The maintenance of keenness in the Race Team

When, during the cause of the racing season, the performance of the race team diminish or fade away without any known reason the cause is often blamed on disease and followed by a course of medication, even if no sure signs of any disease are apparent. Could there perhaps be another reason?

Let us think about it.

Pondering on this phenomenon, I came across an article 'Pigeon Psychology' by Rod Adams in one of my very old copies of the Racing Pigeon Pictorial (October 1978), which made me think again. Most of what follows in this discussion is derived from this article.

Have you ever thought that the loss of keenness could be the cause for the unidentified drop in performance by your race team? Keenness in the race team is a very desirable condition, yet not very easy to maintain in racing pigeons. This state or condition is sometimes produced spontaneously by the pigeon itself without any intervention by the fancier, but is also very fragile and very easily destroyed.

It is therefore important to maintain this state of keenness in the racing pigeons to secure success and this is only possible by not giving the pigeon too much or too little of any one thing. In this way the novelty value of that particular thing will be retained and as such keeping the team eager and keen for more.

Loss of keenness in pigeons usually happens as a direct result of bad management but sometimes it is also just bad luck. The fancier, therefore, has to strike a somewhat delicate balance between giving his pigeons just enough work or feed to keep them in good condition and keen or he could be overdoing things.

How then is this utopia to be created and maintained? First and foremost, the team's keenness for racing must be maintained for as long as possible! This could be achieved by a happy combination of environment and management to create a home to which the pigeons are strongly attached and to which they wish to return as soon as possible. There are many ways to achieve this – such as the system applied by the fancier, be it the natural system, widowhood or celibate; the way the birds are treated in the loft in general or when dispatched for training tosses or racing; feeding methods and management in general.

As mentioned before, and many fanciers find this one of the hardest skills to master in pigeon racing, is to achieve a balance between adequate training and racing and too much of either or both. Too much forced exercise kills keenness as does too much basketwork or too much racing or even too much food. As Rod Adams puts it, racers become homers through overexposure and not necessarily through tiredness. It is the lack of keenness as much as physical tiredness, which slows them down, or as the English fancier's term it 'knocks the yards (metres) off them'.

It is therefore very important to distinguish between sprint and distance racing.

It is therefore very important to distinguish clearly between the training necessary for the short distance or sprint racing, let say up to 400km, the middle distances up to 600km and the longer distances. Racing over the short distances is a question of hard repetitive physical graft of sustained all-out effort and requires a razor's edge of fitness.

The short distance race is over and done with within relative short period of time and the number of races are normally limited and presented early in the racing season. Therefore, during the short distance races it is not that difficult to maintain keenness in the team and over-exercise, within limits, does not present too much of a problem.

Short distance races require birds in good condition that can stay with the pack, and the winner will often be (depending on the loft position and prevailing wind direction) the keenest bird, motivated in some way or the other. This is the way of things and is generally known and accepted by sprint fanciers who plan accordingly.

Distance racing, on the other hand, is altogether a different ball game! Here it is a matter of experience, stamina and selection, with none of the week-in, week-out, racing, as is the case with the sprint birds. The pigeons should now be carefully prepared for specific races and entered only if judged ready (on condition) for shipment. It is now a matter of considering a program of entering the suitable birds on a two-weekly or three-weekly basis and to adapt the training schedule accordingly.

However, to the amazement of the fancier, some distance birds are capable of repetitive entries, and will thrive on it. But this calls for an experienced fancier to manage it. The name of the game now is stamina and selection as mentioned earlier. The distance birds don't get the amount of racing and exercise the sprint birds do. Distance pigeons can be brought into condition and if fortunate, into form, for a specific date, given just enough racing beforehand to get them ready for their scheduled race and then jumped over long distances into the selected race.

I recall a champion telling me that he trains all his birds as a group up to the first race in the racing season by letting them circle the loft until they roam followed by giving them eight 50km, four 80km, two 120km, one 150km and one 200km tosses. From this point onwards he will select birds for the long weekend tosses, (the sprinters for the short distance races) and the remainder will only get the short 40km training tosses from Mondays through Fridays.

Two weeks before the point is reached where the distance races start the second team kept back from racing the short distance races will be given a 200km toss and a further 400km toss one week apart. Depending on the condition of the birds after these two tosses, suitable candidates will be selected and entered for the earlier distance races. From this point onwards birds will be entered on condition and training will be limited to short training tosses only.

