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Herd Dynamics: "Panning For Gold"

Posted on January 30, 2015 at 7:35 AM

 

Herd Dynamics

Panning For Gold

 

Position Paper

By

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.


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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.


~Kerry

 

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