"Competitive edge is found where the psychological athlete merges with the physically talented;
#HerdDynamics matter, every horse, every discipline, everywhere." THT
|Posted on February 11, 2020 at 9:25 AM|
Services Introduction Blog
Ever since I “officially” took the leap of faith in 2008, risking nearly everything I owned to chase the dream of taking my passion and evolving it into a business, I have kept in the back of my mind that eventually I wanted to be able to bring our unique work in Herd Dynamics to as wide an audience as possible. We have the great fortune of working on-location in many beautiful places around the world and most certainly it is always the preferred service method. That said, the gains in technology coupled with the fact that we now incorporate a great deal of it in our evaluations and consultations, a subset of services to allow more people to cost effectively access Herd Dynamic services was in order. This brief review of these is the starting point and we are planning on developing more along the way, so keep an eye out going forward on our website services section and our social media platforms.
One of my deep-rooted personal passions is researching herd dynamics and behavioral genetics; if you read the other blogs posted here or visit my Kerry’s Corner Column on the racing website Past The Wire, you will get a feel for this passion. Along with this passion is the desire to help people through coaching, innovation and education; I like to learn and I like to share with others what I have discovered and share those thoughts that in the end, may assist someone else go a step or two further in their journey. I have and do enjoy lecturing on the herd dynamics, giving clinics and seminars, for our work is most certainly horse first, discipline second. It matters not what breed or discipline, a herd dynamic evaluation is a powerful tool as is coaching to herd dynamic strengths. I enjoy very much the knowledge sharing that happens at seminars and clinics and have often been asked if we offer anything online, from personalized coaching to a tutorial or educational do-it-yourself guide for some basics to help folks. Until now, the answer was no.
THT Online from our point of reference will adopt two forms, one will be products geared toward education and herd dynamic/behavioral genetic tutorials, the other will be versions of existing on-location services that can be usefully adapted off-location to allow more people access to herd dynamics and our innovative research.
I hope you will explore and consider THT for your equestrian needs. Be it one horse or many, from beginner to professional, herd dynamics is for every horse, every discipline, everywhere.
~Kerry M Thomas, Founder
THT Online Herd Dynamics: Educational
The first herd dynamic educational product is taken from what has become THT’s most popular clinic topic, Sensory Soundness Mapping. The biggest challenge we face in herd dynamics is that there are so many interconnecting behavioral genetic pieces that there is a difficulty in isolating segments to be imparted individually. The development of sensory mapping however, in its basic yet highly informative form does lend itself to self-teaching with proper information and is also quite a fun and fascinating part of the evaluation process itself. Suitable for all disciplines and for most individuals with basic horsemanship skills, if you’re interested in receiving a summary of information about the package options and pricing, feel free to send us an email and we will be happy to send it along to you.
Other THT Online herd dynamic educational products are planned for the future; among those being considered is a Handicapping with the Herd Dynamics Tip Sheet. If we do this or any others we will surely announce it on our social media outlets.
THT Online Herd Dynamics: Service Options (suitable for all disciplines)
It is not always possible for folks to bring team THT to their location, or bring their horse or horses to a location near THT, so the following online service options are our effort to bring THT and Herd Dynamics to you as an extension of existing services in a more cost effective manner.
Sensory Soundness Mapping Assist is an extension of the above educational product and is packaged as option 3 in the mapping summary of information that is available upon request. The difference here, instead of a DIY tutorial product alone, included is video review and consultation on your horse mapping with THT Bloodstock founder, Kerry Thomas. In essence you will have the developer of sensory mapping as your tutor. Pricing and additional information are included in the mapping summary of information.
Kerry’s Herd Dynamic Coaching, initially only available to those who asked for it, now an official service, you can secure Kerry as your personal coach online (also on-location) to help you take your riding, understanding and managing of herd dynamics and performance stress to a higher level. Teaming up with your horse psychologically as you both move forward during training be it for the novice rider or high level competitor, is next level performance science. Develop not only your horse’s confidence but your own, team up with Kerry to build your mental stimulus training program, analyze video together, and put the world’s leading herd dynamic performance innovation in your back pocket as you take your equestrian experience to new heights. All ages, all disciplines, many packages available, all pricing case by case per rider goals and requests. Herd Dynamic coaching, here to help you, go next level!
Performance Profiling; for those familiar with our evaluations of the Kentucky Derby contenders (see Big Race Analysis section on the toolbar) you will get a real good feel for the type of detailed information we are able to get from analyzing video. This service is for all disciplines not just racing, and is also applicable to training video analysis. You get a written analysis and consultation to review the report. Options with this service include training recommendations based upon the report and monitoring of progress as well as ongoing support as needed. Cost for this service is on a case by case basis and estimates are free.
Pre-purchase Video Analyses, from sales to private purchase, whether to perform or breed, to cull or keep, don’t decide before you know and don’t invest before you investigate! Important information for all disciplines, no horse is free and no horse is “just a physical being”, with a horse you’re investing in both car and driver. *For Thoroughbreds, pedigree consultations are also available.* Cost for this service is on a case by case basis and free estimates are available.
Environmental Consultation; environment is either your best friend or worst enemy when it comes to your horse. Combining years of natural herd dynamic research with years of being involved in building and developing equine farms and facilities, this is your opportunity to consult with Kerry on developing or enhancing your equestrian center/farm, to better fit your horse’s naturally occurring environmental needs. With access to highly skilled builders, architects, property design and maintenance professionals, coupled with THT’s innovative research in herd dynamics and behavioral genetics, you can tap into professionals approved and sourced through THT. Consultation fees on a case by case basis, free estimates available after case review.
So there you have it, do not hesitate to reach out to us at any time and find out more about how we can help you, achieve your goals!
|Posted on January 10, 2020 at 9:10 AM|
The Human/Horse Connection
Kerry M Thomas
Introduction; Partnerships Through Time
The Horse; Reflections
Emotional Support; Purpose & Reason
Equine PTSD; The Human Parallel
Equine Assisted Education; Learning Is Discovery
Selecting Horses; Purposeful Partnerships
Final Thoughts; Hope Is A Destination
Introduction; Partnership Through Time
The human/horse intersection has for centuries been a partnership that has always had a stronger connection than that of purely workmates. Far from beasts of burden horses have long served in an unofficial role as our emotional partners; their natural ability to sense, feel, absorb and reflect human emotion creates a cathartic and symbiotic relationship. The human and animal interspecies relationship is both mollifying and cohesive and different animals fit into different parameters of human wellness; for example dogs are wonderful human partners to be sure, yet as predatory animals by nature their service and relationship from a companionship perspective is uniquely different than animals that are classified as a prey species.
One of the most important players in emotional wellness therapy is communication. Lack of good communication can cause a number of issues, where quality communication can remedy issues that may be lingering or eliminate them from ever existing in the first place.
Like many of us I have had a long and interesting journey of discovery in my own relationships with horses and have had the unique opportunity to create interactive wellness programs with horse partners and those living with challenges. The one thing that was always very clear to me is that the underlying connection that has assisted greatly in human progress and development is the nurturing aspect between us, serving as a natural therapeutic tonic. This unique relationship, which is certainly accompanied by the beauty and awe of the physical horse, is based upon that which is unseen. You can touch the horse physically, but you connect with the horse emotionally.
Interspecies communication is like the music beyond the words; transcending through perceived barriers, we are connected through our emotions and as we open the window into the unknown, we find our partnership with the horse.
The Horse; Reflections
“The eye of the horse is a mirror to our soul”, this was the very first thought that came to my mind many moons ago when I was asked, while involved in my first horse to human therapeutic partnership, “Why do you think this works so well?”
Why the horse?
What makes horses uniquely suited to human emotional wellness is that their herd dynamic inter-family relationship structure is based upon emotional intelligence and communication; each having their own individual strengths and weaknesses manifesting in dependency/co-dependency necessity for survival both as a “societal” group and as individuals. In many ways the natural herd structure and accord with both the environment and their interpersonal relationships as a whole, mirror our own circumstance. This unique “mirroring” has long been the underwriter of the human and horse partnership. Horses not only afford an aesthetically pleasing visual draw, their emotionally connective ability with humans living with challenges, as well as the family support system, is felt, seen, expressed and shared.
Horses can mirror us in three essential ways; firstly they’re uniquely individual, how the individual connects to and depends upon others for survival is a close second and thirdly by way of their relationship and role in perpetuating the overall herd societal structure.
Horses can “survive” physically with the proverbial food and water but suffer tremendously without quality emotional relationships; psychological isolation even in the mentally strong individual herd animal can manifest into patterns of behavior that are collaterally anti-social, narcissistic and over all difficult to manage in large doses. Even the most independent and emotionally sound horse has a natural affinity for relationships with their peers and though may seem content and “happy” on their own, can struggle to feel a sense of contentment without them.
Individually horses feel and sense many of the same things we do even if not in the same exact manner; their experiences and reactions to them are not accompanied by the gift of reason, (even though not all humans seem to employ reason before reaction). Because horses feel and experience as individuals things such as fear, anxiety, emotional trauma, loneliness as well as happiness, contentment and joy, again albeit in a different tone than we do, they are also subjected to how they fit into the herd puzzle because of these emotions.
You will note that missing from this parallel is the emotion of anger which in the horse is replaced by fear and uncertainty and can be expressed as a form of resentment or even stubbornness. Anger and animosity in the purest sense are antagonists to herd structure and would be counterproductive to their society’s survival because anger not tempered with reason and animosity without the succor of forgiveness can dismember the family structure. Without the cohesive family herd structure, the sustainable success of the species is compromised and fractured. Horses compete naturally for their place in the herd environment but Mother Nature cannot allow them to plot against one another and because of the lack of internally plotted animosities, horses become exceptional, emotionally non-threatening companions. (Competition is natural and healthy for the sustainability of the herd, allowing true leaders to emerge and emotional intelligence to prevail).
Horses reflect and mirror many of the best of our emotions without some of the worst. In light of this we not only find a likeness to the better angels of our nature reflected back to us but also an emotional absorbent of some of the things that we attempt to hide. There is safety in emotionally confiding in horses as they will not “judge” that which we deem as our own inadequacies.
In a compact scale of the herd unit, the individual horse “finding his or her place” or niche in the hierarchical structure also presents similarities to our own experience in doing the same. An extension of ourselves individually; the singular horse is a moveable puzzle piece. Based upon individual strengths and weaknesses each horse will, sometimes through attrition we see expressed physically, both carve out their place as well as seize their space and level. Their personal herd dynamic finds its way into the overall herd dynamics of the group. The primary goal is harmony and safety which leads to the much larger picture the “one small individual” plays; ultimate sustainability of the species.
There is no unimportant individual in any horse society, each cog in the wheel plays an essential role which carries with it responsibility, the smallest relationship a microcosm of the whole. Horses work together in a co-dependent manner because as a prey species the herd survival relies upon it and they are interconnected like dominoes; “your safety and harmony is ultimately in my best interest.”
To be sure, predatory animals living socially also work together and have a structured communicated arrangement. One of the most interesting things in nature I have ever studied has been the offensive and defensive relationship between prey and predator; to make a complex relationship simplified, on the one hand you have a species that “eats to survive” and on the other you have a species that “survives to eat”, so to speak. The differences between the predatory therapy animal and the prey therapy animal are as subtle as they are profound. Horses experience “reward” in the form of social harmony and comfort whereas the predator relates reward sourced through food. Thus the horse aligns with us in our search and yearning for emotional harmony, safety and comfort, making them a naturally fitted partner along the journey of human wellness.
Emotional Support; Purpose & Reason
Horses reach a broader audience than only those who ride them; indeed physical contact, though wonderful, is not required to have a relationship with a horse, the great emotional communicator. Some of the most profound human/horse relationships I ever was witness to were between horses and children living with challenges that made it impossible for them to “touch” the horses, but they were nonetheless touched by them.
Animals have been providing emotional support to humans for centuries, and it could be argued that among the greatest gifts is that very thing. The line between an animal bringing you joy as a “pet” and stability or purpose for your emotional support, is not defined by the animal itself but human need. The connotation “pet” basically means to me “an animal you can pet”, you shower them with care and kindness and enjoy the rewards that that kind of relationship brings you; you being the facilitator.
Emotional support animals play a more caregiver-like role, themselves counted on for their unending love, loyalty, affection, the human thus the recipient. Because of the range of emotions horses can sense and feel, absorb and reflect, they can individually as well as collectively have incredible purpose as emotional support animals. I know for me I have always felt much better after being with a horse or two. Horses may not seem at first glance the ideal thought of emotional support companion because of things like their size and what is required to keep them physically, but when you take a look at the beautiful complexity of their communication ability and social structure you will find a sanctuary for many human emotions.
Emotional support needs can come in a wide variety of areas but its remedy is rooted in communication, a feeling, succor for the yearning of emotional stability and balance, purpose of life. Whether the desire for an emotional support animal comes from a singular area of need or from several, horses can and do provide a source of comfort. Their natural ability to absorb human emotion provides a safe place for the insecure and uncertain, often anxiety filled human counterpart to disarm and unburden themselves of emotions they do not feel comfortable sharing with another.
The sense of requiring emotional support can stem from a collection of anxieties working in unison to make a person feel things like fear and ambiguity; horses are equipped to filter this and provide an environment of catharsis. I truly feel that the greatest therapy a horse has to offer comes from the emotional relationship we have with them. Emotional relationships are a natural desire of human nature, and so they are for the horse, yet when what is required to have a meaningful relationship of any kind is missing, communication, we tend to start projecting. Because they are a “natural absorbent”, emotional wellness therapy that includes the horse as part of it can supply profound results.
You don’t have to “need” an emotional support animal to enjoy the benefits of the relationship and that sense of fulfillment they provide, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with turning to an animal to share the load of emotional complexities we all of deal with. Horses are a great source of companionship for anyone because of their character and personality; if emotional support is what you need they can provide it, if emotional maintenance is what you need, they can provide that also.
