|Posted on November 7, 2017 at 6:35 PM|
Equine PTSD; an Emotional Reflection
A Position Paper
I am of the opinion that any living thing that can express itself with emotion in any degree can also in the manner of those degrees experience contentment or stress. My name is Kerry Thomas and I am the founder of THT Bloodstock, and the following are my thoughts and postulations on a topic I have, like many, long been acquainted with before I realized that I was.
Having spent countless hours studying herd dynamics, stress management, communication, natural tendencies and all of the things Behavioral Genetic that relate to physical expression and performance, one of the most recurring challenges I have faced in all breeds of horses in all disciplines, was to unravel the mystery of psychosomatic disruptions. The debilitating anxiety disorder that occurs after experiencing a traumatic event, PTSD, manifests its ugly head in any number of ways and is an equal opportunity emotional virus that can affect the emotionally expressive; the higher the sophistication of the species, the more demoralizing its grasp.
During the process of profiling and evaluating horses over the years, regardless of their discipline, I have come across more behavioral disruptions “out of nowhere” than I can count. More often than not, a deeper evaluation shows sensory lead changes or “sensory transition” issues somewhere in the horses basic sensory system processes are the cause. Or there is a herd dynamic gap that isn’t being properly filled; but not in all of the cases. Bottom line, there are a great many horses suffering in silence from psychosomatic challenges that stem from emotional scars they cannot so easily communicate to us, not unless we first acknowledge that this type of affliction can be experienced by our equine comrades.
Once I realized an equine version of PTSD was not only a reality but highly disruptive to the trainability of an athlete as well as to the basic psychological growth patterns of the horse in general, I knew I had to dig deeper. Our goal in equine athletics is focused on identifying elite potential in the operating systems which in turn allow for the optimization of physical ability. There are many inroads to the psyche and their efficient translation to the physical athlete is hinged upon an individual’s ability to manage and process emotional stress. It goes deeper than that, far beyond the race track or the arena, we see its impact and residual effects on the basic quality of life long after a scaring incident occurs.
Equine PTSD & Psychosis; in Manifest
Far too often in my opinion are we quick to want to put a wrap or salve on a problem instead of digging in and tackling the actual causes. It is simply too easy to remedy a symptom than unravel its cause, we see this not only in medicine but also social aspects, it has become for some, the nature of things; the quick and the easy. Short term comforts for long term issues.
To truly understand how Equine PTSD happens, I think we must first ask the question, how it doesn’t happen. What filters and buffers are in place that helps assuage the manifestation of emotional stress?
At its base, environmental stimuli is filtered through two avenues in the horses world; an individual aspect and a herd aspect. The individual aspect is the core that is the sensory system super highway taking in environmental stimulus and filtering it through the lens of self; behavioral tendencies, seasoning, sensory soundness strengths or weaknesses which are thus indicative of an individual’s placement in the overall herd hierarchy. The herd aspect is the same core with the information filtered first through the herd dynamics of the family structure. This is especially important in youth while the young horse is experiencing the world through the safety net of the group. A solid family unit creates a platform for the young horse to find and define their place in the world they’re experiencing and plays a profound role in their ability to manage emotional stress and the ever changing natural environment in which they live. In essence, it is the key to learning and proper psychological growth patterns. As the young horse communicates with the environment they have the communication with the herd to buffer, filter, protect. As their bodies grow, their minds can develop a few steps ahead, helping to keep them safe from injury.
Because the family unit plays a major role in the individual’s ability to manage and filter emotional stresses, removal from this too young and/or tossed into an artificial and incomplete herd structure at a young age, opens the door for gaps in the natural development of the psyche. When the at large family structure is not available the herd craving horse has part of the education system removed and is by default reliant then upon their own often underdeveloped psychologies. The basic instincts of survival lose their buffer of the herd and can become over reactive in their nature, further interrupting psychological growth patterns.
The disruption of the family unit too young without proper surrogate does not of course always produce anxieties and interrupted growth patterns to the point where all horses will suffer from emotional stresses they cannot filter, but it is often a contributing factor especially in the middle to lower herd dynamic. As a herd animal where a system of hierarchy and communication through the ranks is essential for unit survival, the majority of animals, roughly 85%, will necessarily fall into the upper middle to lower herd dynamic ranks. From a purely herd dynamic standpoint, this hierarchy has very little to do with physicality and everything to do with psychology.
To understand how psychosis gets in and what we can do to help assuage its impact (for I do not believe we can erratic it, only soften or hope to circumvent its impact) we must understand the psychology of the herd dynamics. Because the way in, is also the way out.
The higher we travel up the herd dynamic scale the more complete the individual horse psychology, upper level and lead horses have fewer gaps in the sensory sequences and therefore less development of environmental dependencies. These horses have the fewest interruptions in their psychological growth patterns and thus have a better aptitude for processing emotional stresses themselves; when it comes to athletics, sensory soundness is the first step to optimizing physical ability. That is not to say that a less than complete sensory system and herd dynamic is equal to the inability of physical optimization but it does mean there are going to be more obstacles along the way, more emotional dependencies mean more struggles with emotional stress processing. Emotional wellness is directly related to physical health and convalescence, stress management, performance and on and on. There are few things more demoralizing than psychological shackles.
The sensory system is the surveillance system for the environment, feeding information into the psyche for interpretation which is based upon a mixture of basic instincts, learned experience and social structure to determine a reaction both emotionally and physically. Just like we talk about a horse making proper “lead changes” physically to manifest efficient physical motion, the sensory system too must have proper and efficient “lead changes” in order to maximize emotional intelligence. The more gaps in this sequence, the less efficient, the less efficient, the more dependencies can develop, especially under stress.
In a normal herd setting and by its very nature, the development of codependency is normal and essential to the group survival as is the reliance on herd mates to fill in the gaps so to speak. The role of the underling horses is to help sustain the group by proxy; masking the true leadership from predators. The only way a herd of animals can sustain itself in open space is if the leadership is concealed, and part of this concealment strategy by Mother Nature is to create more mid and lower level members who, because of their dependent psychologies, have more reactive physical responses to stress and hierarchy struggles. Which by turn brings attention focused upon them by the predator; the herd has a better chance to survive when the leaders are not obvious targets.
To protect themselves when they can’t “check in with their herd mates” mid level horses under stress often revert back to a key basic instinct dynamic, one that plays a major role in the psychological growth patterns of the horse; the anticipatory response mechanism or ARM as I call it.
Anticipatory responses in youth are little more than knee jerk physical responses, reaction/non-actions, that take place prior to the buffer of experience. In other words, a weanling (you will see fawns do this often too) that stands perfectly still in the face of supposed danger or runs frightfully away from it, sometimes into a fence or a car. There are yet too little learned behaviors and experience from which to assist in the interpretation processes, so what we have is purely reactive. Over time and experience environmental stimuli is, in associated circumstances, anticipated and interpreted cohesively allowing a higher level of body control and physical reaction/non-action accordingly. This is the core of adaptability, stress management and psychological growth patterns; how horses learn. In a normal herd setting horses will also depend on those around them to help determine a safe course of action. Ever see a group of horses near one another, one horse jump or start and like domino’s several other horses do the same or similar? This is the anticipatory response mechanism in living color. You can begin to see where on the herd dynamic scale a horse is and how efficient their sensory soundness is, by the length of time it takes for them to regain invisible-in-open-space status and controlled physical movement. The longer it takes, the more “at-risk” the horse is for psychosomatic issues to develop and the more dependencies on things other than self the horse is for stress filtration.
Again, in a normal herd setting these puzzle pieces fit together and support one another, codependent as they are, and for the most part emotional wellness and harmony is all you can see. Remove the horse from these naturally occurring dependencies, put them alone, or with other horses with just as many sensory and herd dynamic gaps, or with human counterparts insensitive to herd dynamic needs, anxiety, stress trauma, begin to leave their mark. Processing is everything, high level horses process better and have less outside dependencies than do their lower level (the majority), herd mates.
When a race horse has visual interpretative issues affecting physical performance trainers can use blinkers, but what if the physical disruptions are not physically related?
Unprocessed trauma, regardless of how or when it occurs, can leave an emotional scar that even though cannot be seen, can run very deep and cause quality of life disruptions. Equine PTSD is an emotional response to actual or anticipated stimuli of a former experience that was not, or could not be properly interpreted and filtered. There are numerous sources and potential sources in which to lay blame, from inward to outward, neither lessen the anxiety disorder.
