"Competitive edge is found where the psychological athlete divides the physically talented;
#HerdDynamics matter, every horse, every discipline, everywhere." THT
|Posted on November 4, 2020 at 12:00 AM|
Herd Dynamic Nicking
Kerry M Thomas
Introduction; the Herd Dynamic
The herd dynamics and their primary function is the cornerstone from which THT Bloodstock has been built, studying them and identifying their inherent nature, my passion.
I define the herd dynamic as those naturally occurring traits, tendencies and characteristics that make up the individual psychology and where they place the horse in the hierarchy of the herd environment. In short, it is the operating system of the physical machine.
The evolution of herd dynamic profiling has been and will at length always be, a journey of discovery; learning to discriminate between that which is perceived to be and that which is, relies heavily on both experience and instinct. The science of herd dynamics is based more upon what you feel than what you see in many ways, for what you see can wear many cloaks. The horse is their herd dynamic, the horse athlete is their herd dynamics’ relationship with physical talent; it is folly to consider one without the other, and a mistake to underappreciate talents’ dependency upon ability.
Any horses particular herd dynamic makeup is their representative psychology and the efficiency with which it functions; key in evaluating this is in determining just how “individual” the herd animal is. It is a simple but extremely important virtue in athletics that a horse, though instinctively attached to the herd environment, be as detached from it as possible. Horse racing isn’t a team sport, horses are competing against, not with, one another, which is by its very nature counterintuitive. The very first order of business in the evaluation process for determining ability is identifying how self-reliant the horse is. Physical expression runs through the herd dynamic; talent is within the manner of that expression. If you’re adding a horse to your team, you’d do well to realize that value is found between the ears, pedigree and physicality pinioned by herd dependency does not an athlete make. Identifying the degree of an individuals’ herd dependence or independence is vital, for this ultimately determines what type of athlete the horse actually is and how well they will optimize talent under competitive stress.
The herd dynamic of an individual horse tells you a great deal about that horse and his or her singular strengths and weaknesses, clues you in on things like trainability and how they are likely to handle competitive stresses and environmental chaos. In competition, horses that are closely aligned in HD strength can easily take turns trading victories over time. Where the herd dynamic tells you who the horse is, their behavioral genetics help you understand the collection of their puzzle pieces; not just physically but also mentally, what has been imparted from the progenitors, influences the trajectory of their progeny.
Behavioral Genetics; Ingredients of Success
Determining true potential runs much deeper than just what is found standing before you in the young horse. Athletic by nature, the potential of that talent can be surmised by the physical foundation of the horse; a certain hip, shoulder angle, top line and so on, clues you in on physical efficiency in motion. The physical horse is representative of the self, the psychological horse running through that body is the representation of many herd dynamic ingredients combed into one; the behavioral genetic sequence.
Behavioral genetics matter because ultimately, it is the psychological athlete that determines the physical athlete; the optimization of talent is predicated on ability. The study of behavioral genetics on both sides of the family tree, Herd Dynamic Nicking, helps to shed light into the shadowy room of speculation and hope. The identification of traits, tendencies and characteristics within the family lines are only one part of the process, identifying which among them are being competitively expressed, is another. Because of the natural structure of the herd unit, colts and fillies playing different roles in the family structure, the manner in which the imparted behavioral genetics are expressed stand to be different.
The psychological make up of fillies/mares is designed by nature to fill their respective role in the herd, in their purest sense they will often have a shifted slant toward the Group Herd Dynamic. Cohesively and by design, colts/stallions play a different role in the natural herd structure, and they are most often slanted toward the Individual Herd Dynamic. It is true that every horse has a combination of each, and the ratio of these, unique to the individual, is dependent upon the prevailing traits, tendencies and characteristics, of their parents. It is a certainty, herd dynamic stamping happens, and the influence of the stallion is often thought of as the primary source to look at, but never underestimate the power and influence of the broodmare. In fact, because of her role in nature, the broodmare’s behavioral genetic influence often has more potency and consistency than may be expected. Not only is she imparting her characteristics, she is also helping to form how both hers and the stallions are being expressed through the weaning process. The emotionally charged horse at once absorbs and reflects their environment.
There are any number of varying traits in each horse that are seemingly unimportant to the competitive nature of that horse, things that are “overlooked” because they don’t seem essential, but everything is important. The difference between competitive nature and competitive edge is centered around the ability to manage stress, and the ability too manage stress is comprised of psychological characterisics. Emotional stress is the great antagonist to athletic performance and stress unfiltered in a horse’s daily life is going to be carried forward. Training, coaching, performing, are not dismissed from the equation of life; I always remind myself when evaluating prospects that a supple mind allows for a supple horse.
The HD Nick is the result of the study of as many closely related individuals’ herd dynamics as can be got, with a special emphasis on the broodmare and any of her progeny, in order to identify common and consistent dominating traits. Once these are identified in more than one horse a picture of prevailing characteristics begins to take shape; this is at length behavioral genetic sequencing. When the behavioral genetics come into view, the study of their expression can begin.
There are a multitude of indicators to identify and sift through to be sure, each one connected to the other within the psyche, in the end however, what you really want to know is “what is the level of herd dependency and what is the nature of their competitive expression.”
You always have to keep in mind that as herd animals by their nature, very few horses born will have the inherent ability to lead their peers without being in some way dependent upon them. Identifying a horse who is entirely devoid of dependency is rare, finding that “special” horse that also happens to have top rate physical talent, rarer still. With some degree of dependency naturally occurring in most horses (in my experience roughly 95% of horses I’ve evaluated in my lifetime so far) what becomes more important is to determine how these are influencing the horse athletically and among the chief places to look is within the horses’ sensory system.
An efficient sensory system is the lead blocker that allows the physical horse to maneuver through their environment regardless of the speed of motion, it controls versatility and plays a significant role in managing competitive stress. The manner in which a horse is communicating with their environment matters a great deal, how something was done is a more honest representation of the horse than what they did, to overlook this is to dismiss what is in my opinion the most influential part of any equine athlete, their herd dynamic.
Defining the efficiency of the sensory system, or as I say, the degree of their sensory soundness, is found within the interpretative aspect; how capable are they at interpreting the information that is funneled in? This becomes quite important when you consider that when you isolate the herd animal by asking him/her to operate independently, you’re exposing existing individual strengths as well as weaknesses. How much outsourcing is required to complete a task, be it through other horses or equipment, needs to be answered because if not, your base information becomes tainted. Outsourcing is not rooted in a disfunction of the physical senses, it is squarely placed within the psyche (interpretative) and a natural webbing that helps bind herd members together.
Where it is true that each horse comes with fundamental ingredients, the manner in which they express and distribute their emotional energy has to be considered through the lens of either IHD or GHD, male to female. By nature, females will be equipped with a higher percentage of GHD and males a higher percentage of IHD in their respective mental make ups. Both the distribution and functionality of these dynamic “leans” can be closely related or widely separated, athletically it isn’t the actual degree of either that matters, it is how it is being translated through the body. It isn’t a given that a fillies’ GHD is higher functioning than a colt or that the colts IHD is more functional than a filly, what is a given is that one or both aspects can be an asset or an antagonist to the competitive attitude.
There will be dominating characteristics within this kaleidoscope view and your attention must be on how they are being expressed. The collection of information will offer up prevailing tendencies and traits as well as characteristics that play a lesser role in the individuals’ competitive nature. Recognizing and understanding these markers within the behavioral genetic sequence affords you deeper understanding and recognition of the individual’s herd dynamic.
HD Nicking Applications; Scouting Talent
Scouting talent is the art of envisioning potential where it has yet to manifest. Aside from horses already on the track where you have some information of “what” they’re doing and you’re profiling to learn “who” they are, the evaluation of weanlings, yearlings and two-year old’s in training is the process of determining “who” they are that you can postulate “what” they’re likely able to do. Your best advantage in this effort is to establish who is going to be driving the race car.
There is no specific herd dynamic “type” that makes a horse a competitive athlete, for there are all sorts of variations and herd dynamic combinations, however there are key markers that consistently align with competitive edge. Looking for these innate markers in behavior is the first step in scouting potential. Where it is true that the younger the horse being evaluated the less defined and refined are the key markers, it is also true that the base value of them are present. The psychological foundation, those prevailing traits imparted, are accessible and yes most certainly “prepping” has its influence, however you can only paint upon the canvas that is present. The evaluation process is one of peeling back the layers in an effort to bring clarity to the idiosyncrasies of that canvas.
Once we have established there are key markers evident, and the horse passes the physical requirements, the next phase of the evaluation process begins. There are many horses that have elements of athleticism that never see them come to fruition and many reasons play a part in this. It simply isn’t enough to have the key markers, they must be consistent, distributed properly and compliment the physical horse, to be useful. A discombobulated assortment of ingredients is as meaningless as are a few key elements of greatness comingled with a variety of below average ones. Fools gold sweeps away the dreamer more often than not.
Digging into the behavioral genetic sequence whenever possible is an important step toward discovering who the horse is; HD Nicking in this manner helps to understand not only through whom the prevailing characteristics come from but how dominating traits are likely to be distributed during times of competitive stress. Again, these may be in the form of GHD or IHD propensities and thus their representation, though predominant, can very well be different in the colt or filly on your short-list. For example, a dominant trait in the broodmare and/or stallion can manifest quite differently between colts and fillies, not to mention how it is represented from body-type to body-type. The distribution of emotional energy plays a significant role in things such as mental and physical fatigue, trainability and duration of focus.
Part of HD Nicking is establishing the relative rate of psychological cycles or “spin” through GHD and IHD aspects and its compatibility with the prospect you’re scouting. What “spin cycle” means to us at THT is a terminology which is indicative of the internal rhythms of the horse. Each individual personality has an internal rhythm to their behavioral genetic; “this is a hot horse” is a common phrase for example. This rhythm itself does not determine ability but it does determine the duration of that ability via its efficacy. Clues of which are found throughout the HD Nicking process. This matters a great deal in the investigative equation because if an athlete’s internal clock runs out before physical fatigue, your prospect is more physically athletic than he/she is a psychological athlete. You need to know this before you invest that not only your goals are realistic but that your horse enters a program that is compatible.
How any horse communicates with their environment matters, and you absolutely cannot underestimate the crucial role that environment plays in the developmental process. Among the most important factors in gathering information throughout lineage when available is within the environmental aspect; were the horses moving in the environment or were they moving through it? This is the space between a herd horse and a competitive horse athlete.
The process of identifying a horses HD Nick that is already on the track is the same with the added caveat that you have additional information provided by their performance(s). There is a great deal of valuable information that can be applied in isolating hidden, yet to be revealed ability where it exists. Finding claims or scooping up the athlete at a HORA sale can be a very savvy investment strategy as part of the overall vision of the stable. Both the individuals’ herd dynamic and their HD Nick can help reveal untapped potential; the value in these horses is not in what they have done, it is within what they may be able to do.
The tradeoff is, wherever there is more information available there can be more risk. Whether horses on the track or horses at a two-year old in training sale, where you get to see how they move and/or are competing, and you have additional information to add to their profile about stress management and the like, you also have to be mindful to consider any possible wear and tear. Not all horses mentally or physically mature at the same rate nor do these two aspects mature at the same time.
HD Nicking Applications; Breeding
I’ve always felt that perhaps the most underutilized area of herd dynamic profiling and HD Nicking in general, is when it comes to matings. Most certainly there is valuable information to be considered in pedigree research and body-type, but the fact remains that the psychological pedigree should be of equally strong, if not the spearhead, of the decision-making process. Behavioral characteristics are more than just an anecdotal side effect; herd dynamic stamping carries a higher degree of amassed influence over potential than does physical talent alone.
Whether you have a stallion and you’re considering a mare, or you have a mare and you’re considering the best stallion, detailing the behavioral genetics so they have a chance to fit and not be antagonistic to one another is as vital to outcome as any focus on specific body typing. HD Nicking of the male and female families through the lens of GHD & IHD aspects allows you to note behavioral stamping, how dominant traits are being consistently expressed and goes a long way in identifying compatible ingredients. In order to avoid diluting your chances in an already uphill battle, you have to be sure you’re mating has been selected in such a manner that you’re avoiding a weakening of the horse. A strong body with a troubled mind affords but little hope.
There are many things to look at when it comes to working through the assemblage of psychological factors, and here again it is paramount to remember that you’re breeding who the horses are, not what they have done. Breeding horses would be quite simpler if all there were in the equation was the physical horse and their performance records, but “how” carries over, creating a disclaimer. Horses don’t go to the shed with blinkers and shadow rolls for example, but the reasons they required them (or not), do; psychological soundness should be high on the list of your breeding goals.
Mental stamping happens independently of physical stamping, and the reason some seem to produce better fillies than colts for example, is in the way the stamping of dominate traits are expressed in the GHD/IHD ratio. Things such as sensory soundness, the ability to manage stress, areas of herd dependency and so on, should always be represented in the process. The herd dynamic puzzle has many pieces available from the behavioral genetic sequences assembled in the room, and where there is no way of knowing exactly which of them will be personified in the horse, you can stack the deck in your favor.
The competitive athlete being comprised of both physical talent and mental ability, it is wise to be mindful that a targeted body type benefits from a compatible psychology; an Indy 500 driver may get pretty bored and restless if he’s driving a tractor. The speed of the psychological spin is not itself indicative of how fast or far a horse can run, it is the efficiency with which the horse is cycling that matters. Rhythm plays a significant role in the distribution of emotional energy as well as the pattern of motion during a race (or while performing if you’re in a sport horse discipline), for it is directly related to how much time-in-motion (duration of competitive activity) a horse has in their internal clock before mental fatigue sets in. This also directly relates to body-type in that a classic distance frame has its best chance of being optimized when the driver has a compatible rhythm. If mental fatigue from things like stress, sensory inefficiencies and herd outsourcing are minimizing the horse’s optimum efficiency zone, (the duration of time-in-motion where ability is optimizing talent) and yet your horse is built for distance, you are dealing with a mismatch that can be very difficult to smooth out. Try as you may to bring the two halves together by tweaking distance or adding or taking away equipment, you’re working against nature thus finding consistency is always a struggle. I will add here, that your best chance to find common ground and bring the two halves closer together is found within imaginative coaching.
The importance of working toward breeding psychological soundness cannot be overstated, for the emotionally driven horse athlete this is the foundation from which a race horse is built. Sustained competitive edge becomes even more elusive without an infrastructure; what we refer to as “grit” and “heart”, are not references to the physical horse. It does you little good if the horse cannot mentally handle the rigors and demands along the way. How many horses with great pages and really nice physicals find themselves not up to the emotional demands of the careers chosen for them? I’ve always believed that if we want to breed strong and competitive athletes and not just runway models, behavioral genetics must spearhead that effort. The value found in any horse is within their ability to optimize talent.
Closing Thoughts; Thinking Forward
I’ve always viewed the strengthening of the athlete in two collaborative ways, enrichening the emotional while developing the physical. Whether you’re Nicking with the Herd Dynamics or trying to assemble the ideal physical horse, addressing and minimizing areas of stress should be a focus point. From a behavioral genetic and Nicking view, sifting through the ingredients and culling out areas of emotional weakness and dependency is addition by subtraction.
There is no way to erase what Mother Nature has written. The horse is a herd animal, and where they are athletic by nature, we are asking them to perform and compete and live a lifestyle they were not specifically designed for; in nature the athleticism of the horse is what allows them to maneuver swiftly through the uncertainty of environment when needed. Their adaptive qualities assist them in the transition and they adjust and even thrive, but the inherent instincts are yet prevalent. The herd animal who spends the majority of their time isolated from herd structure, is prone to feeling emotional stresses they would otherwise never feel, and display behaviors that can make them seem recalcitrant, defensive, withdrawn, hard to handle, difficult to train. Emotional health supersedes physical performance, and that can only be understood through their herd dynamic and accurately addressed through their behavioral genetics.
You can’t properly train unless you can properly coach, for the optimization of physical talent is dependent upon the psychological athlete and that which can detract, can also add. The horse’s behavioral patterns, tendencies and traits can be and should be cultivated as a powerful ally. Instead of working against these character traits, embrace them, for they’re not going anywhere, you can’t erase them and to try to cover them up or minimize their exposure is in my opinion, counter-productive.
I have always felt that the more things I’m “protected” from, the weaker I become, mental and physical preparation for a task should supersede (obviously within reason) what is likely to be required to complete the task. In this way, you are properly rehearsed for the unexpected situational chaos the environment may throw at you. Common sense safeguards absolutely, but bubble wrapping a football player, for example, in minimized (not too tough now) contact or too hard a practice (goodbye two-a-days, don’t yell at me it’s not fair) while trying to prepare for a sport that demands mental and physical toughness, lends itself to both underperforming and injury when the rubber meets the road. How quick or fast the athlete is having far more to offer the competitor when they are built upon a foundation of stamina.
I’ve always personally believed that focusing only on “putting speed into the horse” can be reckless without endurance which is essential to sustain it safely, mentally and physically. Taking time to build tolerance, strengthening the horse long before you worry about speed, allows you the opportunity to layer sustainability to that speed when the time comes and by proxy assists in lowering the risk that mental burnout and/or physical immaturity abbreviates the lifespan of the athlete.
The discipline of sport, in order to be advanced, should embrace two main things; exercise science and instinctive coaching. The way I see it the science of exercise is the combination of mental and physical athletics, coaching & training; and although exercise science for humans is many years of study ahead, equine exercise science and its value shouldn’t be underappreciated, it should be advanced. Correctly applied, mental aptitude nurtured forward lays the groundwork for the physical athlete to train into. Preparation requires attention to detail and the patience to see it through in a time frame adaptive to the nature of the athlete; the tempo of any successful program moves to the rhythms of the athletes they’re coaching.
Elite competitors, mentally tough and physically sound, are not manufactured, they are painstakingly nurtured and developed; allowed to be horses, asked to be athletes.
|Posted on August 11, 2020 at 7:25 AM|
Handicapping with the Herd Dynamics
Kerry M Thomas
Ever since I turned my passion for horse racing and the study of how the psychological athlete impacts physical performance, I started getting asked about handicapping races. There is an absolute correlation between scouting herd dynamic characteristics, the depth of their athletic psychology as prospects, and scouting the same in the horses in the starting gate as you plan your plays as a handicapper. The irony for me has always been, I don’t gamble, I’ve never handicapped a race for the purpose of placing a financial wager; I leave that to THT Bloodstock business partner Pete Denk who is quite skilled in this department. The fact that I don’t bet is just a personal choice, I am certainly not opposed to it and totally understand the thrill of it, yet I have been to Vegas on more than a few occasions and never once had the urge to drop a buck on a table or throw a quarter into a slot machine.
That said, in truth we do utilize herd dynamic profiling and patterns of motion analysis to “handicap” perhaps the biggest race of the year and we have done so now for 9 years, 2020 marking our 10th Kentucky Derby. Though I may not slide my dollars across the ticket window, the very difficult task of developing a herd dynamic hierarchy and an “order of finish” based upon it, is indeed handicapping with the herd dynamics. The manner in which we do it, the process and the consideration of many variables such as combining physical data cross-checked with what we’re seeing and more importantly what we’re feeling, is for me keystone information I would use every time I wanted to make an investment toward outcome.
There are a multitude of factors to consider and seemingly innumerable hard-data access points; “hard data” without a doubt has its place, but I have always believed that too many numbers on paper clutters natural feel and instinct. You can overanalyze and out-think yourself. I don’t fuss too much over the herd dynamic hierarchy order of the Kentucky Derby field once we’ve done all of our work to compare horse to horse and horse to environment. When our evaluations are complete, I trust in how it feels and let instinct take the wheel. Horses are not machines nor data points; they are emotionally driven athletes guided by instinct. Numbers can be important collateral information but ultimately, I put more trust in what it is I see and feel about each horse.
From a herd dynamic standpoint, handicapping a field of horses like those in the Kentucky Derby short-lists down to tiers of probability. I always ask myself where would a given horse be likely to consistently finish amongst his or her peer group if they raced ten times. After considering all of the information and comparing herd dynamic strengths and weaknesses, it often comes down to tendencies and how they’re prone to playing out.
In truth, we aren’t handicapping the race, we are handicapping the individual horses in it. In order to truly get a feel for the entire field, you have to compartmentalize the study of the participants. Gaining an understanding of the horse both mentally and physically helps to better understand how they’re likely to perform in certain conditions, against certain company, and within certain environments. I’m of the opinion that in order to strategically increase your chances of success, it’s better to determine how the herd dynamics of the horse fit the race, than to try and fit the horse into the conditions of a race.
Over many years of study, I’ve learned there are a great number of pieces to the herd dynamic puzzle, and rest assured we’re still learning new things that continue to drive my passion. The search for an “edge” is ever-present and it is my hope that in writing this paper I’m able to share with you some of the fascinating characteristics of herd dynamics. There are hidden opportunities to be found within the horses’ psyche; herd dynamics are a valuable tool when filtering out the weak and dependent from the confident and capable.
Versatility; Bet on It
Versatility of and in itself is reliant upon the culmination of several herd dynamic traits, diversity of layers coming together for a singular result.
I always feel that one of the best ways to help offset risk is for our clients to consider a diversified investment strategy, and the same is also true with handicapping regarding the information you’re collecting. Don’t let the numbers guide you to the horse, let the horse guide you to their numbers; it isn’t what was done but rather how it was done, that matters.
Because a race can be filled with everything from a great deal of situational chaos to completely smooth sailing, and everything in between, psychological versatility should be among the essential criteria you require in the horse(s) you’re playing. Never forget that it is the operating system that is running the machine, and the more psychological versatility the better.
The mentally versatile athlete has the ability to seamlessly adjust on the move, both adapt to and recover from sudden environmental changes and herd motion disruptions, and recover their mental momentum. These horses rarely lose their mental focus and forward reach even when they have to physically alter pace or position. Regardless of how many horses you’re betting on or using in a race, unless a first-time starter, paying attention to how they adapted and to what in any previous performances, will help you get a feel for how they will assimilate going forward. This is an important factor at every point in the race from gate position, track conditions, right down to the running styles of the competition.
The natural ability to accommodate situational chaos minimizes the risk that your horse will succumb to it in such a manner that they are unable to recover quick enough and lose too much ground, or not recover at all and fold their cards. Adaption on the move can be spotted in many scenarios. If the horse gets bumped what is the reaction, if the horse gets squeezed does it matter, can they finish from off the pace or hold on to forward space when pressed, slip through an opening or hug the rail?