Emotional wellness is a major component for sustained physical health and healing, and horses are a wonderful go-to for finding in them, what it is we seek in ourselves.
Equine PTSD, The Human Parallel
The feeling of stress after a traumatic emotional event is something that all sentient beings, animal or human, can and do experience. Fortunately many such experiences only affect a brief time period and are filtered, processed and moved on from. However when the impact of trauma lingers unprocessed or wholly unfiltered, especially when experienced in a life threatening manner or something similar, self preservation identifies a trigger and associates it with the event in order to add a layer of protection against its reoccurrence. Emotional experience plays a very large role in every part of a horse’s psychological life, positive and confident as well as protective and uncertain. Negative, unfiltered experiences of trauma can cause just as much distorted behavior as positive experiences can nurture harmony; it is with the horse, it is with the human.
Horses carrying around behavioral disorders from post traumatic stress can fool you; they can seem to be in perfect harmony with themselves, other horses, and in the environment as a whole. This is because the ghost that is PTSD is frequently associated with a single moment of trauma, and can be for the most part “kept in the closet of the mind” only cracking the door at seemingly unconnected times. Mother Nature’s gift of self preservation helps ensure survival and one of the instruments of its practical use comes from the anticipatory response mechanism. In order to avoid experiencing the trauma again a trigger is assigned and attached to a “memory” and by way of a warning system things in the environment, even loosely attached to the traumatic experience, become associated. (Associations are identified as triggers and anticipated in the form of anxiety). It’s worth noting that horses can also struggle with PTSD from purely emotional experiences; post traumatic stress is emotionally governed, physical trauma with no psychological trauma attached to it will not manifest into an emotional disorder. One of the keys to processing physically seeded Equine PTSD is to provide similar physical experiences with positive emotional outcomes; remedy is rather more complex however, for the emotionally rooted wound.
Trauma that is purely of an emotional aspect or physical injury that has long since healed with a heavy and lingering backdrop of unprocessed emotion still attached, can pave the way for behavioral disruptions. Sensations of fear, abandonment, loneliness or a disconnection from changes in the environment are felt when interpretation ability is compromised by an alarmist (over protective) version of the anticipatory response mechanism; this greatly affects the ability to manage even simple things in life. Psychological challenges stemming from one trigger, just one singular major event can, over time, build and manifest as other loosely associated triggers and further mentally isolate the otherwise naturally gregarious horse. Once the horse begins to feel a sense of internal isolation and isn’t able to as easily communicate themselves to and with other horses or their environment in general, normal and healthy co-dependency/co-existence begins to break down. When the normal avenue of environmental harmony is compromised, the desire for fulfillment becomes internalized and once socially processed stress is isolated, leading to aberrations in behavior patterns. These aberrations can disrupt normal behavior “out of the blue” from “nothing”, like ghosts within the psychology, opening the way for addictive, abnormal patterns within behavior. An addictive pattern within the behavior means that the overload of emotions has become overwhelming to the point that the horse’s tendencies will be to outsource toward things perceived to offer aid.
The strong desire for safety, comfort and appeasement within the growing internal maelstrom of the psyche begins to attach itself to that which gives a sense of relief; this desire is often fulfilled through attachment disorder, (addiction) and/or dangerously expressive physical processing, or both. Once learned experiences (reason) that previously governed the interpretational aspect are superseded by anxiety and anticipation, you’re left with an un-buffered equation of, anticipate and react, sustaining lingering trauma “post event”.
In dealing with and helping to process trauma deeply housed within the psyche it is essential to realize that you’re not going to erase it, it will always be there. Your goal is to soften its impact, minimize the time of its affect and use the very thing which helps trigger it in the first place against it; associations. Once there is a layered experience that manifests into learned behaviors your best opportunity to chip away at the relevancy of the association is to isolate an associated event and overlay the anticipated response with a “comfortable escape”, replacing the expected negative stress.
Compartmentalizing the psyche with closely associated positive experiences affords the opportunity for an individual to realize harmony where there was only anxiety. You’re not re-creating the psyche, you’re working to help align or reassemble the pieces of a puzzle.
Because horses can experience a full range of emotional disorders to one degree or another means they can play a vital role in the development of therapeutic assistance to humans faced with similar challenges. Reflective Learning Therapy is the term I use for this concept because horses offer a safe, non-threatening alternative for those individuals dealing with trauma internally that they do not feel comfortable discussing in detail. The horse is such a great natural emotional communicator they can help absorb, filter and thus reflect back a sense of calm.
In order for affective therapy to take place the person needs to feel they can freely release their stress and emotions without the perceived threat of ridicule or judgment; nothing will be processed without its being absorbed out of the psyche. Working with an equine partner in any number of simple to complicated tasks depending on the situation, begins to build a depth of emotional communication between the human and horse; the avenue with which emotional stress and trauma can be minimized.
Not only can the equine caregiver help therapy emotion in partnership tasks, they are excellent indicators of human emotion that isn’t necessarily and purposefully expressed. Horses are wonderful “barn barometers” and when you want to know the level of stress or anxiety in their human counterpart, all you have to do is watch closely for the subtle signs a horse is giving in reflection. This reflection of human emotion is in my opinion, an essential element for not only identifying the depth of unspoken anxiety and stress, but also the key in developing case specific therapeutic programs. The horse can indicate moments of elevated emotional stress because this is a natural herd dynamic trait that allows them to read the herd environment for signs of danger; making it a natural alarm of sorts when working a person through emotional traumas. Horses, by reflection, can indicate when to press through and when to back off, making them in my opinion a reliable option to consider along the road of wellness.
Equine Assisted Education; Learning Is Discovery
The educator seeking an avenue to enhance the delivery and impact of their curriculum would do well to consider the horse.
Environmentally based classrooms allow for discovery and help encourage self reliance, replacing a sense of outsourcing and dependency. An educational program involving horses not only changes the game from a typical teacher/student classroom perspective, it brings with it a multitude of unique teaching opportunities for students who struggle with “normal” curriculum environments.
Equine assisted education offers many exclusive benefits. Partnered with uniquely devised curriculum for students in teams, in groups, or singularly, horses can provide opportunities for discovering things yet unrealized, help develop enhanced problem solving skills and build the confidence to share thoughts, learn tasks and work with others for a common goal. True learning is poignantly found through the avenue of discovery, creating an environment of discovery is an instructors most powerful tool with which to implement a curriculum; learning “how to learn” and identifying with achievable goals is just as important as the subject matter focused on to get there.
Education presented with practical life skills in accompaniment, is education with depth and substance.
Horses present what is for many students without opportunity quite a different “animal” to learn about and from, allowing the teacher a unique opportunity to choreograph curriculum in ways a typical classroom doesn’t allow for. Yet far from purely their physical presence we once again are accessing the primary tool provided by the emotionally intelligent horse, their communication ability.
Communication skills are at the core of life itself regardless of the relationship whether personal or professional, they are also the key for education and learning. No curriculum can be successfully implemented without efficient lines of communication between those involved. The horses’ ability to assist us with our communicative processes through interaction and environmental awareness presents great opportunity for teaching and learning. Education implemented through horses helps us understand and recognize that only part of communicating is done through written or spoken word, and that learning how to recognize and understand emotional communication, how to read an environment before reacting to it, teaches personal accountability for the impact an individual has to that immediate environment.
It is always important to remember that how information is delivered greatly affects how that information is received and implemented. Emotional inflection carries weight that supersedes the message either in a positive or negative manner, something quite important to be mindful of at all times in all situations. Working with horses in various manners such as specifically designed obstacle courses, present wonderful opportunities for non-verbal, environmental awareness education.
This uncommon “classroom” experience allows the opportunity not only to enhance the student learning experience individually and collectively, it also provides a different avenue of learning, a useful strategy to help the student that views “normal” classrooms as a challenge. Change the environment, change the game.
Courses can be designed for individual skills as well as for teamwork skills, leadership skills, group cooperation, problem solving and programs designed for peer leadership development, to name but a few. The environment of learning has a lot to do with ones willingness to be taught; the more fluid and natural the environment, the more collaborative the education. When lessons learned are a byproduct of discovery and experience, the student can begin to realize that self confident, “can-do” part of them that may have been dormant. This in turn goes a long way for individuals of various backgrounds and “circles of friends” finding ways of mutual understanding and respect; a single dose of individual humanity can supersede an assumed negativity in a group demographic.
Equine assisted education has a lot more to offer than just a field trip excursion, learning to be aware of and care for more than yourself in an environment that demands your attention facilitates learning. Some of the most impactful and lasting lessons we learn are absorbed through experience; when education is built through the avenue of experience, it becomes knowledge.
Selecting Horses; Purposeful Partnerships
Selecting the right horse for any task or future goal is much like a “job interview” of sorts; your primary focus is to choose ability from a pool of character.
Because horses are social animals equipped with emotional intelligence, they are subject to the rhythms of their environment; they will have singular strengths and weaknesses psychologically that greatly affect their ability to manage stress in the environment which by turn has tremendous impact on their ability to perform physically and mentally. The very first question that needs answered is, how well does the individual processes stress? Just because horses as a species are wonderful communicators that are able to both reflect and absorb their environment and are naturally athletic does not mean that every horse as an individual is going to be a rock star. The development of their skill sets individually is incumbent upon the herd structure and where they fit.
The hierarchical structure of the natural herd dynamics are based upon emotional intelligence, this allows for a natural separation of individuals in a herd structure that lends itself to herd sustainability. Physically the horse is athletic by nature, not for the benefit of human sport mind you, but for the benefit of survival in a volatile world. Physically speaking different breeds have been and are bred for specific physical goals and by virtue of this you will increase your chances of getting a physically talented athlete by proxy of the breeding, however that horse’s ability to mentally optimize that which he/she is bred for is still bound to the psyche. This is why in athletics sustaining of high level physical ability can be very difficult and random; unless paired with a herd dynamic evaluation you’re leaving it to fate where on the herd dynamic totem pole your horse is likely to fit. Where they fit plays a major role when in competition against peers.
Matching the total horse to task or goal is essential and a wide range of herd dynamic character traits and tendencies come in to play. When it comes to athletics sure, if you invest in a horse breed dedicated to the sport you will have yourself a horse that has all the earmarks of athleticism that breed delivers, however it doesn’t mean the individual horse is going to be a super star athlete. So few are indeed, because no matter how we try to define the physical breed and lines the individual horse is still a part of Mother Nature’s design; a socially dependent herd animal.
The herd dynamic structure requires different strengths and weaknesses in the majority of horses that bind them together, dependency and codependency creates an atmosphere where individuals need one another for their own survival. This partnership in nature cannot be overruled and will not be “bred-out” of the species so it is best to embrace its existence and respect its influence. Understanding the total horse gives the opportunity to work with what nature has given the individual so that we as trainers, coaches, educators, therapists, caregivers etc., can create an environment of success and employ the advantage of selecting the individual for their own unique character traits.
Horses being contemplated for emotional support partners, wellness caregivers or education accomplices must be considered first and foremost based upon their emotional intelligence and capacity for managing emotional stress. A purposeful partnership, especially when an emotional connection is required for success, can only be fully realized by considering “who” the horse is. It is essential that the herd dynamic traits of the individual horse are suited for what is required for the task at hand or goal that is set.
In wellness therapies matching horse ability to human need is vital, not every horse or human will fit one to the other. One of the contributing factors to “burn out” for horses is being matched to humans and/or an environment they’re not naturally equipped to manage emotionally. Recruiting horses for any program is much more involved than simply taking in a horse for the program. Selecting horses isn’t like going to a car lot and picking out a car that looks good that you can afford, because your car comes with its driver and if you’re on the “previously owned” lot, the unknown history is very much a part of both the now and the future.
The right horse for the right task matched to the naturally fitted goal and or human partner is not only fulfilling for both but quite often magical. The physical horse presents us a vision of beauty, but it is the emotional horse that provides us a connection of meaning.
Final Thoughts; Hope Is A Destination
Realizing hope, embracing its possibility and potential, is a very powerful thing.
There are few things more compromising to the human psyche than forlorn hope; it degrades our potential and minimizes our self worth. Horses have a unique way of being representative of the hope we sometimes don’t sense within ourselves, and for many throughout history the draw was real; a good horse can help you get across the prairie, escape danger, hunt for food, go into battle, or survive the deafening grip of loneliness.
There is a unique connection to be had with horses that is in my opinion, quite different than that which is experienced with other animals for a multitude of reasons. Human nature in all of its many parts aligns well with those that make up the emotional horse, opening the way for a partnership that, like our own with one another, can be as beautiful as it is challenging. Other animals, dogs particularly, certainly provide esteemed and valued connective relationships and being more reasonably accessible than the upkeep and care demands of a horse, dogs are highly prized, reliable companions. I love dogs, I love all animals to be sure, and I feel that the many animal companions provide their own specialized spin on what they bring to the relationship table.
Modern times have changed the once common in everyday life human horse partnership; we have vehicles and machinery and so on, greatly subverting the physical, workman type of relationship we once depended upon as human kind marched through the ages of progress. Yet the fabric of that relationship is still alive and is still of great value and purpose, even if not as commonly accessible or known to as many.
One thing that has long connected us to the horse is hope, we project it into them and they by turn reflect it back into us. We see the hope of success when we find an athlete, we sense the hope in healing when connect in partnership, through the horse we are touched by the promise of hope, and reminded who we are when we see our reflection in their eyes. Horses have a beautiful way of reminding us that no matter what we’re going through in life, hope is a worthy destination.