Trauma unfiltered for whatever reason becomes a learned negative experience, a layer that by virtue of the basic survival instinct, is housed within the anticipatory response mechanism for safe keeping, ready at a moment’s notice to “protect the self” by anticipating the same or similar experience purely by association. Horses can learn and excel through the process of anticipation and association, when the experience is positive. But when the experience changes to a negative, the same learning tools turn from growing the horse to protecting the horse; this is naturally occurring, it is nature’s way of adapting to changing environments. For example, the horse by this process learns not to run from a blowing sage bush, yet to run from an attacking mountain lion the same way you may have learned you could slip on ice or any similar slippery or potentially slippery surface. You adjust, they adjust; self preservation.
The same process that opens the way for positive triggers and growth after an experience also can lead to negative triggers and behavioral disruptions; Equine PTSD. Make no mistake, horses on any position of the herd dynamic hierarchy can suffer from this emotional scarring, the differences here are found in the degrees of expression as well their therapeutic process.
Post traumatic stress can be subtle and passing or it can be loud and crippling. It can be triggered by the same or similar stimuli or, thanks to the anticipatory response mechanism; it can be triggered from stimuli remotely associated with the actual cause, making getting to the bottom of it in your horse, more than a little challenging.
Remedy; the Only Way Out, Is Through
Processing emotional scar tissue has to come from the avenue from which it came, this is not an easy assignment nor is there a snap your fingers methodology. Understanding the nature of the apparition is the first step to identifying the likely cause. Because negative triggers can happen from associated anticipations, so can positive associations; you do not have to nor are you ever likely to remove the actual cause, for you cannot erase an experience, but you can use associative positive triggers to chip away at the impact.
The anticipatory response mechanism is your key.
A personal understanding of how an actual experience becomes an anticipated experience is important because the principle is the same for us as well. Once as a child I sat down at the dinner table and my mother had prepared vegetable soup, after taking one spoonful I got sick. To this day I cannot eat vegetable soup even though I know full well it wasn’t the soup that made me sick, I was already ill at that time. But it doesn’t matter, I love every ingredient by itself in vegetable soup, but my negative trigger by association keeps me away from it. This is an isolated example, an isolated trigger with a direct but clear affect without accompanying associations because I can eat all other soups. The remedy here is as simple as avoiding the trigger altogether.
Other forms of associative negative triggers are far more physically expressive and far reaching. There are traumatic experiences which are parlayed to similar environments, triggering a negative memory thus a negative response even when far removed from the original cause in time and space. The higher degree of trauma the deeper the scar, the deeper the scar the harder to manage; in these situations we have to use the same avenue that let it in, to process it out. The only way out is through.
Emotional trauma is a troubling experience; a singular experience of high emotional impact is marked in the psyche as a negative trigger, negative triggers are anticipated along with much of the associative environment. This happens because this is how the horse learns, survives, self preserves. If you’re ambushed at a watering hole, and survive, you will never forget that and may never use that same watering hole or if you do your environmental awareness is far more acute. Its part of the survival process and why young horses can be aloof when older horses are aware.
The remedy for softening the psychosomatic responses from traumatic experience is the process of layering positive associative experience that also will become anticipated. Processing Equine PTSD when we have no real way of understanding what the actual cause was can only be done in stages, these stages are layered experiences. The key to success is to create positive experience that can be anticipated in similar but different environments, and you should not start by trying to meet the demon head on, you must circumvent. By so doing you are creating an emotional comfort zone for the horse to escape into instead of the recurring nightmare of anxiety and fear and tapping into another basic instinct, the natural tendency of adaptability.
Let’s be clear that comfort and “reward” for a horse, a prey animal, is not based upon a physical thing like treats but by emotional calm and stability. As emotional animals horses are a reflection of their environment, not just the physical environment but the emotional environment. You reward your horse with calm and emotional safety and you therapy the horse patient with the same; you become the sponge for emotional stress by countering it with calm quiet matter-of-fact presence.
What do I mean by circumventing by association that allows the anticipatory response mechanism to trigger from positive experience? As an example I’ll use a case I was involved in regarding a horse that was essentially sensory sound after evaluation that also occasionally spooked from out of nowhere, spooking from ghosts as the client told me. The horse would show signs of anxiety in particular environments and sometimes this would erupt physically, and I found that certain environmental stimuli caused the stiffening anxiety and others caused the physical eruption, and I knew we had varying degrees of association. Some triggers were loosely associated and some were more closely related to a past trauma.
I began to realize that the horse would show signs of anxiety and stress when walking out of the barn, onto a trailer, or around a corner etc., and he was telling me these were similar to him and he was associating them, thus anticipating “something” negative. A closer study revealed that physical speed of approach and physical space from the “perceived trigger point” could manipulate the degree higher or lower, the emotional impact which by proxy becomes the vehicle for manipulation of the event. Once you have established this kind of soft skill manipulation of the negative anticipation you have established more maneuverability; influencing the outcome or resulting emotion by controlling the perceived environment. There are for the ill and struggling two environments; one of them the actual and the other the perceived and anticipated. Therapy requires the therapist to blend them together while manipulating the outcome by the “safe out” comfort zone.
In this particular case I manipulated the interpretation process by altering the physical condition of speed and space in similar environments over time, slowly working through the processing in accordion-like layers until the negative trigger points were less prevalent. I never knew what traumatic event was associated with or was the actual cause of the anxiety disorder regarding the horse, there was no bowl of soup at the root to blame directly. In situations like these with so many unknowns the only option is to circumvent by association. Unfortunately there is no one size fits all step by step process when it comes to Equine PTSD of this nature, there is no timetable and there are no guarantees. Because so many things play a role in the inception of psychosis, sensory soundness, naturally occurring tendencies, overall herd dynamic and so on, therapeutic measures must be hinged upon the basic individual psychology to be affective. If not, you risk causing the horse more problems.
Reflective Learning Therapy; the Human, Horse Connection
Emotional communication, it is the highest and purest form of communicating. Emotional communication transcends spoken language and supersedes in impression physical expression. If you think of language in the context of song, we can appreciate and be affected by the music even if we cannot understand the words.
Horses are excellent emotional communicators and they are natural sponges absorbing the emotional vibe of their environment; it allows them to communicate in quiet subtlety with one another, it allows them to reflect the emotions of humans. This unique emotional connection with the horse is what makes the horse not just a wonderful human partner, but also a highly sensitive and fine tuned vehicle for emotional wellness therapies.
Having had the pleasure to help develop horse based therapies for people of all ages with physical and emotional challenges, one of the consistent go-to indicators in helping develop individual therapies is the horses ability to reflect human emotion. High level herd dynamic communicators can anticipate human anxiety and stress and are capable of giving subtle cues before there is a physical disruption. Having worked with those who have a difficult time “talking about it” or who simply cannot speak, the horse became both absorber and translator. I have long felt that within this relationship could be found a key to innovative emotional wellness therapies. In a carefully created environment, the person and their horse therapist create a unique partnership with the horse helping process the personal emotional stress and anxiety. Most especially individuals who carry their emotions and their own PTSD and other struggles very close and buried deep, the horse in partnership by a natural connection becomes the emotional processor.
When the right horse, emotionally, is partnered with the individual of certain emotional needs, the connective relationship and unspoken communication creates a comfort zone and within this relationship disruptive human emotion has a place to be filtered. An essential aspect of this is accessing the ‘right’ horse for this process to be fully affective. The ideal horse psychology for this is the adjunct horse within a natural herd dynamic. The adjunct horse in a herd structure is an upper level herd member that acts as the go between from leadership to underling in times of high stress and normal herd motion alike. Very often mistaken for the lead horse, this high level communicator acts much like the emotional buffer between and within the ranks, further protecting the actual leadership from predator targeting. These horses have a natural shared leadership essence and are sensory sound with nurturing tendencies. Ideal for the nurturing task required.
One of the very unique and exciting things I am eager to continue to explore is utilizing the horse to reflect human stress and anxiety caused by an environmental trigger, actual or in association, before said trigger has its full impact. By so doing, I believe we can begin to identify associative triggers of PTSD and psychosomatic illness and use this information to create new and innovative emotional wellness therapies. Using the same template of base understanding regarding the anticipatory response mechanism which mechanically creates negative triggers after trauma, we can, through the human horse relationship, manipulate the environment in a therapeutic manner.
