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Psychology of Motion; Nurture the Horse, Develop an Athlete

Posted on December 17, 2014 at 6:05 PM

Psychology of Motion

“Nurture the Horse, Develop an Athlete”


Position Paper


Kerry M Thomas


*The following is a collection of ideas, case study details and analysis protocols, theories and what I feel are vital key ‘nuggets’ we’ve discovered along the way in a loosely knitted together fabric about some of what we do. Many points herein stem from ongoing research and cases and will be themselves their own research paper in the future. But I wanted to share this in-house collection of ideas and body of work as is, while we continue our efforts to peer within the window of the invisible.




Over the years one of the most prevailing things I began to see during the course of my study of equine psychology and behavioral genetics was the reciprocal relationship between an individual’s patterns of behavior translated to their pattern of motion. Gaining a detailed map-like comprehension of the horse’s sensory system and how he or she interprets the world around them leads one to a better understanding of the horse and projecting psychological growth patterns. For the race horse, this is vital information especially when we’re doing bloodstock work at sales.

But this is only one aspect, quite often we’re presented with cases or inquiries dealing with the horses that have ‘hit a plateau’ or seem to be ‘stuck’ and under-achievers after showing so much promise. A constant question I ask myself over and over again as a researcher at heart is, why is this so? Why or better yet, how does seemingly the same horse, in the same health and condition, on the same surface, in darn near the same company even… suddenly look like a misfire? I soon began to ascertain from these cases and after building up volume of numbers in case studies over the years, that the answer to the question is profoundly simplistic; it has to do with the Herd Dynamics of the individual, their evolving psychology of motion.

I look at my work much like a detective going into a crime scene, working to take in what is before me, and then recreating the events that lead up to the moment in time. For me, I have spent what seems like a lifetime digging into the “mind of the horse” and I am still learning every day.

But let me back up here a moment, my induction to the evolutionary process of the psychology of motion didn’t just happen, it came about after countless hours (years truthfully) of studying patterns of motion in performances for the Kentucky Derby fields and similar efforts for private clients. I’m often asked what it is that I am looking for when we’re profiling the Derby Field, and for a long time I really couldn’t answer that question concisely because I was just looking at first, to see what things began to emerge. Slowly naturally occurring patterns for each individual horse made themselves clear; stress management, sensory interpretations, environmental awareness, herd influence(s) etc., were all microcosms of the larger picture we see as herd motion, or to take the human notion, a race.

But this is merely one layer, one snapshot in time for that singular experience, each race, indeed each and every workout, is in itself an experience the horse needs to manage, and depending on many things the way they manage the seemingly common stresses of their environment is experienced and processed and shelved as a learned behavior. Now we go deeper into the rabbit hole, for once a horse is peaked physically and in great condition and physical health, we cannot assume there is synchronicity between mind and body, experience and conditioning etc. This is why I am a huge believer in an ongoing mental fitness program.

An individual’s ability to manage stress has a major impact on physical performance and overall ability, period.

The environment is fed through the sensory system, thus an investigation into this area is where we start our detective work. I need to know the sensory soundness level of the individual because this is my first clue into the enigma. A very simple example anyone can see regarding how the impact of environmental interpretations affect body control and movement, i.e. stress; observe how a broom or squirt bottle or emotional anger toward a “stubborn” (scared/uncertain) horse affects them physically. If they were mere machines, movement without emotion; no amount of stress would affect them, it wouldn’t exist, and the sensory system would not be expressive. This is an easy to embrace tangible thing, but we must remember this now is an experience, processed, and shelved as a learned behavior or learned pattern of events. You cannot allow the fact that the emotional horse proves himself to be by his reactions to ‘attack’ stimuli and not allow then that this becomes a part of their inner self, their psychology. It happens to us… it happens to them.

The aforementioned may well have zero impact on the physical growth and conditioning of the athlete, that evolution is based upon a different set of rules and tasks. However, this does impact the psychology and thus influences the growth patterns of that psychology.

An example of how learned experiences and behaviors now benched in the psyche impacts physical output, (aside from the myriad of things easily seen like not eating after a stressful experience and the like) can be found in the horse that seems to jump out of their own skin from its own shadow. To help explain this psychological and sensory aberration I will use an example that is easy to relate to from personal experience.

I think that I am all alone in the barn and I’m walking down the shed row in my own little world thinking about a task at hand and am exiting the barn when suddenly a friend jumps out and scares me. I can tell you that the very next time I’m in that situation or by association in a similar situation, I will mentally be aware and alter my physical pace or route of travel to avoid being frightened again; by association it will affect me. This being an experience processed and shelved. We must keep in mind the reason these things are called ‘learned behaviors’ is because they have been learned from experience. So therefore every experience impacts psychological growth.