One must agree, however, that it is sometimes necessary to send pigeons to an intermediate race to achieve a certain standard of fitness for a selected race. It is, however, very rare for distance birds to be trained over the distances they will be raced over, whereas sprinters tend to be trained over, or up to, at least the first 150km or so quite regularly. Despite what was said earlier about week-in and week-out racing by distance birds, it might happen that a distance bird is send back the following week if his condition and the circumstances of the race permit. If, however, you are not completely confident in your judgement of condition and form, rather be on the save side and enter your distance birds no more than every alternative week up to 650km and thereafter no more than every third week.

The important thing therefore is to avoid unnecessary repetition, sending pigeons on to races when they are 'right' to go and not just sending them to make up the numbers or to 'strengthen' the team. This can raise problems, but it is important not to overexpose the pigeon to too much racing, especially if there is a danger of the bird being hurt to race home under adverse conditions when it is not really fit. As the old saying goes 'horses for courses'.

Race condition, and for that matter form, is said to be the result of a balance between, heredity, health, feeding and training.

If there is one part of this quartet giving me severe headaches, it is the training part. There is another very important variable in distance racing that should be considered very carefully. The point is that the variation of the strength of the homing instinct and the constitution might vary from bird to bird or even 'families' of birds.

The variation in the level of fitness is also legion. Some birds need a lot of work while others can be so to speak being lifted off the nest without much training at all and shipped and could win just as well. So, these variables, the degree of homing instinct present and the variability in the individual bodily constitution and the level of fitness at the time, are important factors to bear in mind when considering the whole vexed question of how much, or how little training and racing is opportune.

Obviously it requires more than skill to keep older birds keen than to do the same with young birds and yearlings still full of the zest of life as Rod Adams puts it, but the essential questions regarding training are the same. Short training flights and often? Long training flights now and again? Forced exercise or not? It all depends on the type of pigeon fancier owns and the type of racing he wishes to indulge in and usual the best answers are not hard and fast ones and not written in stone.

There is however one basic rule, which applies regardless of the distance, involved. It is this: that a balance must be achieved between a pigeon having had enough time on the wing (either in training or exercise of some kind) to be able to cope comfortably with the race or races it is prepared for, and on the other hand, too much work!

This is no easy thing and requires skill, patience and luck at the right time. But, as a friend of Rod has put it, you don't need luck when you're racing badly – it's of no use to you then. Nothing much will help then. When you really need luck is when you're at the top, to stay there and to give you the edge on the competition.

Now how could one keep your team keen and content? Rod Adams suggests fairly frequent short training tosses as the most favourable and controllable way of conditioning pigeons without damaging their keenness for racing. But the real essence of any training system is not how often, or how much, or how long (although all these matter a great deal), but when. For training to be effective it is very essential that the timing is right! Not too many training flights nor too few, goes without saying, it is when they are given, not the number of them that really matters. To bring the pigeons into form at the right time is the real object of training them, it is not just 'to get the weight off them'. Frequent long training tosses (anything beyond 50km) have their place but are not without risk. Too much can go wrong and upset the apple cart? Frequent short training tosses at the right time are the order of the day and keep the fancier in control.

Another contentious point is forcibly exercising your pigeons. The ideal situation would be one where the birds are exercising voluntarily and well when circling the loft. But ideal situations seldom exists in practice and some fanciers have to condition their birds in this way, especially if they do not have access to any transport for training purposes.

But forcibly exercising an unwilling batch of pigeons is a soul-destroying pastime at it's very best says Rod Adams. More so, if the birds are really uncooperative, and refuse to range away from the immediate vicinity of the loft and keep on circling the chimney. If your birds behave as such and are not ill in any way, the only alternative is frequent short training tosses to put the zest back into the team.

To conclude, repetition is without doubt the main culprit killing keenness, repetition in training, racing and exercise, they all have their effect and they are not hard to see. Moderation in your day-to-day dealings with your pigeons might just be the key to create and maintain keenness in your team and thus maintaining condition and form in the race team.

In pigeon racing the response to a question is not always and an absolute answer. By asking questions however, may help one to understand the question better, and by so doing, helps to understand yourself and your pigeons better!

By Joggie Peters

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