I am anxious for the potential in Reflective Learning Therapy and excited to continue to expand upon its potential in helping those in need. Stay Tuned…
Kerry M Thomas
Founder of THT Bloodstock Twitter = @Thomasherding / FB = THT Bloodstock
*For additional information on Behavioral Tendencies and Sensory Soundness I recommend reading the introduction section to both the 2017 & 2016 Kentucky Derby Analysis found at www.thtbloodstock.com Big Race Analysis section.
**Clinics and lectures are available upon request
“The first step to achieving your goals, is believing that you can.” KMT
|Posted on August 7, 2017 at 1:30 PM|
At The Top; Longevity
The Herd Dynamics of Colts in Nature
Opinion Piece By:
Kerry M Thomas
One of the questions that arise along the way in the world of racing is "why did this elite athlete suddenly look quite beatable?" It’s a question with many possible answers and when put to me, as has been recently regarding Arrogate I said, “Probably nothing but nature.” This may or may not have satisfactorily answered the question, but for me it created a reflection of the true nature of the Herd Dynamics, and Mother Nature’s rules as played out in a sport of our creation.
It is my personal opinion that Mother Nature’s basic and comprehensive design will always, in the end, govern the principles of the species regardless of the humans who infringe upon them their will. The very many intricate parts that make up the natural herd structure are sex dependent because of their individual characteristics, and group sustainable because of their cohesive, codependent nature.
The overall herd structure is, like any good relationship, a cooperative of different dynamics all working toward a common goal. For any social group to be sustained and survive in changing environments there has to be two things; a hierarchy of leadership which allow for different roles within the group, and interchangeable characters rising up within that group to allow new leadership to develop and adapt to these changing environments.
Roughly 75% of the herd pool is made up of Mid-Level-HD (Herd Dynamics), horses that have herd dependencies relevant for their individual survival. This level is also the spawning ground for greatness as young horses with the least herd and environmental dependencies (rooted in their natural tendencies under stress and their overall sensory soundness; psycho-sensory interpretations at this level are the building blocks of psychological growth patterns). Fifteen percent of horses never reach mid level status; these are the infirm, the overly herd/environmentally dependent, the very young, the highly deficient sensory sound and so on. These horses represent the greatest risk of being targeted by predators so they often struggle for position in the “loudest” physical actions which only serves to further their being targets. In this way nature helps ensure predators nearly always select from this lower rank. Likewise, the higher a horse elevates, the less noticeable is the individual within the crowd thus the less likely to be selected as a target; Mother Nature craftily conceals her true leadership in plain sight. About 10% of any given herd has individuals who will have the natural ability to move up above the mid level range, the “prepping” ground for true leadership, and 3% to 5% of those will actually achieve it.
The bigger herd picture is then broken down yet again within the sexes. Mares/Fillies are roughly psychologically made up of 75% Group Herd Dynamic (GHD), (*See our website’s Glossary of Terms*) which means in short that by their nature they are more inclined to overall herd sustainment by awareness of multiple members and multiple environmental stimuli. This is because their required job is to maintain inner family continuity and structure. Colt psychology is the counterpoint with 75% Individual Herd Dynamic (IHD) which essentially means their propensity is toward singular members and singular stimuli in the environment because of their natural job. As herd protector the lead colt operates on the fringes of the family unit more often than not, with a focus on individual targets.
An example of this in operation can be found in the fact that in nature there are bachelor herds roaming about; often a random mixture of loosely affiliated colts both young and old who are likely to band up with just one other peer within this loosely organized herd structure. A high level Colt/Stallion only needs one comrade for companionship, a high level Filly/Mare often prefers the company of more than one subordinate in her environment and when she doesn’t have that, emotional stress and miscreant behaviors can develop. As well, especially as a colt matures into a lead herd dynamic stallion, too many targets in a defined area can often result in erratic behaviors and emotional stresses.
The part of the Bachelor Herd in nature is an essential piece of the sustainable herd structure, playing a key role in the bubble-up of herd leadership and the development of future challengers of herd dominion. Taking the fabric of the actual herd structure in consideration we see Mother Nature puts restrictions in place that allow for new blood to be, through the course of time, injected into the family unit so that a micro-evolution is always happening. This safeguard for “over-interbreeding” comes with a time limit for the male leadership. Females can stay within the same family unit for most if not all of their lives, but males must come and go over periods of time for the health of the herd. In short, to ensure that the very best males are breeding at any given time, the lead, high level herd dynamic stallion is tirelessly challenged for his position. In descending fashion, the up and coming hopefuls are always vying for position in some manner whether successful or not. The successful climb to the next rung, the unsuccessful continue to be boxing partners who prepare them.
Among the most difficult things for a colt to do is to hang on to his elite herd dynamic position. Therein can be found, in my opinion, the very nature of 'why', when asked about an apparent dominant male athlete who suddenly appears beatable and average.
There is any number of examples from which to draw when it comes to colts that appear simply untouchable, like Arrogate, who shatter our fragile image of greatness with an injection of mediocrity. The disappointment and finger pointing of humans notwithstanding, quite often the real culprit that should be charged, is Mother Nature herself. What appears as a moment of weakness in the face of competition may very well be little more than a natural progression within the herd dynamics.
There is no time table that governs with exactness just how long any individual colt that rises to the elite levels of the herd dynamics will stay there; it can be as random as pin-pointing where lightning may strike. Part of the survival strategy in nature is the fact that along with the potential for a more sustained leadership role, moment to moment leadership exchanges often happen and this also serves a purpose; it allows for a random injection of new blood into the family units. This leader one day, adjunct the next reality serves a greater purpose in aiding in the evolution of a sustainable herd over time.
A myriad of factors play their critical part in this overall equation from the obvious physical health of the horse to their continued ability to manage the emotional stress within an environment of leadership. The elite stallion of the herd is not the part to be played by an individual horse but rather it is a herd position to be filled by whoever is elite and earns the position; new leadership roles are always available to any would-be competitor. The longer period of time any given stallion maintains his position, the more impressive he is as an individual embodiment of elite IHD and by virtue the longer he has to inject the family unit with his genes. This too plays a role as it helps to ensure both the physical and behavioral genetic health of the herd. Short term leader’s help by mixing in some random genes from time to time, long term leaders help build a base of herd dynamic strengths; together they help keep a healthy mixture of different but similar individuals.
If we take this template and translate it to competitive sports, especially a herd motion sport like racing, and we allow ourselves to think of this herd motion as basically combat for leadership both mentally and physically, we can see just how challenging it is. When a colt is able to string together a number of wins at the highest levels of combat I sit back in admiration and awe, because from where I sit, it is by nature one of the most difficult things to do. Sometimes human caprice doesn’t let us fully appreciate achievements because we begin to idolize achievement for the greatness it is, but then we allow one sign of a chink in that armor to water down the previous until it is a quagmire of “used to be”.
When we view elite athletes we must understand the reasons behind the true rarity with which they are found to fully appreciate their existence in the first place. When we consider that the normal herd environment will see roughly that 3% to 5% of its members elevating high enough to become true leaders, this has little to do with their physical ability and more to do with their emotional intelligence. Mother Nature already has developed the body, so it becomes the operating system of the vessel that defines leadership.
In racing we must take it to another level where both physical and mental in an efficient cooperative of the Big 3, natural tendency, sensory soundness and physical ability, (*see 2017 Kentucky Derby Analysis Introduction on THT Bloodstock website Big Race Analysis section) must come together in a perfect storm of optimization. While short-listing those elite herd dynamic markers from the top prospects pool for our clients, we have found that only 1 or 2 percent from this pool will grow both physically and mentally elite. Factor in the human influence good and bad, freakish accidents and injuries etc., it’s nearly a miracle when any horse continues to thrive and elevate. Considering that there is no defined time table for natural leadership, which is often brief, we should not fret but marvel at the rarity of both physical and mental greatness, regardless of how long we see it, that the truly elite horse athlete embodies.
Stripping it down into the purest and simplest form of herd dynamics, I marvel at the achievements of elite athletes like American Pharoah, Always Dreaming, Arrogate, Nyquist and on and on through history. In their natural moment of time, they were the leaders of the day. These “once elite” horses on the stage will always carry within them elite characteristics whether they rebound or not. When pure and true and not influenced by human hands, elite herd dynamics once established and developed, do not in themselves disappear just because in practice their influence seems to be less affective amongst their peers. Former leaders naturally give way to new ones and there is no shame in this. Physical and emotional wear and tear have been an antagonist to the horse we see, long before we see them. An appreciation of the horse we see in a given moment should be coupled with an appreciation of the journey taken to be seen.