~Kerry M Thomas
|Posted on December 7, 2019 at 7:25 AM|
The Psychological Athlete;
Coaching Through Tendencies & Stress
Kerry M Thomas
Introduction; Identifying Latent Talent
Merging Abilities; Coaching Athletic Tendencies
Mental Stimulation; Fortified Foundation
Analytics & Outsourcing; Data V/S Instinct
Closing Thoughts; Communication is King
Introduction; Identifying Latent Ability
There are as many ideas and theories surrounding the concept of training and developing talent as there are trainers, coaches, general managers and owners, regardless of the industry or discipline. But long before any of these concepts and theories can be put in to practice, raw talent and ability must first be scouted and assessed. If your goal is to add prospects with elite potential to your program, then an assessment of physical talent must be accompanied by an assessment of psychological ability.
When scouting athletic talent it’s important to recruit those who have self reliant tendencies and are lacking environmental dependency; outsourcing under competitive stress only streamlines the under-achiever. Being able to coach and develop an athlete through emotional demands means knowing their expression of stress is athletic in nature.
Worth and value are two things generally associated with financial cost and potential gain, yet what something costs does not always reflect its actual value when the caprice of psychology and behavior play a vital role in dictating potential and ability. The development and future success of any athlete starts long before they ever begin their physical journey and if you’re scouting physically capable athletes that are not naturally complimented by an athletic psychology you’re working with a divided partnership that is the very essence of inconsistency, mediocrity; wasted talent.
Identifying talent and identifying accessible ability can be two different things. Pure talent is of a physical nature, accessing and developing that ability relies heavily on mental aptitude. Identifying latent psychological strengths can be more difficult to do but no less important than projecting how a young horse will grow. Just as there are physical indicators or “type” that we commonly look for in the body, there are also “type” parameters that can be discovered in the developing psychology.
I have long been of the opinion that no potential recruit should be given a pass on their mental aptitude; tendencies and traits guide the horse through their growth patterns and become stronger or weaker in various aspects with maturity not unlike a horse suddenly growing “toe in”. It is essential to have a base line understanding of the psychology and its likely growth patterns, for if you hope to see your horse develop into a top athlete, you would do well to understand how to develop them physically and mentally to fit these respective areas as they mature. If you don’t, worth and value can become, and often does, grossly disconnected.
To give yourself a fighting chance at realizing value and by so doing increasing worth, you have to evaluate more than the physicality of an athlete, you have to account for and evaluate their emotional intelligence; tendency and stress are always along for the ride. You must ultimately nurture the horse, while you’re developing the athlete. Understanding and identifying latent ability helps guide you toward realistic and achievable goals; little is more frustrating for the human and more damaging to the horse than trying to fit the “square peg into a round hole” scenario. What and athlete is “bred for” or ‘build for” may or may not correspond with what an athlete can actually be expected to achieve.
Merging Abilities; Coaching Athletic Tendencies
Physical talent is trained, mental ability is coached. It is essential that you develop through and not against natural tendency, making an understanding of them paramount to success; stress happens, you must be sure it’s going to be expressed athletically. When you are coaching through inherent natural tendency you are building on existing strengths and minimizing the attrition of residual stress.
In order to ensure proper development the mind must stay ahead of the body, cycling and processing faster than the body is moving. As a coach you need to be able to foresee and anticipate any psychological demands your athlete may encounter while performing and utilize their natural tendencies to give them a pathway for success by incorporating this into the training program.
Emotional stress is a factor to be reckoned with regardless of physical ability and preparation; there’s a difference between “practice” and actual competition. Physical preparation allows you to perform; psychological ability allows you to compete. A training program should never be built solely upon the physical requirements an athlete has to have, but rather built into and merged with the psychological parameters required as well as any of the collateral demands. Physically a horse can be developed and sculpted in a more systematic manner, but psychologically things are far more random and continuous. The mental athlete lives inside its body 24/7 and processes the world on a continuous basis, therefore a great many non-controllable influences in the environment is bombarding the horse in ways often unknown to the human experience. Where humans have reason, horses have reaction and layered experiences, it is essential to be mindful of this when developing training and coaching programs. Collateral influences will either enhance or chip away at an athlete’s ability to perform under stress. The psychological athlete must be fortified in his or her everyday life in order for a horse to be fully capable of maximizing ability on a consistent basis; performance should be a natural extension of who they are.
A study of the nature of the athlete guides you; working within natural tendency, (how the horse expresses stress emotionally and physically), is far more productive than putting a horse into physically stressful circumstances and battling attrition and anxiety. Attrition and anxiety only help to streamline the risk of injury, hitting a performance plateau and “burning out” before their time. Once you understand how a horse is dealing with stress and what their tendencies of reaction to sudden environmental changes are, you can begin to design a coaching program through these avenues. Tendency and expressions of stress can be used as a positive if you work with the inherent tools provided by Mother Nature.
The smallest of details can make a huge difference in competition, for example how a horse physically reacts to a sudden and unexpected change in the environment is a clue to how they will react during like circumstances in the midst of the situational chaos of competing. Depending on the nature of what can appear to be a seemingly innocuous response, tendency and subsequently stress, may be used for or against the competitive aspect. Many things play a role in whether or not it is a pro or con regarding athleticism; from how long the stress lasts to what direction and how deep the emotional response. Just because it happens doesn’t make it a bad thing, it’s how it happens that matters. When natural expression is athletic and controlled it is a useable tendency you can build upon and coach through, if it isn’t, it will be an impediment lurking inside the behavioral genetic code.
Not only is it important to identify tendency under stress in order to know what to expect going forward, but it should be the foundation upon which you build your training program. When you work with and within the nature of your athlete, you minimize stress while maximizing athletic capacity. Being able to recognize inherent reactions in your horse to the circumstances experienced in their training regime is essential and so is not attempting to erase them. Efforts to remove or “train-over” top of tendency will only give you a ticking time-bomb of sorts; where tendency is inherent you have to feel your way through it. Never make an abrupt correction when layers of subtle maneuvering will do, for the horse can develop anxiety and associate all similar experiences with negative responses.
Tendency in motion is the cornerstone from which a successful developmental program is founded because it’s not about what you want the horse to do well; it’s about what the horse does well by nature.
Mental Stimulation; Fortified Foundation
When push comes to shove and your athlete needs another gear, needs to dig deeper to put away a competitor just when physical fatigue is threatening, mental fortitude makes all the difference.
Long before your horse ever competes, the building blocks of grit and mental fortitude are being shaped. Psychological growth is affected by the environment a great deal and contributes to the speed of interpretation which is groomed through mental stimulation; mental stimulation contributes to what amounts to life-skills within and with-out the herd influence. When an athlete is reared in a stimulating environment you not only begin to fortify their future competitive grit you also mitigate the development of bad habits.
Development of the psychologically strong and independent athlete starts in their youth, and your greatest partner is the natural environment.
Incorporating the natural environment the horse experiences on a daily basis into your “education program” allows the horse to hone their skills without them learning at a young age that they’re “working” and thus not loathing the process. Building the foundation that will become the emotionally stable future athlete in any discipline requires blending training and coaching together with common things horses do by nature when left to their own devices.
Among the roles that daily mental stimulus plays in the growth patterns is their influence on the horses’ anticipatory response mechanism. Horses learn best through experience, and through the proper layering of experiences they will begin to associate similar things and thus will develop triggers which anticipate outcome with response. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your goals, be they long term or short term. But it must be remembered, horses learned “life skills” are for them long term associations, so never develop habitual routines that can in the long run undermine a horses ability to “learn a new skill”. Everything you do contributes to the horses education, your habits and patterns of behavior will often become reflected and carried forward long after the horse moves on to their next stage. When a horse has to learn new things that are closely related to but not the “same as” along their journey, they can showcase a mixed bag of results because of the idiosyncrasies inherent in their associative process. Multiple stimuli in changing environments helps balance the growth patterns in horses, growth patterns that at length translate to patterns in motion.
As they grow you’re nurturing processes layer the horse’s experiences and begins to build a depth to their emotional energy, allowing them to sustain physical effort more efficiently. This is an important step toward both sustainability and consistency as an athlete; the psychology with more staying power than is ever going to be asked for physically, is an athletic psychology that fully optimizes physical talent. In short, if you’re physically training the athlete to finish 10 furlongs, the psychological athlete should be coached and prepared to compete at many lengths of time further than that; duration of focus is your key to conditioning the athletic psychology for competition. When a horse has to finish in order to win, they need more depth of grit than their closest competitor and the sustainable fortitude to not mentally beat themselves. If you’re training for a task the athlete is not mentally equipped to handle, you may find yourself terribly disappointed in the outcome. Little brings more risk of becoming an average performer as well as an injury prone one, than does psychological weakness and fatigue.
There are two kinds of fatigue, physical and psychological; a deep well emotionally will carry the athlete when everything seems “done-in” if it is well nurtured and accounted for in the everyday environment the horse is experiencing. Little is more confining and fatiguing than a feeling of being hemmed in psychologically with no manner available for expression, and not being provided an avenue of emotional release in everyday life can lead a horse down the path of inconsistent and erratic behavior. It is also a contributing factor to a horse that is lacking in basic herd dynamic “social” skills; an inability to anticipate the motion of other horses independently means one thing, herd dependency. We must bear in mind that in many ways horses teach other horses things we can never teach them, hence the primary function in nature of the bachelor herd.
Raw and deep emotional strength in a prospect is the clay from which mental fortitude is molded, the building blocks of grit. Left to their own devices your athlete’s psychological ability may develop useful aspects when in competition, but when focused on specifically during psychological growth, they take the form of patterns of behavior and fortify the existing competitive nature of the athlete.
It’s always best to be ever mindful that the mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete. When scouting talent at any stage, the emotional horse must be accounted for because as emotional athlete’s horses are often a reflection of their environment.
Analytics & Outsourcing; Data V/S Instinct
In today’s world an answer to nearly every question is right at our fingertips, we’re bombarded with data and analytical information to the point it seems we sometimes forget we can actually think for ourselves.
When a horse is prone to outsourcing and leans upon other horses or things in the environment to guide them because they’re not herd dynamically strong enough to be independent, these outsourcing dependencies weaken the athletic power and competitive aptitude of the horse. It also compromises the horse’s ability to learn; learning is replaced by being taught. At the core of learning is experience, being taught is getting information another has discovered; both have their advantages but learning sticks more profoundly. Often what is taught works in the moment while what is learned works for a lifetime.
The nature of outsourcing is that it lends itself to becoming habitual, one dependency two dependency three, until the horse is just another face in the herd dynamic crowd. Teaching them to rely and react to outsourced triggers is handy but inherently dependent upon the trigger. Allowing them to learn by creating an environment of experience engages their anticipatory response mechanism making them highly versatile and independent “thinkers” in competition and situational chaos. Teaching is good, learning is empowering.
There is a manual or step by step how-to guide for just about everything; this is ok if you’re fixing your washing machine or building a model, but not when you’re molding an athlete. Analytics and data are I agree, a very useful tool, they have an important part to play as a reference point, but when they are paired with athletics that are driven by emotion, they should never supersede, unchallenged, natural feel and instinct either in the manner a person learns to coach and train or in how they are coaching and training athletes. As much as it may be desired, we cannot machine away emotion.
Outsourced data mining isn’t devoid of merit and it has its strengths so long as its perceived importance doesn’t “outsource” the human for the robot. There is an obvious and very useful depth of information to be had and applied in things like pedigree, body typing, DNA, and a very good base line of information to refer to as standard protocol for physical fitness training and the list goes on and on. The value of information lies deeply in the manner with which it used. Over reliance on analytics however, puts us at risk; we can’t let what we’re told to see distort what we we’re actually seeing. It’s quite a bit harder to coach a horse through their natural tendencies when your own instinct and feel are jaded by an infusion of data and your common sense is being bombarded by outsourced studies.
Regardless of the sport, when “coaches” and trainers rely heavily on outsourcing and data to guide them it only serves to compound the attrition between talent and athlete, for there is a distinction between them. Instinct cannot and should not be replaced by “what the numbers say”. “Feel” is essential when physical talent relies on psychological aptitude and attitude. Horses react and interpret their world instinctively, thus their development must be benchmarked upon the instincts of their humans.
Among the challenges to and weaknesses of analytics as primary guide is that it cannot answer all the questions; data doesn’t teach you how to interpret in the moment emotional changes and adjust to them. You can have a game plan but your best asset is in your ability to recognize the nuance of emotion (often described as momentum-swings in many sports) and in your willingness to toss the playbook on the bench and coach from the-seat-of-your-pants.
Emotion is not a data point, in a circumstance where emotion plays no role in the outcome then data can reign king, but when paired with a sport whose athletes are affected and largely driven by their emotional fortitude, data is, albeit useful for sure, a side dish to the main. Information in aggregate plays its role, but information alone doesn’t itself necessarily translate to successful distribution, taught and applied. Like any sourced information, how it is delivered affects how it is received. If analytics were all that were needed in coaching, developing and recruiting athletes would come down to physical ability and mechanics alone. In the end you sometimes just need to forget about all the noise long enough to ask yourself “yeah but can he/she play”?
When it comes to developing athletes, knowledge without experience is learning you can’t deliver effectively.
The very best teachers and coaches I ever had in my life were highly knowledgeable in their fields but also knew instinctively how to create their curriculum based upon the individual needs in the room or on the field. My greatest lessons were those I discovered and experienced. Great coaches teach through the natural tendencies of their students and athletes, giving us individually the very best opportunity to succeed; a template little different when developing horses. We rarely recall in detail individual things unless there is an emotional aspect attached to them. Creating an emotional experience when you’re developing equine athletes is every bit as important to it’s being retained and successfully deployed when called upon, as it is for human athletes. When what you’re learning leaves an impression, it’s retained without effort.