Identifying herd dynamic versality in your athlete is especially telling when horses are shipping to new environments and/or facing next level of competition. You want to be as sure as you can that the environment itself will not be an antagonist to performance; the environment plays a major role and should never be overlooked as part of the equation.
My late father was a very good pitcher and when we were growing up and playing ball, he would always tell us to keep “our heads dishrag loose and you will adjust on the fly”; a supple mind translates to a supple body. If you’re playing horses that are rigid mentally and only run great if “the race shapes up right”, you’re taking on additional risk.
Identifying Stress; Expressions & Body Language
Stress, it is an unavoidable experience for any sentient being and can play a significant role in the ability to perform. Stress on its own isn’t always antagonistic to performance, how stress is mentally filtered and physically expressed however, quite often is. Part of the handicapping process is in trying to determine if the stresses incurred are interfering with performance or in fact are even true expressions of stress in the first place; stress can be an exaggeration of body language, a random knee-jerk reaction, or its presence camouflaged by a shut down of any expressions whatsoever.
There are few things more misleading in the dialogue of horses than the assumptions that come with their body language. Like any language, the inflection of it tells you far more about what is being said and about the horse (or human) than does the vehicle of articulation. I have always made a distinction between expression and body language; expression being a result of unprocessed stress and body language a purposeful communication of personality. Expression is generally random, where body language is far more consistent; either may, but do not automatically interfere, with athletic performance. Knowing the difference can give you great advantage in your horse selection strategy.
Any opportunity to study horses for consistencies in their behavior patterns is time well spent and will help you see the athlete with added clarity. Not all stress is created equally, and thus not every expression of it directly interferes with performance; it is possible for an anxious and lathered horse to go on and run their eyeballs out. What falls in the range of “normal” can be very different horse to horse; there are horses with what we refer to as fast spinning mental cycles and there are some with slower, more methodical rhythms. Stress will affect each horse differently and the time it takes to filter it matters a great deal, you have to balance how long it takes before building stress is filtered with how much time (distance) is going to be required to finish the task at hand.
The fact of the matter is, any stress gnaws away at the depth of emotional energy and therefore your betting angle on using a stress-prone horse should always be hinged upon the distance. Don’t worry about the competition until you determine if the horse is going to have energy enough to competitively complete the task in the first place. If you think they will, then consider the competition, keeping in mind that stronger herd dynamics may be in the mix meaning your horse will ultimately be more reliant on their physical talent than their mental ability.
Think of distance not in furlongs but in duration; psychological time in competitive motion and not physical distance, is the enemy of emotionally stressed horses.
Where to look for signs of stress? The first obvious place is pre-race but it is far from the only place. In fact, you’re more likely to see a combination of purposeful body language and expressions of stress in pre-race activity in the majority of horses, potentially clouding your interpretations of what you’re seeing.
Body language is resultant of temperament, traits and tendencies of character and this aspect can tell you a lot about the horse as a “horse”, though by its nature will shed but little light on actual performance ability against horses of similar demeanor. Because herd dynamic strength and physical talent merge in competition, the higher HD doesn’t always finish physically first.
I remember being in California and watching Zenyatta paw at the ground, it was really cool body language that by itself neither enhanced nor inhibited her performance on the track. It was a window into her herd dynamic confidence and these things are absolutely communicated to other horses; however, the subsequent effect on their performances is incumbent upon the respective herd dynamics in the field. The point is, don’t get so focused on one horse you fail to spot potential rivals that may carry themselves differently. Your clue is in watching for the ripple effect, peers who either react to or absorb incoming stimulus. Confident absorbers always being a notch above.
All things considered, consistent and purposeful body language is a tell-tale clue of “who” the horse is yes, but during competition “body language” is replaced by body movement, and the potential opening of a doorway for expressions of stress.
For the horse athlete those stresses that are expressed within the body of competition is what we call “competitive stress” and though this can mingle with body language pre-race, it’s in the gate and the moment the gate opens that clues you in on how much stress had built up. Gate stress can make the horse mentally rigid and “tight”, as if ready to burst, they may stand as if stuck to the ground or be as fidgety as a child in anticipation; coming out of the gate is often more “falling” out of the gate or drifting left or right before finding their feet.
The body of the race also affords ample opportunity to study if residual stress is harnessing ability or if sudden changes in motion are causing anxiety. If competitive stress is compromising the horse in motion, they will withdraw their hand from the fire, mentally they will not extend thus compromising their mental to physical efficiency. Physically this is expressed in horses that shorten their stride and seem to be more up-n-down than reaching out; psychological extension allows the horse to physically extend.
The gallop-out is also a key place to observe any lingering or ongoing filtering of stress though can be a bit tricky to identify because as the horse slows, their expressions begin once again to mingle with body language. Be sure to note the signs of their emotional energy at this time. Is it being distributed evenly and still plentiful? Is there an even and controlled deceleration or has the mind checked out whilst the body is still easing out of momentum? The separation of mind and body results in the loss of fluid, purposeful motion.
The depth of mental stamina is a key. An individual’s ability to compete at any distance is determined by their mental stamina. It is not impossible or even uncommon for a horse to “win” a race but lose the herd dynamic battle, having gotten mentally banged up so to speak. This may well affect the horse next time out and helps you measure whether they have more distance and tougher competition in them, or has a plateau been reached?
What is “sensory soundness”? In its simplest form it is the ability to detect and interpret multiple stimulus without herd dependency. For the horse athlete, sensory soundness also relates to the ratio between interpretation and rate of motion. In order for a horse to move freely through space or stay calm in surrounding chaos, they need to identify and interpret stimulus at minimum two times faster than the relative rate of motion. The faster the sensory processing the better for the athlete.
The sensory system is the fabric that binds the psychology with the environment and ranks among the most influential parts of the equine athlete. For the race horse, his or her radar system acts as the “lead-blocker” clearing the way as they move through space, is the alarm bell when another horse is approaching from the rear, and provides a sense of space awareness in jumbled herd motion.
The senses are as important to herd dynamic fluency as physical soundness is to physical fluency. Navigation of and through environmental changes, the execution of sudden “asks” by the jockey, the ability to react purposefully, all hinges upon the sensory soundness of the horse. The degree of sensory soundness, (fluency), is based upon the speed and efficiency with which the horse can interpret the environmental stimulus, which governs body control and pace; fluency of sequence is what allows the horse to move through space and not just move in space.
Identifying the degree of sensory soundness is an essential factor to consider in any athlete. There are a great many nuances within it to look for throughout the body of a race, any inefficiencies that can derail total performance even situationally, should be weighed strongly. The biggest of differences can come in the smallest of ingredients.
The most obvious thing you will note that there “may” be something amiss with a horse’s sensory efficiency is the application of equipment. I say “may” because the use of equipment to “keep the horse focused” on their task isn’t always warranted by the horse as much as it is a comfort tool for the trainer. Don’t assume automatically that a horse with equipment has troubles with interpretation without taking the time to study past performances whenever possible. The use of equipment, especially blinkers, can do a number of things to a horse’s basic sensory rhythms. Whether positive or negative, emotional energy is being condensed and this changes the way a horse distributes that emotional energy. Determining if the equipment is shortening or lengthening the psychology of the athlete is your primary concern. Any negative disruptions in the natural distribution of emotional energy and/or the fluency of the sensory system will result in delayed responses, or “drag.”
Drag may or may not be a serious issue depending on where it is stemming from. If you have a front runner by nature that shows drag in the rear aspect, and you have a stalker that likes to pounce and is very efficient and fluent into forward space, the lead horse can be compromised. However, if the drag is in the rear aspect of an off the pace competitor, you have more levity to work with. Determining if drag is or isn’t going to be a major issue in a race would be an easier read if the horse only had one transitional sensory aspect, but there are six.
These connective sensory aspects are, binocular forward, monocular left side right side, right and left oblique eye to ear transition, and rear feel. (The sense of smell being non-transitional, doesn’t share its information, though it can provide both initial and secondary/supportive intelligence.)
Horses have very keen sensory ability in all ways and the upper level herd dynamic horses have the natural capacity to manage multiple stimulus effortlessly. Their ability to transfer stimuli from sensory aspect to sensory aspect without any hesitation between them, sets them apart. The transfer of stimulus in this manner is a sensory lead change, and it is essential in order for a horse to navigate herd chaos effectively, independently and without compromising physical pace. Where drag or hesitation antagonizes talent, and lends itself to a horse requiring herd assistance during chaos, smooth sensory lead changes, (which are essential to physical lead changes), promotes herd independence.
Nothing is more demoralizing than having your horse “hang” and hand over the wire. Studying the horse and taking note of the strengths and weaknesses in their individual sensory fields will help you avoid things such as betting on that front runner that has no clue what’s behind him, inviting the stalker to pounce.
Stress and versatility are also closely related to and dependent upon sensory efficiency, so it pays to have keen observations. The cohesive nature of the herd dynamic translates to a horse’s patterns in motion.
Patterns of Motion
As mentioned in the introduction, the 2020 Kentucky Derby will mark for us at THT Bloodstock our 10th year of analyzing the field and developing our herd dynamic Patterns of Motion report, (archived on our website), which is the culmination of countless hours of studying individual patterns “in” motion.
To understand and strategically access the information revealed in both the patterns of and the patterns in motion we have to consider them for what they are. Patterns in motion are relative to the individual horse’s unique running style when left to their own devices, in other words, what comes naturally without outside influences. Patterns of motion are individual running styles adjusted or adjusting one to another; two or more horses hooking up over a period of time in motion can often cruise along together, each one nearly matching the rhythms of the other, however the movement is dictated by the dominant herd dynamic. When one horse “buddy’s-up” with another in this manner, they’ve essentially formed their own independent herd motion.
Depending on field size and distance etc., there can be more than a mini-herd or two linked up and the horses you want to key on are those who have consistently shown that they cut the cord first. These horses have the ability to hit what we term a psychological cruising gear, conserving their emotional energy while covering ground in company then seamlessly freeing themselves, hitting another gear. This is often a herd dynamic strength that develops over time and you can often see this emerging in a horse from race to race as seasoning and experience arm them with the ability to anticipate the motion of lesser peers. Identify these emergent properties of style and you put a useful key in your handicapping pocket.
Any given horse’s running style is an extension of their psychological slant, IHD or GHD, and where both of these can be athletically effective, it pays to know the propensity of the horse you’re betting. IHD & GHD behavioral genetics are comprised of many parts. In short, the horse with a lean toward the Individual Herd Dynamic is the horse whose competitive nature feeds off singular stimuli as primary and multiple stimuli as supportive information. Group Herd Dynamic horses feed their competitive nature through multiple stimulus and use that to build mental momentum and balance when asked or required to focus on tasks or targets. IHD & GHD horses can run effectively in various positions; there are GHD front runners and IHD stalkers as often as there are the opposite.
Don’t let a horse’s herd positioning be your only guide to their strength or style, what you see isn’t always what you get. You could find yourself betting the wrong style at the wrong track in the wrong company; it must always be remembered that physical position doesn’t necessarily correlate to herd dynamic strength.
The idiosyncrasies of IHD & GHD slanted horses is important betting information from the environmental standpoint. A tracks design, weather and surface conditions, one turn mile or sprint, tight turns or not, field size and so on, all share their favors respectively. Group Herd Dynamic horses as a general rule of thumb often do well with more time in motion to build into their competitive nature, this can be in the form of more distance or slower pace, or even lesser herd dynamic peers who have slower psychological rhythms. Individual Herd Dynamic horses by their nature, require less time in motion to funnel their competitive edge and tend to comfortably focus on one point for extended periods of time. Every horse has elements of both GHD & IHD in their behavioral genetics, and this mixing of ingredients are represented in their dominant slant of expression.
Each style slant can be as athletic and as powerful as the other on an individual basis, but needs to be taken into context and compared with environmental conditions as well as their herd peers when being used for handicapping.
Whether you’re keying IHD or GHD prone athletes, you have to be sure that the horse’s physical talent is able to support it. Does the GHD horse have enough physical stamina to realize their advantage? Does the IHD horse have the turn of foot to sustain their advantage? Regardless of IHD or GHD, the sweet zone of any horse is when their physical talent supports their mental ability and perhaps there is no more important question to ask than, does the horse have grit?
In the bigger picture, how the athlete does what they do can be more important than what they did, in other words, it’s not always where they finish but how they handled adversity within the body of the race. Your primary tool for scouting horses to key on should be the eye test, forget the order of finish long enough to focus on the race and you may well find hidden instances of true grit. There is no better asset to build upon than natural determination; key on that and you’ve taken a big step toward cashing your ticket. There are many questions you can ask, and when you’re laying down your money it pays to ask many.
Closing Thoughts; Horses & Handicapping
I’ve always felt that if the data associated with the horse represents their science, the herd dynamic represents their artistry. The artistry that defines the horse is the magic that makes the show possible, and from a handicapping perspective offers those inclined to study it, an edge. The numbers are most certainly useful and important tools of information and help tell you what the horse has done, but only the horse can tell you who they are. The herd dynamics bring life to those numbers.
It’s not about trying to win, everyone is trying to win whether you’re handicapping a race or we’re evaluating horses at auction, it’s about using every piece of available information you can to minimize risk; herd dynamics is at the leading edge of that strategy. Being physically able and mentally capable are two separate things, and the difference lay between the ears. Talent without execution is meaningless in the grips of competition, and it is within the horse’s herd dynamic that the true nature of the athlete is found. You increase your opportunity for success when you unclutter the field of prospects by culling out the weaker minded athletes. Horses by nature seek to align themselves in hierarchy, the herd dynamic is your window in to their world.
My view of herd dynamic profiling is that it is the blending of art and science. When you study things such as versatility, ability to manage stress, the efficiency of their sensory system, ability to adapt and so on, you’re gaining an understanding of the athlete far and above what the data alone can tell.
My bottom-line advice; may the horses you bet always have the mental fortitude to outrun physical fatigue.
Yet herd dynamics runs much deeper than that. Where herd dynamics brings the numbers to life, they also can breathe life into the industry, for the horses themselves are the greatest ambassadors we have. The horse has a story to tell, and we should let them tell it.
I have received many emails and notes over the years from folks who have never picked up a form or studied a race card, but have found themselves fascinated and immersed in reading our derby horse evaluations. I am of course proud of the horses we have identified, but I am most proud of the fact that herd dynamics has introduced a wide variety of animal lovers to the racehorse in a new way and thus their view of racing was seen from a different light. Sharing an understanding of the inherent athletic nature of the horse can go far in enhancing the industry.
The horses are our true industry representatives and I’m sure there are far more horse lovers than racing fans and handicappers and though I’ve never been asked for my opinion, I believe we can we reach them. I love racing, I know from having dedicated a large portion of my life to researching and studying herd dynamics that horses love to run and competing is a natural part of their lives. It is true that not every horse has the psychology to be a high-level athlete, but it is also true that horses are naturally athletic. Making information available on what herd dynamics are and how they work is important to me, because it is through education that appreciation comes, and my goal is to continue to showcase the artistry of the horse and the inherent nature of their athleticism.
If you or perhaps anyone you know may be interested in learning more details about the topics touched upon in this opinion piece, please enjoy the articles archived here on the blog, and learn about us and our services here on the website.
|Posted on July 9, 2020 at 11:10 AM|
Nurture the Horse, Develop the Athlete
Kerry M Thomas
Communication is King
To Nurture is to Equip
When you nurture the horse, you’re developing the athlete. It’s a statement I use all the time to describe from a herd dynamic point of reference what I feel is the best approach for blending together ultimate ability with ultimate talent. In essence it is an appreciation for and an understanding of the two parts that make up the horse; the psychological and the physical. As emotional athletes, horses are often a reflection of their environment which begs for both coaching as well as training; you coach the mind, you train the body.
Further up stream this is no less important a consideration. Prospects at the sale or on the farm being scouted for potential should have, as part of that evaluation process, their “mind-set” be a large portion of the decision-making process. The bottom line is, obvious physical talent is only as useful as the innate ability to get the advantage of it. The question that must be asked is, how likely are both the physical and mental parts of the horse to evolve athletically, allowing full potential to be realized? The operating system conducts the machine if you will, and that controlled space between mind and body where talent meets ability, is where “potential” is found.
Understanding the horses’ herd dynamic makeup and paying close attention to its progression and its needs for progressing athletically, will by proxy make developing the physical horse more efficient. A mentally prepared athlete completes physical tasks with more ease and thus benefit, than one that is ill prepared. When the mind is ahead of the body the athletic horse becomes an athlete, and the very best way to ensure this has a chance to happen is to always be mindful that you’re coaching and nurturing the horses’ psyche for its eventual merger in performance or competition with their physical talent. The most productive way to have athletes in your program capable of this eventual merger is by compartmentalizing the evaluation process into those individual parts which make them whole.
The environment any horse is in will have an influence on the nurturing process, but especially that of the young athlete. We have to keep in mind that as the adaptive-horse absorbs and reflects their circumstances, we as humans equally reflect who we are into the environment; the emotional terrain the horse is in is just as important to their evolution as is the physical environment created. The horse psychology is both mirror and sponge; everything the horse has experienced, is experiencing, and will experience, affects the manner in which they express themselves.
The ground floor of everything the horse is and will become runs through the basic instinct; basic instinct is not a physical act but rather an action of emotion. This action follows the core laws of nature and though we remove the physical horse from their natural environment, we are not segregating the functionality of the basic instinct away from its nature, we’re asking it to fit into, a new, domesticated climate. In order to capitalize on raw instincts and how they dictate tendencies and reactions, we have to nurture them along. This process is keyed within the associative aspect of basic instinct which itself is subject to the efficiency of the various compartments of the herd dynamic.
To optimize athleticism or have the potential to do so the horse has to, independently, have at minimum a 2/1 ratio between environmental interpretation and reaction in order to physically move through space freely, fluently and uncompromised. What this means in essence is that the horse can identify and interpret the environment 2 times faster than they are physically moving. Depending on a discipline’s requirements, ideally, you’d like to have the base athlete ratio be at 3/1 or 4/1; increased physical acceleration requires increased psychological speed in order to clear the space. It’s important to keep in mind that the closer the ratio the more opportunity there is for “drag” between sensory recognition and physical reaction. The delay between “ask & do” increases in likelihood when duration and or speed is required and from any incurred emotional stress.
When we’re scouting talent for clients, one of the primary notes we make is M/B or B/M; what this means to us is either the horse is clearing space smoothly before and or while moving through it, or they are not. Mind ahead of Body or Body ahead of Mind. If you do not have independence before you, you have dependency and you’re going to run into a lot of frustration trying to nurture a dependent laden psyche to become its opposite. Talent is the expression of a capable mind; purposeful movement by nature can be coached through the horse, reactive motion dictated by the environment, can only be managed environmentally.
It is essential to coach through the basic instinct of a horse in order to nurture them forward and not be antagonistic to it; the basic instinct is the chalkboard upon which lessons are written and learned. A moving body operated by a sedentary mind does not a competitor make.
Nurturing the horse with the core ability to interpret their world effectively is done through the associative aspect, this is how they learn and begin to knit together their experiences with the fabric of who they are. Augmenting existing ratio efficiency is done by creating what amount to exercises in interpretation of environmental stimuli. The goal is to sharpen the ability of interpretational skills to make them faster and nurture versatility of mind by the layering of associative stimuli; i.e., stimulus that is associated with but not directly related to the completion of a physical task. Horses are what I call “linear-learners”, which to me represents the basic nature of the anticipatory response mechanism and its symbiotic function with adaptability- (associative).
From the moment a horse is born he or she begins to take in the world one singular experience at a time like a dotted line: - - - -, each dash representing an experience. Individual experiences begin to get knitted together by what is associated with them represented by the underscore: -_-_-_-, task then is equal to experience or dash mark, and you coach by nurturing the associations that are connected to it, the underscore. By compartmentalizing the accumulation of the tasks required to achieve a goal you’re able to at once knit together commonly encountered experiences to increase ratio and expand psychological versatility for uncommonly encountered experiences, while creating various stimuli that remains associated with the task. When you have layered the desired associations of task or goal, the horses’ basic instinct has been stimulated to anticipate and respond which both speeds up the psychology as well as expands its versatility; you have nurtured the horse.
Enhancing the horses speed ratio helps them become more efficient and psychologically versatile, but isn’t the only part of the psyche that should be considered. Another key factor to athleticism is mental stamina and it should never be overlooked or underappreciated. The fact that a horse can do something fast and efficient is only as useful athletically as their ability to sustain. Speed, efficiency of ratio and duration of focus, i.e. mental stamina, though closely related, do not always work hand-in-hand; having one does not automatically mean you have the other. Many horses can do many things well but only for a certain amount of time, some horses can do one thing well for a very long time. To be able to perform and compete at the highest levels, you’re looking for or seeking to cultivate the herd dynamic that is high functioning over protracted periods of time.
In order to be proportionately distributed in competition, mental stamina needs to be exercised uniformly; proper distribution is a tremendous compliment to the athlete with natural determination. Where neither mental stamina nor “grit” can be manufactured, emotional energy distribution can be exercised and improved upon, further sustaining inherent competitive edge.
Mental fatigue is an enemy of athleticism. Nurturing a horse’s mental stamina is a process of extending the duration of focus by coaching the horse in a manner that requires or asks them to maintain a concentrated psychological rhythm. Long slow time-in-motion curriculums I have always been a fan of, regardless of the discipline, for their naturally occurring side effect of extending mental stamina. The only way to nurture mental stamina is to challenge it with achievable goals that inch the horse mentally forward; it is not about the time the body is moving but rather the time the psyche is concentrated. The long slow “work” for example, without a target or moving targets, becomes mentally mundane and more just a physical activity, yet with targets and challenges intermingled it suddenly becomes a strong mental exercise. Stimulus that the horse has to move toward over a period of time, or stimulus that is itself moving within the horse’s sphere over a period of time, is an example of protracting focus. The layered additions of multiple stimuli over the course of these exercises helps to develop a mental stimulus program that affords great benefits on multiple levels of the herd dynamic.
Extended time-in-motion work isn’t the only exercise that can be designed to help condition mental stamina, obstacles such as health and location that inhibit protracted time-in-motion call for creative curriculum. If the horse or environment has limitations and you cannot bring the horse to the classroom, you bring the classroom to the horse. Circumstances peculiar to limited space or ability such as when convalescing etc., and the horse is unable to do much exercising physically, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise their minds and continue to sharpen their senses and interpretations or protract and nurture their mental stamina.
