sharp horse', one that is fit and in good spirits.

Don Scott says he doesn't like to see a horse 'prancing around' during the pre-race parade; he prefers to see them calm yet alert. A lot of keen judges agree with Scott. They say that a horse which is really difficult to handle before a race will need more ability than the average competitor to compensate for wasted energy.

One judge, a close friend of mine, who has studied horses all his working life (as a farmer and a trainer) gives the following advice: "Eliminate any horse who nods its head as it walks a straight line because head nodding from side to side is an indication of soreness through mild limping. Any horse showing any sign of panic is another to ignore. By this I mean a horse who is constantly looking around in a frantic way, unable to concentrate on matters at hand.

"A horse dripping with perspiration in the mounting yard is usually a spent force before the race. Nerves, anticipation and fear can eliminate a horse before he even steps foot on the track for the canter to the barriers. I make a point of ignoring any sweating horse.

"What I look for are the calm, quiet horses, and I always try to look them in the eye. The eyes need to be alert. I also watch for the horse who is on its toes, so to speak-one that moves along happily, without head jerking, and who has a nice, bright, shining coat."

Barbara Tafe, wife of Queensland ratings expert George Tafe, is another keen 'body language' expert. She is self-taught, but picks lots of winners by pre-race study, including checking on how horses are cared for in their stalls. She notes how long the horses spend in the stalls. This can often cruel their prospects.

Some horses engaged in late races are brought to the racetrack stalls many hours before their race. As a result, they gradually 'sag' throughout the day. Some are not exercised enough. Others will be excited on arrival, then as the hours slip by they lose their interest and by racetime have virtually 'run their race'.

Test yourself with body language study by not looking at the racebook just check out the horses in the mounting yard, pick the ones you reckon look the best, and then check to see what their names are. See how many winners you can find with this 'blind' body language testing. You'll have a lot of fun, and you just might become an instant and successful expert.

By Jon Hudson