Closing Thoughts; Communication is King
I often find myself shaking my head and asking, do we need a study for everything? We’re told how to live, how to think, what to wear, how to feel… this all translates to how we train, how we coach, how we identify talent. The number one complimentary asset to both coaching as well as learning is communication. Being able to communicate on an emotional level not only gives you an advantage in recognizing latent talent, it also provides you the avenue for which you’re coaching can become an emotional and lasting experience. Some of the most challenging terrain to ever be navigated is the landscape of changing emotions; missteps here often lead to an impasse that impedes a successful relationship.
Any number of “communication” devices is at hand but that doesn’t mean quality communication is taking place, and when we rely heavily on an emoji as our form of expressing our feelings, the receiver has little chance of truly experiencing the emotion that is behind it or being accountable to it. When it becomes easier to outsource our expressions than it is to actually feel and embrace them, we’re chipping away at what makes us whole and minimizing our individual accountability on the environment we create.
Good communication is also essential in the development of training and coaching programs that maximize an athlete’s talent and ability because you’re able to better understand how they’re expressing emotional stresses not always seen as much as they’re felt. Being able to identify how the prospect or athlete in training is communicating as well as interpreting the world around them singularly, allows you to develop all of their abilities collectively. Tapping into that powerful resource in your athletes that is their emotional depth helps to ensure that they will not mentally tire before they become physically exhausted.
Whatever your goal is for the horse you’re investing in, be it the Kentucky Derby or Grand Prix Dressage, you’d better be darn sure there’s a depth of mental fortitude capable of getting you there. Horses are beautiful creatures, emotional and powerful, and not a plug and play investment hinged upon analytics.
Too much outsourcing puts us at risk of diminishing self reliance and excusing responsibility, helping to weaken mental fortitude, toughness and grit along the way. What do we have to gain when we desire to outsource everything besides handing over accountability; coaching through tendency and stress only becomes more challenging when we try to harness and machine emotion.
In my way of thinking, a few things you should never seek to outsource are your decisions, your self-worth, your dreams, your courage, your accountability, your happiness. Starting down the path of reliance instead of accountability leads to a slippery slope of dependency; it’s quite alright to fail, so long as you remember to lift yourself back up, and not become its victim.
Kindly Yours, Kerry
Founder of THT Bloodstock
|Posted on November 5, 2019 at 8:50 AM|
Behavioral Genetics; The Nature of Breeding
Kerry M Thomas
Introduction; Rules of Nature
Behavioral Genetic Code; Prevailing Traits
Traits & Tendencies; Stress, the Great Antagonist
Traits & Tendencies; Corrective V/S Non-Corrective
Natural Laws; Sustainable Herd
Closing Thoughts; Thinking Forward
Introduction; Rules of Nature
Natural herd dynamic structure, societal and interdependent, operates successfully owing to the laws of its nature; there can be no leadership without hierarchy, there can be no authority without there being consequences from it. The only way the social animal survives successfully and sustainably is when the individuals within it work together to form an alliance of social intelligence, which itself is only possible because of the individual emotional intelligence that comprise the group. Herd leadership, which certainly can be and is emergent in physicality we can see, is inherently rooted in and initiated from, emotional intelligence. Where every horse may not be “equal”, every horse is equally important to the herd survival.
Emotional intelligence is the core of leadership; it should then also be of primary consideration in any selective breeding program. In nature, the horse as a social animal supersedes the horse as an athlete. Designed breeding programs should always be a converging of two parts; physical genetics and behavioral genetics. The psychology is the operating system that runs the physical machine; it can contribute tremendously to optimizing talent, or frustrate and pinion its development.
Planning a mating is an assemblage of ingredients. You start with an “image” or vision of the ideal horse athlete, yet long before this jigsaw puzzle of the image can be realized the pieces are loosely scattered inside the box. There are ideal physical pieces to find and fit together, and then there are psychological pieces to identify and fit together that overlay the image, giving it life. These behavioral genetic pieces have long been honed and designed by nature to manifest into a herd structure, and because roughly 85% of horses fall into the mid-level herd dynamic ranges, (horses with naturally occurring herd dependencies) sifting through these individual pieces can be a daunting task. But not sifting through them only compounds what is already seemingly a largely random endeavor.
As I say time and again, race horses are not inanimate race cars fabricated in a shop; in a horse you’re getting both car and driver. Even when you’re “investing” in one aspect, you’re actually investing in two. If there were only one, then every perfectly designed physical mating would deliver a high probability of a world class athlete, no one would have to allow for the random, and fewer horses would need to be bred to find “the one.”
Behavioral Genetic Code; Prevailing Traits
When push comes to shove in competition, when the physical athletes are evenly matched, the deciding factor quite often is described in terms such as grit, determination, heart. Whatever term you use for it, none of them are describing the physical ability of the horse, they’re all relating to the psychological athlete. Grit, determination, heart, hard-knocking, all are traits often assigned to describe the characteristics of certain family lines, when these are consistent in behavioral genetic codes, they are an example of prevailing characteristics.
Prevailing character traits take the lead in what we ascribe to certain horses or families, be they positive and useful or negative and detrimental. But the on-the-surface assumed can also veil the underlying reality; misunderstood character traits are often characterized as “that’s just the way he/she is”, and for better or worse, these prevailing traits ride along as collateral influencers when physical/paper matings are being planned. Family genetics are one thing, what’s actually manifested quite often something else completely; similar yes but vastly different in many ways more often than not. My two brothers and I have the same parents, though we collectively have similar prevailing traits, physically as well as mentally, we also are individually very different, with different prevailing skills and talents, tendencies, all forged from the same genetic code. Buying or breeding along the same family lines or even having the exact same parents, promises you nothing in duplication, it only promises you many of the similar ingredients were involved. A little less here and a little more there, and the flavors can be quite different.
Family lineage is an intelligent and useful study of prevailing similarities of character traits, and there is most certainly any number of congruencies of nature to be found; but nonetheless, each individual is unique and presents their own version of this “stamping”.
Capturing lightning in a bottle has more to do with identifying the singularly displayed prevailing character traits of an individual in the family than it does casting the net of hope over several in the family line. The sought for magic mixture of ingredients is in the smallest of details, finding them is essential if you hope to do all you can to sway the odds of chance in your favor. Consistency of traits is an essential key to maximizing breeding potential, and individually more influential than a blanket of general characteristics. Selecting a specific family member in a line you prefer based upon how they express their family characteristics is far more useful in strategy than simply breeding to that family alone.
There is another aspect to prevailing traits that has to be considered because of the rules of nature; male and female behavioral genetics. Mother Nature has given each sex a different inflection on the same behavioral genetic language. Owing to the specific herd dynamic and structural roles each is inherently equipped to play in the family unit, the expression of prevailing traits will come with a male/female slant. Because of this, the lens with which a stallion is evaluated and considered has different emphasis points than does the lens placed upon a broodmare. In nature, by and large the mares have a lot to say about whom they breed to year to year, and following this same natural pattern I feel it is wisest to first select specific mare(s) who carry the traits you desire, and seek a stallion that fits after as opposed to random selection based off general similarities; let nature guide you beyond the paper.
Selecting broodmares with the proportionally correct psychological traits for breeding can be a far more challenging task than the more often than not straight forward psychologies of the stallions. Broodmares after all not only deliver their physical and behavioral genetics, they also greatly influence the developing interpretational abilities of the foals. This point is essential; understanding how the mother will slant her imprint upon the foal. Is she prone to stress, does she overreact, does she assimilate well and so on, are highly important questions to answer and carry great influence from and within the female families.
The influence ability of a stallion should be fitted to the influence ability of the broodmare in such a way they have a chance to compliment more than they have a chance to overlap.
Mare traits can often be more slanted toward the Group Herd Dynamic because of her role in the herd structure, and the stallion because of his role, most often will have a slant to the Individual Herd Dynamic. Each of these, though not put in place instinctively for athletics, do have athletic influences; they lend themselves to a horse’s natural psychological rhythm, herd placement, ability to assimilate to rapidly changing environments and ultimately how they express themselves – how they compete. IHD and GHD, found in both male and female to varying degrees, when in the proper proportions, helps to balance the horses psychology and when that balance is proportionally correct it allows them to elevate through the herd environment to leadership roles. You want this natural ability to lead in your physically capable athlete lest they be incapable by natural law, of fulfilling their physical potential.
This does not mean you have to have a “perfectly” proportioned IHD/GHD stallion or broodmare in order to get the emotional intelligence you need to optimize ability, but it does mean these things must be considered in each that a complimentary match is made.
Much consideration is wisely and necessarily given to breeding physical strength and structure, the same should be so for herd dynamic strengths and efficiency. A friend recently sent me a picture of horse and wanted a recommendation, I told him this isn’t like auto-trader, “this car is equipped with a driver, and you’d better know as much as you can about them before you write your check”.
Traits & Tendencies; Stress, the Great Antagonist
Stress is the great antagonist. An inability to manage and filter emotional stresses not only affects athletic performance, it places more stress on the physical horse, intensifying the wear and tear and ultimately increasing the risk of injury and the shortening of a career.
Individual stress management is essential to understand for breeding purposes, not just for training and performing. When you’re considering which stallion or which broodmare for your breeding program and you’re using as part of your guide their particular racing results, you would do well to dig far deeper than just what the numbers tell you. When it comes to breeding decisions, evaluating how an athlete achieves is more important than what they achieved. Keep in mind that you’re not breeding to an accessorized horse, or a horse complimented by weak peers or interesting training methods; things like shadow rolls and blinkers for example, don’t transfer their DNA however the reasons they were needed, do.
Every sentient life experiences emotional stress it is an unavoidable circumstance of living, however not all manage it in the same manner; stress management is what separates horses in a herd and influences athletes in competition.
As an individual horse within the herd structure, there is a big difference between outsourcing to others or something in the environment (dependency) and the ability to filter emotional stress swiftly, smoothly, internally. It is the difference athletically between a horse moving with required guidance in space or moving independently through space. Something quite important to know for breeding purposes if you’re goal is to breed top level athletic potential.
Traits or inherited characteristics can be both physical as well as psychological in nature, but tendencies are purely psychological; tendencies are the expression of both traits and learned behaviors and are often the visually reflective aspect of emotional stress, filtered or unfiltered. (Both the stallion and the broodmare stand a chance to hand down many of their traits and tendencies, and as mentioned, broodmare tendencies will govern the manner in which she educates her baby.)
Because emotional stress carries with it so much influence on how a horse lives its life, within and more importantly without, the herd environment, determining how they’re dealing with and expressing it becomes one of the most important pieces of the breeding jigsaw puzzle. If you’re future progeny is to be an athlete that competes alone in an arena, your evaluation process can be more slanted on how the stallion and mare handle stress while independent of the herd. If your future prospect will be geared toward a discipline that will require them to operate amidst a herd as well as independent of it, such as racing, your evaluation necessarily involves both aspects.
How stress affects a horse’s tendencies can change from circumstance to circumstance, there are some forgivable traits and tendencies because they ultimately have little effect on the athletic goal, and there are those that simply cannot be overlooked in the equation. It is also possible that the nature of physically expressed stress can be useful even if it causes strong directional “push” or strongly expressed physical knee-jerk reaction, (some horses are what we call physical processors, and are able to use emotional stress to physical advantages) so long as it is consistently expressed in the desired direction. A race horse that is being “squeezed” between horses, for example, and needs to physically filter that moment of stress, and has the tendency to move forward as opposed to hang or drop back, has an acceptable expression of stress. That said it’s important to remember that the art of your breeding program is as much a breeding of emotional expression as it is anything physical.
Another element of the trait, tendency and stress equation is time. The influence of stress upon tendency is not always easily realized until, like a balloon filling with air over time, it builds up too much pressure and explodes. This is another piece of the puzzle worth knowing, for stress that builds over time, easy to overlook, affects the horses ability to train at length and to perform a task beyond a certain pressure-point; time-in-motion. Horses that are affected by stress built up over time have what seems to be a wide space between “calm” and “erratic” behavior, often times displaying physical disruptions out-of-nowhere. This doesn’t come from “nowhere” of course; it is an indicator of accumulated stress that impacts how the horse distributes emotional energy, which directly affects the competitive nature of the horse.
A horse-athlete not only has to be able to physically handle the demands of becoming an athlete, they must also be able to handle the psychological demands. The last thing you want heading to the wire is to have your horse succumb to the accumulation of stress, having their patterns of motion affected by a pattern in their behavior.
Internalized stress unprocessed mentally or unfiltered physically can have highly antagonistic side effects. The “calm” time in waiting prior to competing or the protracted time, often largely sedentary, during convalescing from injury, can be nearly overwhelming for a horse bred for athletics. Both of these can ultimately affect the horse negatively in a physical manner; whether needing to optimize physical ability or fully healing from injury, depending on their natural tendencies.
Tendency strung together during times of chaos and assimilation demands develop into patterns in their behavior, patterns in their behavior translates in the competitive athlete to patterns in their motion.
Natural ability to manage stress is the gateway of hope for a successful breeding. The high functioning athletic psychology stays well ahead of physical motion; interpreting, clearing space like a blocker for a running back, optimizing talent, keeping them safe; once again, it’s the difference between a horse moving in space and moving freely through it. A fluent and supple psychology paves the way for a fluent and supple physical performance.
Traits & Tendencies; Corrective V/S Non-Corrective
Emotional stress is not something that you can breed-out of a horse because it manifests externally and itself is not a trait, but you can work toward breeding strength of tendency. Before you can do that you have to consider how emotional stresses enter the psyche which in large part happens in two ways; environmental stress and perceived stress. Environmental stress is collateral to the information being brought in to the psyche through the medium of the sensory system where the senses detect something that causes interpretational anxiety. Perceived stress is anxiety that stems from learned behaviors and the pre-existing psychological triggers that are related to them accompanied with an inability to interpret or discriminate what is environmental or perceived. The common denominator is the interpretation process of either real or perceived stimulus.