Mental enrichment is the area of coaching that can help take average talent to better than average results, an “overachiever” is the athlete mentally prepared to get the advantage of their competitors’ weaknesses. The well-groomed athlete maintains environmental awareness, is able to anticipate situational chaos, respond to it in a controlled, purposeful manner and not be subject to it. Task and duration must pragmatically align with talent and ability every step of the way in order to nurture the horse forward, if not, you’re working against basic instinct.
Communication is King
To truly communicate you have to connect emotionally, and where you can communicate, you can achieve.
Communication, perhaps the most influential tool at our fingertips, is one often wielded in a cavalier manner; poor communication can cause tremendous strife where good communication can harmonize. First about listening and second about expressing, communicating is less about words and more about instinctive feel; you won’t find “instinctive feel” in a letter, a word, or an emoji. Emotional communication is communion in its purest form and the currency of life, for you do not need to understand the words of the song, to be moved by its music. It is impossible to effectively nurture nor teach and share, without it.
Horses are steeped with emotional communication skills, they “feel” their way through the environment with more purpose than they “see” or “hear” their way through it. The physical senses act as supporting cast to emotion; response to stimulus is a physical reaction initiated by the psyche, by emotion. Horses communicate with their environment and one another in order to survive and navigate, therefore you must always be mindful that you too are communicating in, out and through that environment just as much as you are directly with the horse. Your emotions set the tone of connection one to one as well as setting the tone in the environment you create; regardless of your message, how that information is delivered affects how that information is received. If you want your pupil to learn, both the classroom and the teacher need emit “agreeable environments”, a good message in an emotionally stressful atmosphere is tainted because of the associative aspect, a poorly delivered message in a comfortable atmosphere is often misinterpreted and less likely to “stick”. The bottom line, there needs to be a compatible relationship in order for it to become a viable one.
I always feel that if you wish to be understood, you must first be understanding. You cannot know the best approach to coaching the individual nor the best delivery of your message without first being able to understand the manner in which your horse (or student for that matter), is communicating with and through their environment. A large part of nurturing the horse forward will take place through their anticipatory responses, making the associative aspect your key to their learning. Taking the time to identify your horse’s reactions and expressions to various stimuli goes a long way in helping you understand them and one of the core aspects of a herd dynamic profile, for this is their emotional communication eliciting reaction. Training helps the horse execute physical response, coaching helps the horse properly interpret the preceding message.
From a communicative standpoint it is essential to understand how the horse is emotionally connecting themselves to the environment they’re in so that you can begin to help them communicate better in areas they need help, and strengthen the areas they are naturally good at. This is coaching 101, good communication skills precede and allow the affective sharing of knowledge and experience.
As the horse grows and is exposed to more and differing environments, their natural seasoning requires that the lesson plan change with it. Physical fitness training is often a collection of similarities and sameness from a certain age onward, however it is often a frustrating mistake to assume you can hit the cruise-control button on their psyche as well. Often amiss, hitting a mental plateau happens, and too often is “remedied” with equipment because of it, further frustrating herd dynamic progress.
While the horse continues to adapt and associate so does their communicated expressions and left stagnant and unchallenged their anticipatory response mechanism, keyed from basic instinct, filters similar stimuli similarly; the reading of intent becoming tone-deaf. What this means is, you have to maintain the introduction of mental challenges to keep your horse sharp, focused, moving forward. Coaching a 2yo’s mind to achieve a goal is rather different than coaching a 5yo’s mind for the same. Though the goal may well be the same indeed, your manner of coaching must adhere and adapt to the changes that happen from emotional growth on a horse to horse basis. The method of communication has to align with the ability to comprehend, (read intent), or the horse will “fall forward” in their own way instead of being coached up to forge ahead.
Another vital consideration are personality markers; behavioral traits and tendencies related to communication play a significant role when considering both coach & athlete. The “type” of communicators involved in any relationship matter; some communicators are out first in second, earnestly expressing themselves prior to making any attempt of absorbing what is communicated to them, and others are absorbers first and expressive second. If you have only expressive first communicators the risk of friction runs high, and the static is always only one “wrong remark” or perceived intention away from a spark. The successful relationship that sees more harmony than abrasion, is equipped with at least one absorbing personality. In horses we find the absorbers to be deeply welled in the Group Herd Dynamic; adept environmental awareness its cornerstone. Communication dynamics are among the reasons some folks do better with “certain types of horses” and some horses respond well to “certain types of folks” or experience noted improvement with the proverbial “change of scenery”.
There are many important reasons to match communicative styles that are not antagonistic to one another when considering what horse to send to what environment, for two sparks can make a fire, so to speak, interrupting the education process. If one gets frustrated with the other, education is stalled. Diversity in horse psychology may well require diversifying where they’re sent and under whose tutelage. Emotionally driven athletes need emotionally sound and sensitive environments befitting them and that communicate well with them in order to flourish. Whatever we as humans bring emotionally with us to the horse is bound to be conveyed to them and affect the dialogue with its accent; the horse feels you first, sees you second.
Words, though used to communicate, rely upon emotion to be communicative, for communication is an art.
To Nurture is to Equip
To nurture and develop takes time and tact, how much of either depends largely on the parties involved and their ability to deliver and comprehend what is shared between them. The nurturing process may not always be the time-friendly option in a hurried, instant gratification, results oriented human world where return on investment is the underwriter of dreams. However, Mother Nature doesn’t beat to our drum or always align with our vision.
To nurture is to assist and streamline how and what the horse is learning through and with their inherent nature, giving the horse the opportunity to become the very best at who they are and not what we or their pedigree or even body type, says they should be. It’s great when what they are aligns with who they are, but we have to allow that this is not always the case and be flexible in adjusting to achievable goals. In those instances where athletes hit psychological plateaus and seem to neither move back nor move forward, it’s time to get very creative in your coaching to see if you can find that edge or discover if you have indeed reached as deep into the athletic psyche as you can. There are times too, after all else has failed, when the application of sensory altering equipment is a viable option. For example, some horses truly excel say with half-cup blinkers and a shadow roll. Used correctly equipment can make the horse more fluent and responsive, used incorrectly equipment will only get in the way, disrupting natural growth patterns and contribute to dependency.
To help or to hinder? I’ve long been of the opinion that equipment should not replace education and coaching because it’s easier and a quick-fix option, and should be reserved for cases where the horses’ sensory system needs tweaking to smooth out interpretational potholes.
Proper use of equipment is using it for what it is designed for, assisting the horse in their sensory aspect prior to stimulus interpretation. If the athlete has a strong herd dynamic, efficient interpretive ability and purposeful motion, yet has a disruptive gap in the sensory system and they struggle with drag during sensory lead changes, equipment can become essential. It can help smooth out or minimize the sensory field, funneling emotional energy properly and enhance the efficiency of environmental interpretations. Equipment can bridge a gap and free the horse, becoming an asset to the nurturing process itself when it has become clear a sensory soundness issue is impeding progress.
Where proper use is an asset to the nurturing process, improper use is its adversary. The application of equipment during a time when the horse is yet in the early stages of psychological growth, when their associative aspect is still evolving through experience, alters anticipatory responses. Instead of learning to associate various changes in the environment with one outcome, which allows the horse to grow their versatility and confidence, this process is abbreviated, dramatically minimizing versatility. When that happens, the young mind is at risk of becoming more dependent on their equipment and less reliant on associative experience, thus less able to manage sudden changes in their environment. One thing sure, a versatile mind is a great asset during the random chaos of high-level competition.
Deciding on when and how to use equipment should always be based upon the herd dynamic profile and a sensory soundness evaluation, and not knee-jerk go-to reaction. There is a fine line between equipping through nurturing, and preparing with equipment; the natural growth process will be aided by the allowance of one and compromised by the application of the other. Ultimately it is always better for the athlete to rely on their own ability to navigate rather than be dependent on something else to navigate for them.
All horses by nature share the same core basic instincts, that said, the individual expressions of them are uniquely singular. Because of this, especially from an athletic point of view, the criteria for which they’re selected to become athletes, and their subsequent preparation, demands that both the mental and physical horse is catered to. Stacking the deck in your favor by recruiting ability & talent into your program to help offset natural attrition is always a good investment strategy.
Advancing the physical athlete can be more clear-cut and even routine compared to evolving the psychological athlete; you can see one in a picture, but you have to feel the other. For sure, developing a physical athlete takes a lot of effort, skill and attention to detail, there is no denying that, and by the same token, nurturing the athletic psychology requires at minimum, equal attention. The nurturing process is instinctive horsemanship where what you feel can be more trustworthy than what you see and you have to be flexible as well as creative to match the needs of enrichment. Avoiding the pitfalls of mundane predictability as best you can along the way helps to maintain an edge, keeps the ratio from becoming stagnant, expands versatility, protracts mental stamina and sustains competitive edge.
You cannot manufacture competitive nature nor mechanize competitive edge, but, with the herd dynamic profile as your guide, you can hone, build upon and maximize inherent ability. It’s a symbiotic relationship; when you nurture the horse, you’re developing the athlete.
|Posted on June 1, 2020 at 10:55 AM|
The Physical Impact of Emotional Stress
Kerry M Thomas
Stress; An Introduction
Athletes; Performance Stress & Competitive Stress
Emotional Stress; The Ultimate Chameleon
Processing Stress; Filters
Processing Stress; Vices
Emotional Stress; Physical Attrition
Closing Thoughts; Driven by Emotion
Stress; An Introduction
Few things in life are more compromising than stress, it is universally experienced, individually managed and presents itself in two basic forms, emotional stress and physical stress. Stresses that are physically emanated, especially those which are more protracted in their recovery time, can negatively affect the psyche. Depending on circumstances, where physical stress is or has been experienced, you can be hopeful that once the physical issue is remedied so is the collateral psychological anxieties that hitched a ride. You don’t get off so easy when the stress is sourced through emotion; physical stress is generally from a singular source causing pain or discomfort, but emotional stress saturates the psychology and is a shadow that can be cast with no light.
When physical stress is the source of emotional anxiety or behavior disruptions, you can expect to see these melt away once the “physical pain or discomfort”, is gone. When emotional stress is the source of physical issues, inefficiencies and even injury, you’re not going to “fix” it by trying to address them from a physical standpoint. You have to put out the fire if you want to get rid of the smoke. In order to have any chance of accomplishing that you have to unravel the onion layers and look for the source; putting a band aid on the result is often an endless stream of frustrations.
In young horses especially, the manner in which emotional stress is physically expressed can be affected by things like environment, time and seasoning, but the fact that it is being physically expressed, is not going to change. This becomes quite an important piece of the evaluation puzzle when considering young prospects for a racing program. The experience of stress cannot be avoided and in fact, in the natural environment, actually plays a significant role as part of the glue that helps bind the herd together. From a natural herd dynamic standpoint what separates an individual within a group is how stress is filtered and processed, which by proxy affects physical expression. These expressions are indicative of the horse’s visibility within the herd structure, which can either put a target upon them or camouflage them from dangerous predators or environments. By the same rules of nature, translated into our “domesticated” structured environment, how stress is filtered and processed determines whether a particular expression is purposeful or reactionary; in the purely athletic version of this, the ability to perform is subject to these interpretations.
If you’re scouting talent in any athlete where a physical reaction to emotional stress can occur, it is wise to determine to the best of your ability the degree of its influence and the manner in which it is being communicated. Some athletes while under duress will be inclined to seek refuge amongst their peers, some will recklessly abandon them altogether becoming obvious targets, and others will nearly be invisible by virtue of their effortless motion; rising above the white noise of environmental confusion allows the horse to become invisible within it. Mother Nature is a clever magician, hiding herd leaders in plain sight.
The understanding of how any species interacts with and is equipped to survive their natural environment is at the core of identifying and developing characteristics of athleticism, in ours. Understanding the parameters of emotional stress offers us a window into how effectual these characteristics can be.
Horses free to live by the rules of their nature are not devoid of the experience of stress, yet there are differences in the way horses cope with stresses that occur naturally as opposed to those that occur unnaturally. In the game of life on the stage of nature, to win means the individual survives, winning means the group is surviving. Horses have by basic instinct a built-in connection with one another, naturally occurring codependency’s specifically suited for individual survival in herd settings helping to manage every part of their lives, stresses included.
There are many differences between horses living collectively in the natural world, and a horse living collectively with us in our domesticated world, chief among these are the variations of emotional stress. Together in nature stress can be shared and filtered by and through other herd members, but when a horse is removed from its herd environment, stress becomes isolated within that individual. The naturally shared processes of managing stress are subsequently forced into an unnatural process of purely self-filtering. The resulting affect this has on the horse is totally dependent on their natural ability to internally process a wide variety of external stimulus which by proxy becomes ground-zero for a horse’s ability to actually perform and/or compete.
Stress collectively experienced by members of a herd has far less influence over an individual than it does when that individual is isolated and alone has to “deal with it”. Emotional distribution aids in keeping the individual safe from injury and from predators regardless of where he/she is on the hierarchy totem pole, redistributing the weight of the sometimes-troublesome interpretational process which could lead to reckless physical expressions that can put a horse in harms way. Harmony through emotional connection is the natural desire of a horse and in varying degrees every horse requires it in order to shrug off the burdens of stress, a very significant aspect of herd life. Not to be injured and not to be seen by a predator requires that the horse has as little individual stress to process, individually, as possible.
When we single out a horse for their apparent physical strengths and abilities, we are equally isolating both their psychological strengths and weaknesses. We must be mindful that when we ask the herd dependent horse to be an individual athlete, what we see in them physically will always be subject to who they are mentally. By disrupting the otherwise natural processes of collective stress management, the seemingly “sound” horse can manifest into something entirely different.
Where the natural process of filtering and managing stress is geared toward safety, calm and harmony, its design works incredibly well. It’s when we ask these entrenched processes to operate without peer resource for optimal athletic output, disruptions occur. We can separate the horse physically from the herd, but their psychology is not so easily departed.
Athletes; Performance Stress & Competitive Stress
The management of stress in the highest form means maintaining a sense of calm through moments of chaos; leadership is found in the ability to elicit harmony and control where others become nervous and reactive. Few things will challenge this ability more for a herd animal than being asked to perform or compete at a high level while also being isolated from the natural inclination to outsource their uncertainties.
Performance stress can be as real for the horse as it is for the human, and is among the primary dividers between preparation and execution. Being practiced and prepared doesn’t always translate to being able to execute when the time comes “for real”. How many athletes have looked great in workouts but when there is the addition of competitive stress, they begin to show the earmarks of faltering under the pressure? Stress unfiltered psychologically will suffocate competitive edge and when antagonistically expressed physically, greatly affects efficiency of motion; neither of which are performance enhancing tendencies. The truth is, there just is no way of knowing 100% how any athlete-to-be is going to handle the emotional stresses, often accumulative and protracted, of competition, but there are indeed various clues evident in the psyche.
There are two basic variations of emotional stress the horse athlete will be asked to deal with depending on the actual discipline they’re in, subsequently their management markers need to be considered accordingly. The athlete performing and being judged on time or elegance of movement is doing so in isolation from peer factors knocking on their door. Thus, their stress management style will be a different variation and capacity than the horse athlete destined to compete against peers where situational chaos from multiple sources bombards the psyche.
Identifying stress factors in performers isn’t the same as identifying stress factors in competitors, this is not a one size fits all situation, making it easily misunderstood or even overlooked altogether, which can prove to be in the end, a costly mismanagement of information. There is quite a contrast, for example, in evaluating the physical performance of “time” at a two-year-old sale and considering their ability to manage competitive stress. I always wondered, how much money has been spent and lost by investing in a horses’ performance while their ability to compete went unasked?
For the athlete that races there is both performance stress and competitive stress. Their individual performance, while certainly a factor, is itself ultimately governed by their ability to compete; the ability to compete is governed by the capacity to manage emotional stress. In order to have any hope of real success and longevity as a race horse the thoroughbred will be required to have sufficient ability in dealing with performance related stresses and an above average ability in managing stress relative to competition.
Performance stress stems from the manifestation of activities associated with isolation, from a developmental point of reference this is most often experienced during the preparatory stages; “practicing” and getting physically fit. This is of course quite important; being able to handle the emotional challenges and demands of isolative stresses incurred during the prepping stages of development are essential. For the race horse, managing peerless stresses are by and large all they have to do early on and owing to a horse’s natural resourcefulness to adapt, far more will have the ability to “prepare for” than actually “compete at”. The demands of performance once experienced and adapted to for the most part remain psychologically consistent and are repetitive, and we all know how most horses seem to love consistency in their lives. Consistency helps provide the always sought for harmony in a horse’s life. It is a road of less attrition to get better at what you practice alone than it is to execute what you have learned under the pressure of one’s peers.
However, the ultimate goal for a race horse is not as simple as looking great while standing, walking, galloping or breezing by their lonesome, it is of course to be consistently competitive against their rivals.
Once the transitional switch from singular performance to competition kicks in, any number of additional, and very often foreign stresses, bombard the psyche asking to be identified, interpreted and properly filtered. Being able to individually manage situational chaos in changing environments presents the herd animal with his/her greatest challenge, add to this the demands already adapted to in the performance stage, and it isn’t hard to see why some horses appear lost in the crowd. It’s because they are.
Unlike the generally singular aspects of performance stress, the nature of competitive stress is within its plurality. It is much easier, even for a species with the inherent ability for assimilation, to adjust to singular environmental changes than to accommodate multiple ones. In training and coaching athletes, the “one task at a time” achievable goals mantra can bring forth growth and goes a long way toward preparation to be sure. Even so, the best prepped performers often find themselves “learning on the fly” when thrust into competitive chaos for the first time.
Competing amongst ones peers requires the horse to be aware of and react to not only what they are doing and experiencing but also what other horses around them are doing and experiencing; add to this a lot of congestion and physical speed and you will understand that some athletes withdraw themselves from competing and default to performing. Nothing is more debilitating to physical talent than emotional stress, like a horse with a bad airway, emotional stress can suffocate desire. In small doses of time horses that have mastered performance can manage well enough, especially when their adversaries are of equal or lesser herd dynamic capacity. The more time of competition (longer the race) against equal or even stronger herd dynamics, the more stress management is required; when you see horses clearly losing the battle of competitive edge over time, there is a very good chance that the pressure of competition is suffocating their effort. I give this example often; there is a big difference between running and competing, moving in space and moving through it.
Performance stress, most often singularly sourced, can and does run the risk of building up over time, like a balloon filling with air slowly and steadily, but competitive stress, because it comes from multiple sources, can fill that same balloon much faster. By the same token, single sourced stresses are far easier to manage and adapt to than stress in multiplicity; repetition and consistency eases emotional stress, daily routines and familiar surroundings are the comfort foods of the emotional horse.
Time itself is an influencer upon the management of emotional stress be it incurred externally or internally. The physical speed demands of an act will require psychological interpretation to be comparatively faster by at least a 2/1 ratio to assuage a build-up in the “balloon” and allow fluency in motion. Horses often adjust their own physical speed in accordance with their innate ability to interpret what is going on around them, this is a natural pressure relief valve tendency that can be utilized when developing young athletes. Always providing a mental escape route can help soften attrition and offer air to a suffocating mind.
There are many faces of the experience that is emotional stress, manifesting from a variety of places like a shapeshifter that can be difficult to pinpoint and even more difficult to succor. Be the horse performing or ultimately competing, the nature of emotional stress can obscure and camouflage, crowding out potential.
Emotional Stress; The Ultimate Chameleon
It’s far easier to see the effects of emotional stress than to isolate their source, leaving one to often “treat the expression” because we tend to address what we see in hopes of a “quick-fix”. This may or may not prove adequate, but it certainly leaves those ghosts-in-the-closet the ability to emerge at seemingly random, unconnected times.
When I consider emotional stress, I compartmentalize it into three areas; stress that is related to the physical horse, communicated stress from the external environment and a form of psychosis where emotional stress is rooted within the associative aspect.
For obvious reasons the most direct form of emotional stress is that which comes from the physical horse, be it outright injury, underlying pain, or a heightened sensitivity to things as seemingly innocuous as equipment or as worrisome as poor footing. Anything physical that disrupts the desired harmony within the self is going to cause emotional stress in some way and the degree of impact is commonly relative to the degree of cause. In other words, the mantra that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” fits pretty well in the cause and effect sequence. Physical discomfort regardless of the reason is, fortunately, quite often short term and the relative stress it causes generally little more than an inconvenience. Protracted physical pain however, has more emotional impact for obvious reasons and outright injury even more so. These things often take the shape of anxiety and the hope is always that any discomfiture or injury is short term, for the longer they exist the deeper they go in the psyche, the deeper they go in the psyche the more likely they are to become seeds of future associative disorders.
Footing and the sense of “feel” connected to it can cause immediate surface related emotional stress and dramatically alter, as any racehorse would tell you if they could, the manner in which they move over it. With footing too there are varying degrees of impact from the hardly noticed and little remembered brief slip and slide sort of affair to the more consequential, where a horse is asked to run a large portion of a race competing over a surface that is causing them uncertainty. With enough time uncertainty will bleed into anxiety, anxiety feeds into fear, fear takes hold through association; association itself is a tool of the basic survival instinct. When emotional stress becomes interwoven with the survival instinct, it will not be unwound. The interesting thing about footing from a horses’ point of view is, it is all about comfort and security, not about speed and thrust. Emotional comfort and security precede physical output. Dirt or turf, deep or sticky, sloppy or firm are all things as acutely related to the psyche as they are to the physical. When someone says to me “he really moves over that surface well” that translates to “he’s quite at ease upon it”; a horse’s best surface is the one that causes them the least amount of stress. The same can be said about a horse’s best environment; the more stress free the work place, the more productive it will be.
The development of internal stresses from external sources is a prevailing demon and source of contention for the overtly herd dependent horse embarrassed by the wont of it. The capacity of the horse to communicate with their environment carries tremendous influence with their ability to navigate athletically within it.
The area of environmental communication where internal stress builds, putting that pressure in the balloon as it were, is in the interpretation of it. Every horse’s basic sensory system operates the same but not every horse has the ability to interpret the information with the same fluency. In the natural circumstance this matters less than in the unnatural circumstance because a horse is designed to live amongst horses where individual uncertainty is absorbed by committee. This works great out in the wild, but can become quite the antagonist to the competitor; the speed and efficiency of interpretation regulates the degree of emotional stress, the degree of emotional stress governs the fluency of physical motion. The weight of anxiety can smother athletic talent and compromise speed, pace, distance, competitive nature and so on. It also influences “running style” or what we at THT Bloodstock denote as the natural pattern of motion, a phrase those of you familiar with our Kentucky Derby Analysis know well.