The revolving door of leadership is, as we have established, always open for audition to new character actors who seek to fill the role. In the business of horses, timing is everything for the capitalization of return on investment; but it is true that the way a horse is publicly viewed at any given time doesn’t necessarily represent the true nature of the actual horse.
When we take the overall template Mother Nature has employed for herd survival and we extract from it that section that is competitive and place it in a sport like racing, we magnify it. When we magnify it we expose many of the average herd dynamic traits, but then every so often, we get a glimpse of the astonishing grace and beauty of a truly elite horse. Beauty can be fleeting or it can be lasting, but regardless of how long we are privileged to experience it, we should treasure that it exists and that we saw it, and not loathe its passing as if it becomes less beautiful because it has come to pass.
Racing isn’t about the horse in the winner’s circle; it is about the journey of the horse.
Kerry M Thomas
|Posted on August 1, 2016 at 4:40 PM|
Another interesting result has rolled in from our weanling study from the summer of 2014, when we were commissioned to observe young horses at the farm in a herd structure.
Our goal was to see what kind of traits we could identify at such an early age and try to pick out the future star athletes.
When we were watching one of the big herds out at Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Kentucky, on July 26, 2014, the pedigree of the filly by Pioneerof the Nile out of Litteprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman, meant nothing to us. Her full sibling – now known as 2015 U.S. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah -- had not yet made his racetrack debut (he would finish 5th in a maiden race at Del Mar on August 9, 2014).
But the filly stood out to us, and we gave her a ‘B’ grade – a good grade on our scale, especially for a weanling. We have only given one weanling an ‘A’, and he was the subject of a previous blog you can read here.
(Update: the Tapit colt has been named Tapit High. He was in training at GoldMark Farm in Ocala as of his last recorded workout and being aimed for a possible start at Saratoga. Though now, he shows a gap in his reported works. That could be a result of travel and settling in, or it could signal a physical setback.)
As a weanling, American Cleopatra already showed a defined tilt toward the Individual Herd Dynamic (IHD). That is a competitive mindset more common in male horses and a potentially good sign for a race filly when paired with the right behavioral traits and physical talent.
Moving around through the field she showed good forward extension of her sensory system. She was interpreting stimulus very accurately out in front of her body and had a generally forward mentality. She appeared to have the ingredients of an efficient, competitive-minded racehorse.
One thing that we have learned is that there is a connection between certain Herd Dynamic profiles and the horse’s preferred pattern of motion on the racetrack. IHD slanted fillies with forward sensory systems very often want to be frontrunners on the track. That is exactly the pattern of motion American Cleopatra used in her debut victory for owner Zayat Stables and trainer Bob Baffert at Del Mar on July 31.
Follow the link to view the replay, courtesy of Del Mar Racetrack. (She is #5 in the turquoise and yellow silks.) https://twitter.com/DelMarRacing/status/759878759596040192
|Posted on July 31, 2016 at 12:40 AM|
Sometimes sale toppers turn out to be worth the gaudy price tag. Sometimes they are never heard from again. Often times the result is somewhere in between. But it has been relatively rare that we at THT Bloodstock think the sale topper actually was the best horse in the sale.
This year’s September sale was the exception. We thought the gray Tapit colt that sold for $2.1-million to top the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale quite possibly was the best horse on the grounds. We say that not only because he tested as a beautiful physical specimen with elite mental and behavioral traits. We had some history with this horse.
More than a year ago, in the summer of 2014, one of THT’s clients commissioned us to study weanlings in the herd setting, to try to pick out elite herd dynamic animals at a young age. We visited some of the top farms in the Bluegrass such as Airdrie Stud, Denali Stud, Taylormade Farm, and the farm that bred and raised this year’s sale topper – Gainesway.
We reported back to our client with a list of foals and weanlings that demonstrated above average sensory skills and signs of an elite herd dynamic. Out of the 200+ horses we saw, one stood far above the rest on our Herd Dynamic rating – the 2014 almost silver colored colt by Tapit, out of Silver Colors (a daughter of 1988 Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors). He was by far the highest rated weanling we saw and the first and only weanling have ever given an ‘A’ grade to.
The Silver Colors colt had an amazing environmental awareness for a weanling. He showed leadership traits far beyond his age. The other weanlings would move at the flick of his ear or a subtle change in his posture. He showed an ability to survey far and near stimulus while absorbing the world around him. His sensory transitions were seamless and eloquent. He could read the intent of humans and horses at a high level. Watching him lead the herd around the giant paddock at Gainesway was a beautiful thing and a sight we will never forget.
So while we didn’t have a client with the resources to purchase the Tapit colt, we felt a sense of pride seeing how he had developed a year later and became one of the headline horses at the biggest yearling sale in the world.
|Posted on May 10, 2016 at 5:55 PM|
|Posted on May 6, 2016 at 7:10 PM|
Kerry poses with Gallant Stable's Majestic Harbor on May 4th, 2015. THT consulted for Gallant Stable when they were at a crossroads in 'Rocky's' career. He was a spry 7 year old when we profiled him, and he has since won two graded stakes at age 8. Congratulations on your Grade 2 win on the Kentucky Oaks card!
|Posted on August 11, 2015 at 12:05 AM|
Behavioral Economics in Investment Strategies
Position Paper By:
Kerry M Thomas
The economics of behavior is a reality in any business that involves anything more than an automated machine, and yet I have long been of the opinion that it is perhaps the least considered and at times underappreciated truth in business planning. The impact of neglecting behavior, both patterns and inclinations, can be very costly for your bank account as well as the program or business.
In any relationship, and business itself is often comprised of many relationships, there are two parts; the physical development and the emotional nurturing. Horses are not machines nor are they race cars, horses are emotional athletes, and just like us humans in any field or family, are very often reflections of their environment. When we are scouting for talent, or as I always say, ‘panning for gold’, we at THT Bloodstock seek to identify the psychology of success within the individual as a primary focus point.
Probability of success is based upon the individual’s likelihood to achieve to their physical ability; this likelihood is not housed purely in breeding, body and skill, but also in aptitude. No matter the business structure we are building, the team being assembled, or the relationships we are hoping to build in our lives in general, we must always be mindful that ultimately skill-sets are driven by personality, inclinations are governed by emotional caprice, and stress is filtered by the psycho-sensory system. The number one thing to consider in my opinion; what is the probability that the horse being scouted has the mental capacity to optimize its physical abilities and breeding. In human terms it could be compared to hiring someone based not just on “book” smarts, but “street” smarts, real life abilities; can your hire in effect, think on their feet?
The mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete.
Any business model that does not incorporate the impact of behavioral economics is short sighted. How much time and money have been wasted away by only looking at half the picture, half the horse, and thus not completing the relationship. If the horses (or humans) we invest in for our programs were machines and their personality of zero impact, then any horse with the ‘right page’ and the ‘right body-type’ would certainly go on to find that expected success, just like every person in a room with the same degree would perform the exact same in their jobs. But this is most obviously not the case.
I feel that the very best investment strategy, the most effective use of dollars per probability, and the most responsible way to acquire, is to think of horse acquisitions as a job fair, or perhaps an NFL Combine for horse athletes. You narrow the field of applicants and hopefuls based upon physical requirements; skill and ability, and then you take this short-list of prospects and narrow this down by working to identify those with the psychologies most suited for their physical fulfillment as well as best suited for your long term goals.
I have long felt that many programs repeat their sufferings because they take the same approach each and every time, making investment choices based on only half the information that is attainable is to me a gross misappropriation of funds and irresponsible investing. Horse racing is a game inherently fraught with countless things that can go wrong even when you do everything ‘right’, and so if you can chip away the element of pure chance by adding both parts of the two part horse, mental and physical, to your scouting process, why wouldn’t you? In a world where not every investor can stock-pile in numbers to increase the chances of success, information, not numbers, is their key to success.