An inability to interpret creates stress; stress creates internal anxiety which leads to outsourcing and dependency. For the herd animal asked to compete this means that in times of emotional stress they can become herd bound and dependent while moving, compromising speed, pace, efficiency, causing drag in the fluency of motion and so on. None of which are productive athletically.
Just because you cannot breed out the infusion of stress doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to breed out sensory disruptions that lead to psychological weakness, for there are both corrective and non-corrective traits and tendencies.
Mating “elite” physical athletes doesn’t mean you’re going to get elite progeny as a result, if that were the case every Grade 1 winner bred to a Grade 1 winner would gift you a Grade 1 winner. Life isn’t that simple, and neither are the herd dynamics. Herd animals rely on one another for their safety and survival and this means that by nature the majority of horses born will have incompletion in their psychological makeup creating dependency one to another. The law of averages is against your breeding program from the start. The question that has to be answered is what are the psychological ingredients of those rare natural herd leaders? The ability to manage stress individually starts with the ability to interpret it properly.
Horses with naturally occurring (mid-level herd dynamic) interpretational issues and outsourcing dependencies in a mating program will at a high percentage rate deliver these traits and subsequent tendencies in their progeny. Any trait or tendency that is inherently borne from the psyche is non-corrective meaning that once it is there by nature it is a behavioral genetic trait that is geared toward herd dependency. You’re not going to “train it out of them” you can only help manage it by the environment you create for them. These horses are highly subject to outsourcing and operate most efficiently when being lead by others in times of stress. These horses will also have incomplete sensory soundness preceding their inclination to outsource.
The sensory system itself is a physical aspect funneling information into the psyche for processing, making breeding for sensory soundness just as essential as breeding for a certain hip, shoulder angle, hock, and pastern and so on. It is vital to evaluate fully either your stallion or your mare and gain a detailed mapping of sorts of their sensory system and its efficiency. Once you identify the strengths and weaknesses in the sensory system you are armed with information to help you breed away from subsequent dependency of nature by finding a mate that strengthens the areas in question. Herd and environmental dependency as a tendency under stress becomes less an auto-response when the horse is equipped with a highly efficient sensory system.
Your stallion or your mare need not be perfectly efficient in every area physically or mentally, so long as their mated with a horse that compliments and strengthens; this is how you breed away from dependency.
The key is that neither mare nor stallion have too deeply set and highly erratic interpretational issues and environmental/herd dependencies. These horses are much harder to “correct” through a breeding program and is often a costly experiment in futility. Horses with sensory weaknesses that are otherwise largely devoid of herd dependencies have a much higher probability of success in a breeding program than horses with both sensory and interpretational dependency because you can intelligently match them with a mate whose traits are stronger in those areas. Trait to trait correction is far more likely than trait/tendency to trait/tendency corrective efforts.
Natural Laws; Sustainable Herd
The bottom line, according to Mother Nature; your primary consideration is to breed an emotionally intelligent and herd dynamically sound horse, your secondary consideration is a focus on the physical athlete. In truth these of course work together and both are required to optimize ability, yet physically selecting a match is less intensive than matching psychologies and perhaps too often takes the lead in the process; the driver of your machine becoming at best a conversational afterthought. In controlled breeding programs where pedigrees and physicals embody the largest part, if not the only part, of the decision making process, a wide range of behavioral genetics gets forwarded along randomly. No worse thing for an otherwise strong herd dynamic stallion or mare to be mated improperly, it can unfairly label them as “non-producers” and at length they’re sold, retired, given-up on.
In the natural herd dynamics where human caprice is not a factor, the behavioral genetic traits and tendencies are much closer together. Nature has employed natural selection to ensure the weak minded and overly dependent do not endanger the overall herd survival. There’s a reason there are two herds roaming in nature, the usually thought of family herd and a bachelor herd. Lead stallions emerge from bachelor herds and take over family groups owing to their emotional sagacity, fortitude and intelligence combined with, not because of, their physical strength and athleticism. Lower level herd dynamic horses in both herd groups are less likely to breed consistently; low level stallions rarely get the chance, and lower level mares who aren’t culled off naturally find themselves nonetheless mating with the lead stallion of her herd.
Mother Nature is ultimately quite discriminatory when it comes to her breeding program. In order to sustain herd survival a tight grip on emotional intelligence has to be embraced; too much weakness of mind waters down the gene pool, widening the breadth of behavioral traits too far from the balance intended. Inefficiency of mind leads to emotional stress, leads to loud physical expressing horses, leads to undue attention upon the herd from predators and a frailty of nature in individuals.
Closing Thoughts; Thinking Forward
Instinct drives the machine, breeding for success means breeding in strengths, breeding out weakness both physically and mentally. Among the many things to consider are breeding for sensory and psychological consistency, identifying the psychological growth patterns of both broodmare and stallion which will help you understand their emotional intelligence, and never overlooking the fact that your horses are not inanimate objects.
There are no guarantees or “can’t miss” scenarios no matter how much homework you do, but under appreciating the value of the herd dynamics in your breeding decisions and leaving it to random fate alone is unnecessary and unwise. The strongest body being operated with a weak mind and inefficient sensory system only gives you a better chance of failure or an unfortunate catastrophe in a game where the chips are already stacked against your success even when everything goes right. Utilizing herd dynamic evaluations as a part of the mating decision investment strategy helps bring clarity to your direction and to the decisions you make, like a version of “e-harmony” for horses I always say. It is just my personal opinion, but if a product isn’t standing up to normal and expected wear and tear once sold, perhaps the manufacturing of it may need a tweak or two?
If we consider the current perceived state of the sport, every bit of information that can be obtained and applied, should be. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no leading authority on the minute details of neither pedigree nor physical conformation, but I’ve dedicated a large enough portion of my life to the study of herd dynamics and the psychology of the equine athlete to know, that the economics of behavior simply makes sense.
*Recommended Reading* "Sensory Soundness; The Psychology of Motion"
~ Kerry M Thomas
Founder of THT Bloodstock
|Posted on August 26, 2019 at 4:45 PM|
The Psychology of Motion
Kerry M Thomas
The study of the herd dynamics in horses and the vital role they play in any athletic discipline is a study of the many pieces of the psychological jigsaw puzzle that make up what I call the behavioral genetic code. There are to be sure a great many singular areas of essential importance and influence, but none of the collateral pieces are as influential as the sensory system. Commonly desired in the horse-athlete, physical soundness is important, but just as essential to the optimization of talent but far too often undervalued, is sensory soundness. It’s an analogy I make all the time and worth the reminder, horses are not race cars, in a horse you’re investing in both car & driver.
Regardless of the athlete or the discipline, stress is a factor to be reckoned with, and there is both physical and emotional stress. The sensory system plays an essential role in stress management for it communicates the external world of environment with the internal world of the psyche. The efficiency with which this information is transferred directly governs the optimization of what we identify as talent.
As with any sport, there is a fine line between being physically capable and psychological able; it is not enough to consider if the horse can physically handle the rigors of life as an athlete, they must also be capable of handling the emotional demands. The sensory system plays an integral part in the psychology of motion; the driving force behind the ability to fully realize physical talent.
The Sensory System; Soundness
There are two aspects of sensory soundness; the physical sensory system and the psycho-sensory system. One ID’s, the other interprets. No true understanding, in my opinion, of the pros and cons, or the when to and when not to… use sensory depriving or altering equipment, can be embraced without first understanding sensory soundness and the individual horse’s strengths and weaknesses within it.
The physical sensory system aids in the direction and distribution of emotional energy, assists in stress management and is responsible for funneling identified environmental information into the psycho-sensory system, (emotional intelligence). Sensory soundness is for all purposes, that which weaves together the outside world and inside world; external environment blended with internal self.
By nature, the physical aspects of the sensory system which are commonly known as sight, sound, smell and touch have another partner that comes in to play in the rear of the horse when vision offers no aid, it is for lack of a better term, the instinctive “feel” sensory aspect. Feeling that something is present or approaching and responding to it, known in our lexicon at THT Bloodstock as the Anticipatory Response Mechanism, is an instinctive sense of emotional intelligence. Herd animals that rely on things like fight or flight and social structures all are equipped naturally with this aspect of the sensory system; not only does it help them tremendously moving through the environment and through a crowd of other horses at high rates of speed, it also aids them in survival when the instinct of “move first, ask questions later” is required. The sense of ‘feel’ is a specialized form of quiet communication instinctively placed.
When it comes to a horse being considered as an athlete, knowing the physical direction of push, or tendency of motion under stress that is expressed as a result of this non-physical emotion, is a key element. You’re not going to train or coach-out the naturally expressed anticipatory response mechanism dynamics, so you’d do well to understand how your prospect is expressing them.
The primary physical senses work together to cover all areas of the environment; but sight and sound, with the accompaniment of “feel” in the blind spots, each have their primary quadrant in the circular world of the horse. In the sensory sound horse, this radar system surveying the external world communicates with one another on an as needed basis; if say a sound is such that the horse needs a visual assist they will in essence “hand-off” to vision smoothly and seamlessly without unnecessary physical movement. (Keep in mind, physical movements can bring attention to an individual otherwise blended into the herd or environment, thus making a target of oneself to the watchful eye of a predator that is often triggered by motion.) Sensory soundness allows the horse to make these “sensory-lead-changes”, the communication of stimuli from one sensory aspect to another, without unnecessary physical expression. The outside world is often in motion, yet the horse doesn’t have to be moving to match it or counter it with sensory lead changes clearing space of approaching threats, yet by the same manner when they are moving, sensory lead changes help clear space like a blocker in football opening space for the running back, taking the lead that allows for smooth, fluent physical motion.
In order for the horse to move swiftly and efficiently through the environment, (or choose to remain still and invisible) and to competitively sustain movement as an athlete, the physical “radar” system, senses locating stimuli, is not enough, the information being funneled must also be interpreted; the interchange where physical sense meets psycho-sensory.
Among the corner stone’s of an individual horses herd dynamic is that individual’s ability to interpret stimuli without the aid of other horses or “outsourcing”. Herd structure serves a great many survival purposes, the chain of command in normal herd life for the prey animal helps camouflage those individuals who are not entirely sensory sound. You will find very often a horse that appears “complete”, self assured, confident even, in the friendly confines of routine and family or buddies, but when the environment changes, or they are suddenly isolated, things aren’t so calm and confident. When you isolate the horse, you’re exposing both their strengths and their weaknesses, something of great importance to remember when you’re considering a horse as a potential athlete for your program. The ability to properly interpret the information delivered by the physical senses is the earmark of emotional intelligence, emotional intelligence is the operating system for the physical machine; extremely vital information to comprehend as part of the investment strategy. It is the difference between physical athleticism and psychologically athletic, it is, in competition, the difference between grit and deference. In the normal herd setting, it is also governor of hierarchy and fitted perfectly in the structure of the family unit where individual survival is largely dependent upon group communication. A simple “equation” to remember; the senses survey and identify, the psycho-sensory absorbs and interprets, tendency governs initial physical response.
The Sensory System; Environmental Dependencies
The reality is that by the very nature of design, very few individual herd animals are naturally equipped with complete sensory soundness. The majority of horses from a psychological standpoint find themselves with average to good sensory systems; making them the bulk of the overall family structure, say roughly 75% make up this middle ground area of the herd dynamic, 20% the lower end leaving only 5% of individuals with high level herd dynamics. From this 5% are found the natural leaders both present and future, and there are earmarks in youth housed within the sensory soundness and tendencies; patterns in behavior which translate to patterns in motion. It is important to note, emotional intelligence relative to dominance is not the same as physically dominant. Physically expressed “dominance” is often rooted in underlying stress and anxiety, being “pushy” the only way that “moment” can be properly filtered. This is not leadership as much as it is individual moments of projected dominance. This is also a natural playground style rule of expression and a “loud” horse can often indicate insecurity or lower rank; the general rule here is for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Let’s remember, bringing undue attention to oneself is an invitation to predators to target you as much as it may be bullying in the ranks; in reality Mother Nature cleverly conceals her true leadership in plain sight. True leaders while certainly allowed to be reactive and expressive, more and more over time will evolve into almost purely purposeful motion and emotional communication, having the ability to control their environment and influence everyone in it. The high ranking sensory sound horse absorbs and discerns their world while efficiently interpreting it, allowing them to lead because they are not required to outsource, greatly minimizing any dependencies on their peers.
Sensory holes or what we commonly refer to in-house as “potholes” in the sensory system, are not only commonplace but are actually required within a herd unit. Any herd structure found in nature sustains and survives as a group because they have an element of co-dependency, these create links in the chain, the fabric that binds; you have my back I have yours, alone we are vulnerable but together we have a chance. It is the basis of and between the predator/prey relationships; predators alone or in a team targeting and seeking to separate a face in the crowd or one who has isolated themselves or has been isolated from the herd because of things like age or sickness. When a herd animal that has sensory potholes is isolated from their herd, a wide range of expressions can take place depending on if they’re able to manage emotional stress and anxiety; rather an important factor to wrap yourself around if you’re scouting horse athletes.
Co-dependencies in the herd structure allow horses, who alone would have trouble doing so, the ability to feel safe and completed because their sensory equation is supported by their peer(s); the “peer” can be and often times is for many domesticated equine partners, their human. It is important for the human partner to keep in mind that unlike predators where food is a grand “reward”, for the herd prey animal, comfort is the grand reward. When training a horse with sensory potholes, an important aspect to include in your education program is an escape route to comfort out of stress. When you want to overcome anxiety in your horse and still move forward with your training, layer comfort zones within your program; physical training and psychological coaching must be blended together to optimize total horse talent.