Stress that manifests from poor environmental interpretation limits the “sweet zone” of the athlete by the placement of parameters; the horse only competes well when the environment around them molds to their capacity. Versatility in competition is psychological, the more the horse is able to communicate sudden and multiple external stimuli the less likely these are to build internal stress, allowing the horse the freedom to athletically respond. If there is a delay in this communication the stress begins to mount from the uncertainty, slowing the interpretation which compromises the filtering process creating “drag” between cause and effect as the horse becomes stuck between intention and execution. When the horse is in heated debate for position, drag from indecision can take you from 1st to wherever, in a hurry. Residual stress stifles desire, suffocating the fire of will, and brief moments of recurring hesitation could be a sign of a deeper rabbit hole.
Emotional stress affixed to experience attaches itself to learned behaviors; when emotional stress is associative in nature, the root of the cause can be quite elusive. The anticipatory response mechanism in each horse helps them to, through associative experiences, navigate their world safely. Getting the jump on a predator, for example, means knowing the difference between a sage bush blowing across the ground and a mountain lion rushing in. Anticipation with attached emotional stress from a bad experience or a perceived uncertain experience changes physiology and movement. Heart rates elevate, a horse can begin sweating for no obvious reason, physical expressions can become erratic, emotional energy needed for competition starts to be consumed long before the horse enters the gate, some “bounce” as if on a pogo stick and on and on.
Associative stress disorders, where they exist, could have been put in place long before their impact is truly seen or felt by us. From the time a horse is born the anticipatory response mechanism kicks in, essential in nature, essential to nurture; these are the building blocks of the future mental health of the horse. And again, there’s a ghostly aspect within these disorders in their seemingly random expression that happen far removed in time and space from the event that seeded them; it’s called associative stress.
Associative stress can come from anywhere and it can be as unassuming as a little worry or as consuming as completely changing patterns in behavior and is often as fleeting as it is protracted.
Any stressful event that causes an emotional response can leave a mark, and if that emotional response was in the form of anxiety, uncertainty or fear, whatever was accepted as the “cause” as well as whatever is associated with it, gets imprinted, (on the positive side, this process also imprints positive events and harmonized associations). We ourselves access this associative aspect regarding our experiences, and anticipate positively or negatively; in the name of self-preservation, what is perceived to be is as powerful as what actually is. Each of these elicits a response, one because of necessity, the other “just in case”. If a horse had a bad slip on a sloppy surface, they may very well alter their speed and gait whenever they “think” they feel the same sensation underfoot. If a horse had a frightening experience in their youth you may see the result of the perception of it carried forward years later; the associative aspect of horses is for them a version of reason.
When we transplant the herd animal into our domesticated world, we are assuming responsibly for their emotional wellbeing.
Processing Stress; Filters
Stress happens, it’s a simple fact and unavoidable byproduct of life indeed and how it is filtered and processed defines the individual.
Horses being the great “quiet communicators” they are, absorb the emotional world around them, adopting what I consider “short-term stresses” by virtue of their natural communicative process. Because horses are capable of filtering the stress from others, a part of the herd dynamic that binds them emotionally with their herd mates, it also connects them with their human counterparts. Very often you can see the “vibe” of others through the expressions of a horse; this is at its core a filtering process. The degree in which a horse is able to filter the emotional stress of others reflects the depth of their herd dynamic and their role within the herd itself.
Understanding how a horse processes and filters stress helps you understand how it is likely to be expressed in them physically as an athlete. Is the horse offloading competitive stress and seeking herd favor? Is the horse unable to process the influx of stress in the environment and defaults to withdrawing from competition? Or is the horse processing and filtering in a manner that frees them from the pinions of others? Any attempt to ascertain the ability of an athlete to compete without making an effort to understand their tendencies when under stress, is in my opinion, a flawed attempt.
Regardless of the source, the manner in which emotional stress is physically expressed plays a central role in total athleticism. Emotional stress will be filtered in some way; sometimes it is all held within and largely unseen, internally filtered, and sometimes it is physically expressed in movement, externally filtered. Each of these forms can range in degree of impact.
Internal filtering at its highest levels is the act of absorbing and processing stress with ease and no loss of body control or environmental awareness, at its lowest levels it is emotionally suffocating, marginalizes environmental awareness and is a mechanism of attrition for athletic output.
Horses who, for better or worse, are prone to process emotional stress internally, qualify themselves in two ways; highly efficient athletic psychologies shed stress with relative ease, allowing their full potential to be accessed uninterrupted, inefficient mentalities pin-ball on the stress allowing it to build pressure in the psychological balloon. When unfiltered and accumulative, internal stress is burdensome, especially when performing or competing, and a desire to outsource emerges in order to divest themselves of it. Psychological outsourcing dramatically compromises an individuals’ physical fluency, in affect separating the operating system from the machine; the definition of average. The interesting thing with these horses is that their course to outsourcing is rarely marked by “loud” physical behaviors from themselves, instead they move in unison with others, helping them stay invisible in open space. From a survival standpoint, the less attention to one’s self the better, lest they place a target upon their back; herd mates sponging up the overflow confuses the targeted focus of a predator.
In the herd environment even those who are externally filtering emotional stress, by and large, enjoy the camouflage provided by their herd mates. Their physical expressions rippling through other horses helps their personal concealment. Athletically speaking, physically filtering stress does not mean athletic fluency is automatically compromised, in fact there are cases where these expressions under stress are quite useful in combat. The key is, identifying them as such from those that are compromising. Emotional stress externally expressed has a very definitive pattern in the way and direction of exit. Each horse has unique tendencies under stress and these will either be athletic in nature or antagonistic to it, which it is depends greatly on the discipline. Regardless of the manner of expression the filtering process absolutely is a factor in optimizing talent and ability. Whatever affects the mind, can certainly affect the body.
When we isolate the horse from the herd to perform, and ask them to be individuals in crowded competition, we are subjecting the manner in which they process stress to scrutiny that in nature they are protected from. Because of this, one horse can sometimes seem to like two, what we fail to recognize in one setting, can become all too prevailing in another.
Processing Stress; Vices
Often a byproduct of psychological isolation, sequestered emotions that need soothing can manifest into vices, some of these we see, some of these we do not. The most common (but not the only) reason we see them is because they’re being expressed in a stall where everything is condensed. When we think of vices in our horses where they exist, we have to keep in mind that though they are commonly physically expressed, they are psychological in nature.
When the familiar avenues of processing stress become compromised, an occurrence more prevalent in our domesticated world, it’s perfectly normal for horses that are more dependent than others on herd outsourcing (herd-bound), or physically expressive in their filtering process, to manifest vices. Vices are tricky because they do not always reflect the severity of their source; ranging from barely noticeable habits or nuisances to downright troublesome and even destructive behaviors. Trying to remedy these altogether is often a hopeless sequence of trial and error because unless you can pinpoint the cause, treating the result usually ends up inviting a different variation of the same commentary. In most cases a physically expressed “bad habit” is the horse’s effort to self-soothe, therefore doing all you can do to keep them mentally stimulated is your best bet to harmonize them. Unless you know what the cause of their stress is and can subdue it, your next best thing is to look for a way to help them filter that stress less destructively via divergence.
Stress itself cannot be erased; whichever avenue the horse utilizes to filter it needs to be provided for. A crucial part of developing any athlete is centered up the ability to provide for their essential mental health needs, finding ways to balance these needs with the requirements requisite to become a top athlete is not the horse’s responsibility.
Just because we generally acknowledge a vice in its physical expression, common in the externally filtering horses, doesn’t mean that the horse who internalizes and seeks to offload their stress to peers for absorption do not develop them similarly. When they develop a “vice” it is expressed through a behavior pattern; these can range from sullen depression to walking the stall and a host of things in between. The difference between vices manifested from internal and external filters is found in the hole the act is intended to fill and not the act itself; when a physical act soothes and harmonizes normally, a physical act will become a substitute, when a behavioral propensity soothes and harmonizes normally, an act within behavior will develop to imitate it.
If there is a desire or a need to try and minimize a horses’ “vice”, knowing where it stems from is essential. If what the horse is doing is inhibiting their ability to be trained and coached, to perform and compete, finding ways to creatively channel that emotional extension of themselves is much better than attempting to eradicate it.
I’ve always been of the opinion that when it comes to such things, it is best to weigh the pros and cons of the circumstances before trying to “defuse” the situation. If what the horse is doing is little more than a nuisance then let it be; if it isn’t disrupting their lives and training then it is most likely actually aiding them by helping them cope with the environment. Making combat for the sake of itself can lead to more issues. Vices are normal byproducts of personality, if it isn’t in their way, don’t put it in yours.
Emotional Stress; Physical Attrition
Emotional stress and physical health, the peas and carrots of athletic longevity, and one of the most important things to consider. Emotional health is an essential part of physical health and healing and is a reflection of how stress is being managed as well as a peek into the window of the future. How stress is managed and distributed influences not only talent and ability, but longevity of mind and sustainability of body.
Injury prone or not? Subject to mental fatigue or a deep well of competitive edge? Am I an athlete or just a horse? Make no mistake about it, emotional stress can translate to and alter physical motion by contributing to the strain where issues already exist and creating issues that otherwise didn’t. Emotional stress can make a supple and fluid horse moving with purposeful action become rigid, reactionary, reckless in movement. Every horse can fall victim to injury, but any horse that cannot mentally handle the rigors and demands of becoming an athlete will be more susceptible to them.
The affect that emotional stress has on the psyche can be powerful and behavior altering, and anything that affects the operating system of the machine, affects the machine itself. Whether we’re evaluating thoroughbreds or I’m giving a sport horse clinic, one thing always rings true, if you want a supple horse that horse needs a supple mind.
There are already enough physical factors looming against the horse’s sustainable athletic health, conformation and mechanics of motion, points of pressure and acts of attrition over time, the last thing you want to add to this equation is the weight and grind of emotional stress. Anything that gnaws on the psyche puts stress on the body. A standing or walking horse dealing with building anxiety will have an elevated heart rate, can break out into a lather and all that anxious energy can make them nearly bounce out of their shoes.
When the mental mechanics are disrupted, it plays havoc on the physical mechanics and the fluency of motion. Add the lifestyle of training and competing to a psyche that has difficulty in managing stress and any physical imperfections are going to receive the brunt of attrition. How stress flows through the body is an essential piece of the athletic puzzle; the mind should complement the physical and not get in its way. A horse doesn’t need to have a “perfect” physical conformation to compete, if they are equipped with the capacity to manage competitive stress, they will optimize whatever physical talent they have without adding a stiff grind to the equation. The ability to manage emotional stress correlates to physical soundness in that the more emotionally sound the less perfectly conformed the body has to be. Obviously, there are limitations physically that cannot be overcome, but the point is if the horse isn’t adding mental stress to themselves then you can consider the physical aspects on their own merit. Some horses “take care of themselves” and some do not.
The manner in which a horse is physically expressing emotional stress should always be crosschecked with their physical conformation because psychological work load put into physical motion becomes relentless and by proxy will add an additional element to wear and tear, which eventually has a breaking point. Owing to this reality the management of stress plays an essential role in not only the ability to compete, but in affording the luxury of time it takes to prepare to compete; it matters little if the horse has the body and the pedigree to become a top athlete if they do not have the psychology, to sustain it.
Time is also a question of consideration when it comes to how injurious emotional stress can be when translated to the body in motion. Mental fatigue is not only an enemy of competitive edge when it begins to kick in, it is antagonistic to physical fluency.
Mental fatigue is the result of a buildup of internalized emotional stress that happens during protracted periods of heightened focus demands. The longer the time in motion of combat, the more mental stamina will be required; you can grind through physical fatigue when you have mental stamina but without it, well good luck. You can physically condition the horse to go 10 furlongs however if the horse experiences the onset of mental fatigue at 8, your horse transitions from competing to running. Mental fatigue constricts the horse’s environmental awareness and their ability to react to changes in it with their usual efficiency. When this happens, there is in effect a disconnect between mind and body; when mentally tired there is a loss of synchronicity putting additional pressures on any physical flaws the horse may have. This is why it is essential that if you’re dreaming of winning at 10 furlongs, you need a horse who is mentally capable to compete longer than the time it takes to complete it.
A great amount of attention and time is given, and rightfully so, to the physical horse, but emotional stress and indeed, overall mental health, play such a significant role in everything horse, not to give it just as much attention and coaching, is folly. When you walk away from the horse, they aren’t walking away from themselves, mental fatigue and psychological wear and tear isn’t reserved for just the training hours. The body needs nutrition and conditioning, and so does the mind.
Closing Thoughts: Driven by Emotion
The most difficult terrain to navigate in life is the emotional landscape both internally and externally. You cannot identify and evaluate the physical potential in an athlete without first identifying and evaluating their likely ability to manage the emotional stresses they will incur. When a cacophony of emotions drowns out the ability to discriminate between the outside and inside world, anxiety replaces reason; emotional stress can make you feel the loneliest while you’re in a crowded room.
Regardless of whether we at THT Bloodstock are looking at horses for private purchase, at auction, evaluating breeding prospects or developing a performance profile, diagnosing as many stress managing factors as we can is an essential step toward gaining an understanding of the whole horse. Identifying a horse with the herd dynamic makeup to operate independently with as much ease as when with their herd is rare, finding one that has the compliment of elite athleticism, rarer still. I’ve always believed that you are far less likely to see future greatness than you are to feel it. Determining the raw materials of the entire horse and working within their nature to cultivate it requires that emotional communication supersede physical demand. Physical ability is the vehicle through which grit, heart, and determination, are brought to bear yet just because a horse has been groomed to be a race horse, doesn’t mean they are one.
Naturally occurring tendencies of stress management dramatically impact a horses emotional and physical wellbeing, it is the core of who they are as individuals and requires as much attention and nurturing than simply physical conditioning alone. True horsemanship is an act of recognizing natural instinct and emotionally connecting to it.
Horses are, after all, athletes driven by emotion and cannot be separated from their natural instincts. In horsemanship we should not distinguish between emotion and instinct, for instincts are emotional and horsemanship is not something you see, it is something you feel. Stress happens, and herd dynamics matter.
|Posted on April 26, 2020 at 12:10 AM|
Herd Dynamics In-Foal
Kerry M Thomas
Introduction; Evaluating Foals
Herd Dynamics; Ingredients Inherent
The Foal & Competitive Nature
Positioning for Launch; Growth Patterns
Closing Thoughts; Talent & Ability
Introduction; Evaluating Foals
One of the most frequent questions we get asked at THT Bloodstock is; “Can you get much herd dynamic information by evaluating a foal?” The answer to that question is a profound yes, and what we’re going to find will be woven around the loosely fitted individual psychology knitted to the core of basic instinct. A good comparison is if you think of a psychological umbilical cord; from the moment the youngster hits the ground they’re equipped with the precocial basics of instinct yet tethered to the broodmares definitive herd dynamic. As time goes on and this mental tethering begins to stretch, the initial clues to the assemblage of unique herd dynamic ingredients available, will be found within the communicated relationship between foal and mare. As this bonded relationship starts to transition toward a more independent one for the foal, the emotional tether stretches, allowing the foal to guardedly begin exploring the new world and the development of their unique herd dynamics begins. The stage for the future has been set.
Psychological growth happens in stages and begins immediately upon birth. It’s very first lesson plan comes in the form of associations; association with the mother, immediate close (introverted) environment, followed by associations with the immediate outside (slightly extroverted) environment and so on. These associations wrap the young horse in layers like a tiny onion starting to grow, experience overlaying experience. The relationship the foal has with its mother in the natural world, and both the mother and handler in the domesticated world, is influential in that these relationships help nudge the inherent behavioral genetic ingredients into motion. You can’t ensure elite herd dynamics will one day develop in these initial stages, for ultimately Mother Nature decides this, but you can help ensure they have the opportunity to manifest where they exist. Creating an environment of success starts on day one and the most effective way to do so psychologically is to nurture without getting in the way of nature.
Evaluating foals has a number of benefits. Gaining an understanding of the young horse’s natural communication ability is among the more essential pieces of the early development puzzle; understanding emergent growth patterns, identifying the core relationship between the sensory system and the interpretational ability housed in the psycho-sensory and the influence of and between purposeful and reactionary motion. These things and more are the earmarks of ability; talent without ability is a horse not an athlete.
Foal evaluations are just that, an evaluation of the foal in his or her moment in time; there is no crystal ball predicting the future but there are clues to be found in the potential trajectory of herd dynamic ability. In the emotionally charged horse everything they are and everything they can become is largely influenced by the relationships they have and develop with each other and the changing environments they experience. An understanding of these principles is your first glimpse into their future.
Herd Dynamics; Ingredients Inherent
The excitement in and for the young horse-athlete is something special, young horses are not only endearing and beautiful they are also filled with all of the ingredients of hope that are representative of ourselves in many ways.
Talent is what stands before you in the physical horse, horses are athletic; you can see this clearly in the horse as they run and play and sometimes bounce around joyfully waxing their best kangaroo impression. The ingredients of physical genetics, while important to be sure, can do little in fulfilling the hope of greatness on their own accord. The ingredients of greatness are descried through the avenue of expression; talent is physical, ability is psychological. In the foal the ingredients of their herd dynamic, though yet to be fully formed and still revolving and evolving, are present. The peculiarity in which they are expressed can, will and does change as they mature, but the basic foundation is born with them. Identifying what is available is the first part of understanding who the young horse is and through a study of expression you begin to knit together an idea of who they could become.
Tendencies in behavior begin to develop almost immediately though without definitive patterns until a foal has enough associated experience. Patterns in behavioral expression in youth, as they form, are a key element to understanding how future patterns of behavior will subsequently translate to patterns in motion; something worth knowing if you’re invested in a race horse. It is true that initially the young horse is greatly influenced by his or her relationship with their mother. It’s also true that the parameters of this relationship are crucial because aside from the physical aspect the actual bond is emotional and the mare will by proxy impart and impress upon her foal all of her emotional strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncratic nuances.
A “good mare” is one with a balanced psychology, she didn’t have to be a top athletic talent in order to have progeny that are; the real advantage in a broodmare is her degree of herd dynamic soundness, not to be confused with her level in the herd dynamic hierarchy. Again, the difference between talent and ability plays a significant role; broodmares with both physical talent and herd dynamic soundness are ideal but not necessary. How a horse does what they do, colt or filly, carries more weight when/if they become broodmares or stallions, than does what they did. If you’re main criteria for value is reflective of performance results and pedigree alone, you can find yourself quite misguided. These may be identifiable markers in the human point of reference, but in the eyes of Mother Nature, they are just an appendix. What the parents did isn’t going to be handed down the line because talent is independently expressed, but the manner in which they performed, “who” they are, flows on down the line merging together to become the available ingredients of character.
Which ingredients will become the “new” horses prevailing behavioral genetic traits and which ones will be mostly dormant is often a wait-and-see thing; I have two full brothers and though we each have similar prevailing traits we also express these in vastly different ways. The tendencies and traits that most influence me, though available to my siblings, are mostly dormant in them, and vice versa. However, we also share certain traits and tendencies equally; we are “stamped” in some aspects by our fathers and our mothers.
Every thoroughbred born has by nature some degree of physical talent inherent, and where you will often see physical stamping in horses, making certain physical characteristics easily identified, this is mostly anecdotal because ability ultimately governs how well these physical traits will actually perform. The real gold in the panning-for-gold process is identifying prevailing character traits; psychological stamping.
Herd dynamic “stamping” is a powerful marker because behavioral genetics are the ingredients that drive the emotionally aware and environmentally sensitive horse in every part of their lives; athletic performance included.
Physical stamping we see in certain body parts or proportions, head, neck, back, feet, hocks and so on. Behavioral “stamping” is expressed through individual tendencies, and tendencies under stress govern physical efficiency. No one needs to tell you how influential competitive stress can be during training and performance. Earmarking which broodmare and stallion tendencies have more influence on the young horse and evaluating how and if these influenced their performances where you can, goes far in ascertaining the degree of influence they are likely to have.
Core character traits and tendencies are drawn upon in the foal and begin to guide them, playing a vital role in their psychological development. The ground floor ingredients of mental aptitude are all available throughout the horses’ life but not all of them utilized, it’s during times of stress where you discover the true nature of behavioral stamping as they become the prevailing traits of a particular individual. These baseline markers are the footers from which the house is built; a stunning and expensive second floor layered upon an unstable foundation will look good when the environment doesn’t present any challenges but may shake or even fail, during times of stress.
The Foal & Competitive Nature
The identification of early herd dynamic markers is a key step in postulating the bigger picture, but this of and in itself does not mean a for-sure translation to athletic ability. There are a great many horses with fluid, fairly well-balanced herd dynamics and physical talent that at length are underachievers as athletes; however, “underachieving” may not be a fair label. It may well be that envisioned expectation and actual ability are often not on the same page. Something quite essential in athletics is competitive edge, that ability to optimize physical talent under stress especially when pressed and threatened by mental fatigue; dogged perseverance and grit defines competitive edge in its purest sense.
These characteristics, while obviously not fully honed in the foal, will be in the mix of mental ingredients and will show themselves in various degrees in the manner of expression. Competitive nature in its rawist form is something every horse has, it’s what they rely on during times of stress to evade danger or joust for mates and herd positioning and so on. Yet in the racehorse we are seeking a more specialized version of this natural instinct so that competitive nature affords competitive edge. When you’re breeding thoroughbreds, a breed that is “born to run”, you’d do well to consider if you’re also breeding to race. There can be a wide gap between horses running in space, and horses running through it.
The foundation of the athletic version of competitive nature that we desire can be difficult to see clearly in foals however this too has core markers that indicate its existence. When you consider the difference in horses running in or through space, what sets them apart is not what they’re doing but how they’re doing it. This same lens and point of reference can be used when studying the patterns emerging in the foal’s behavior; they’re going to be kids sure but even so the degree of either reactive or purposefulness in their expressions and movements is very telling. Peculiar slants in one direction or another begin to emerge over time and as the foal more and more stretches that emotional tether these leans start to take on a larger role for the individual herd animal.
Nothing tells you more about an evolving psychology than the emergence of assimilation and adaptability. This process, which stems directly from the interpretive aspect of the herd dynamic, plays an essential role in the way in which competitive nature is expressed. When looking for athletic “potential” in foals much can be ascertained by the study of their naturally occurring ability to interpret and adapt relative to physical action. This process is the determining factor between reactive body movement and controlled body movement.