Another very important aspect is the fit; how will your prospective athlete or hire ‘fit’ in the environment that is your business. We must absolutely remember that environmental impacts along the way can shape-shift the emotions; how will the horse handle the unforeseen? Environment is far more than a location after all, it is an attitude. Whenever we are considering the horse, as much as possible, we also try very hard to consider what environment the horse is going to be in and how will this impact its likelihood of succeeding. No smart GM or Executive should hire any individual who they feel cannot emotionally handle the realities they will face, when you do this it is a liability. But I find in horses that quite often this very real emotional side is only slightly if at all, given the weight of consideration that it should be given.
It’s a bad investment strategy to put the wrong emotional components into the ‘right’ physical machine. A lack of flexibility in a business plan is also a bad investment strategy. Not every horse athlete should be coached the same; one must develop the athlete while nurturing the horse. It’s the ‘grooming’ of an employee to move up; this is not based purely on their physical skill but rather their personality. By the same token coaching the two part horse for physical ability without grooming their emotional strengths can lead the horse straight to a plateau of achievement that may well be below their actual level. Physical ability is achieving, mental fortitude is over-achieving. The same race car driven by two different people, one a NASCAR driver the other not, will be able to achieve for both but only over-achieve for one. To give yourself the best chance to compete, in other words, you want to consider who will be driving and how well they can optimize the ability within.
Applying behavioral economics properly also means following through once they are in the fold. When a horse is selected with the combined information of physical and mental, they should also be transitioned into a program that has the same vision. Just like it is important in any relationship emotional wellness plays a very big part in physical fulfillment and goal achievement; any owner who wants to increase their probability of success should pay close attention to the details of how the environment created translates to how the environment is interpreted. The reason that greatness can come from even the most obscure places is because it is not the actual place, but the attitudes in it. Simply because you take your child to a fancy high tech batting cage does not automatically mean that he or she will be a better hitter than the kid who had to take pitches from his mom or dad in the back yard with an old bat.
The application of behavioral economics looks beyond what is, and see’s what could be, without the prejudice of appearance based caprice.
Communication is the foundation of success, and emotional communication is the highest and purest form. In a world of emails, texting and emotionless dialogue we too often are removed from being responsible for the impact of our words. This is not a convenience with horses any more than is with any team members or in any family. Using behavioral economics in your investment strategy must come with the element of communication at its core because what is being communicated can be skewed by how it is being communicated. I am of the opinion that emotional communication is the primary form for horses just like it is with people (the proof is inherent in the human/horse relationships over all time) and body language is the by-product of “thought”, for lack of a better term. It’s about relationships every step of the way, and the strength of every relationship, and the fabric of every team, is based upon the ability to communicate. How many break-ups or disbanded programs, or unfulfilled ability, has its root and weaknesses traced to a lack of communication in some form or another.
From how you communicate your product to the market, to how a groom approaches a stall and every place in between, emotional communication is the choreographer of the “attitude of environment” regardless of the location or circumstances. You want a team around you assembled because they seek to better themselves, because it is not what someone does but how they do it, which defines them and this is a governing factor of team success.
From weanling to refined athlete there are two parts of the horse juxtaposed, one we see in action, and one we often only see in reaction. At THT Bloodstock we are motivated by a visionary framework, determined to challenge what is with what could be by focusing on the horse’s emotional strengths, sensory soundness and blending their ability to optimize their physical attributes. Making an investment with only half the information available being considered never made a lot of sense to me, especially in a business where so many things can go wrong.
Scouting talent, “panning for gold”, is more than seeking out ability, it is seeking out the emotional aspects that both sustain and fulfill that ability. Whether in a business of people or a business of horses, the economics of behavior, simply make sense.
"Innovation knows no boundaries, only vision..."
|Posted on June 30, 2015 at 4:55 PM|
Psycho-Sensory Overview: Direct Focus
The Dynamics of Comprehension & Reaction in the Equine Athlete
Kerry M Thomas
At THT we continue to work toward the advancement of our research in equine athletics and the roll the sensory system and psycho-sensory system plays on stress management and overall performance. This work has brought forth many what are for me revolutionary findings and to better describe them a new language of sorts has become the by-product, as it helps me explain the things I am finding.
Over the last year the focus, which has always been centered in the herd dynamics, has been drawn toward an effort to understand and embrace the functionality of the control center of the physical body; the psychological horse and the management of emotional stress. Born from this effort is the new term Direct Focus and it’s definition, the result of a long and ongoing sojourn into the equine psyche.
Direct Focus: The singular point of focus at any given moment upon one point of stimuli or perceived stimuli. *The equine sensory system is a complex super highway of identification, interpretation and surveillance. Focusing on singular points, everything else in the sensory field is experienced peripherally; making smooth sensory transitions important. This is vital for an animal designed to live in herds in open spaces and is a key component to becoming a herd leader and accomplished athlete. Mid level horses depend upon their peers in the herd to complete their sensory circle. One of the main reasons the herd environment offers a sense of security.
Any professional athlete and their peers know all too well the importance of and the difference between being physically prepared and mentally capable. This is an overlay that crosses boundaries between different sports and indeed, as it were, different species of athletes like the horse, at least in my opinion. Thus I sought to determine these differences; recognizing the athletes who have them is one thing, I wanted to know where they were rooted and how they translated.
Different disciplines require their own unique sensory strengths in collaboration with the specific and desired physical strengths. The benefits of sensory soundness and overall emotional wellness in the equine athlete is a thing that should never be overlooked; herd dynamics plays such an important role in the herd animals' normal life it is just as impacting when they're an athlete as not.
Whether it be Quarter Horse racing or Thoroughbred Racing, for example, one of the areas that can cause a great deal of stress for even the most talented, is in the gate; just like someone who feels anxiety right before going on stage. Understanding the stress management of the emotional horse and managing the physical development of the athlete, requires split-level thinking.
In order to understand the total horse I knew that I had to see the horse in two parts, the physical and the psychological. I have said it a thousand times and for me it is an essential reality; horses are emotional athletes and are often a reflection of their environment. When I study any individual equine psychology, I am seeking to peer deeply into that reflection. It is for me a form of reverse engineering, and I cannot peer very deeply without myself hopping on that sensory super-highway. I am a simple minded man inasmuch as when I study the horses’ reactions, whether they’re perceived to be positive or negative, I want to know the why behind the how.
Having focused what seems like endless hours of study on the equine sensory system and its cohesive manager, the psycho-sensory system (the psychological interpretation of delivered stimuli) in individual parts I began to realize I was only ‘seeing’ so much. There were still layers to the onion, and oddly enough, these only began to emerge in clarity for me when I took the individual senses and their abilities, and mixed these ingredients of the horse all together in collaborative experience.
What I found was a better understanding of those pieces when looking at their complete relationship with one another. The sensory system is an environmental intelligence gathering network; each sensory aspect working independently of but in conjunction with, their counterparts. What this does is allow the horse primary and secondary focus points. The primary focus can target specific stimuli to be identified and more intently studied, thus funneled in to the psycho-sensory for interpretation. The secondary focus defaults to the roll of periphery surveillance during the time of interpretation, and unlike the primary focus aspect which is singular in nature, hence the term Direct Focus, the surveillance team, in the high functioning horse psychology, can sift through multiple stimuli in the environment at the same time. This in affect is an alternating focus. If you are familiar with electricity, you will note the juxtaposed analogies of AC/DC, because from my point of view, the sensory system works in a similar fashion.
For a simple example of this, note the differences between an over reactive, easily startled horse and one that is not. The stress filtration system of one is far more efficient than the other.
The sensory system itself is the set of tools the horse has, but we all know that not every horse is the same, these are not race cars, they are as different as you and I more often than not. This is because in nature, the herd prey animal is a template with the same physical set of tools more or less, but unlike the individual predator with highly refined management of their tools, not all horses access their abilities in the same way.
The reason for this is based in the evolution of the species. Horses are herd animals and they have each other to depend upon, and in any efficiently functioning group there is a natural hierarchy of leadership, a system of communication, experience and ability that separates each as an individual. Not unlike the sensory system itself, where we have primary and secondary focus manifested in the whole of the environment, horses themselves have primary leaders and secondary herd horses from which to help in surveillance. This is indeed a powerful format for survival and is the reflection of the herd within the individual. When I began to embrace this, it was for me a revolutionary ‘aha’ moment.