During times of calm and quiet the herd dynamics are more relaxed and the hierarchy structure, the dependency/co-dependency relationships, more loosely knitted. It is during times of high stress and rapid, sudden environmental changes where this fabric tightens up and starts to bring order from out of panic and chaos. The longer time a horse is in motion, the more reliant on their herd position and their peers the individual horse becomes; sedentary herd dynamic structure can appear fluid, while a moving herd dynamic structure begins to transform into a firm network designed to allow the unit to evade predatory threats.
Co-Dependency and the Equine Athlete
Because the vast majority of horses come with naturally occurring sensory potholes in some form or another, necessitating reliance on environmental dependency in varying degrees, when it comes to equine athletics it is self evident that a great physical and pedigree are only two parts to the puzzle. This makes an understanding of the overall herd dynamic and degree of sensory soundness of utmost importance; nurture the horse, develop the athlete. It is the reason we at THT study and consider the symbiotic communication between behavioral and physical genetics; gaining an understanding of “who” the horse is as an individual helps you better understand their true potential and how to get them there. We must be mindful too, that for an animal equipped to see the world in basically a circle, running in a straight line efficiently and with control requires rapid sensory lead changes individually and/or outsourced guidance lest you have a high speed boat with no rudder.
Just because the horse has sensory potholes somewhere in their equation does not at all mean that they cannot and will not become fine athletes, it is not a death knell to performance. The discipline the horse is bred for or targeted for plays a large role in how much of an impediment these sensory disruptions will be and how they need to be coached to move forward. The first thing that needs to be identified is, are these sensory, thus herd dynamic, issues specifically antagonistic to the discipline or the ultimate goal?
Every discipline of athletics has at least some overlapping requirements of sensory efficiency, even when the emphasis on particular areas can change or be contrasting. For instance a race horse requires different sensory efficiency and herd dynamic demands than a jumper or dressage horse even though they share some of the same. What is an area of antagonism to one is not so impactful to another, so when you’re considering the horse you have to consider the job requirements and demands psychologically just as much as you do physically. This is why each horse’s naturally occurring strengths and weaknesses need to be identified quadrant by quadrant; for example how strong is the horse say on the left oblique as compared to the right, what is the range of binocular vision as opposed to monocular vision left side/right side, how well does the horse sensory lead change when moving through various stimulus demands and so on. These are all vital questions just as important to athletic performance and training as is say shoulder angle, hock, hip, throat, knees, and pedigree. Each discipline also has within it different levels of competition, which requires greater ability and athletic optimizing potential; in order for a horse to psychologically achieve physical potential, their environmental dependencies in key sensory areas must be at a minimum even though you can work through potholes in areas that are not so essential to a given disciplines performance.
Bridging the gap in your horse to help manage sensory and herd dynamic outsourcing and potholes starts with knowing where they are and how deep is the dependency. It is equally as important to identify the strengths in your horse, because it is those strengths that will allow you to offset any weakness as you work to develop your athlete. Keeping in mind at all times to build into your program avenues of comfort and reprieve from emotional stress is a key coaching tool; stress and anxiety just like with us, is your horse’s enemy. Horses are by nature hi-level emotional communicators and emotional communication is a herd dynamic, when you are with your horse you are responsible for the emotional environment you create. You can help absorb emotional stress and create comfort zones in chaos, or you can impart emotional stress and add to it. If your horse has any outsourcing needs for fulfillment, you want to be sure that you’re able to be that bridge in the sensory lead change sequence; not all horses are right for all people or trainers. Horses with environmental co-dependencies can still achieve great athletic feats so long as the environment created for them assists their development, which over time will allow the horse to assimilate with increasing efficiency.
Speed and efficiency are expressed in two separate ways, there is physical speed and there is psychological speed, and each of these also has elements of recklessness or control, or a mixture of each, especially during competition. The sensory system plays an essential role in governing physical speed and fluency and it is a basic instinct wrapped around self preservation; in order for the horse to move safely through space at any speed they must identify and interpret faster than the physical body is moving. The senses manage the throttle and the steering, the maneuverability and the changing of gears; the physical horse supplies the physical power. For a horse to be truly versatile in rapidly changing conditions, they must be equipped with sensory lead change ability enough that allows nearly instantaneous assimilation, or be able to rely on outsourcing to complete the sequence of adaption when needed. Again, each discipline has its own requirements of sensory speed and clearance that allow for physical fluency; the dressage horse having different requirements than the race horse, than the jumper and so on.
The speed and efficiency of the psychological athlete dictates the efficiency of speed and distance to the physical athlete; if you’re driving 55 MPH and suddenly hit thick fog you slow down to a speed that allows you enough time to interpret the road and what you’re moving into. How “fast” a horse’s psychological rhythms are, are not always reflected in their physical expression, but for an athlete you want these things to complement one another by virtue that the psyche is always cycling ahead of physical motion in a manner that is purposeful and controlled. Physical expressions under emotional stress are the tendencies in motion, tendencies in motion for the athletic horse is an earmark of how well they will optimize their latent talent, especially when time of motion is protracted. The operating system runs the machine.
There is no “normal” cookie cutter psychological rhythm, no one size fits all neatly into this discipline or that discipline, there are only ranges of behavioral genetic types and how they fit into the goals and requirements of a sport is highly individualized. And just like individual sports have varying levels of competition, varying degrees of psychological ability will also have an effect on what the achievable goals are. Some horses will look like super stars up to a certain point, and then show signs of leveling off or altogether caving in under added stress and pressure or from peers in competition. For race horses, it is the difference between horses running in space, and running through it. The horse that runs through space is making their own hole through the environment, the one running in space is outsourcing to other horses, hovering herd bound. Herd bound or what we at THT dub “buddying-up”, are horses not impressing themselves upon the environment, but subject to it.
The moment the psychological rhythm and sensory sequence becomes too slow to stay ahead of the physical motion, is the moment the isolated horse pin-balls, and is the moment the horse running with peers outsources, creating “drag” in their efficiency and assimilations. Pin-balling is when an identified stimulus is neither properly interpreted nor properly “handed-off” to another sensory aspect, and gets stuck somewhere in between for a period of time manifesting in desperate attempts to outsource or a move away from or through, increasing emotional stress. Physically this is often seen as delayed responses and changes in physical pace and or direction, hanging in mid-air so to speak for a few strides or much longer, depending on horse and circumstance, or abruptly changing directions. These inherent tendencies under stress of competition lend themselves to the running style of a horse; another example of their patterns of behavior translating to their patterns in motion. You will not erase these tendencies but when you are aware of them you can find ways to help your horse outsource through them and be effective and efficient athletes. I like to remind our clients that their horses cannot be made into something they’re not, the goal is to help them become the best version of themselves. Patience, understanding, creative thinking and innovation are often your keys to proper coaching and curriculum development for the psychological athlete, coaching the horse and training the athlete must merge in order to optimize the natural talent sometimes hidden within them.
Stress can affect the spin-cycle in various ways and this can lead to what is basically a misdiagnosis of the horse. For example, certain horse psychologies that spin fast, “hi-rev” in the THT lingo, may be equipped with high functioning and highly efficient sensory soundness but when they are not moving or are asked to be sedentary and “behave” they become agitated or bounce all over by way of expressing their distain. There is a fine line between purposeful expressions and a horse being reactionary and bumpy, they both can look very similar when observed. But a deeper study of the herd dynamics can often unveil those horses operate at optimum efficiency, mind and body symbiosis, in full motion when the body begins to catch up with the psyche. Likewise, a seemingly sluggish non-reactive psychology does not equate automatically to a sluggish, complacent performer, sometimes, attributable to purposeful motion, these horses can be the sweetheart turned into wolf in the chaos and excitement of competition. Again there is no normal or specific “type” of horse psychology to fit neatly into the discipline they’re bred for, each of these behavioral genetic traits have a range within them, a range that will be reflected in the level of their performance. Gaining an understanding of this range of ability in the horse prospect before you invest, helps greatly in making informed decisions.
Equipment; Risk V/S Reward
When it comes to finding value in your investment, the first place to look is between the ears. How your horse is distributing their emotional energy and in what manner it is being physically expressed tells you a great deal about their overall ability to optimize talent. Understanding stress management and the inherent filtering processes, be them outsource dependent or internally managed, are your guides to understanding your individual horse and to developing a proper program for them.
When it comes to the use of equipment such as blinkers, shadow rolls and so on, depending on your discipline, I personally feel that too often equipment is called upon to try and Band-Aid an issue not entirely understood, far too quickly. Each horse like each human has a different way and different rate of learning, and equipment gone to too quickly can disrupt naturally occurring growth patterns. A quick fix in anything rarely exists. These are not cars you put into the shop, adjust the carburetor or fuel filter and then toss back out on the race track, as much as the impatient ones wish they were.
Using physical sensory altering or depriving tools only alter or deprive the physical senses; regardless of how the physical sensory system is “adjusted”, the emotional aspect, the psycho-sensory, still has to properly process the information being shuttled into it. Just because you change the manner in which the environment is being surveyed doesn’t mean you’re enhancing the manner in which it is being interpreted. The difference between helping and hurting the ultimate ability of the horse varies greatly and depends on the way a horse changes their expression and emotional energy distribution. I am not at all against blinkers and shadow rolls and so on, but I am always in favor of not knee-jerk reacting before the horse is allowed to sort things out and before tweaking their curriculum in any number of ways to help them bridge their own gaps.
Natural growth patterns in young athletes allowed to develop naturally is always better than risking disruption of them; disruptions far too often lead to “bad habits” and the creation of environmental dependencies that perhaps otherwise would not at length find a foothold in the horse psyche. Unfortunately for horses that have slower emergent properties, sometimes humans are not all that patient. When the physical sensory system is functioning well in their respective quadrants and information is singularly interpreted properly, but there is an issue when a sensory lead change is required, then a piece of equipment strategically employed can become very useful and affective without any risk of creating environmental dependencies.
Misdiagnosing the cause of a “lack of focus” for example, and abruptly putting blinkers on, may help in the short term performance but ultimately put you behind the eight ball moving forward in clearing conditions, or going to the next level. A quick fix in the moment often results in a growth plateau. Other things to consider regarding equipments’ affect are the internal rhythms of the horse and their emotional energy distribution. Minimizing one physical sense puts more demand upon another, pushing additional focus and emotional energy into another sphere, this can help or this can hurt, but one thing is for certain, it will concentrate the internal energy and rhythm into a smaller area. The results can be widely varied and random from performance to performance based upon the environment and herd peers, because when you concentrate or condense the senses you’re robbing from Peter to pay Paul and challenging the assimilation-in-chaos process.
If you want to push your race horse forward, make them spin faster by using equipment, you alter the way they naturally distribute emotional energy by concentrating it into a certain area; you may make them “faster” but you also may make them “shorter”. The ability for a horse to be competitively versatile over a distance rests deeply within their inherent ability, or their learned ability, to conserve the bulk of their emotional energy reserves until it’s called upon.
Herd Dynamics, the Psychology in Motion
As an individual the herd dynamic defines who the horse is relative to their behavioral genetic sequence, and within the herd itself these dynamics carve out their placement among their peers; governing emotional intelligence managing physical movement.
“The herd dynamics are those naturally occurring traits, tendencies and characteristics that make up the individual psychology and where this places the horse in the hierarchy of the herd structure. It is in short, the operating system of the physical machine.”
There is no getting around it, an athletic psychology is the difference maker in high level competition against physically similar ability and the rules of the herd dynamics will have their influence. If your horse isn’t able to lead for themselves, they will be left to be lead by another. It is a required element for any "society" to become knitted and sustainable that a majority of its members are codependent, an essential asset, while a scant few are not bound by its laws but are inclined by Nature and their nature, to be both independent of and party to, that herd societal structure. There is a set rule-of-thumb in the natural order that allows individually incomplete sensory soundness to be completed by the fabric of the unit, even if isn’t correspondent with the athletic goals we might have for the horse. Horses with “potholes” are thus naturally dependent, but their natural environment provides succor, masking deficiency, sustaining survival. Horses do not “think” of herd survival in a group sense, but herd survival happens as a byproduct of the basic instinct of individual survival, and this could not happen without codependency in their societal structure. Removing a horse from a herd environment can be like holding a loose wire whipping with sparks at one end while you’re trying to control it from the other; as well, you can often see the disruptive nature of the removal of this puzzle piece in the emotional and physical actions of their remaining peers. Herd dynamics matter.
When we attempt to bridge the sensory pothole gap by the use of equipment to alter the physical sensory sequence we must be careful not to enrich nor cultivate dependency by attempting to counter it with anything that itself can become prerequisite; for those with the inclination will naturally depend upon it. Substitution for is not an elixir against; better to embrace what is and work through it than to sidestep one and risk creation of another when the sensory disruption is hinged upon the interpretational aspect, the psycho-sensory. When an individual horse with dependencies is isolated from peers, equipment can aid (but never erase), allowing them to compete; this helps most when horses are competing/moving individually. However once with other horses, especially in high stress chaos like a horse race where environmental awareness is keyed by communication, equipment can add another disruption and alter physical output owing to the fact that the horse may be struggling to identify where they fit into the evolving herd structure moving in close proximity at speed. By default horses will seek corresponding communications with their peers to fill in any gaps; equipment can help keep them from so doing as urgently and free up emotional energy, or it can pinion its fluency because the sensory impediment is blocking this effort. Again, this is highly dependent upon whether the issue being “treated” by equipment stems from the emotional or the physical aspect of the sensory sequence. Knowing the difference makes all the difference, for like I always say, herd dynamics matter when you’re #Panning4Gold.
~Kerry M Thomas
|Posted on May 12, 2019 at 6:50 AM|
*Each year for our annual Kentucky Derby Herd Dynamics Analysis I pen a position paper as the introduction, in an effort to help further advance an understanding of work and approach here at THT.The following is a copy of the 2019 installment as it appeared in the KY Derby 145 analysis.