Competitive nature funneled through a less than high functioning interpretive aspect is physical motion expressed before it’s interpreted; this reactive motion is often accompanied by a co-dependent necessity to outsource interpretation to other horses compromising its manifestation. Competitive nature funneled through a high functioning interpretive aspect becomes physical reaction after interpretation lending itself to purposeful physical motion and no required outsourcing; the ground floor from which competitive edge is realized.
Here again it is important to remember that what is done is less important than the manner in which it is done. A foal in a field showing a large degree of “independence” from mommy, for example, of and in itself doesn’t mean you have an emerging elite and independent thinker on your hands. It could mean that, but the act itself does not indicate herd dynamic potential; a careful study of the young horses’ psychological rhythms in relation to their proximity to anything, especially momma, is a better barometer. Every individual horse “personality” has what I dub a unique psychological spin-cycle, a natural rhythm to the flow of emotional energy innate making each horses baseline normal singular. This is why, from a herd dynamic standpoint, you cannot place horses in a box or typical “typing”. You have to determine what the individual’s internal rhythms are before you know what are “normal” behavior patterns. I use this analogy often; race horses are not race cars, with the horse you’re getting the car with its own unique driver. It’s a package deal, investing in only one aspect is an unwise investment strategy.
Psychological rhythm in essence is the rate at which emotional energy is distributed and the tone in which it is expressed determines the resilience of mental stamina. You can forget all about trying to figure out by the foal’s physical structure and pedigree what distances may be ideal in the future if your horse is devoid of mental stamina; the only ideal distance is the distance mental capacity can take you. Matching physical challenges to mental aptitude and physical distances to the rate of emotional energy rhythms is a far more productive way to match athlete to goal.
Individual rhythm alone is only a part of the developing minds story, how this emotional energy is distributed, accessed and utilized hinges greatly on the horse’s unique relationships between themselves and their environment. Here again we see the importance of developing adaptability as the foal stretches the tether from mom and begins to negotiate what is happening around them and what they perceive to be happening. The fabric that binds the outside world to the inside world, so to speak, is the intertwining of the physical senses funneling external information to the internal psyche for examination. Foals and yearlings can have a lot of space between these two and there will be resulting “baby bumps”, seemingly erratic physical expressions, which are both normal and healthy because the raw materials are yet to align. Emotional energy and rhythm are beautifully unmolded in foals and interpreting the world highly dependent on the broodmare; yet just as the young horse “gets their legs” they too will begin to “get their herd dynamics”.
For competitive nature to translate into competitive edge, a proper alignment between the speed of sensory identification and the speed of interpretation has to emerge. The sensory system hits the ground running; the healthy foal has the full complement of the sensory toolset available upon birth, the framework is there and soon beginning to scan the environment independently. What the horse grows into is command of competitive nature and the environmental interpretations that run through it. This happens over time as experiences begin to get absorbed and layer into the psyche; the avenue of learning.
As the horse starts to “get more confidence”, (begins to self-interpret and be less reliant on outsourcing) the emotional tether further loosens and stretches. Early in a horse’s life things we recognize as self-assurance and confidence are directly related to and channeled through the efficiency of interpretation, efficiency of interpretation allows for controlled and fluid physical motion, (As they get older confidence also manifests from associative experience). For fluid and efficient physical motion to be maintained in changing environments, the interpretational rhythm of the herd dynamic needs to be cycling faster than the physical body is moving through the environment not unlike a blocker in football clearing space for the running back. The “mind ahead of the body” applies regardless of actual physical speed and this is in place as an extension of the basic instinct for survival. Controlled motion and the conservation of emotional energy depend upon it, important factors for the athlete.
Even very young horses will begin to show emerging indicators of the efficacy of the filtering process that I call the psycho-sensory sequence; the physical senses identifying stimuli in the outside world to be funneled into the psyche for interpretation and subsequent reaction. Where the psycho-sensory sequence is less efficient outsourcing happens by default, herd animals have a back-up; if I can’t process fast enough individually, most surely another herd member will.
Built-in codependency is a highly effective way for species living in herds to sustain survival, but not so attractive for the hopeful athlete of the future who will need to be able to operate independent of these sticking points. For competitive nature to evolve into competitive edge, naturally occurring emotional rhythms have to always be a “step ahead” of the physical environment. The actual time/space required between identification and reaction to maintain athletic fluency will change from situation to situation but horses that have this ability have psychological versatility, a valued asset when negotiating situational chaos.
Positioning for Launch; Growth Patterns
To say that you can predict the future with certainty is of course not reality, there are a great many moving parts and links in the chain and anyone working with horses will tell you that it’s far more common to have something derail your goals than optimize them. However, gaining an understanding of a foal’s core herd dynamics and the affectedness with which they’re emerging helps you in recognizing the trajectory of psychological growth.
Herd dynamics, though readily present in the foal, develop and manifest over time into recognizable behavioral markers or traits, and as experience begins to layer into the horse these markers begin to repeat themselves based upon previous learned experience, becoming tendencies. Growth patterns are represented in commonly occurring tendencies in environments or experiences that are loosely related. These repetitive patterns, responding to stimulus, are hard-wired to the basic survival instinct; “if this happens, I do this and I do this even if I think it may happen by virtue of association.”
Psychological growth patterns that develop in the foal are strong indicators of how well they will adapt and react to both emotional and environmental stresses that lay ahead; this is key information not only for the coachability of the future horse, but in understanding how best to coach them. Growth patterns reveal the efficiency of and the ability for learning and the avenue from which it happens.
Physically monitoring the growth of the foal is of course important, things like nutrition and veterinary care, farrier and so on are responsible husbandry practices and assists in the development of the physical athlete. This would be sufficing if your end goal was a correct and healthy beautiful show horse, but in order for the horse to look great in the winner’s circle in a Grade 1 race, he or she has to be far more than a beautiful horse, they need to be an athlete. Monitoring the mental growth in the young horse is every bit as important to their future potential as is monitoring their physical growth. Consider what it takes for a horse to ultimately become an athlete and not just athletic; being athletic in large part is gifted by Mother Nature and with proper care and nutrition can be maintained and strengthened. Yet to develop an athlete you often have to nurture competitive nature into competitive edge; leaving this to chance can leave a lot of potential untapped. There is a significant difference between training and coaching.
In order to get an idea of what the future could potentially hold for any particular foal, with so many herd dynamic pieces of their puzzle developing and evolving, you cannot get trapped into looking so far ahead you don’t see what is in front of you. Perception and reality often have a lot of space between them, but that doesn’t mean that even in the raw materials that make up the foal, you’re unable to find markers to help peel back the veil and peek into the future. In order to get any idea of what you have, you need to know what you have available and juxtapose that with what you know it takes to succeed.
Everything builds upon the next chain link, thus evaluating foals is in part a reverse engineering project of knowing the various herd dynamic traits of high-level athletes and looking for these base markers; because even the most chiseled competitive edge hinges upon a foundation that was present when they were still tethered to mom. Having the foundation will not itself ensure future success but it gives you a baseline for the nurturing process along the horse’s journey while giving their core foundation the chance to develop in the proper direction. Not having the foundation markers as prevailing traits doesn’t mean hope is lost, it does mean that the nurturing process along the course of their lives will need to be specifically manicured in order to cultivate ability.
It is essential at every stage of individual growth that what is asked of the horse is within his or her capability; goals based in reality have a better chance of being realized. The simple fact is a large majority of horses as individuals will and do have co-dependent herd dynamic tendencies, some of these will influence athletic development and some of them will not. Knowing the building blocks of your foal helps you understand both the potential strengths and weaknesses within their herd dynamic, information that will help you monitor what begs watching and nurture what needs sculpting. Because foals are rapidly absorbing and experiencing their worlds, the environment they’re in becomes your greatest “coaching” asset.
Nothing helps steer budding competitive nature toward competitive edge like self-assurance and in order for a horse to develop the proverbial confidence, they need to develop sensory efficiency and interpretative fluency. The environment that provides discoverable stimuli for the individual within the group is a classroom well equipped. Mother nature is the foals’ best teacher because regardless of what we want for our horses and their futures, they are still horses. It is up to us to build our association with the young horse around and through their natural herd dynamic in our domesticated world. Horses at any age learn a great deal through the avenue of association and the associative learning process in foals plays a vital role in how ability develops.
Few horses have herd dynamics with no dependencies but this doesn’t mean they cannot go on to become great athletes because many indeed do. What the foal experiences as they grow becomes a layer of learned-experience, but the manner in which it has been exposed to them becomes the association and we always need to be mindful of this. How something happened and the way it was presented plays a bigger role in the psyche than what actually happened; if an experience is accompanied by emotional stress and anxiety, emotional stress and anxiety is what the experience is associated with. If an experience is accompanied by calm and comfort, then calm and comfort is what it is associated with. These are the layers of psychological growth built upon the existing foundation; layers emerge to influence tendency, tendency evolves into patterns of behavior, patterns of behavior translate to patterns in motion.
Psychological growth patterns are every bit if not more important to monitor and guide than are physical growth patterns alone because ultimately it is mental aptitude that determines the difference between horses that run and horses that race. The early environment is key to the future and knowing the pieces of the herd dynamic puzzle that is the foal helps in creating an environment for success. Being a successful athlete means the horse has gone on to capitalize on their existing physical talent and has optimized their existing ability.
Closing Thoughts; Talent & Ability
The building blocks of the future lay within the herd dynamics, all of the raw ingredients of what the horse can become are born with them and as much as it may be desired, you cannot manufacture something that isn’t there.
When it comes to evaluating foals, it is not so much about predicting the future as it is identifying the aggregation of raw materials and seeing first and foremost what identifiable ingredients are available. Physically the horse has a wonderful chance to be talented if they have the framework to stay sound going forward, yet a lot of money has been invested in talent that never comes to fruition. Talent is far more common than is the ability to optimize it; many a time talent has been overpaid for where inherent ability has been underappreciated. I have personally always viewed “talent” as secondary criteria because in athletics it has little value without ability to maximize its advantages.
Value is found between the ears regardless of the horses age, foals however, by virtue of their unrefined herd dynamic, present the unique evaluation opportunity of cataloging their unformed but functioning traits and tendencies and monitoring growth through their expressions. Horses are not machines, they are impassioned, expressive and beautifully sensitive animals that feel and experience and this part of them plays an essential role in everything they do, including train and compete.
Optimized physical talent is emotionally driven and where there are any number of ways to aid the physical machine, you cannot mechanize emotion. The horse is an instinctive animal; thus, we must view him instinctively.
*For additional information about THT Bloodstock please visit www.thtbloodstock.com, you can also connect on social media by visiting THT Bloodstock on FB and following Kerry on Twitter @thomasherding and THT Partner Pete Denk @petedenk
**Be sure and check out all of Kerry’s articles available on Past The Wire’s “Kerry’s Corner Column
|Posted on March 27, 2020 at 5:20 PM|
The Nature of Dependency & Performance
Kerry M Thomas
Introduction, Basic Instinct
Herd Structure, Relationships in Nature
GHD, Group Herd Dynamic
IHD, Individual Herd Dynamic
Dependencies & Performance, The Nature Of
Introduction; Basic Instinct
Few things have more influence over individual performance than interpersonal relationships socially defined. To identify and optimize potential in any individual horse a look at their emotional relationships and how they function party to these must be understood. Knowing how the individual manages outside stresses offers insight to their likely ability to manage their own, information that lends itself to helping create an environment of success. It can be difficult to truly understand and develop the individual horse without first knowing the natural dynamics involved in the herd structure.
Regardless of what we do with horses or what goals we set for them in our “domesticated” world, along for the ride throughout the horses life is the basic instinct as designed by Mother Nature, and within this design rests the key to not only understanding your horse individually, but horses collectively. The impact of basic instinct, though a part of the horse’s everyday life cycles, has profound influence on the horse during times of elevated stress. This is translated to “our world” of structured training, breeding, performing, in a wide variety of ways that can appear to us as head-scratching random. Basic instinct runs much deeper than fight or flight; it defines the relationships individual horses have with their environment, with their herd mates, with us.
At its core basic instinct is a firm foundation of sameness, yet it is often manifested and expressed in everyone a little differently owing to the necessity of herd structure. Tendencies and uniquely expressed behavioral genetics allow individuals to maneuver within the herd structure that a hierarchy of leadership is developed, sustaining the species; common basic instinct binds the horse with its environment, different expressions of it allows the horse to adapt and assimilate to the changes within it. Mother Nature is wise, she knows that without individual assimilation the herd and ultimately the species, would struggle to continue.
Basic instinct in the societal prey animal has built-in co-dependencies acting as the thread that binds the individuals, even the elite herd dynamic leaders that have few or even no individual dependencies, still have one that keeps them from floating away from the herd, harmony. Companionship and accord, comfort and calm define the greatest reward, from the bottom rung to the top, this basic instinct has maintained the herd structure through time and environment.
Herd Structure; Relationships in Nature
Horses by their very nature are a societal species and therefore subject to the physical and emotional changes within and without the family unit. Emotionally charged and expressed relationships where the goal for the horse as a species is survival, and the ultimate “win” for an individual, is harmony.
The relationships between individual members of a herd can be and often are as diversely proportioned emotionally as any other family structure, but always the common basic instincts help keep them threaded together. The hierarchy of herd structure is as much a necessity of species survival as it is a tool to help keep weaker individuals safer than they would be otherwise; herding mentality is the natural aversion to straying unless to seek or join another herd or mate.
The herd hierarchy totem-pole of leadership can have a few layers from top to bottom depending on the number of horses or whether it is a bachelor herd or a well-established family unit. Bachelor “herds” can be made up of only two horses and even when several young colts are mingling, they will quite often pair up in a shared leadership role and it’s not uncommon to see them segregate from others. The shared leadership role is uniquely suited for colts as they rough-house and trade barbs in combative play, and duke it out mentally, all the while preparing themselves for an eventual effort to take over their own breeding herd. The most essential requirement for a colt, and those who are most likely to one day take over their own family unit, is emotional intelligence. Brute force can help fight and defend in circumstances that demand it, but psychological sagacity sustains, helps avoid compromising environments and is the primary requirement for leadership.
In the natural herd dynamics, devoid of human goals associated with athletics, leadership is an expression of behavior, not of physical force.
Not all horses are created equal, and there is a reason for that, herd survival. Without built-in dependency/co-dependency principles, there could be no hierarchy, if there is no hierarchy, there can be no sustainable herd. Shared leadership is an earmark of a successful family unit, with differing slants on their roles there will be both a “lead” mare and “lead” stallion. The lead mare largely operates from within/amongst the herd members or just slightly askew but always maintaining governing contact. The lead stallion is generally operating outside the herd maintaining the perimeter, identifying threats or stragglers and cares less about the “day to day” inner workings and in fact can be “pushed out” to where “he belongs” by the lead mare. Seasoned mares are little afraid of raucous colts.
Descending the hierarchy scale a wide variety of character traits and tendencies under development can be found, here we find a large majority of those built-in co-dependencies. Community surveillance is an important aspect of the herd and each horse making up the body of the herd, plays a role. Very few horses by nature have both complete sensory and interpretational efficiency, an asset that affords them the luxury of independence and leadership. Inefficiency in these areas in some form or another is the glue of reliance and community co-dependence that allows the herd to function as a group. This creates a natural, built-in propensity to follow; Mother Nature very cleverly cloaks continuity by its manifestation of harmony, safety, comfort. This has nothing to do with who is bigger, stronger, faster, this is the emotional cord that permeates and sustains the herd. In terms of athletics, this is the root of the reality that as emotional athletes, horses are often a reflection of their environment.
Varying strengths and weaknesses are defined in the horse as tendencies, slants of character under times of stress; within a herd their effect on the individual is minimized and often unseen but in isolation, they can translate from co-dependency shouldered by another, to dependency confined within. When this happens the strengths and weakness are both exposed and the otherwise calm horse can become reactive, nervous, anxious; if they cannot internally process properly, they will seek to outsource. The desire to outsource is itself the dependency, not that which is sourced. Desire over action; in the beginning need is more powerful than the random succor.
Where communal harmony is reward, there is another very powerful byproduct of emotional stress that threads the yearning to follow, fear. The stress of fear and uncertainty is a powerful emotion and naturally applied tool of the co-dependent relationship within the heard, helping maintain order. Fear often results in willing self-subjugation to leadership, helping maintain order without force. Horses that are equipped with tendencies and traits that lend themselves to a higher degree of emotional intelligence will bubble-up over time; there is a significant difference between the perceived necessity of physical influence and often unnoticed power of emotional influence, until times of stress. In terms of athleticism, competitive edge is an emotional force.
The dynamics of the group are comprised by the dynamics of the individual members making up the group, and these have varying degrees of character “slants”. These ingredients of personality, for lack of a better term, present themselves in two forms I have long dubbed GHD (Group Herd Dynamic) and IHD (Individual Herd Dynamic). Understanding the herd unit is one thing, understanding the psychological rhythms and capacity of an individual, something else. Essential in athletics are these where the horse is required to compete in isolation; asking the herd animal to train and compete individually, going against the grain of built in co-dependency, can be a challenging task. Identifying particular traits and tendencies and working within them, while providing for the individual what the herd structure does, harmony as reward, rests within knowing the nature of their herd dynamic.
GHD; Group Herd Dynamics
From a psychological point of reference, I consider individual horses as having two aspects to their behavioral genetic; one aspect associated with their interpretation of the group, the other associated with their interpretation of self within it. These characteristics combine and mingle in varying percentage “slants” in both male and female horses. From a tendency standpoint Mother Nature provides a lean on efficiency of IHD and GHD because of the differing demands within those roles of the sexes; high level colts/stallions because of their “job description” are highly effective interpretively for example, in recognizing and interpreting singular targets and causes of stress. High level fillies/mares have the same functionality regarding multiple stimuli in their environment.
Efficiency of stress management and environmental interpretation, (emotional intelligence), is the natural separator within the hierarchy. This ability is not only functional within the natural herd dynamic, it influences the ability to learn new tasks (train) and affects physical output under stress (competing).
Group Herd Dynamic is just that; its primary function is the management of multiple stimulus provided by the group. Emotionally it’s the dynamic that allows the horse to communicate with the environment of their peers, to feel and interpret the rhythms of herd environment and allows them to quickly react to potential danger without themselves having detected it. The ripple-effect you see when one horse suddenly jumps or moves etc., and it seems to go on down the line…, this is GHD in action.
From a community point of view GHD is communicated through the co-dependency relationships between horses, regardless of the shift in the efficiency that separates them in the hierarchy. GHD is the tie that binds emotional horse to emotional horse, it is what allows them to know where others are around them whether standing, feeding or moving at a high rate of speed. Group Herd Dynamic houses a horse’s ability to realize intent before action or to swiftly respond to the intentions of the leadership above them. For an example of what this looks like, consider a large flock of birds or school of fish evading a predator.
These groups depend on a high level of communication through intent and subtle physical action for maneuverability, if not a great many birds would fall from the sky from collisions, and a great number of horses would be slamming into one another during times of chaos. This is no magic trick, it is put in place as a self-preservation tool by Mother Nature; you will not erase it, so it’s best to understand it and work with it. Communication is everything and GHD is its foundation.
Environmental communication is also essential. Psychologically Group Herd Dynamic governs the interpretation of environmental stimulus; drawing on learned experience and associations as well as drawing on the reactions of others the horse may be co-dependent upon, to determine their reaction. The manner of and the ability to, assimilate to sudden changes or new challenges, is rooted in the overall efficiency of GHD.
Group Herd Dynamic also plays a vital role in the physical sensory system owing to its interpretative aspect. Whether stimuli are moving through the various sensory aspects or multiple stimuli is all around the horse, standing or in motion, sensory lead changes take place. (See the paper Sensory Soundness & The Psychology of Motion for more). The GHD governs the efficiency of these psychological lead changes or deflects the interpretation of them by sourcing other horses or something else in the environment. By virtue of this, GHD is also the key to emotional energy and how it is distributed.
The Group Herd Dynamic is in effect the individual horse’s family dynamic tool, it has a broad brush of impact on the socially dependent horse and is the key avenue of communication, learning and placement in herd structure. It’s role in adaptability is crucial for survival, it helps define the fight or flight instinct, allows the horse to sense danger or feel harmony. Our relationship with horses is so natural because of the Group Herd Dynamic; emotional communication transcends the barrier of different species and spoken languages. (See paper Destination Hope).
IHD; Individual Herd Dynamic
Even the most tightly bonded groups are made up of unique individuals, and these individuals, though highly co-dependent on one another for survival, also have a powerful element of self; the partner to GHD, Individual Herd Dynamic.
Individual Herd Dynamic in its purest sense is, like the GHD, reflective of its namesake; the individual horse and their relationship and communication with themselves and individual stimuli in the environment. These targeted focus points can be objects within the herd structure, but more often is anything and everything outside of it where the individual horse is focused on things without the buffer of GHD’s codependency tendency.
This psychology of self is the avenue from which the individual horse sees or perceives his or her place at any given moment in the herd hierarchy and the foundation upon which the inclined individual seeks to challenge another for their link in the chain. IHD tendency by nature has more prevailing character traits expressed in the males owing to their herd dynamic role as outlined by evolution. It is what encourages them to at length seek out a bachelor herd and the tool lead stallions use to move them along. A strong and high functioning IHD allows the horse to single out individual threats, targets, mates, food and water sources, and identify as leaders. Individual Herd Dynamic is prone to more physical expression and an indication of how functional it is can be found in the manner of that expression. By themselves high level GHD nor IHD is leadership though either can be mistaken for it; true leaders have both high functioning GHD & IHD in their makeup. There is a checks and balances system in place that allows for controlled and purposeful physical expressions.
A horses Individual Herd Dynamic is rarely exposed in natural settings, it wasn’t designed to operate entirely on its own or isolated from a herd environment. Any weakness in IHD when isolated from the buffer of co-dependency is prone to develop dependencies, the isolated psychology can be suffocating for mid-level horses (most horses), these horses begin to outsource for succor. When this happens, their behavior is easily disrupted, and physical expression is more reactive than purposeful. Not only does this antagonize training and performance in our world, in the natural world it puts the horse in danger and they instinctively know this; they lose all sense of interpretative awareness as “fight or flight” takes over. Even in the high functioning horse who seems to do quite well on their own, an element of GHD should always be incorporated, if not, over time or at random the horse will “suddenly act up”; but it’s never suddenly, it's the exhaust of emotional stress.