When we’re studying and looking for the psychological growth patterns in horses who have raced we look at each race (when we have more than one) as an overall individual experience comprised of many smaller experiences like so many ingredients, in layers one on top of the other. When we break the ingredients down to their individuality we begin to see strengths and weaknesses emerge and begin to translate into what is then the psychology of motion. What we are thus beginning to identify are growth pattern markers. These are vitally important things to look for and monitor, not just for the mental nutrition and advancement of the race horse, but also for projection purposes of the horses ability level going forward into the next race; this is in fact among the study tools we at THT Bloodstock use when putting out our annual Kentucky Derby Report.

Knowing the horse’s psychology is important for knowing the horse; it’s important for properly training the horse forward especially once you’ve reached your physical apex. These are not machines you then just change the oil and the tires and maintain, just like the driver of that car, there is an emotional and reactive element governing performance. And there are many things that can get in the way of proper psychological evolution, or indeed, learning.

During the inspection process especially at sales, we have developed a series of sensory and psychological tests that are very subtle but highly informative. One of the areas is ascertaining the efficiency of the sensory system, which operates independently but together like a sensory chain of events, feeding the psychology with two kinds of experiences; new ones, and similarly shelved ones. Over the years I have learned to see the difference, new experiences display different physical reactions than shelved ones, and within this nano-technologically styled difference you will find assimilation ability (learning ability) or sticking points, breaks in the sequence that I call sensory potholes.

Sensory transition issues (Potholes) are their own unique beast to be sure. Sensory sticking points are growth inhibitors, these are the areas housed within the sensory system to psychological interpretation funnel that are less refined than others. As the horse grows and acquires more experiential layering, any sticking points will fail to evolve properly or at the same rate as others, widening the gap between the sequences, making the pothole longer, deeper, and the resulting ripple effect after its hit, more profound. This inhibits physical output and efficiency, and like a student who excels to 12th grade Math while still struggling with 9th grade English, the growth patterns will be offset. This is vitally important to know when one is considering the purchase of a horse, or one is training a horse and when one is handicapping a horse race.

I believe in compartmentalized mental nutrition along the way, trying to condition the entire horse without grasping the functionality level of the sensory system, the Herd Dynamic, and building a nutrition program for the individual ingredients that makes up the emotional pilot of your airplane, is to me, counter-productive and at the root of many “underachievers” or stagnant race horses. It is very often among the reasons a horse will have a great debut but ‘fizzle-out’ soon after.

When you condition just the physical part the horse, you’re training the horse for a race, but when you work to condition their psychology too, you’re training them for a career.

You cannot expect to evolve your athlete without nurturing the natural evolutionary process of psychological growth.

This is also often the reason you will have inconsistent performances and seemingly inconsistent behavior patterns. When circumstances are faced that are mostly interpreted, experienced, processed in the sensory and mental wheelhouse the world is round, but the next time out or ‘for no reason’ you get the opposite, the world is a jagged edge frustrating piece of glass.

What happens next can be the application of sensory depriving head gear or worse, mind altering pharmaceuticals and “performance” enhancers, or a gelding. But what good does it do to treat the result without first trying to understand the cause? My theory is that it’s better to question, that we then may seek to answer.

There are lots of small examples that I see as windows into a deeper reality. One simple scenario is when we’re inspecting at auction and a horse acts up and I hear someone say to me, “oh he’s feeling good today.” I smile wryly but as I study the happening I do not always see that, I often see a gap in the sensory sequence or a psychological aberration at its root.

When there are potholes encountered, there is stress, when stress is not mentally processed; we have a loss of body control in various forms from loud to subtle to swerving to standing stiff like a fawn in the woods having been startled. When this happens a horse becomes herd dependent for their next move and reaction, and this isn’t what you need in a race horse.

Does getting physical help? Unlikely to; when you have a horse with sticking points in the sensory sequence using physical force to counter or remedy is a violent act that does far more harm than good. And when we shift the talk about things like muscle memory during physical conditioning, we cannot overlook that muscle memory is only as efficient as is the psychology of the operator. Creating a physical powerhouse who is reactionary and aggressive (protective of self) from bad physical handling only develops a horse without tactical control is not unlike a freight train bouncing off the rails. Again, one must nurture the horse, while developing the athlete.

At the end of the day, as the horse grows and accumulates more and more experiences, processed, and shelved, the layering process itself is always evolving, making the decisions made in motion an evolutionary aspect. Just as the physical body changes and evolves with age and maturity, so does the equine psychology with time and learned behaviors and experiences. Because the mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete, I feel mental enrichment and mental fitness coaching should as much as possible precede the physical. It’s better for the body to catch up to the mind than the other way around.

When you have the right sensory skill sets you have the foundation for proper psychological growth patterns, versatility and adaptability. Your best bet in cultivating this is to nurture the horse, while you develop the athlete.


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