In our work at THT Bloodstock, where our focus is first their mental aptitude, herd dynamics and sensory soundness, I had to disseminate this research into athletic applications in order to be able to identify what psycho-sensory system matched with a particular physical was going to make an effective athlete. Breaking apart the puzzle further and looking at my findings regarding herd makeup, that roughly 85% of horses are comprised of what I refer to as mid-level herd horses, I had to answer a few questions; what makes them different, what separates the hierarchy, and why aren’t siblings of same Sire and Dam, nearly exactly the same each and every time?
We look at thousands of horses a year and I myself have looked at and profiled and studied well over ten thousand individuals in places across the globe, and the one thing every horse had in common was, they looked like a horse with very few “species based” physical differences. The other thing they all have in common, each one was different in some way or other, in their unique personalities. For all intents and purposes, the same physical template housed uniquely different horses.
The differences are often esoterically hidden, housed within only one part of the two part horse; the emotional horse.
Mid Level horses’ sensory functionality has what I dub ‘potholes’ interrupting an otherwise smooth sequential transition of information across the sensory aspects before it’s funneled into the psychology for translation. Potholes become what I call sticking points and generate emotional stress in increasing amounts the longer the divide between identification and interpretation; disrupting learning, training, body control, stress management etc., and is often only filtered out by the horse with a rippling of the body, in other words loss of purposeful motion; body control, or rather, action versus reaction.
I often use when I’m afield the analogy of the rubber band to help create a visual of this happening. As a basic example, imagine rubber bands as sensory tentacles of sorts, spider webbed out in all directions surveying the environment, and as you’re moving past new stimuli you latch on to identify it. If you’re having issues interpreting what it is, you will default to another sense, especially since you’re moving, and when there are gaps in your sensory transitions, you cannot “hand-off” the stimuli fast enough to keep your mind ahead of your body, and all the while the rubber band stretches, creating emotional tension. As the stress increases, it ultimately begins to impact your efficiency of motion, your “pace”, even your direction, and certainly your speed, making you “hang” in mid-air as it were, until there is either at length a proper interpretation and you move on or, there is a violent release; the rubber band snapping back rippling the body, physically processing and relieving tension and stress.
This situation causes drag in the psycho-sensory processes, and this lag, for a horse moving through space, is like driving down the road at night and instead of the headlights pointing forward they’re inexplicably attached to an object that, through physical movement, is suddenly in a different position giving the impression of stationary objects to be in motion… attacking position perhaps… and leaving your senses behind the forward direction of your physical momentum. What would you do? You’d slow down too, and only after you satisfied yourself the object isn’t a problem, would you re-focus forward and pick up your speed again.
In the field I call this process “filtering” which I alluded to earlier; one of the most important clues I look for in any horse whether at a sale or on a race track is the speed at which the sensory system locates stimuli and subsequently how efficiently the psycho-sensory filters the information. This happens in a plethora of forms in a multiplicity of variations, and is the cornerstone of sensory soundness.
Gaps in the sensory sequence, while often paralyzing in fleeting moments and causing the horse to be “bumpy” does not automatically mean that said horse, though unlikely ever to see natural herd leadership in its future, cannot be a fine and accomplished athlete within their, what I call, performance box. Understanding your horse and how they are interpreting their world and their most likely responses to stimuli in their sensory aspects; singularly and together, will help you find achievable goals and coaching styles that fit them.
The more limited ability any horse has to mentally keep ahead of themselves physically, the more likely there is for a ceiling on their versatility and natural pattern of motion; which is inherently managed by the psycho-sensory system.
When you have horses with great physical ability but who hits bumps in the road, having sensory potholes in certain areas, you have horses that are naturally inclined to be mid level herd horses (not to be confused with middle of the road athletic abilities) and therefore they, in a natural herd dynamic, seek the assurance and leadership of their peers to fill in the gaps in the sequence. Like many parts of a machine, when all working together it is apparently seamless, but when taken in pieces quickly can be seen any limits of individuality.
This harkens back to the fact that we are dealing with two pieces of the same horse; physical and emotional. The physical horse is relative to the actual foot distance of a race, the emotional horse is relative to the Time In Motion (TIM) in seconds or minutes, required to complete a physical task. Ideally you want the emotional horse to be fresh enough to complete the physical distance with energy and grit to spare.
Some thoroughbreds, like many of the better Eventing and Dressage horses I have profiled over the years, didn’t make the races all that great because they lacked the physical speed and overall ability required for racing, yet their psychology always was ahead regardless, and thus Eventing, for example, became a perfectly natural psychological fit. I look for the same earmarks when I’m looking at or for, therapy horses.
In order to coach up an otherwise fine athlete, I personally never desire to go directly to the use of any sensory impediments like blinkers or shadow rolls etc., I’m always fearful of protracted applied “tunnel vision” being a cause of undue stress and worry and of exacerbating uncertainty in the horse, causing bad habits or sensory dependencies long term. That is not to say that under no circumstances should they be used. I have personally experienced cases where sensory impediments assist, like blinkers say, in actually removing stress. However I personally advocate a great deal of thought be put into why they are used and to what purposes, and for what result. I always have the concern, are we only putting a Band-Aid on and not addressing the real issues: Like placing a board across a stream to get across once or twice as opposed to trying to build a bridge with mental coaching and nurturing. I rather seek to build a positive psychological bridge when practicable.
If you think of these situations from a herd dynamic point of view, as care-giver and coach, it is your job to know that you’re the buffer; you’re the herd peer leading through trepidation when needed, sharing the leadership when that is best. If you work as a unit with the horse, armed with a true understanding of their psychology, you can become the trusted default leader with subtle cues any time the horse shows a little hesitation or an issue in sensory interpretation. Horses collaborate with one another, most especially those in the middle 85%, so it is best that you adopt your part of this collaborative.
The elite, high functioning psycho-sensory system is far less common and quite often is so smooth in its ability to identify, interpret, filter and respond, all while maintaining a nearly 360 degree sensory field of surveillance, that these horses are nearly invisible to the naked eye. This is not by mistake, but rather by natural design.
In working to study and dissect the intricate working nature of the herd, and get a real understanding of the functionality of the hierarchy in place, I had to also answer the question of how do these groups maintain sustainability over time when they are at least in large part, codependent on the leaders, of which there are few. How does nature offset and minimize the otherwise randomness of say a Mountain Lion stalking the herd from taking out the leader and affectively cutting off the head of the snake? The answer is simplistic in form and profound in function; Mother Nature conceals her leadership.
Elite herd dynamics, high functioning sensory systems, hi-speed filters and accurate surveyors make for a horse that very rarely over reacts and when startled recovers and filters swiftly, and learns from it. Affective emotional filtering limits the physical filtering process, which limits unnecessary or superfluous body language, which in turn helps absorb chaos in the herd and bring order, as well as re-directs any potential predatory focus from them to the less capable members, members who prolong their reactions and draw the attention and target of the Mountain Lion on the Butte eying up dinner.
Put into motion, high herd dynamic horses are almost always entirely sensory and psychologically well ahead of their bodies in all directions at the same time and seem to move through chaos and react to things even before they happen. This ability to stay on task, to interpret and delegate alternating focus on multiple stimuli under surveillance while maintaining a singular focus on a point of inquiry, juxtaposed with and allowing for physical efficiency, is the unshakable ease inherent in Direct Focus ability. It is the capacity to “slow things down” under stress, all great athletes appear to have this unique ability; they maintain and adjust with ease of body control and “re-kick” with the best while deflecting stresses in the chaos of motion.
It is important when considering a horse at sale, private purchase or breeding, that the two parts of the horse are studied individually and then together. Mid level horses can achieve to their physical abilities, elite horses can quite often achieve beyond them. The horse with psychological versatility should never be underappreciated.
|Posted on May 6, 2015 at 8:35 AM|
2015 Kentucky Derby
(The following is the introduction piece written for the KY Derby 141 Analysis)
Learning is a constant evolution by its very nature, and it is not only the cornerstone of our work and vision at THT Bloodstock but also for me as a person. Growth can only be measured by the transformation of itself from one thing to another based upon experience even if at the time those experiences are a mystery and you know not what might emerge from them. It is the mystery of the horse that drives my passion; not what has been discovered, but what is yet to be.
As we now have moved into year five of our Kentucky Derby Analysis I want to once again thank you, both the new and the returning buyer of this product, for doing so. On behalf of both Pete Denk and I, the appreciation we have for your support and interest in the efforts we make cannot be overstated. The development of these profiles for the Derby is a monumental task, but a labor of love to be sure and also a chance for us to apply more of the things we continue to learn in our endless journey studying equine psychology and the Herd Dynamics.