Among the functions of the Individual Herd Dynamic is in the relationship the horse has with their physical environment. Group Herd Dynamic is largely corner stoned on emotion, but IHD is shifted toward physical reaction to targeted stimuli in the environment, it is in affect the physical feature of GHD. The psychology that governs IHD is everything that manifests the self and much of this is within learned behaviors. In isolation a horse only has themselves to rely on and they will draw upon their learned experiences and anything associated with them that have also been perceived as experience, (this is the function of the Anticipatory Response Mechanism basic instinct provides to aid self-preservation). The high functioning psychology manages stress and properly interprets environmental stimulus, maintaining controlled physical expression whether alone or in a herd, the not so high functioning psychology does not, and seeks assistance (becomes dependent and develops addictive behaviors) and has trouble controlling physical expression.
It's worth noting that Mother Nature safeguards herself from an oversaturation of mid-level horses breeding and plays by the rules inherent in the predator/prey relationship. Horses that bring attention to themselves become targets for the predator; quite cleverly Mother Nature in this manner conceals true leadership while offering sustenance. It is the only way for the species to survive.
Individual Herd Dynamic does not itself have adaptive qualities, assimilation relies upon GHD and when the horse is isolated their adaptive parameters are founded upon their learned experiences, both good and bad. Here again it rings true, when a horse is isolated so are their strengths and their weaknesses, in few ways is this more prevalent than when the individual horse is asked to assimilate to new environments or is in a situation where they’re required to adjust and adapt. Competitively speaking it’s that big difference between the horse that has no trouble running away from peers and the horse that lingers, hangs, falls back or sees herd chaos as untenable.
Operating in IHD while under emotional stress and situational chaos requires the horse to have a fast cycling sensory interpretation rhythm to maintain physical pace. Individual Herd Dynamic is not charged with sensory lead changes like Group Herd Dynamic, it is charged with focusing on individual targets identified individually in each of the sensory aspects. Sensory lead changes are only required when either the horse is moving through an environment or things in the environment are moving around or past the horse, otherwise IHD has no need to hand-off stimuli to another aspect. This is a very useful part of the IHD as it allows the horse to maintain focus even at distance, on a singular target; especially advantageous in the forward aspect for horses competing in a race, chasing off a predator or challenger to their herd.
When a stimulus is in only one aspect and it’s moving toward the horse or the horse toward it, physical fluency and controlled motion can be easily maintained. The identification and interpretation process are not overcrowded in the psyche and is less stressful. It’s during the transition from sensory aspect to sensory aspect that the IHD is required to hand off to and work with GHD, where disruptions to fluency can occur. A high functioning IHD is very useful with individual targets but does not have the capacity to interpret multiple stimulus and when asked to do so, the results can be widely random.
Dependencies & Performance; The Nature Of
Herd dynamics in a nutshell are those naturally occurring traits, tendencies and characteristics that make up the individual psychology and where they place the horse in the hierarchy of the herd environment. This is a constant thread regardless of whether in the “natural” setting or the environment set in place by humans. The principles inherent do not change, though the expression of them and how they’re viewed certainly can.
Dependencies and co-dependencies; where they exist in any given horse they will always exist, we cannot erase natural herd dynamic, it wasn’t designed to be erased. However, this thread of basic instinct does lend itself to assimilation and “learned patterns of behavior” can adjust to changing physical and emotional environments, positive or negative. It’s one of the things that allows inner herd relationships to fluctuate for hierarchy adjustment. Group and Individual herd dynamics are designed in such a manner that allows the body of the herd too sustain itself and is a system of symbiosis that works quite well. It’s when we pluck the herd animal from the co-dependent family structure that we can begin to see dramatic disruptions and inconsistencies in behavior. The truth is, these are not at all inconsistent behavior patterns but rather consistent in expression with a horse’s level in the herd and the degree of efficiency in GHD & IHD. Once again, we must be mindful that when we isolate the horse, we are exposing their emotional strengths and weaknesses. An operating system designed for herd living doesn’t always willingly and freely operate with the same efficiency when largely displaced from it.
How herd dynamics translates to athletics really comes down to a case by case basis. Athletic performance is physical ability optimized by mental capacity; horses are physically athletic, but not all horses are athletes. The reason for this is rooted in the efficiency of their Group Herd Dynamic and Individual Herd Dynamic and the fluency between them. Added physical and mental stress applies more pressure on the weak spots and more demands on the strong points.
The fluent relationship in the high-level herd dynamic horse who enjoys great efficiency in both GHD and IHD is very naturally athletic minded because these two aspects work seamlessly; these horses are emotionally adaptive and capable. I use a term often, panning for gold, while we’re scouting for elite talent and what that means to me is, we’re seeking to identify the rare combination of the naturally fluent herd dynamic with the body type best suited for the goal. If you find a coachable mind in a trainable body, you have yourself some serious potential.
This does not mean that horses who come with inefficiency cannot be athletes, but because GHD & IHD is the fabric that binds, it is important to know how the roles they play are translated to athletics when determining athletic potential.
In thoroughbreds I consider the primary essential to be sustainable competitive edge; nothing is more antagonistic to physical talent than mental weakness. Understanding the role the two herd dynamic aspects play in this is a vital part of prospecting; they depend on one another to perform and compete. The more a horse relies on herd co-dependency in GHD, the more likely there will be dependency in IHD isolation; this translates to less fluency between them during times of stress and compromised ability to assimilate.
Group Herd Dynamic manages the functionality and derives competitive aspect from the emotional interpretations of rapidly changing environments and multiple stimuli, helping conserve and distribute emotional energy, supporting IHD by relieving it of the necessity of interpretation. It’s an essential element that helps maintain things like pace, space awareness and optimizes emotional energy conservation with its ability to read intent before the requirement of action. This is important because when physical distance and footing are part of the equation, mental efficiency translates to mental stamina and body control; better traction for the “tires”, more power delivered to the engine. Lack of efficiency in GHD pushes the onus of performance onto the IHD which among other things, can greatly compromise distance aptitude.
Individual Herd Dynamic’s competitive aspect derives from emotionally interpreted singular points and draws upon the emotional energy sustained in GHD for its strength and tactical power. IHD power and influence, to be functional in competition, must be expressed in a controlled and purposeful manner which stems from the fluency between IHD and GHD. Emotional energy without “guardrails” is energy often wasted because only some if it seems to be aimed in the direction the horse needs it to go. A horse’s ability to adapt to the situational chaos of changing environments plays a significant role in that horse’s ability to be coached, trained and to ultimately compete.
By its very nature and purpose, Individual Herd Dynamic is where a horse’s competitive nature is housed. IHD is competitive edge in function, but its functionality is highly subject to environmental interpretations in GHD. Without these IHD can be short lived, less than versatile and have a shelf-life much shorter than is required to successfully complete a task. Horses with fluency issues, though quite capable of holding singular targets without losing purposeful body control and expression, have issue with interpreting what’s going on around them making them “jumpy” and their behaviors erratic.
A good example of functional GHD during a race is when a horse is asked to re-kick. A horse operating primarily in IHD will struggle to find a re-kick or to change gears succinctly where a horse that can rely on both GHD and IHD to thread through the environment has the luxury of versatility and conserved emotional energy from which to draw upon. Mentally speaking, any horse can run in-space, but an athlete runs through space.
The environmental impact on performance is often profound because of the very nature of dependency and co-dependency inherent in the horse. These shouldn’t be viewed entirely as negatives because they are collateral requirements of sustainable herd living, they’re part of the ingredients of the horse. Understanding and accepting them becomes a great asset in not only determining how to create an environment of success for the horse but also in selecting a horse for a certain end-goal to begin with. Simply put, fitting the right herd dynamic traits and tendencies with the proper discipline is just as essential as properly fitting body type or breed; ability must have the capacity to meet demand.
Understanding the nature of the IHD and GHD relationship and how it translates to athletic performance is a vital part in determining what is potential, what is practical, and what is unlikely. Decisions that not only have impact financially, but more importantly, for the wellbeing of the horse. Horses with herd dynamic deficiencies will put more stress upon themselves physically and thus require different management and developmental attention than those horses who are more herd dynamically equipped for the challenges. Emotional stress translates to and compounds physical stresses where a herd dynamically capable horse minimizes these stresses. A supple mind leads to a supple body.
Thank You, Kerry
Founder of THT Bloodstock
|Posted on February 28, 2020 at 7:05 AM|
The Classic Distance Horse
Aptitude, the Competitors’ Edge
Kerry M Thomas
Time & Distance; Physical V/S Mental
Mental Fatigue; Physical Stress
Distance; Rhythms in Motion
Distance; Nurture & Develop
Going the Distance; Bottom Line
Distance horses, stayers, routers, whatever terms you use to denote the classic distance athlete; it cannot be denied that an elite horse competing against their peers at 10 furlongs and beyond comes with unique requirements and strategies. Competing at distance has its own set of physical demands, being competitive at distance has its own set of psychological demands; the elite classic horse embodies the convergence of both.
True classic distance horses often beat to a different drum that can be harder to recognize at an early age and even harder to develop because it can take time, and I feel that far too often shortsighted vision and/or the desire for early speed can deprive at least some horses of the opportunity to develop into classic athletes. Be it financial strain or human impatience, or both, the beauty of the classic horse in a “plain brown wrapper” is sometimes overlooked and the art of developing one can seem a rarity. But if you’re truly looking for the classic horse, there are signs.
Even at an early age there will be attributable characteristics both physically and mentally; identifying the behavioral characteristics is essential because regardless of how well the body grows, flaws in the herd dynamic will put a cap on the amount of time the horse can mentally compete, shrinking by extension the physical distance that is mentally competed for, marking the difference between horses running through space and horses running in space. Physically and mentally the young horse will have indicators that help shed light upon their likely athletic fit and then there is the paper trail behind them to also cross reference.
It is a rare thing to identify horses with the complete package in potential, mental, physical and supporting information on their page and rarer still to see the physical and mental horse reach full potential in both aspects as they grow. The fewer holes in their evaluation the better, for one negative can counter two positives, the herd dynamically sound horse can overachieve with higher frequency than the purely physical horse. When the athletes competing are physically similar in ability, by the very nature of herd dynamics those mentally strong will prey upon the mentally weak. Herd dynamic influence is often the space between success or failure, consistency and inconsistency, the ability to lead and the desire to follow. The rules of nature are emotionally charged, competitive stress, especially over a period of time in motion, has a way of settling the argument of hierarchy.
Competitive edge is found where the psychological athlete divides the physically talented; no amount of “data” can truly define what only the horse can tell you.
Time & Distance; Physical V/S Mental
To understand the cohesive, symbiotic nature of the complete classic distance horse one has to break the horse into two parts, the physical athlete and the psychological athlete. The distance horse is one aspect, the horse that competes at distance is another, thus how 10 furlongs and beyond is measured is also in two parts.
Physical distance we measure in ground coverage, psychological “distance” is measured by the duration of competitive focus. For example if you have a horse that checks all the physical boxes for running 10 furlongs and it takes, let’s just say 2 minutes to physically get that far, then you had better make sure the horse can race (mentally compete) for at minimum, 2 minutes of time just to be relevant. Because races 10 furlongs and longer often have within them many situational chaos challenges, each one altering physical pace and gnawing away at mental fortitude, your horses psychological reservoir should have much more “time” in its bank; in other words, the mental aptitude should exceed physical demands.
Distance races against high level peers is as much a battle of wills as anything else and quite often you see developing internal battles for space and position, battles that are emotionally charged and physically expressed. A horse being able to save ground and/or stay out of trouble isn’t always possible, playing it safe isn’t always an option. How a given horse reacts to sudden changes, how they handle stress, has significant influence on total performance ability. How they manage things leading up to the race is also a piece of the total performance puzzle; for this is a part of the “time” equation psychologically. Time of emotional stress is a factor above and beyond physical speed. Emotional stress gnaws away internally, affecting the horse’s ability to be independent within the herd environment lending itself to herd dependencies that subsequently create indecision and drag in moments when swift action is needed. Herd dependency and drag, (delayed responses), compromises versatility; affectively influencing space is thus transitioned to asking for permission to share a space. None of these things translate to consistently competing at classic distances. The shorter the duration of competition the easier it is to outrun one’s own flaws.
The difference between the “one-off” good distance race and the routinely competitive classic athlete is that mentally sound herd dynamic horses are competitive regardless of their herd environment; they are not dependent on it. Horses that struggle managing their emotional stress in herd environments find their performances often disrupted and inconsistent owing to that conflict of minimizing stress. Combat stress is real. Physical fluency is directly related to the herd dynamic ability to manage competitive stress; the same principles that create hierarchy in a natural herd of horses, effect the separation of horses in motion.
Competitive stress is felt regardless of the speed of motion; physical motion can often be expressions of internalized urgency making it wise to understand the natural tendencies of the horse. Physical expressions of stress athletically manifested can be useful, yet if recklessly expressed you may have a boat with no rudder and lose time and ground while control is regained. Loss of forward focus equates to loss of pace. Stress in any form is exhaustive, athletes that are able to adapt to and anticipate things such as herd rhythm changes, help deflect exhaustion and extend both their physical distance and the duration of their competitive distance.
Fatigue is the enemy of sustainability and presents itself in two ways, physical fatigue and mental fatigue; I never want to recruit an athlete who is likely to give in to mental fatigue before physical fatigue. Not only are they often underachievers but they are also far more difficult to coach and train. These horses will achieve to their physical ability, but not beyond it. Athletes that mentally fatigue easily have a shorter competitive time frame and they are left to rely on whatever they can do physically; physical talent can only outrun when it cannot out-compete. This can get you through a lot to be sure against less capable physical competitors, but against peers, over classic distances, mental fortitude (heart, grit or whatever you want to call it) splits the hairs at the top. It is wise to consider behavioral bias when handicapping, selecting horses to invest in or finding races in which to enter. Herd dynamically sound horses by their nature are able to “hold it together” over longer periods of time; extended time-in-motion extends physical distance, competitively.
The distribution of emotional energy is a major component and the clues to identifying natural time-in-motion athletes are found in their unique character traits because of the impact on performance mental fatigue has. Any horse with holes in their herd dynamic are prone to mental exhaustion when they are asked to perform/compete independently of peers, the last thing you want in a classic distance is being unable to close the deal because your horse is relying on another horse for its rhythm, but when mental fatigue kicks in the likelihood of this happening increases.
You always have to be mindful that when you isolate the horse, you’re isolating both their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Things that are less of a concern in a mad dash sprint race can become singularly important with increased time in motion demands. It is essential to consider how an individual’s psychology is likely to affect them physically in the heat of battle; being able to physically withstand the rigors of becoming an athlete is one thing, being equipped to do so mentally, is another. The whole horse is manifested in two parts, both reliant on the other to augment talent.
Mental Fatigue; Physical Stress
Lackluster performance is not the only side effect of mental fatigue, when the focus is short, scattered and withdrawing, physical efficiency is compromised. Not only does mental fatigue shorten competitive distance, it also speeds up physical exhaustion because of anxiety and emotional stresses which translate to and are expressed in, physical movement. When this happens horses are “harder on themselves” than they would be otherwise, stiffer and less fluid increasing wear and tear. Both distance and longevity are arbitrary when the psychological athlete is less than capable and requires a lot more feel and finesse along their journey to the racetrack to keep sound the “not so easy” keeper.
Psychologically sound and independently capable athletes not only give themselves the best chance to optimize their physical talents, they are also helping maintain their own physical health. Horses that “take care of themselves” preserve their bodies by virtue of mental capacity and fluency, minimizing physical wear by not adding to it with mental stress. Perfect conformation is not always easy to find and when found, can be harder to afford and though it is the ideal the reality is a great many horses have some physical concerns, risk is inevitable. Minimizing risk is always the goal and is best done by comparing the physical machine with the operating system running it; the more holes in the herd dynamic the more soundness the body will require because it will have to absorb some degree of additional stress. By the same token a sound herd dynamic allows the body to be more fluent and these horses can move through themselves without added stress from anxiety helping tremendously in optimizing physical talent; you don’t want the mind to get in the way of the body, you want the mental athlete to lead the way. You also do not want to get in the way of the horses psychology by inhibiting their growth patterns and risking further physical stress with unnecessarily applied equipment or pharmaceuticals which can compromise a horses self preservation instincts.
Physically sound horses are valuable to be sure, but true value is found within the psychological athlete; competitive nature not only optimizes individual talent, it can wear down lesser peers. Distance and longevity are tied to both physical ability and competitive nature; scouting athletes requires an evaluation of both, proper training and breeding of the equine athlete, does to.
Distance; Rhythms in Motion
I’m often asked, especially each year as the Kentucky Derby approaches and we begin work on our patterns of motion, herd dynamic analysis (reference Big Race Analysis section on THT Bloodstock website) if there is a certain style or pattern that works best for classic distance. Honestly, early on in my career and at the onset of my research into the psyche of the equine athlete, I used to think that certain patterns of motion were better suited, but once the dust settled on the studies of countless horses with different inherent patterns, it became apparent that inasmuch as patterns of motion certainly play their part, these patterns are an extension of inherently occurring rhythms within the psychology expressing themselves physically. Going further upstream to the source to consider the execution of pattern of motion, has made a profound difference in our evaluations.
Each horse’s baseline “normal” behavioral tendencies are largely individualized, horse to horse; these are varied in any number of ways making a behavior type less influential than the manner in which the tendencies are being expressed.
The key to competitive edge at classic distances is not the rhythm or what we call the “psychological spin cycle” but rather its fluency. When we at THT are evaluating horses, identifying the markers of fluency in the sensory system is an essential part of that for there is a very wide divide between performance ability and fluent or disruptive behavioral tendencies. Running style is dictated by behavioral characteristics, patterns in motion are an expression of them. If there is fluency in the psyche they will be fluently expressed allowing for physical efficiency and optimized performance, if they are not, they will be expressed in a manner that will disrupt physical efficiency, capping performance and potentially increasing harmful physical stresses.
Horses that consistently and effectively come off the pace, close, pounce, like to be up front, are comfortable emerging from the middle of the herd chaos, all have one thing in common; an efficient sensory system. The role of the sensory system as the leading edge of total fluency is vital. Clearing the environment for the body to flow through like a blocker for a running back, sensory soundness is every bit as important to optimizing talent as is physical soundness. (*see essay on Sensory Soundness for more). A sensory sound athlete does not depend on other horses for guidance, only for reference, and be they in a crowd or isolated from it, their rhythms are their own and they do not need to be hidden and carried by other horses to cover a distance of ground. Horses with sensory potholes outsource reflective to whatever degree is required to fill in the gaps, the more holes in the sensory sequence the more volatile the psychological rhythm, the more volatile the rhythm the more susceptible to things like physical inefficiency and drag between sensory and physical lead changes. Horses with herd dependencies have delayed responses and are more often chaperoned through chaos instead of leading themselves through it. All these things gnaw away at distance aptitude and are among the major differences between horses who are left to sprint and those who are more versatile with physical distances.
Herd Dynamic flaws such as holes in the sensory system also affect how emotional energy is distributed thus affecting its sustainability. The further the distance the more useful is energy conservation; saving ground physically and saving time of combat mentally are equally advantageous coming down the stretch. Physically efficient horses can better maximize physical stamina and strength, and herd dynamically sound athletes are able to maximize the stamina of their competitive nature because they can adapt seamlessly while in motion; in classic distance races assimilation can be indispensible.
Anticipate and adapt. Adaptability in nature is versatility in expression; anticipatory response is a herd dynamic game changer.
As horses grow and experience life starting with day 1, they are developing their anticipatory response mechanism via learned experiences and the accompanying associations. In place to help the horse anticipate everything from dangerous situations to what, when and where “my food source is”, anticipation during competition becomes an important component to reaction and response. The anticipatory response mechanism needs to operate with high efficiency in order for any athlete to consistently and competitively cover a distance of ground. It allows the horse to independently complete the sensory sequence of identify, interpret and process before determining response; auto-response and knee-jerk reactions are indicative of herd dependency lingering somewhere which gnaws away time-in-motion emotional energy distribution and athletic efficiency.
Of the influential things that separate individual horses within the natural herd dynamics is the degree of their herd dependency; leaders are prepared to respond after interpretation of situational chaos, follower’s auto-respond to situational chaos. High functioning anticipatory responses allow the horse to maintain speed and pace and or adjust it as needed in accordance with the herd motion without losing mental efficiency. Physical speed may be adjusted for any number of reasons like requiring a re-kick or perhaps a launch from off the pace, that extra hammer to run away from pressing competition; the ability to anticipate environmental changes allows the competitive nature to operate normally, an important virtue for “putting away” a competitor. Sustainable grit even when physically exhausted is a defining factor of greatness, being able to change mental gears without necessitating dramatic changes in physical pace and position is a power-tool in that definition.
It’s worth noting that the adaption process does not only happen in response to herd dynamic v/s herd dynamic scenarios, it also helps in physically managing environmental changes. For the race horse this means things like the cacophony of sound and visuals and smells of scenes like the Kentucky Derby and surface conditions faced during a race. Proper interpretations in these and similar circumstances are vital, pre-race the “scene” can be very stressful and taxing, drawing upon a horses emotional strength and sapping energy that would otherwise be conserved for competition. Big races with chaotic environments can have tremendous impact on overall performance and not every horse is cut out for it. Holding it together at 6 furlongs is a lot different than doing so at 10+ furlongs.
In-race conditions like weather and surface can also add another layer to the assimilation process which can affect time in motion and physical distance aptitudes. Ten furlongs at one race track and ten furlongs at another may very well be quite different and alter effectiveness from race to race because of variances in an athlete’s psychological rhythm. Knowing the total horse helps in finding spots that fit them from the handicapper looking over a card, the trainer looking for the right places to enter, right down to we as talent scouts who say “yes” or “no” to investment choices.
Distance; Nurture & Develop
I have always felt that in any sport there is a wide divide between a trainer by name and a trainer by nature; one working to develop what is, the other working to develop what could be. Data and numbers are useful reference tools, but when coaching emotionally charged athletes, instinct must guide you; nurture the horse, develop the athlete.
Physical conditioning is only part of coaching an athlete, getting a horse physically fit to get 10 furlongs or more only means they can get 10 furlongs or more, it doesn’t mean they will be competing at the wire. Running with the herd and competing against one’s peers are two different things and preparing the horse for both can take time, finesse and some outside the box thinking to exercise the mind while conditioning the body. Even horses with high functioning herd dynamics need to have them developed to hone their skills, something we often see are horses “learning on the fly” as they progress through their races. There are certain things that can only be learned through trial by fire, however competitively natured athletes benefit greatly from mental stimulus and mock challenges in “practice”. Training chisels the body for completion of a task, coaching sharpens the mind preparing it for battle.
