|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.