Kentucky Derby 141 is flush with upper level herd dynamics and anything but easy to differentiate. Our view into this inner world of the individual horse has been greatly enhanced over the last year as we collect and track our data from thousands of horses both evaluated at auction and in our work profiling performances. We continue to build this bank of knowledge and have expanded to include a growing list of Stallion Profiles we make available for breeding purposes and progeny/weanling research.
This year’s study afforded us a unique opportunity to include where possible our auction evaluation notes. There were several athletes that we evaluated in the sales environment and made our herd dynamic short list who distinguished themselves on the Derby Trail. Having had the opportunity to study these horses in depth as they mentally grow has taken our work to a new level. After several years of hard work and study we have built a growing database of ingredients to monitor how these translate to athletic ability. We continue to chisel down the primary focus points in our unique evaluation system with practical applications found both in the profiles we produce and the services we offer.
I have long held fast to the belief that patterns of behavior translate to patterns of motion, that sensory soundness and the efficiency of the psycho-sensory system, mentality, is the key to both adaptability and stress management. As emotional athletes, horses are often a reflection of their environment, and like any athlete in any sport, the ingredients of greatness lay just as much in the psychological as they do in the physical. And, just like in other professional sports, the closer the athletes become in their physical abilities, the dividing factor begins to shift to their psychological strengths; things we call, grit, will-power, class, heart.
The mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete.
In order for a horse to move freely and efficiently into space their sensory system must first clear the path as it leads the body; the sensory super highway is the pilot steering the vessel if you will. The horse’s capacity to optimize physical ability, or even rise above it, lay within the efficiency of their psycho-sensory system. A natural pattern of motion is a physical reflection of naturally occurring psychological rhythms, this emotional energy distribution is innately even allowing for the optimization of physical ability. The sensory system must identify stimuli and then funnel the information into the psyche where that stimulus is then interpreted. Proper interpretation allows for a smooth and sequential purposeful motion. At a high rate of physical speed in the midst of herd chaos and stress, the efficiency of this rapid-fire sequence is tested and thus begins to separate the horses over a period of time-in-motion within their natural leadership roles, their herd dynamics. There’s a big difference between horses whose psycho-sensory system leads their body and of those that do not.
If the sensory system, the ‘radar-egg’ around the horse did not have influence over the physical horse, the horse then would simply be a machine of no reaction. Blinkers, shadow rolls, screens… would be sensory modifiers never developed because they would have no effect. The horse walking in a sale environment being asked to walk faster by the use of a broom would not react to it, nor would the horse respond to your intentions, your emotions, your body language, they wouldn’t show signs of stress or fear or look playful in the pasture. These are real things, they really happen, they impact the horses daily life, they impact the horses ability to perform.
I personally feel that every horse should have the opportunity to excel and grow with the full use of their natural sensory systems without inhibitors. I think once you gain a full understanding of the psychology of your athlete a coaching-up program that fits them individually offers a healthier longevity. I feel too, that because the sensory system (identifying) and psycho-sensory system (interpretational) leads the physical horse through space, mental coaching and sensory enrichment should supersede that of the physical. Let the body catch-up to the mind, not the other way around. This is the basis for the old adage, “be patient”. Like ourselves, individual horses learn, grow, and season, to the beat of their own unique drum. Nurture the horse, develop the athlete.
I adhere to a common mantra in my work, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so if the sensory system can optimize the physical, it can also pinion it. The inability to translate information and adapt quickly to changing environments ultimately begins to chip away at any physical advantage the horse has; especially in elevated competition, most especially in classic distance races. Of course, in a horse race comprised of elite athletes anything can happen, so we must look at the body of work and at consistency of performance. Our job at THT Bloodstock is not to determine what the horse is, but to do the detective work necessary to identify who the horse is; scouting potential is about projecting the future, and because the psyche manages the growth patterns, gaining an in-depth understanding of that psyche is essential to that projection. Our work is not that of saying who will and who will not, but rather in evaluating probability by focusing on sensory soundness and mental aptitude, the command center of the athlete.
When it comes to applying the herd dynamics to handicapping, psychological versatility should not be underappreciated. As you go through the following profiles of the Derby Contenders, and as you put together the pieces of your own puzzle and plays, we work to offer you another window from which to see the race, not as a whole group, but as individuals who thus make up the whole.
When studying a horse I care less about where the horse finishes physically in a given race than I do about where they’re finishing psychologically against their peers. When you look for things that key you in on psychological growth patterns you begin to unveil the emerging character of the equine athlete’s one to the other. These growth patterns are in my opinion useful to note when handicapping a field such as the Kentucky Derby as it’s like putting together a puzzle of both athleticism and psychological versatility in varying environments. I always lean toward the horse whose psychological ‘speed’ and rhythms are the same regardless of the speed of the physical body.
Another essential ingredient lay in the area of influence. High level horses have the ability to influence other horses without themselves being influenced. The difference between elite herd dynamic athletes and their subaltern counterparts lies in the area of their ability to impress their will upon the world around them. Horses with elite minds can supersede physical expectations; mid-level horses can achieve to them.
It is vitally important to keep in mind when looking at individual profiles that a snap-shot of the physical placement of a group of horses at the end of a race does not always indicate the natural herd dynamic hierarchy of them individually. I never get too excited by ‘a’ performance, but by the aforementioned growth patterns in juxtaposed performances. Circumstances can dictate physical location; herd dynamics allows them to manage that.
This year’s Derby has in my opinion a deep collection of highly capable herd dynamics and mental profiles, leaving us much to consider in the smallest of ingredients. Separating the top tier horses in herd dynamic order is not unlike splitting hairs. For me the challenge is very exciting and as I always say, on any given day…; it is our goal with this report to offer a deeper window into the psychological and sensory aspects of the individual athletes. I look for patterns in their psychological rhythms and patterns of motion and think of these in terms of probability; how many times out of ten say, does one particular herd dynamic trump another at a mile and a quarter of time-in-motion. I have always felt that psychological versatility is made possible by sensory soundness and the lynchpin that makes a horse tactical; the ability to change gears, adapt and react to sudden changes and stresses mentally paves the way for the body to follow, taking full advantage of talent and speed.
On a personal note I have to say, looking ahead from where I now sit, I am excited and thankful, energized and tirelessly seeking to peer deeper into the window of the invisible. The growth we are experiencing and the awesome amount of detailed data we have been able to collect and track allowing us priceless research to learn from, both where we were right and where we were wrong, has us zeroing in on what I call the ingredients of greatness. This is due in large part to the tireless and dedicated efforts of Pete Denk, for whom I’m most grateful.
As a team we continue to take this work to new places and we look forward to those advancements we’ve yet to discover. Whether at a sale where the scouting process for us is not unlike an NFL Combine, or evaluating a herd of contenders seeking those who show the mental fortitude to fully optimize their athleticism, my thinking is always forward. I never look at what is, without then considering what could be, something imparted to me from my heroes, my parents, who taught their children to have fearless imaginations and to live in a forward direction.
Visit our new website THT Bloodtsock and enjoy a dig around and most certainly get in touch with us if there is anything we can do for you. In a financial game of emotionally charged athletes, the economics of behavior simply makes sense.
Thanks Pete, thanks Brisnet, and most importantly, thank you.
“Never underestimate the value of Emotional Intelligence in High Herd Dynamic athletes.”
|Posted on January 30, 2015 at 7:35 AM|
Panning For Gold
Kerry M Thomas
The thoroughbred sale is a very specific and controlled environment, for the most part, where human will creates a show of horse flesh. The business aspect of the industry is in full bloom at the auctions, and it is easy to get caught up in “the way things are done”.
Among the early challenges for me personally when I first started to get my feet wet at these sales was staying removed from the typical to best apply the natural. The auctions are filled with combustible emotions, both horse and human. Sifting through the fog to get back to the basics is for me the key to recognizing what is seen and comprehending what is felt.
Out of all the tools I draw upon when inspecting horses, instinct is the most important. For tucked away behind the dust clouds of the hustle and bustle, there is nature, represented in perhaps the most beautiful form I personally know, the horse.
This is not a car lot auction; horses are emotional athletes, if you take away ‘feel’ from your inspection process, you are in danger of inhibiting your vision of what could be. So I buckle up my tool belt of the natural herd dynamics as I have learned them, separate myself as much as possible from the human elements, and embark on the journey of discovery; the goal, to develop a new approach in finding the world’s most capable equine athletes.