When the psychology is left to its own devices for development the horse may or may not ever hone their competitive nature and if they do it may not be in the manner that is best suited for competing at distance. Horses left to be physical athletes first mental athletes second, if at all, give you all they can inside a box of time until physical exhaustion sets in and they literally “run out” of being competitive, where mental athletes will run into it.
Coaching up the competitive nature of the horse means expanding the duration of their competitive focus, exercising the efficiency of sensory lead changes and assimilation to environmental changes. Mental stimulus training for any discipline increases efficiency and minimizes herd dependencies; increasing the duration of focus increases distance capacity and time of performance. Distance works at varying, alternating pace not only benefit the physical stamina of the horse but also help prepare the psychological athlete for extended time in motion, and incorporating mental stimulus assists the development of the competitive nature. I am a big fan of the “long work” and trail rides through the woods, anything that increases the demands in duration of mental focus will aid in distance aptitude.
Some horses that are gifted with herd dynamics well equipped for distance can remain underdeveloped and pigeonholed as pure sprinters because their tendencies and character traits are mishandled along their journey. Horses are emotional athletes and therefore often reflect their environment, any limitations in the coaching and curriculum can greatly impact potential in the athlete; the environmental influences can be one of the greatest assets or one of the greatest antagonists.
Going the Distance; Bottom Line
Competing at classic distances is mentally and physically demanding, when physical exhaustion looms mental fortitude and “grit” makes all the difference. Nothing shortens a horse like emotional stress and exhaustion.
There are certainly many factors involved in a horses athletic journey, not emphasizing the development of their competitive nature along that journey, be it selecting a horse for purchase or coaching them up along the way, can compromise true potential. Horses love to run naturally, but not all horses are competitive in nature; herd structure has built-in co-dependencies and a majority of horses are subject to them. Whether or not dependency will be antagonistic to athletic potential and to what degree, has to be considered, physical talent without the advantage of competitive edge is a great recipe for underachieving.
There’s a difference between recruiting bodies and recruiting athletes; behavioral characteristics play such a significant role in the horse’s life, to marginalize their influence on performance is a mistake. For me the bottom line comes down to one simple analogy, the operating system runs the machine.
Thank You~ Kerry
|Posted on February 11, 2020 at 9:25 AM|
Services Introduction Blog
Ever since I “officially” took the leap of faith in 2008, risking nearly everything I owned to chase the dream of taking my passion and evolving it into a business, I have kept in the back of my mind that eventually I wanted to be able to bring our unique work in Herd Dynamics to as wide an audience as possible. We have the great fortune of working on-location in many beautiful places around the world and most certainly it is always the preferred service method. That said, the gains in technology coupled with the fact that we now incorporate a great deal of it in our evaluations and consultations, a subset of services to allow more people to cost effectively access Herd Dynamic services was in order. This brief review of these is the starting point and we are planning on developing more along the way, so keep an eye out going forward on our website services section and our social media platforms.
One of my deep-rooted personal passions is researching herd dynamics and behavioral genetics; if you read the other blogs posted here or visit my Kerry’s Corner Column on the racing website Past The Wire, you will get a feel for this passion. Along with this passion is the desire to help people through coaching, innovation and education; I like to learn and I like to share with others what I have discovered and share those thoughts that in the end, may assist someone else go a step or two further in their journey. I have and do enjoy lecturing on the herd dynamics, giving clinics and seminars, for our work is most certainly horse first, discipline second. It matters not what breed or discipline, a herd dynamic evaluation is a powerful tool as is coaching to herd dynamic strengths. I enjoy very much the knowledge sharing that happens at seminars and clinics and have often been asked if we offer anything online, from personalized coaching to a tutorial or educational do-it-yourself guide for some basics to help folks. Until now, the answer was no.
THT Online from our point of reference will adopt two forms, one will be products geared toward education and herd dynamic/behavioral genetic tutorials, the other will be versions of existing on-location services that can be usefully adapted off-location to allow more people access to herd dynamics and our innovative research.
I hope you will explore and consider THT for your equestrian needs. Be it one horse or many, from beginner to professional, herd dynamics is for every horse, every discipline, everywhere.
~Kerry M Thomas, Founder
THT Online Herd Dynamics: Educational
The first herd dynamic educational product is taken from what has become THT’s most popular clinic topic, Sensory Soundness Mapping. The biggest challenge we face in herd dynamics is that there are so many interconnecting behavioral genetic pieces that there is a difficulty in isolating segments to be imparted individually. The development of sensory mapping however, in its basic yet highly informative form does lend itself to self-teaching with proper information and is also quite a fun and fascinating part of the evaluation process itself. Suitable for all disciplines and for most individuals with basic horsemanship skills, if you’re interested in receiving a summary of information about the package options and pricing, feel free to send us an email and we will be happy to send it along to you.
Other THT Online herd dynamic educational products are planned for the future; among those being considered is a Handicapping with the Herd Dynamics Tip Sheet. If we do this or any others we will surely announce it on our social media outlets.
THT Online Herd Dynamics: Service Options (suitable for all disciplines)
It is not always possible for folks to bring team THT to their location, or bring their horse or horses to a location near THT, so the following online service options are our effort to bring THT and Herd Dynamics to you as an extension of existing services in a more cost effective manner.
Sensory Soundness Mapping Assist is an extension of the above educational product and is packaged as option 3 in the mapping summary of information that is available upon request. The difference here, instead of a DIY tutorial product alone, included is video review and consultation on your horse mapping with THT Bloodstock founder, Kerry Thomas. In essence you will have the developer of sensory mapping as your tutor. Pricing and additional information are included in the mapping summary of information.
Kerry’s Herd Dynamic Coaching, initially only available to those who asked for it, now an official service, you can secure Kerry as your personal coach online (also on-location) to help you take your riding, understanding and managing of herd dynamics and performance stress to a higher level. Teaming up with your horse psychologically as you both move forward during training be it for the novice rider or high level competitor, is next level performance science. Develop not only your horse’s confidence but your own, team up with Kerry to build your mental stimulus training program, analyze video together, and put the world’s leading herd dynamic performance innovation in your back pocket as you take your equestrian experience to new heights. All ages, all disciplines, many packages available, all pricing case by case per rider goals and requests. Herd Dynamic coaching, here to help you, go next level!
Performance Profiling; for those familiar with our evaluations of the Kentucky Derby contenders (see Big Race Analysis section on the toolbar) you will get a real good feel for the type of detailed information we are able to get from analyzing video. This service is for all disciplines not just racing, and is also applicable to training video analysis. You get a written analysis and consultation to review the report. Options with this service include training recommendations based upon the report and monitoring of progress as well as ongoing support as needed. Cost for this service is on a case by case basis and estimates are free.
Pre-purchase Video Analyses, from sales to private purchase, whether to perform or breed, to cull or keep, don’t decide before you know and don’t invest before you investigate! Important information for all disciplines, no horse is free and no horse is “just a physical being”, with a horse you’re investing in both car and driver. *For Thoroughbreds, pedigree consultations are also available.* Cost for this service is on a case by case basis and free estimates are available.
Environmental Consultation; environment is either your best friend or worst enemy when it comes to your horse. Combining years of natural herd dynamic research with years of being involved in building and developing equine farms and facilities, this is your opportunity to consult with Kerry on developing or enhancing your equestrian center/farm, to better fit your horse’s naturally occurring environmental needs. With access to highly skilled builders, architects, property design and maintenance professionals, coupled with THT’s innovative research in herd dynamics and behavioral genetics, you can tap into professionals approved and sourced through THT. Consultation fees on a case by case basis, free estimates available after case review.
So there you have it, do not hesitate to reach out to us at any time and find out more about how we can help you, achieve your goals!
|Posted on January 10, 2020 at 9:10 AM|
The Human/Horse Connection
Kerry M Thomas
Introduction; Partnerships Through Time
The Horse; Reflections
Emotional Support; Purpose & Reason
Equine PTSD; The Human Parallel
Equine Assisted Education; Learning Is Discovery
Selecting Horses; Purposeful Partnerships
Final Thoughts; Hope Is A Destination
Introduction; Partnership Through Time
The human/horse intersection has for centuries been a partnership that has always had a stronger connection than that of purely workmates. Far from beasts of burden horses have long served in an unofficial role as our emotional partners; their natural ability to sense, feel, absorb and reflect human emotion creates a cathartic and symbiotic relationship. The human and animal interspecies relationship is both mollifying and cohesive and different animals fit into different parameters of human wellness; for example dogs are wonderful human partners to be sure, yet as predatory animals by nature their service and relationship from a companionship perspective is uniquely different than animals that are classified as a prey species.
One of the most important players in emotional wellness therapy is communication. Lack of good communication can cause a number of issues, where quality communication can remedy issues that may be lingering or eliminate them from ever existing in the first place.
Like many of us I have had a long and interesting journey of discovery in my own relationships with horses and have had the unique opportunity to create interactive wellness programs with horse partners and those living with challenges. The one thing that was always very clear to me is that the underlying connection that has assisted greatly in human progress and development is the nurturing aspect between us, serving as a natural therapeutic tonic. This unique relationship, which is certainly accompanied by the beauty and awe of the physical horse, is based upon that which is unseen. You can touch the horse physically, but you connect with the horse emotionally.
Interspecies communication is like the music beyond the words; transcending through perceived barriers, we are connected through our emotions and as we open the window into the unknown, we find our partnership with the horse.
The Horse; Reflections
“The eye of the horse is a mirror to our soul”, this was the very first thought that came to my mind many moons ago when I was asked, while involved in my first horse to human therapeutic partnership, “Why do you think this works so well?”
Why the horse?
What makes horses uniquely suited to human emotional wellness is that their herd dynamic inter-family relationship structure is based upon emotional intelligence and communication; each having their own individual strengths and weaknesses manifesting in dependency/co-dependency necessity for survival both as a “societal” group and as individuals. In many ways the natural herd structure and accord with both the environment and their interpersonal relationships as a whole, mirror our own circumstance. This unique “mirroring” has long been the underwriter of the human and horse partnership. Horses not only afford an aesthetically pleasing visual draw, their emotionally connective ability with humans living with challenges, as well as the family support system, is felt, seen, expressed and shared.
Horses can mirror us in three essential ways; firstly they’re uniquely individual, how the individual connects to and depends upon others for survival is a close second and thirdly by way of their relationship and role in perpetuating the overall herd societal structure.
Horses can “survive” physically with the proverbial food and water but suffer tremendously without quality emotional relationships; psychological isolation even in the mentally strong individual herd animal can manifest into patterns of behavior that are collaterally anti-social, narcissistic and over all difficult to manage in large doses. Even the most independent and emotionally sound horse has a natural affinity for relationships with their peers and though may seem content and “happy” on their own, can struggle to feel a sense of contentment without them.
Individually horses feel and sense many of the same things we do even if not in the same exact manner; their experiences and reactions to them are not accompanied by the gift of reason, (even though not all humans seem to employ reason before reaction). Because horses feel and experience as individuals things such as fear, anxiety, emotional trauma, loneliness as well as happiness, contentment and joy, again albeit in a different tone than we do, they are also subjected to how they fit into the herd puzzle because of these emotions.
You will note that missing from this parallel is the emotion of anger which in the horse is replaced by fear and uncertainty and can be expressed as a form of resentment or even stubbornness. Anger and animosity in the purest sense are antagonists to herd structure and would be counterproductive to their society’s survival because anger not tempered with reason and animosity without the succor of forgiveness can dismember the family structure. Without the cohesive family herd structure, the sustainable success of the species is compromised and fractured. Horses compete naturally for their place in the herd environment but Mother Nature cannot allow them to plot against one another and because of the lack of internally plotted animosities, horses become exceptional, emotionally non-threatening companions. (Competition is natural and healthy for the sustainability of the herd, allowing true leaders to emerge and emotional intelligence to prevail).
Horses reflect and mirror many of the best of our emotions without some of the worst. In light of this we not only find a likeness to the better angels of our nature reflected back to us but also an emotional absorbent of some of the things that we attempt to hide. There is safety in emotionally confiding in horses as they will not “judge” that which we deem as our own inadequacies.
In a compact scale of the herd unit, the individual horse “finding his or her place” or niche in the hierarchical structure also presents similarities to our own experience in doing the same. An extension of ourselves individually; the singular horse is a moveable puzzle piece. Based upon individual strengths and weaknesses each horse will, sometimes through attrition we see expressed physically, both carve out their place as well as seize their space and level. Their personal herd dynamic finds its way into the overall herd dynamics of the group. The primary goal is harmony and safety which leads to the much larger picture the “one small individual” plays; ultimate sustainability of the species.
There is no unimportant individual in any horse society, each cog in the wheel plays an essential role which carries with it responsibility, the smallest relationship a microcosm of the whole. Horses work together in a co-dependent manner because as a prey species the herd survival relies upon it and they are interconnected like dominoes; “your safety and harmony is ultimately in my best interest.”
To be sure, predatory animals living socially also work together and have a structured communicated arrangement. One of the most interesting things in nature I have ever studied has been the offensive and defensive relationship between prey and predator; to make a complex relationship simplified, on the one hand you have a species that “eats to survive” and on the other you have a species that “survives to eat”, so to speak. The differences between the predatory therapy animal and the prey therapy animal are as subtle as they are profound. Horses experience “reward” in the form of social harmony and comfort whereas the predator relates reward sourced through food. Thus the horse aligns with us in our search and yearning for emotional harmony, safety and comfort, making them a naturally fitted partner along the journey of human wellness.
Emotional Support; Purpose & Reason
Horses reach a broader audience than only those who ride them; indeed physical contact, though wonderful, is not required to have a relationship with a horse, the great emotional communicator. Some of the most profound human/horse relationships I ever was witness to were between horses and children living with challenges that made it impossible for them to “touch” the horses, but they were nonetheless touched by them.
Animals have been providing emotional support to humans for centuries, and it could be argued that among the greatest gifts is that very thing. The line between an animal bringing you joy as a “pet” and stability or purpose for your emotional support, is not defined by the animal itself but human need. The connotation “pet” basically means to me “an animal you can pet”, you shower them with care and kindness and enjoy the rewards that that kind of relationship brings you; you being the facilitator.
Emotional support animals play a more caregiver-like role, themselves counted on for their unending love, loyalty, affection, the human thus the recipient. Because of the range of emotions horses can sense and feel, absorb and reflect, they can individually as well as collectively have incredible purpose as emotional support animals. I know for me I have always felt much better after being with a horse or two. Horses may not seem at first glance the ideal thought of emotional support companion because of things like their size and what is required to keep them physically, but when you take a look at the beautiful complexity of their communication ability and social structure you will find a sanctuary for many human emotions.
Emotional support needs can come in a wide variety of areas but its remedy is rooted in communication, a feeling, succor for the yearning of emotional stability and balance, purpose of life. Whether the desire for an emotional support animal comes from a singular area of need or from several, horses can and do provide a source of comfort. Their natural ability to absorb human emotion provides a safe place for the insecure and uncertain, often anxiety filled human counterpart to disarm and unburden themselves of emotions they do not feel comfortable sharing with another.
The sense of requiring emotional support can stem from a collection of anxieties working in unison to make a person feel things like fear and ambiguity; horses are equipped to filter this and provide an environment of catharsis. I truly feel that the greatest therapy a horse has to offer comes from the emotional relationship we have with them. Emotional relationships are a natural desire of human nature, and so they are for the horse, yet when what is required to have a meaningful relationship of any kind is missing, communication, we tend to start projecting. Because they are a “natural absorbent”, emotional wellness therapy that includes the horse as part of it can supply profound results.
You don’t have to “need” an emotional support animal to enjoy the benefits of the relationship and that sense of fulfillment they provide, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with turning to an animal to share the load of emotional complexities we all of deal with. Horses are a great source of companionship for anyone because of their character and personality; if emotional support is what you need they can provide it, if emotional maintenance is what you need, they can provide that also.
Emotional wellness is a major component for sustained physical health and healing, and horses are a wonderful go-to for finding in them, what it is we seek in ourselves.
Equine PTSD, The Human Parallel
The feeling of stress after a traumatic emotional event is something that all sentient beings, animal or human, can and do experience. Fortunately many such experiences only affect a brief time period and are filtered, processed and moved on from. However when the impact of trauma lingers unprocessed or wholly unfiltered, especially when experienced in a life threatening manner or something similar, self preservation identifies a trigger and associates it with the event in order to add a layer of protection against its reoccurrence. Emotional experience plays a very large role in every part of a horse’s psychological life, positive and confident as well as protective and uncertain. Negative, unfiltered experiences of trauma can cause just as much distorted behavior as positive experiences can nurture harmony; it is with the horse, it is with the human.
Horses carrying around behavioral disorders from post traumatic stress can fool you; they can seem to be in perfect harmony with themselves, other horses, and in the environment as a whole. This is because the ghost that is PTSD is frequently associated with a single moment of trauma, and can be for the most part “kept in the closet of the mind” only cracking the door at seemingly unconnected times. Mother Nature’s gift of self preservation helps ensure survival and one of the instruments of its practical use comes from the anticipatory response mechanism. In order to avoid experiencing the trauma again a trigger is assigned and attached to a “memory” and by way of a warning system things in the environment, even loosely attached to the traumatic experience, become associated. (Associations are identified as triggers and anticipated in the form of anxiety). It’s worth noting that horses can also struggle with PTSD from purely emotional experiences; post traumatic stress is emotionally governed, physical trauma with no psychological trauma attached to it will not manifest into an emotional disorder. One of the keys to processing physically seeded Equine PTSD is to provide similar physical experiences with positive emotional outcomes; remedy is rather more complex however, for the emotionally rooted wound.
Trauma that is purely of an emotional aspect or physical injury that has long since healed with a heavy and lingering backdrop of unprocessed emotion still attached, can pave the way for behavioral disruptions. Sensations of fear, abandonment, loneliness or a disconnection from changes in the environment are felt when interpretation ability is compromised by an alarmist (over protective) version of the anticipatory response mechanism; this greatly affects the ability to manage even simple things in life. Psychological challenges stemming from one trigger, just one singular major event can, over time, build and manifest as other loosely associated triggers and further mentally isolate the otherwise naturally gregarious horse. Once the horse begins to feel a sense of internal isolation and isn’t able to as easily communicate themselves to and with other horses or their environment in general, normal and healthy co-dependency/co-existence begins to break down. When the normal avenue of environmental harmony is compromised, the desire for fulfillment becomes internalized and once socially processed stress is isolated, leading to aberrations in behavior patterns. These aberrations can disrupt normal behavior “out of the blue” from “nothing”, like ghosts within the psychology, opening the way for addictive, abnormal patterns within behavior. An addictive pattern within the behavior means that the overload of emotions has become overwhelming to the point that the horse’s tendencies will be to outsource toward things perceived to offer aid.
The strong desire for safety, comfort and appeasement within the growing internal maelstrom of the psyche begins to attach itself to that which gives a sense of relief; this desire is often fulfilled through attachment disorder, (addiction) and/or dangerously expressive physical processing, or both. Once learned experiences (reason) that previously governed the interpretational aspect are superseded by anxiety and anticipation, you’re left with an un-buffered equation of, anticipate and react, sustaining lingering trauma “post event”.
In dealing with and helping to process trauma deeply housed within the psyche it is essential to realize that you’re not going to erase it, it will always be there. Your goal is to soften its impact, minimize the time of its affect and use the very thing which helps trigger it in the first place against it; associations. Once there is a layered experience that manifests into learned behaviors your best opportunity to chip away at the relevancy of the association is to isolate an associated event and overlay the anticipated response with a “comfortable escape”, replacing the expected negative stress.
Compartmentalizing the psyche with closely associated positive experiences affords the opportunity for an individual to realize harmony where there was only anxiety. You’re not re-creating the psyche, you’re working to help align or reassemble the pieces of a puzzle.
Because horses can experience a full range of emotional disorders to one degree or another means they can play a vital role in the development of therapeutic assistance to humans faced with similar challenges. Reflective Learning Therapy is the term I use for this concept because horses offer a safe, non-threatening alternative for those individuals dealing with trauma internally that they do not feel comfortable discussing in detail. The horse is such a great natural emotional communicator they can help absorb, filter and thus reflect back a sense of calm.
In order for affective therapy to take place the person needs to feel they can freely release their stress and emotions without the perceived threat of ridicule or judgment; nothing will be processed without its being absorbed out of the psyche. Working with an equine partner in any number of simple to complicated tasks depending on the situation, begins to build a depth of emotional communication between the human and horse; the avenue with which emotional stress and trauma can be minimized.
Not only can the equine caregiver help therapy emotion in partnership tasks, they are excellent indicators of human emotion that isn’t necessarily and purposefully expressed. Horses are wonderful “barn barometers” and when you want to know the level of stress or anxiety in their human counterpart, all you have to do is watch closely for the subtle signs a horse is giving in reflection. This reflection of human emotion is in my opinion, an essential element for not only identifying the depth of unspoken anxiety and stress, but also the key in developing case specific therapeutic programs. The horse can indicate moments of elevated emotional stress because this is a natural herd dynamic trait that allows them to read the herd environment for signs of danger; making it a natural alarm of sorts when working a person through emotional traumas. Horses, by reflection, can indicate when to press through and when to back off, making them in my opinion a reliable option to consider along the road of wellness.
Equine Assisted Education; Learning Is Discovery
The educator seeking an avenue to enhance the delivery and impact of their curriculum would do well to consider the horse.
Environmentally based classrooms allow for discovery and help encourage self reliance, replacing a sense of outsourcing and dependency. An educational program involving horses not only changes the game from a typical teacher/student classroom perspective, it brings with it a multitude of unique teaching opportunities for students who struggle with “normal” curriculum environments.
Equine assisted education offers many exclusive benefits. Partnered with uniquely devised curriculum for students in teams, in groups, or singularly, horses can provide opportunities for discovering things yet unrealized, help develop enhanced problem solving skills and build the confidence to share thoughts, learn tasks and work with others for a common goal. True learning is poignantly found through the avenue of discovery, creating an environment of discovery is an instructors most powerful tool with which to implement a curriculum; learning “how to learn” and identifying with achievable goals is just as important as the subject matter focused on to get there.
Education presented with practical life skills in accompaniment, is education with depth and substance.
Horses present what is for many students without opportunity quite a different “animal” to learn about and from, allowing the teacher a unique opportunity to choreograph curriculum in ways a typical classroom doesn’t allow for. Yet far from purely their physical presence we once again are accessing the primary tool provided by the emotionally intelligent horse, their communication ability.