The Kentucky Derby & Herd Dynamics;
The Nature of Competition
Kerry M Thomas
If you would have told me nine years ago that our dabble into providing a pattern of motion, herd dynamic analysis of the Kentucky Derby horses would slowly but surely continue to build both in depth, as our work continues to grow, and in audience for years after, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Back then Pete and I were just starting to blend our working partnership; a serious blessing for me as he helped/helps me translate the often times raw material in my mind into practical application. Our rostrum then was Kentucky Confidential, for which I am and will always be forever grateful. Their vision in providing a platform to who was then a relative “newbie” to the derby flavors afforded a most spectacular opportunity and challenge.
Each year we do our best to provide a snapshot of the herd dynamic hierarchy and behavioral genetic profile of the field of horses going into the Kentucky Derby, splitting hairs more often than not by way of considering naturally occurring tendencies in motion and under stress. Our main goal is to provide for you a detailed conspectus of the horses individually along with a herd dynamic ranking “order” based upon all of the information we could mine from film study; any notes we have on a particular horse we had inspected at an auction will be included in their profile. This year’s top tier horses are very tightly knitted in herd dynamic strength, and coming up with an order of that strength is often by the smallest of differences. It’s racing, anything can happen, but the top tier herd dynamic horses have in my opinion the highest probability of success.
I look at the horses through the lens of my instincts first and think of them both individually and together while asking myself the question, out of ten races what is the likelihood of this horse finishing ahead of? When competition is close, when fields are large, I lean on physical ability juxtaposed with herd dynamic strengths to answer the question of probability. This is the same core approach we take when we’re asked to scout talent for private clients at sales, within an existing stable, for private purchase options or claiming opportunities. We utilize this fundamental approach when asked to assist with breeding decisions as well; behavioral economics being an important element in any investment strategy.
I say this all the time and I will say it again, race horses are not race cars; with a horse you’re investing in both car and driver, if you’re not considering the operating system of your physical machine, you’re only considering half the athlete. That can be both costly and disappointing.
I love horse racing because by nature horses love to run, and I’ve always been fascinated by the natural herd dynamics and their particular influence on races in general. The Kentucky Derby is a unique experience that presents the horse athletes a variety of challenges both physically and emotionally that draw deeply upon their inherent behavioral genetic codes; their herd dynamic.
What are the herd dynamics? Born from the ebb and flow of Mother Nature’s great storyboard, the predator/prey relationship, herd dynamics and structured hierarchy is the core of survival. They are the collection of the psychological matrix, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, the sequencing of the behavioral genetic code. They are often everything you don’t see and everything you feel, there influence on the horse as an individual plays a major role in leveraging horses in a herd, most especially a herd in motion.
In short, herd dynamics are those naturally occurring traits, tendencies and characteristics that make up the individual psychology and where this places the horse in the hierarchy of the herd environment. It is as I have previously mentioned the operating system of the physical machine.
There are many ways to apply the idiosyncrasies of the psyche when it comes to equine sports. We always start by studying the raw materials of both the physical and emotional athlete and work our way up through the details. Horses as athletes come in three basic forms; there are those that are by nature more physically athletic than they are mental giants, there are those who have far stronger athletic herd dynamics than their physical ability can optimize, and then there are those rare elite athletes that are equipped with both highly fluent physicals and highly fluent psychologies. I need to point out here the very important and influential “other” participant in this equation, the sensory system.
The sensory soundness (efficiency) of the individual has a great deal to do with the physical expression of the psychological horse. I often use the comparison of a blocker in football making a hole for the running back to move through. A high functioning sensory system identifies stimulus in the environment, is able to pass the stimuli to other senses without disruptive physical reaction, (what I call a sensory-lead-change) and funnel the outside world to the inside world for interpretation. The sensory system searches for stimulus, the psycho-sensory interprets it; the herd dynamic manages the interpretation. The horse will either affect the environment, or be affected by it.
Horses that are more reliant on their physical ability than their core herd dynamic strengths as athletes and as individuals come with naturally occurring environmental dependencies. Mid level herd dynamic strength requires outsourcing; this is the dependency/co-dependency relationship of the majority of horses in any natural herd. This is by Mother Nature’s design and highly instinctive, for the links in this chain are the social fabric of a herd.
Mid-level herd horses though physically capable, struggle to assimilate when alone and are easily influenced when under stress by stronger horses and more easily affected by sudden environmental changes. The inability to properly assimilate independently creates dependency; isolating a horse means you’re isolating both strength and weakness. Adaptability is an inherent element to overall herd dynamic strength and assimilation to situational chaos while in motion is an essential key to the optimization of ability during competition. It does not mean automatically that these horses cannot and will not become successful athletes, for they can and do. What it does mean is their management, development and placement require some additional attention. It also means to me, that if we have a like prospect before us, we need to make certain their sensory system is efficient to a level that it will not impede in any manner the physical strengths of the athlete, and even better, is high functioning in a way that will help offset any herd dynamic holes and thus help optimize raw ability.
In nature elite herd dynamics rule the day, day in and day out; measured hierarchy is how prey animals, exposed in the open with predators potentially at every turn, survive. They depend on the leaders to lead and to pass down as much of the “upper crust” behavioral genetics as they can. Emotional intelligence, adaptability and environmental awareness are all leadership qualities. Yet in sport, especially in racing, elite herd dynamics alone will not get you across the wire ahead of the more physically capable. It is the reason a strong herd dynamic may struggle to “compete” on a physical platform, yet may become quite useful in passing down their inherent strengths in a breeding program. We find horses in our scouting where we love their sensory systems and their herd dynamic, but we have to walk away from them because as physical athletes we just don’t see the horse taking our client to the promise land. I find myself telling Pete, “maybe not a physical athlete, but probably a lot of potential in a breeding program”.
Then there is the perfect storm, so to speak, where the elite psychological athlete meets the elite physical athlete. Elite potential in both of these areas is as rare as it is awe inspiring, and makes the search so exciting; it’s why I dub it, #Panning4Gold.
These elite athletes are not often found on many of the same playing fields. Among the things that make the Kentucky Derby such a special competition, as well as so challenging to diagnose, is that generally the best of the best find themselves together for the first time; bumping and grinding and gritting it out in a chaotic and excitable environment. This motley of horses coming together, head to head at a mile and a quarter, makes for a wonderfully unique and herd dynamically demanding experience.
Herd dynamic strength and power operating a capable physical machine is a force to be reckoned with and an element that should never be underappreciated be it in handicapping or purchasing. I have always felt that the true “value” to be found in the athlete is housed within their internal grit, will and determination. The psychological influence of the herd dynamic from one horse to another is not often easily noted, for there can be, and frequently are, many subtle variations of influence at play in any given moment depending on environment and circumstance. Most often the result of herd dynamic presence is seen in its ability to manipulate or disrupt physical speed or pace, control space, sense and react to approaching pressure or zero in on the true forward target or peer. It’s harder to see aspects are within the ability to manage stress, adapt in motion to rapidly changing environments, anticipate herd motion of lower ranking horses, and distribute emotional energy evenly as necessary and sustainably.
We break down the overall herd dynamic in to two collaborative but differently expressive areas, the Group Herd Dynamic and the Individual Herd Dynamic. The GHD is largely responsible for environmental interpretations, space awareness, sensory lead change ability, and emotional energy conservation; which lends itself to an efficient mental cruising gear quite well suited for in-traffic navigation. The IHD influences athletic power and expressions of grit, and is geared toward targets, combat and is what allows a horse to drop the hammer even on a “target” that is open space far out in front of them. (In the THT lexicon we denote this as DTF, Distance Target Focus). It is in this area of DTF you find the difference between horses running in space, and horses running through space.
A mixture of GHD and IHD to some degree is inherent in all horses, though horse athletes, especially thoroughbreds, will have a prevailing herd dynamic shift; some horses will be shifted more into the IHD area giving them what I refer to as a hi-rev psychological spin. Their sensory systems and sometimes even their basic character traits have a faster spin-cycle internally that veils their actual efficiency until in sustained physical motion. The GHD shifted horses have a more methodical, though no less competitive psychological spin. Their sensory system and character traits can be veiled in apparent quiet nonchalance that comes alive through the buildup of competition and the time they are in competitive motion.
Note: *IHD shifted horses can also find a mental cruising gear, though their natural rhythm cycles faster and is more directional than that of the broader based, methodically toned rhythm of the GHD horse. IHD shifted horses can at times run the risk of excessive emotional energy burn the same way the GHD based cruising rhythm can sometimes “fail to launch” into competitive IHD. When this is a question, the answer to which way they may spill under pressure is often found within the efficacy of the sensory system.*
Natural patterns of motion are reflected in these herd dynamic shifts. IHD shifted horses will have a pattern of motion generally more aggressive and expressive than those GHD slanted, sliding through space with oft times subtle alacrity. In regards to distance aptitude and being competitive at increased distances, the inherent value is found within the individual horse’s ability to properly filter stress and distribute emotional energy over time and within herd chaos. Regardless of the shift, IHD or GHD, it’s what they bring to the table when they get there. Their inherent patterns of motion through the course of a race can look very different, but in either form, head to head, it is who brings the most sustainable grit that matters; for there are two types of fatigue, physical fatigue and emotional fatigue. When physical ability and athleticism are evenly matched, determination and mental fortitude becomes the difference maker.
“Herd Dynamics; if it influences the horses daily life, it influences their competitive life.”
I’d like to express my appreciation to all of you that purchase our report. As you well know it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to develop our Kentucky Derby Analysis. We work hard to provide you with a unique window into each horse (and into our singular way of evaluating them) that you can reference not only for the First Saturday in May, but also as these horses continue their journey. We work to provide you a perspective of where they were, where they are and where they’re likely going, founded upon who they are as individual horse athletes.
I’d also like to thank Brisnet for their ongoing support of our work and it goes without saying, this report would never come to be without the dedication, talent and hard work of Pete Denk. Pete is not only THT Bloodstock partner, but the best friend I could ever ask for.
Pete and I continue to consider the future of THT Bloodstock and where we will always welcome new clients at any level of ownership or buying interest, we are also eying up the potential for THT Thoroughbred Partnerships. If you or someone you know would like to access the advantage of our services privately or you’re interested in being kept in the loop regarding partnership opportunities, please email Pete at [email protected] or via Twitter, Pete is @Petedenk.
For additional information about our work, research and everything else THT, please allow me to invite you to visit our website www.thtbloodstock.com. There you can find position papers on the Blog and the previous Kentucky Derby archives in Big Race Analysis section among other things.
*Clinics, Seminars and appearances are available and if you’d like to follow me on Twitter I’m @thomasherding, you can also connect with me on FB or join THT Bloodstock FB page. Thank you again for your time and your support, you make the effort it takes, worthwhile.
Kerry M Thomas, Founder of THT
|Posted on September 6, 2018 at 3:40 PM|
Like a missing tooth on a flywheel, gaps in the sensory sequence and/or herd dynamic dependencies manifested from them, are seemingly random though ever present hovering in the background. Talent and performance always at their mercy.
Over the years we have been called upon to investigate elite talents with nagging accompanying "ghostly" issues that seemed to appear from out of nowhere, only we know these things have a cause that is in most cases not physical. The psychology runs the machine, car & driver if you will, and in the cases where physical performance is disrupted from things that rank in the unexplained files, we find their root most often within one of two areas and sometimes both by proximity; a gap in the sensory sequences or an issue developed over time seeded in the associative via the horses basic instinct cornerstone of learning, the Anticipatory Response Mechanism which when negative can create stifling stress manifested in one way or another depending on the environment.
The over all herd dynamic of the horse is made up many parts from behavioral tendencies and traits, sensory system efficiency to environmental dependenccies (inclusive of course of the horses in their herd or horses anew, thrust together as in competition etc.,). Horses with unaccounted for random performance disruptions we see physically, like refusing to jump at random or leave the gate, are being asked to complete a task at the same moment a gap in the sensory sequence (what we like to call the 'psychological spin cycle') is occurring; when no or uncertain information is being fed to the psyche via the sensory system the physical responce can be an assortment of things including a delay. This is what we call 'drag' in the psychology.
The "sensory sequence" in it's basic form is: outside stimuli is identified via the sensory system, delivered to the psycho-sensory for interpretation resulting in physical response. When the sensory system is efficient a horse can both ID multiple stimuli in the environment as well as transfer one targeted stimuli from one "sense" to another without losing physical efficiency; this we call a sensory lead change. In order for horses to compete consistently at a high level sensory lead changes must be a natural tendency, which is why we focus so much on this when recruiting prospects for any discipline.
Breaking the horse in three parts so to speak, investigating performance issues is compartmentalised in to the sensory system, psycho-sensory (interpretive) and physical. When the physical has been cleared, we focus on the sensory soundness and then the psycho-sensory. Quite often with older horses a gap in the sensory sequence helps cultivate disruptions within the psycho-sensory interpretations over time, housing them within the anticipatory aspect which is designed to protect the horse as much as it is designed to help the horse learn. Patterns in motion stem from patterns of behavior.
These are vital things to consider not just for horses competing, but for horses in or headed to the breeding shed. Behavioral genetics demands her vital role be understood in order to match mental strengths or fill in mental gaps. Like trying to get more leg or bigger hip, you have to be mindful of the psychology you're breeding. Emotional intelligence influences every aspect of a horses' life both in isolation as well as in a herd environment. What is overlooked or taken for granted in "normal settings" can become glaring when in the stress of competition.
Performance profiling is among our most (cost) affective services for the older horse and affords a base line of information for the determination of what is going on and how to circumvent it, where profiling herd dynamic potential is our most affective service for young prospects being considered.