It has always seemed there had to be an accessory to the primary tools used to evaluate young horses at auction – physical conformation and pedigree. For if not, the prototypes that are bred would fulfill their planned destiny each and every time as superior individuals.
Of all the unique and savvy tools Mother Nature uses to aid and ensure the propagation of a herding species, like the horse, perhaps none is more interesting to me than that of concealed leadership. One of the early questions I needed to answer during my research afield was; what is the key to survival for a group of prey animals living in plain sight; the answer to that question, ’invisible leadership.’
We use the study of herd dynamics and social structures, communication and inspection of the psycho-sensory system to determine sensory soundness at every step. And in no arena are these tools of our trade more important than at auction. An understanding of herd dynamics is at the core of the work we do at sales, and here is why.
We at THT Bloodstock are given the task for our clients of scouting the elite minded, very high herd dynamic athletes. This panning for gold oft times means after we zero in on a short list of prospects, we drill continually deeper to, in essence, see how high on the herd dynamic scale a particular horse is likely to climb once placed in a racing program. Because horses are herd animals instinctive to living in groups, the number of elite herd leaders compared to the overall number of horses in the herd, is very small. It is in nature, thus so it is, at auction.
I look at an auction much the same way I look at a basic herd afield; with the understanding that the vast majority of horses, roughly 85% in my opinion, are naturally designated as mid-level herd animals. This does not mean they can’t be athletic, but it does mean they will not be both athletic and elite minded.
Unlike loner predatory animals blessed with a full and high functioning set of skills to survive alone for most of their lives, the horse survives best when living in a group. Herd animals are generally made up of a group of average individuals, albeit each one unique and housing their own strengths and weaknesses. Alone they are vulnerable; together they are formidable. This is no accident, Mother Nature provides for the predator and prey. It is a balance in nature that prey outnumber predator. In order for this balance to exist affectively there is necessary natural culling.
In every herd there is a hierarchy, in every hierarchy there is a struggle in the ranks, within this struggle there is structure. If you are a mountain lion positioned on a butte, overlooking a herd of horses, you are drawn to what catches your attention, and what catches your attention most are infirm stragglers and those with overly expressive body language. This too, is by design.
The infirm or injured are obvious targets and moving up from that bottom are the lowest ranked in the herd hierarchy. These include the young and the “loudest talkers”, those horses struggling to move up. These insecure animals are easy to spot because they make themselves a spectacle, especially during times of stress and panic. When a pride of lions spills into herd animals, they are seeking to separate the weak links that they have spent hours zeroing in on. The lowest animals are targeted, while the higher-level animals survive to lead the masses. The higher you climb the herd hierarchy the less obvious expression you see in the individual.
Looking out into a field, just because a horse stands out or physically pushes other horses around does not automatically make them leaders.
It is with all this in mind, that we enter the thoroughbred sale environment and begin our scouting. Like the lion on the butte, we are seeking… but we are seeking that which is not so easily noted; concealed leadership.
As has been mentioned, the number of elite herd dynamic horses at any auction is naturally low, comparable in percentage to the number found in natural wild herd environments -- the same template, different environment. If say 5% of the horses inspected make the herd dynamic grade, this number shrinks even more when all of the physical requirements for racing prospects are applied.
This should not be confused with the number of actual “athletes” there are housed within any herd; be it a herd of 10 wild horses or 1,000 sale horses. By their very nature, horses are athletic, and the thoroughbred in my opinion is the most elite of all horse breeds when it comes to natural athleticism. The one thing about herd dynamics and the different individuals that make up the body of the herd itself, as heretofore mentioned, each ‘average’ horse will have their own strengths and weaknesses, housed within the study of their herd dynamic and psycho-sensory system are clues to those athletic strengths and weaknesses.
The horses that meet all the requirements and jump through all the hoops are exciting and special animals, natural leaders carrying all the hope they will be equally elite in athleticism. A horse with elite psycho-sensory and herd dynamics without accompanying physical ability is not going to be a star on the race track. But, especially for mares, these horses are not devoid of merit and can be useful in helping stamp their progeny. Behavioral genetics are just as important a part of the breeding puzzle as are physical genetics.
An efficient psycho-sensory system and corresponding high herd dynamic plays an important role in the horse athlete’s ability to adapt to new environments (ship, surface changes, rigors of training etc.,). The ability to properly manage stress without loss of physical efficiency is an essential element to longevity, versatility, and trainability.
We have to keep in mind how herd dynamics work, and how they translate to our world of racing. Animals that have certain elite characteristics but are weak in other areas may not be as versatile as some other athletes, but this does not mean they cannot be very talented athletes within the box of their skill set.
Another highly important factor of what separates the horses in herd dynamics is influence. Influence plays a major role in everything the horses do, and we measure and evaluate influence as a key ingredient to our profiling process.
High level horses have the ability to influence other horses without themselves being influenced. The difference between elite herd dynamic athletes and their subaltern counterparts lies in the area of their ability to impress their will upon the world around them. You see the effect of the mid-level mind all the time in racing -- horses hang off the hip of another, run up but fail to penetrate the space of another horse, failing to pass. Some otherwise speedy horses can seem to get lost in the crowd… they are often lost in the crowd of herd dynamics and influence.
Studying the various forms of influence one horse has over another, or many others, is an essential aspect of and clue to the competitive nature of any horse. This is not to be confused with purely physical influence; ‘loudly’ seeking to run a horse from his or her space. It has to do with the quiet and very subtle acquiescence of other horses. Reading the sensory responses of other horses offers incredible insight to the quiet but powerful influence inherently displayed. This is also very much an indicator of the tactical ability the horse has which directly relates their ability to manage and assimilate to the herd chaos of a race.
High level herd dynamic horses do not always have to be the fastest, especially when we’re looking at the classic distances. These horses have other assets that allows them to take advantage of any weaknesses their peers may have, it allows them to conserve their emotional energy and hit the gas pedal at the right times, and it allows them to influence horses around them, impacting the final outcome. The horse with this high level intent is a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled jockey.
Horses that rely more on their physical speed over herd dynamic tact can certainly be very athletic, but I call these horses “athletes in a box” because their sensory system and inability to truly influence other horses pinions their overall versatility. There is indeed a wide ranging array of athletic psychologies, many of them useful if placed in their proper boxes.
One of the more exciting things for us at THT Bloodstock is that after thousands of horses inspected and added to the data base for research, these athletic psychologies are beginning to make themselves clear. We’re beginning to zero in on key corresponding psychological/sensory strengths and their physical counterpart. In other words, we’re blending both the physical considerations with the psychological considerations to ascertain if the horse in question has enough sensory soundness to get the most from their physical abilities.
The key difference in my opinion between highly elite psycho-sensory, herd dynamic horses and their subalterns is in both stress management/assimilation ability and in that their elite psychologies allows them the opportunity to get more from their physical abilities than they could otherwise while impressing themselves upon others. You can call it class, grit, drive, pain threshold, or heart, but these concealed leaders have a unique presence about them.
Horses with elite minds can supersede physical expectations; mid-level minded horses can achieve to them.
I have long felt that the most underappreciated aspect of thoroughbred racehorses lies within their psycho-sensory system, their essential behavioral genetic sequencing. Much emphasis, for good reason, is placed on their page and their physicality, but if these were the only determining factors, then the buyers with the deepest pockets would simply get all the good horses, and the action at the track would be very much like a NASCAR race. But horses are not racecars; and as emotional athletes are often reflections of their environment.
One of the great advancements we have made at THT Bloodstock is that we have begun to zero in on the psychologies and herd dynamics that are anything but random. Just like every individual in the herd plays an important role, so does every individual have specific traits. When these match up correspondingly to physical ability, even the mid-level herd athletes can be very good race horses; ‘in their performance box’. (Knowing what these strengths and weakness are must also be applied to the development of the horse. A mental nutrition program specific to their needs is every bit as important to the outcome as is a physical and nutritional program. Feed the horse’s mind and body.)
Ability – mental & physical -- supersedes pedigree & auction price in times of stress and chaos. If a buyer is not mindful of or misunderstands the importance of the horse’s mental and behavioral traits, he or she may walk right by what could be the greatest find of his or her life. Greatness can emerge from obscurity.