Communication skills are at the core of life itself regardless of the relationship whether personal or professional, they are also the key for education and learning. No curriculum can be successfully implemented without efficient lines of communication between those involved. The horses’ ability to assist us with our communicative processes through interaction and environmental awareness presents great opportunity for teaching and learning. Education implemented through horses helps us understand and recognize that only part of communicating is done through written or spoken word, and that learning how to recognize and understand emotional communication, how to read an environment before reacting to it, teaches personal accountability for the impact an individual has to that immediate environment.
It is always important to remember that how information is delivered greatly affects how that information is received and implemented. Emotional inflection carries weight that supersedes the message either in a positive or negative manner, something quite important to be mindful of at all times in all situations. Working with horses in various manners such as specifically designed obstacle courses, present wonderful opportunities for non-verbal, environmental awareness education.
This uncommon “classroom” experience allows the opportunity not only to enhance the student learning experience individually and collectively, it also provides a different avenue of learning, a useful strategy to help the student that views “normal” classrooms as a challenge. Change the environment, change the game.
Courses can be designed for individual skills as well as for teamwork skills, leadership skills, group cooperation, problem solving and programs designed for peer leadership development, to name but a few. The environment of learning has a lot to do with ones willingness to be taught; the more fluid and natural the environment, the more collaborative the education. When lessons learned are a byproduct of discovery and experience, the student can begin to realize that self confident, “can-do” part of them that may have been dormant. This in turn goes a long way for individuals of various backgrounds and “circles of friends” finding ways of mutual understanding and respect; a single dose of individual humanity can supersede an assumed negativity in a group demographic.
Equine assisted education has a lot more to offer than just a field trip excursion, learning to be aware of and care for more than yourself in an environment that demands your attention facilitates learning. Some of the most impactful and lasting lessons we learn are absorbed through experience; when education is built through the avenue of experience, it becomes knowledge.
Selecting Horses; Purposeful Partnerships
Selecting the right horse for any task or future goal is much like a “job interview” of sorts; your primary focus is to choose ability from a pool of character.
Because horses are social animals equipped with emotional intelligence, they are subject to the rhythms of their environment; they will have singular strengths and weaknesses psychologically that greatly affect their ability to manage stress in the environment which by turn has tremendous impact on their ability to perform physically and mentally. The very first question that needs answered is, how well does the individual processes stress? Just because horses as a species are wonderful communicators that are able to both reflect and absorb their environment and are naturally athletic does not mean that every horse as an individual is going to be a rock star. The development of their skill sets individually is incumbent upon the herd structure and where they fit.
The hierarchical structure of the natural herd dynamics are based upon emotional intelligence, this allows for a natural separation of individuals in a herd structure that lends itself to herd sustainability. Physically the horse is athletic by nature, not for the benefit of human sport mind you, but for the benefit of survival in a volatile world. Physically speaking different breeds have been and are bred for specific physical goals and by virtue of this you will increase your chances of getting a physically talented athlete by proxy of the breeding, however that horse’s ability to mentally optimize that which he/she is bred for is still bound to the psyche. This is why in athletics sustaining of high level physical ability can be very difficult and random; unless paired with a herd dynamic evaluation you’re leaving it to fate where on the herd dynamic totem pole your horse is likely to fit. Where they fit plays a major role when in competition against peers.
Matching the total horse to task or goal is essential and a wide range of herd dynamic character traits and tendencies come in to play. When it comes to athletics sure, if you invest in a horse breed dedicated to the sport you will have yourself a horse that has all the earmarks of athleticism that breed delivers, however it doesn’t mean the individual horse is going to be a super star athlete. So few are indeed, because no matter how we try to define the physical breed and lines the individual horse is still a part of Mother Nature’s design; a socially dependent herd animal.
The herd dynamic structure requires different strengths and weaknesses in the majority of horses that bind them together, dependency and codependency creates an atmosphere where individuals need one another for their own survival. This partnership in nature cannot be overruled and will not be “bred-out” of the species so it is best to embrace its existence and respect its influence. Understanding the total horse gives the opportunity to work with what nature has given the individual so that we as trainers, coaches, educators, therapists, caregivers etc., can create an environment of success and employ the advantage of selecting the individual for their own unique character traits.
Horses being contemplated for emotional support partners, wellness caregivers or education accomplices must be considered first and foremost based upon their emotional intelligence and capacity for managing emotional stress. A purposeful partnership, especially when an emotional connection is required for success, can only be fully realized by considering “who” the horse is. It is essential that the herd dynamic traits of the individual horse are suited for what is required for the task at hand or goal that is set.
In wellness therapies matching horse ability to human need is vital, not every horse or human will fit one to the other. One of the contributing factors to “burn out” for horses is being matched to humans and/or an environment they’re not naturally equipped to manage emotionally. Recruiting horses for any program is much more involved than simply taking in a horse for the program. Selecting horses isn’t like going to a car lot and picking out a car that looks good that you can afford, because your car comes with its driver and if you’re on the “previously owned” lot, the unknown history is very much a part of both the now and the future.
The right horse for the right task matched to the naturally fitted goal and or human partner is not only fulfilling for both but quite often magical. The physical horse presents us a vision of beauty, but it is the emotional horse that provides us a connection of meaning.
Final Thoughts; Hope Is A Destination
Realizing hope, embracing its possibility and potential, is a very powerful thing.
There are few things more compromising to the human psyche than forlorn hope; it degrades our potential and minimizes our self worth. Horses have a unique way of being representative of the hope we sometimes don’t sense within ourselves, and for many throughout history the draw was real; a good horse can help you get across the prairie, escape danger, hunt for food, go into battle, or survive the deafening grip of loneliness.
There is a unique connection to be had with horses that is in my opinion, quite different than that which is experienced with other animals for a multitude of reasons. Human nature in all of its many parts aligns well with those that make up the emotional horse, opening the way for a partnership that, like our own with one another, can be as beautiful as it is challenging. Other animals, dogs particularly, certainly provide esteemed and valued connective relationships and being more reasonably accessible than the upkeep and care demands of a horse, dogs are highly prized, reliable companions. I love dogs, I love all animals to be sure, and I feel that the many animal companions provide their own specialized spin on what they bring to the relationship table.
Modern times have changed the once common in everyday life human horse partnership; we have vehicles and machinery and so on, greatly subverting the physical, workman type of relationship we once depended upon as human kind marched through the ages of progress. Yet the fabric of that relationship is still alive and is still of great value and purpose, even if not as commonly accessible or known to as many.
One thing that has long connected us to the horse is hope, we project it into them and they by turn reflect it back into us. We see the hope of success when we find an athlete, we sense the hope in healing when connect in partnership, through the horse we are touched by the promise of hope, and reminded who we are when we see our reflection in their eyes. Horses have a beautiful way of reminding us that no matter what we’re going through in life, hope is a worthy destination.
~Kerry M Thomas
|Posted on December 7, 2019 at 7:25 AM|
The Psychological Athlete;
Coaching Through Tendencies & Stress
Kerry M Thomas
Introduction; Identifying Latent Talent
Merging Abilities; Coaching Athletic Tendencies
Mental Stimulation; Fortified Foundation
Analytics & Outsourcing; Data V/S Instinct
Closing Thoughts; Communication is King
Introduction; Identifying Latent Ability
There are as many ideas and theories surrounding the concept of training and developing talent as there are trainers, coaches, general managers and owners, regardless of the industry or discipline. But long before any of these concepts and theories can be put in to practice, raw talent and ability must first be scouted and assessed. If your goal is to add prospects with elite potential to your program, then an assessment of physical talent must be accompanied by an assessment of psychological ability.
When scouting athletic talent it’s important to recruit those who have self reliant tendencies and are lacking environmental dependency; outsourcing under competitive stress only streamlines the under-achiever. Being able to coach and develop an athlete through emotional demands means knowing their expression of stress is athletic in nature.
Worth and value are two things generally associated with financial cost and potential gain, yet what something costs does not always reflect its actual value when the caprice of psychology and behavior play a vital role in dictating potential and ability. The development and future success of any athlete starts long before they ever begin their physical journey and if you’re scouting physically capable athletes that are not naturally complimented by an athletic psychology you’re working with a divided partnership that is the very essence of inconsistency, mediocrity; wasted talent.
Identifying talent and identifying accessible ability can be two different things. Pure talent is of a physical nature, accessing and developing that ability relies heavily on mental aptitude. Identifying latent psychological strengths can be more difficult to do but no less important than projecting how a young horse will grow. Just as there are physical indicators or “type” that we commonly look for in the body, there are also “type” parameters that can be discovered in the developing psychology.
I have long been of the opinion that no potential recruit should be given a pass on their mental aptitude; tendencies and traits guide the horse through their growth patterns and become stronger or weaker in various aspects with maturity not unlike a horse suddenly growing “toe in”. It is essential to have a base line understanding of the psychology and its likely growth patterns, for if you hope to see your horse develop into a top athlete, you would do well to understand how to develop them physically and mentally to fit these respective areas as they mature. If you don’t, worth and value can become, and often does, grossly disconnected.
To give yourself a fighting chance at realizing value and by so doing increasing worth, you have to evaluate more than the physicality of an athlete, you have to account for and evaluate their emotional intelligence; tendency and stress are always along for the ride. You must ultimately nurture the horse, while you’re developing the athlete. Understanding and identifying latent ability helps guide you toward realistic and achievable goals; little is more frustrating for the human and more damaging to the horse than trying to fit the “square peg into a round hole” scenario. What and athlete is “bred for” or ‘build for” may or may not correspond with what an athlete can actually be expected to achieve.
Merging Abilities; Coaching Athletic Tendencies
Physical talent is trained, mental ability is coached. It is essential that you develop through and not against natural tendency, making an understanding of them paramount to success; stress happens, you must be sure it’s going to be expressed athletically. When you are coaching through inherent natural tendency you are building on existing strengths and minimizing the attrition of residual stress.
In order to ensure proper development the mind must stay ahead of the body, cycling and processing faster than the body is moving. As a coach you need to be able to foresee and anticipate any psychological demands your athlete may encounter while performing and utilize their natural tendencies to give them a pathway for success by incorporating this into the training program.
Emotional stress is a factor to be reckoned with regardless of physical ability and preparation; there’s a difference between “practice” and actual competition. Physical preparation allows you to perform; psychological ability allows you to compete. A training program should never be built solely upon the physical requirements an athlete has to have, but rather built into and merged with the psychological parameters required as well as any of the collateral demands. Physically a horse can be developed and sculpted in a more systematic manner, but psychologically things are far more random and continuous. The mental athlete lives inside its body 24/7 and processes the world on a continuous basis, therefore a great many non-controllable influences in the environment is bombarding the horse in ways often unknown to the human experience. Where humans have reason, horses have reaction and layered experiences, it is essential to be mindful of this when developing training and coaching programs. Collateral influences will either enhance or chip away at an athlete’s ability to perform under stress. The psychological athlete must be fortified in his or her everyday life in order for a horse to be fully capable of maximizing ability on a consistent basis; performance should be a natural extension of who they are.
A study of the nature of the athlete guides you; working within natural tendency, (how the horse expresses stress emotionally and physically), is far more productive than putting a horse into physically stressful circumstances and battling attrition and anxiety. Attrition and anxiety only help to streamline the risk of injury, hitting a performance plateau and “burning out” before their time. Once you understand how a horse is dealing with stress and what their tendencies of reaction to sudden environmental changes are, you can begin to design a coaching program through these avenues. Tendency and expressions of stress can be used as a positive if you work with the inherent tools provided by Mother Nature.
The smallest of details can make a huge difference in competition, for example how a horse physically reacts to a sudden and unexpected change in the environment is a clue to how they will react during like circumstances in the midst of the situational chaos of competing. Depending on the nature of what can appear to be a seemingly innocuous response, tendency and subsequently stress, may be used for or against the competitive aspect. Many things play a role in whether or not it is a pro or con regarding athleticism; from how long the stress lasts to what direction and how deep the emotional response. Just because it happens doesn’t make it a bad thing, it’s how it happens that matters. When natural expression is athletic and controlled it is a useable tendency you can build upon and coach through, if it isn’t, it will be an impediment lurking inside the behavioral genetic code.
Not only is it important to identify tendency under stress in order to know what to expect going forward, but it should be the foundation upon which you build your training program. When you work with and within the nature of your athlete, you minimize stress while maximizing athletic capacity. Being able to recognize inherent reactions in your horse to the circumstances experienced in their training regime is essential and so is not attempting to erase them. Efforts to remove or “train-over” top of tendency will only give you a ticking time-bomb of sorts; where tendency is inherent you have to feel your way through it. Never make an abrupt correction when layers of subtle maneuvering will do, for the horse can develop anxiety and associate all similar experiences with negative responses.
Tendency in motion is the cornerstone from which a successful developmental program is founded because it’s not about what you want the horse to do well; it’s about what the horse does well by nature.
Mental Stimulation; Fortified Foundation
When push comes to shove and your athlete needs another gear, needs to dig deeper to put away a competitor just when physical fatigue is threatening, mental fortitude makes all the difference.
Long before your horse ever competes, the building blocks of grit and mental fortitude are being shaped. Psychological growth is affected by the environment a great deal and contributes to the speed of interpretation which is groomed through mental stimulation; mental stimulation contributes to what amounts to life-skills within and with-out the herd influence. When an athlete is reared in a stimulating environment you not only begin to fortify their future competitive grit you also mitigate the development of bad habits.
Development of the psychologically strong and independent athlete starts in their youth, and your greatest partner is the natural environment.
Incorporating the natural environment the horse experiences on a daily basis into your “education program” allows the horse to hone their skills without them learning at a young age that they’re “working” and thus not loathing the process. Building the foundation that will become the emotionally stable future athlete in any discipline requires blending training and coaching together with common things horses do by nature when left to their own devices.
Among the roles that daily mental stimulus plays in the growth patterns is their influence on the horses’ anticipatory response mechanism. Horses learn best through experience, and through the proper layering of experiences they will begin to associate similar things and thus will develop triggers which anticipate outcome with response. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your goals, be they long term or short term. But it must be remembered, horses learned “life skills” are for them long term associations, so never develop habitual routines that can in the long run undermine a horses ability to “learn a new skill”. Everything you do contributes to the horses education, your habits and patterns of behavior will often become reflected and carried forward long after the horse moves on to their next stage. When a horse has to learn new things that are closely related to but not the “same as” along their journey, they can showcase a mixed bag of results because of the idiosyncrasies inherent in their associative process. Multiple stimuli in changing environments helps balance the growth patterns in horses, growth patterns that at length translate to patterns in motion.
As they grow you’re nurturing processes layer the horse’s experiences and begins to build a depth to their emotional energy, allowing them to sustain physical effort more efficiently. This is an important step toward both sustainability and consistency as an athlete; the psychology with more staying power than is ever going to be asked for physically, is an athletic psychology that fully optimizes physical talent. In short, if you’re physically training the athlete to finish 10 furlongs, the psychological athlete should be coached and prepared to compete at many lengths of time further than that; duration of focus is your key to conditioning the athletic psychology for competition. When a horse has to finish in order to win, they need more depth of grit than their closest competitor and the sustainable fortitude to not mentally beat themselves. If you’re training for a task the athlete is not mentally equipped to handle, you may find yourself terribly disappointed in the outcome. Little brings more risk of becoming an average performer as well as an injury prone one, than does psychological weakness and fatigue.
There are two kinds of fatigue, physical and psychological; a deep well emotionally will carry the athlete when everything seems “done-in” if it is well nurtured and accounted for in the everyday environment the horse is experiencing. Little is more confining and fatiguing than a feeling of being hemmed in psychologically with no manner available for expression, and not being provided an avenue of emotional release in everyday life can lead a horse down the path of inconsistent and erratic behavior. It is also a contributing factor to a horse that is lacking in basic herd dynamic “social” skills; an inability to anticipate the motion of other horses independently means one thing, herd dependency. We must bear in mind that in many ways horses teach other horses things we can never teach them, hence the primary function in nature of the bachelor herd.
Raw and deep emotional strength in a prospect is the clay from which mental fortitude is molded, the building blocks of grit. Left to their own devices your athlete’s psychological ability may develop useful aspects when in competition, but when focused on specifically during psychological growth, they take the form of patterns of behavior and fortify the existing competitive nature of the athlete.
It’s always best to be ever mindful that the mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete. When scouting talent at any stage, the emotional horse must be accounted for because as emotional athlete’s horses are often a reflection of their environment.
Analytics & Outsourcing; Data V/S Instinct
In today’s world an answer to nearly every question is right at our fingertips, we’re bombarded with data and analytical information to the point it seems we sometimes forget we can actually think for ourselves.
When a horse is prone to outsourcing and leans upon other horses or things in the environment to guide them because they’re not herd dynamically strong enough to be independent, these outsourcing dependencies weaken the athletic power and competitive aptitude of the horse. It also compromises the horse’s ability to learn; learning is replaced by being taught. At the core of learning is experience, being taught is getting information another has discovered; both have their advantages but learning sticks more profoundly. Often what is taught works in the moment while what is learned works for a lifetime.
The nature of outsourcing is that it lends itself to becoming habitual, one dependency two dependency three, until the horse is just another face in the herd dynamic crowd. Teaching them to rely and react to outsourced triggers is handy but inherently dependent upon the trigger. Allowing them to learn by creating an environment of experience engages their anticipatory response mechanism making them highly versatile and independent “thinkers” in competition and situational chaos. Teaching is good, learning is empowering.
There is a manual or step by step how-to guide for just about everything; this is ok if you’re fixing your washing machine or building a model, but not when you’re molding an athlete. Analytics and data are I agree, a very useful tool, they have an important part to play as a reference point, but when they are paired with athletics that are driven by emotion, they should never supersede, unchallenged, natural feel and instinct either in the manner a person learns to coach and train or in how they are coaching and training athletes. As much as it may be desired, we cannot machine away emotion.
Outsourced data mining isn’t devoid of merit and it has its strengths so long as its perceived importance doesn’t “outsource” the human for the robot. There is an obvious and very useful depth of information to be had and applied in things like pedigree, body typing, DNA, and a very good base line of information to refer to as standard protocol for physical fitness training and the list goes on and on. The value of information lies deeply in the manner with which it used. Over reliance on analytics however, puts us at risk; we can’t let what we’re told to see distort what we we’re actually seeing. It’s quite a bit harder to coach a horse through their natural tendencies when your own instinct and feel are jaded by an infusion of data and your common sense is being bombarded by outsourced studies.
Regardless of the sport, when “coaches” and trainers rely heavily on outsourcing and data to guide them it only serves to compound the attrition between talent and athlete, for there is a distinction between them. Instinct cannot and should not be replaced by “what the numbers say”. “Feel” is essential when physical talent relies on psychological aptitude and attitude. Horses react and interpret their world instinctively, thus their development must be benchmarked upon the instincts of their humans.
Among the challenges to and weaknesses of analytics as primary guide is that it cannot answer all the questions; data doesn’t teach you how to interpret in the moment emotional changes and adjust to them. You can have a game plan but your best asset is in your ability to recognize the nuance of emotion (often described as momentum-swings in many sports) and in your willingness to toss the playbook on the bench and coach from the-seat-of-your-pants.
Emotion is not a data point, in a circumstance where emotion plays no role in the outcome then data can reign king, but when paired with a sport whose athletes are affected and largely driven by their emotional fortitude, data is, albeit useful for sure, a side dish to the main. Information in aggregate plays its role, but information alone doesn’t itself necessarily translate to successful distribution, taught and applied. Like any sourced information, how it is delivered affects how it is received. If analytics were all that were needed in coaching, developing and recruiting athletes would come down to physical ability and mechanics alone. In the end you sometimes just need to forget about all the noise long enough to ask yourself “yeah but can he/she play”?
When it comes to developing athletes, knowledge without experience is learning you can’t deliver effectively.
The very best teachers and coaches I ever had in my life were highly knowledgeable in their fields but also knew instinctively how to create their curriculum based upon the individual needs in the room or on the field. My greatest lessons were those I discovered and experienced. Great coaches teach through the natural tendencies of their students and athletes, giving us individually the very best opportunity to succeed; a template little different when developing horses. We rarely recall in detail individual things unless there is an emotional aspect attached to them. Creating an emotional experience when you’re developing equine athletes is every bit as important to it’s being retained and successfully deployed when called upon, as it is for human athletes. When what you’re learning leaves an impression, it’s retained without effort.
Closing Thoughts; Communication is King
I often find myself shaking my head and asking, do we need a study for everything? We’re told how to live, how to think, what to wear, how to feel… this all translates to how we train, how we coach, how we identify talent. The number one complimentary asset to both coaching as well as learning is communication. Being able to communicate on an emotional level not only gives you an advantage in recognizing latent talent, it also provides you the avenue for which you’re coaching can become an emotional and lasting experience. Some of the most challenging terrain to ever be navigated is the landscape of changing emotions; missteps here often lead to an impasse that impedes a successful relationship.
Any number of “communication” devices is at hand but that doesn’t mean quality communication is taking place, and when we rely heavily on an emoji as our form of expressing our feelings, the receiver has little chance of truly experiencing the emotion that is behind it or being accountable to it. When it becomes easier to outsource our expressions than it is to actually feel and embrace them, we’re chipping away at what makes us whole and minimizing our individual accountability on the environment we create.
Good communication is also essential in the development of training and coaching programs that maximize an athlete’s talent and ability because you’re able to better understand how they’re expressing emotional stresses not always seen as much as they’re felt. Being able to identify how the prospect or athlete in training is communicating as well as interpreting the world around them singularly, allows you to develop all of their abilities collectively. Tapping into that powerful resource in your athletes that is their emotional depth helps to ensure that they will not mentally tire before they become physically exhausted.
Whatever your goal is for the horse you’re investing in, be it the Kentucky Derby or Grand Prix Dressage, you’d better be darn sure there’s a depth of mental fortitude capable of getting you there. Horses are beautiful creatures, emotional and powerful, and not a plug and play investment hinged upon analytics.
Too much outsourcing puts us at risk of diminishing self reliance and excusing responsibility, helping to weaken mental fortitude, toughness and grit along the way. What do we have to gain when we desire to outsource everything besides handing over accountability; coaching through tendency and stress only becomes more challenging when we try to harness and machine emotion.
In my way of thinking, a few things you should never seek to outsource are your decisions, your self-worth, your dreams, your courage, your accountability, your happiness. Starting down the path of reliance instead of accountability leads to a slippery slope of dependency; it’s quite alright to fail, so long as you remember to lift yourself back up, and not become its victim.
Kindly Yours, Kerry
Founder of THT Bloodstock