Recommended: *For more information and for reference material, visit Big Race Analysis secton on this website and read specifically the "introduction" to our 2018 Kentucky Derby Herd Dynamics report* www.thtbloodstock.com
Kerry M Thomas
Founder, THT Bloodstock
|Posted on August 16, 2018 at 9:00 AM|
*THT Bloodstock had the honor of being included in Ireland based Horse Tech Conference’s recognition of innovative and pioneering equine businesses market report. The following is an excerpt of our introduction in the Psychology section.*
“When investing in inanimate objects, you can disregard taking behavioral economics into consideration; horses are not inanimate objects.” Kerry M Thomas, Founder of THT Bloodstock
Welcome to THT Bloodstock,
THT Bloodstock is the only full service bloodstock company in the world that specializes in analyzing the mind of the horse as it relates to class, distance aptitude, performance and breeding. The evaluation of emotional intelligence and herd dynamic level pulls back the veil concealing the operating system of the physical machine. Behavioral Genetics is the very definition of innovative horse technology; the study of herd dynamics and their profound impact on athletics is the core of our behavioral science research and services.
Physical efficiency and soundness in the horse is only part of the requirement to compete at the highest levels, stress management and the ability to adapt to sudden changes in the environment independently, is also essential. The psychological athlete must be efficient and sound in order to optimize physical talent.
At THT Bloodstock we offer our clients the strategic added benefit of the horse’s behavioral genetic profile; tendencies and herd dynamic juxtaposed with their physical and pedigree information. We like to say that with a horse you’re investing in both “car and driver”, the smart investor makes decisions with all of the information that can be obtained whether it be weanling, yearling, or older horse investments.
Herd Dynamic Profiling is an extremely valuable tool because the psyche plays such a major role in every aspect of the horses’ life from the natural placement in a herd of their peers to the way they will manage the emotional stresses of training and competing. Identifying character and behavior traits, strengths and weaknesses, reveals their inherent environmental dependencies where they exist. Patterns in horses natural behavior reveals the natural patterns in their movement; vital information for not only purchases but also for developing influential training programs.
Because Herd Dynamic Profiling identifies unique information about the psychology of the horse it has applications at every level and at every stage of a horse’s growth and development. Whether used in identifying likely growth patterns in the very young, matching proper character traits and stress tendencies in potential breeding mates or providing performance profiles for competing horses, herd dynamics is next level innovation.
Many areas of the horse psychology are too often underappreciated and our goal is to continue to shed light upon these. Among them is the vital importance of an efficient and high functioning sensory system. On an individual basis the sensory system leads the way in controlling physical movement and within a herd setting it is a determining factor of where the individual ranks in herd hierarchy, influencing where they “finish” when competing against their peers.
By nature 85% of horses on average will fall into the middle ranges of the herd dynamic hierarchy, meaning they have inherent inefficiencies in their psychology which translate necessarily to dependencies within the environment, namely other horses. These dependencies influence movement superseding physical aptitude; the ability to interpret stimuli precedes and dictates the resulting movement thus affecting the horse’s ability to compete on a sustainable level.
The higher you go on the herd dynamic scale the more independent the horse is psychologically, subsequently the more sensory sound and adaptable to situational chaos. Horses with hidden herd dependencies are prone to becoming “herd bound” and have difficulty in separating themselves from the herd and when they do, they have a far more difficult time sustaining this separation. Herd dependencies disrupt performance; affect distance aptitude, compromise potential and impede training. There is a major difference between a horse moving in space, and a horse moving through space.
In nature elite herd dynamic ability horses are a very low number by percentage; in natural environments you will find roughly 3% or less at this level. Matching physical potential with psychological potential in the selection process is the key to recruiting higher and finding that next-level prospect. Mother Nature conceals her leadership in those who adapt and assimilate seamlessly.
Herd dynamics by the numbers. Applying data collection and research to our constant study of the behavioral sciences in equine sport is essential. We utilize our database of unique information strategically in our services as well as in the way it guides us to further innovation.
Our data allows tracking of behavioral traits and tendencies as well as sensory system efficiency during performance which in turn helps us key-in on emotional intelligence markers inherent in the behavior patterns of young horses. Patterns of behavior not only translate to patterns in motion but are also a strong indicator of psychological growth patterns and herd dependencies or co-dependencies that may develop. Tracking herd dynamic data also aids in the matching or avoiding of physical strengths and potential weaknesses with their corresponding mental strengths or inefficiencies; the psychological athlete is the operating system of physical athleticism. When physical ability is corroborated with natural herd dynamic strengths, optimization of total ability becomes a higher probability.
Analytics and technology are useful and important tools for understanding the physical athlete, but the emotional athlete is every bit as essential. The question that must be answered when recruiting “player personnel”; will the psychological athlete be able to optimize the ability of the physical athlete?
If you want to compete at a higher level, you must recruit with a higher standard. Get an edge on your competition by incorporating THT’s groundbreaking research into your program. Visit our website www.thtbloodstock.com to learn more about how we can help you, go panning-for-gold.
|Posted on May 13, 2018 at 7:20 AM|
**NOTE** "The following is the introduction to our 2018 Kentucky Derby Herd Dynamics Analysis; left in it's original form. The information in this piece being relevant for all horses, all disciplines and breeds, for it is about the horse, the herd dynamics, the sensory system and relevancy of emotional stress" If you would like the PDF of the full report emailed to you, please contact us with your request and email address.
Performance Anxiety and the Kentucky Derby
The Race Between the Ears
Kerry M Thomas
It’s hard to believe that another year has gone by and another Kentucky Derby is upon us. As I sit here putting thought to paper, the fact that this is our 8th year evaluating the contenders and presenting this report seems surreal to me in a way. Pete and I appreciate your interest and support and for both new and seasoned readers of our work, perhaps you will find new clues to handicapping with the herd dynamics along the way.
Because one of our primary focus points at THT Bloodstock, whether recruiting horse athletes for clients at sales or digging into an under-achiever, is the athletic psychology and herd dynamic of the individual horse, we’re always seeking to ID tendencies under emotional stress. Gaining an understanding of how an individual will mentally perform under the demands of stressful environments, be they physical, psychological or more often than not, both, is your window into actual performance ability.
As emotional athlete’s horses are often reflections of their environment, subject to not only the physical changes of the environment but also the mental. Performance anxiety can be a powerful inhibitor for a horse based upon many things inherent in the anticipatory response mechanism of the psyche. Anticipation of known experiences may be reflected either in the positive or negative, anticipation of the unknown can be as well, though these are based largely upon association. Regardless, the influence on performance can be profound; helping an individual rise to the occasion or fade away under the stress.
Unrealized ability is often rooted in the psyche; physical fatigue and mental fatigue are two separate, symbiotic aspects evaluated and graded separately, then considered together. No matter if you’re recruiting human or horse athletes, the question you have to answer is; will the psychology optimize or inhibit the talent of the physical athlete? Adaptability to the unknown is an essential ingredient of both stress management and performance; its core is behavioral genetic. I can think of little else more of an unknown in so many areas than the experience that is the Kentucky Derby.
The mechanics of the athlete can be studied scientifically, but the heart of the horse must be appreciated instinctively.
Stress & Herd Dynamics
Few things are more performance, health or growth inhibiting than stress, be it physical, mental or as is often the case, both. To understand performance anxiety is to embrace the notion that emotional stress can come from worry about an anticipated event based on either an experiential or associated/anticipated event or outcome. Physical discomforts associated with an experience are learned behaviors that can cause performance inhibiting emotional stress long after the physical has healed. Physical stress from attrition of effort, soreness, strains and so on are, we always hope, short term stresses. Short term stresses psychologically speaking are fleeting in-the-moment stresses; though they can sap a horse’s physical and emotional energy reserves, they generally have a minimal shelf life. An individual horse’s herd dynamic, where they fit within a herd environment, has a great deal to do with stress management and therefore, performance anxiety and their ability to optimize talent.
As a herd animal there is a natural structure to the hierarchy that is not physically based, but rooted upon sensory soundness and emotional intelligence. Roughly 85% of horses by nature fall into the middle ranges of the herd dynamic; lower middle, middle, and upper middle by shifting degrees, (which is why you may see a lot of physical ‘talk’ in your horse herds). Interaction within the herd is based upon a complex system of emotional communication.
The lower you go on the herd dynamic scale quite often the louder the horse is in reckless expression, the bully hiding the most insecurity. The higher you go the more purposeful their expression, like the quiet one in the crowd who is unassuming but clearly in full awareness of the environment and those in it. I’ve stated this many times before; one of Mother Nature’s keys to herd survival is that she hides her leadership in plain sight; high level horses can turn to ghosts. Predators see the loud talking bully or the lingering infirm, the yet unaware young, and these become targets.
Short term stress naturally occurring in the herd environment has little lasting impact but can become a highly toxic inhibitor once isolated. When you isolate the horse from the herd structure, you isolate any and all of their herd dependencies. Not that they aren’t physically capable but because on the stage alone and isolated emotional stress can be overwhelming, exposing dependencies and co-dependencies; isolation reveals strength and exposes weakness.
The majority of horses depend a great deal on one another for emotional stability, as we go higher up on the herd dynamic scale the less dependent the horse is on their peers, the highest levels being less than 3% of horses give or take. These horses are self reliant to a large degree. Their inherent emotional intelligence is extremely capable of adapting to sudden changes in the environment without exposing disruptive performance holes. High functioning sensory systems and psycho-sensory systems (which is the interpretive aspect) manage more situational chaos in isolation than most horses can in their herd. This is what nature has in place to allow natural leaders to peel off, take over a herd, and why some horses cannot handle life without their herd and never wish to leave it. When removed, we see the reflection of their insecurities in their actions.
Manifested from these behavioral genetics are two types of athletes; the physical over mental athlete and the mental over physical athlete. The physical over mental athlete will be far more dependent on other horses in a race as well as upon their environment and changes within it, less able to manage situational chaos and more prone to stress limiting their performance. In essence, they must physically out-run their psychology in order to be competitive and unless a pure physical beast, this will be talent inside a time & distance box. The longer time-in-motion the more mental attrition chews away their emotional fortitude and they will only go competitively as far as their bodies can take them. There are plenty of really good even great physical athletes, but these often come with an expiration date because the emotional rigors of training and racing gnaw away at them at a faster rate.
The physical athlete measures time as a physical distance, giving the jockey their all until physically tiring. The mental athlete measures distance only by the time it takes to get there; giving the jockey every ounce of emotional energy even when the body starts to tire. Versatility in situational chaos is inherent for the mental athlete, anticipating environmental changes even before they happen; some horses can be ridden with feel, some must be guided. The most capable are those elite athletic psychologies synchronized with elite, peaking physical talent.
Stress & Structure; IHD/GHD
The herd dynamics by their nature come with many parts to the whole that break down in to unique “character traits” and tendencies under stress when isolated. This is why I always advocate the nurture and develop point of reference; you develop the athlete when you nurture the horse.
When it comes to uncontrollable outside influences and situational chaos, no matter how well you’ve “nurtured and developed” coaching is still up against natural tendencies and basic instincts. It pays to know your horses’ tendencies as owner, trainer, jockey or handicapper. As we well know the Kentucky Derby is quite unlike anything these horses have experienced before, but even so they are who they are and will react using the same traits and tendencies found in their every day psychology. On a single-horse basis the herd dynamics are made up from the mixture of Individual Herd Dynamic, or IHD and Group Herd Dynamic or GHD.
The IHD is the psychological aspect geared toward what can be best described as individual targets, these targets can be singular as in one other horse, or can be horses or objects grouped into an area. The IHD’s primary application in racing is its inherent competitive nature; the emotional energy is zeroed in on an object like an arrow point launching forth with the purpose of getting to or beyond a certain target. The IHD is generally more poignant in colts because of its intended natural function. In the herd structure the colt/stallion’s primary job outside of breeding is to protect the herd from predators and to keep stragglers in line and would-be suitors, out. IHD becomes more highly developed when young colts are pushed out of their family herd and form bachelor herds of one or more. When in these bachelor herds colts have a chance to sharpen their IHD by way of the natural competition between them.
However IHD alone can only get the horse so far. Focus on individual stimuli without the buffer of being able to interpret variable stimulus has a cap on focus ability as well as competitive sustainability. The more GHD a horse has the more useful and sustainable the IHD becomes.
The Group Herd Dynamic is your key to true IHD optimization over physical distance within stressful environments; if IHD is your arrow, GHD is your bow. GHD is responsible for the management of multi-stimulus in the environment and by proxy helping filter stress before it is physically expressed.
Knowing the GHD of the horse will give you a major piece of the puzzle for understanding how likely the horse will or will not be effected by the environment, especially when that environment is filled with environmental stimuli like that of the Kentucky Derby. IHD is a psychological rhythm design best expressed in motion, GHD is a psychological rhythm that can be employed with equal alacrity whether in motion or in stasis; performance anxiety, where it exists, is largely expressed through the IHD.
Where the IHD by nature has a strong shift of influence in high level colts owing to their natural role on the fringes of the herd, the GHD has a strong natural shift in high level fillies because of their role within it. Interpretation or lack of, determines action. Interpretation ability is the defining difference between a horse moving in space, or moving through space; running with the herd or psychologically out-maneuvering those within it.
In general terms I have always assigned to the high level colt an IHD mixture of 70%-75% & GHD 30%-25%, but this is generic because every horse ‘personality’ like ourselves, comes with a wide array of uniqueness of character and idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses. In competition these translate to running styles and optimum efficiency zones.
One of the most important things Pete and I look for and try to determine in our evaluations are an individual’s GHD/IHD mixture as this affords us a window into who among them are likely to conserve and optimize their depth of emotional energy. Determining who has the deepest emotional energy to draw from is one thing, determining who will use it the best, another. A deep well of energy used erratically and reactively is nothing more than wasted energy. Emotional energy conservation is squarely housed in the GHD because the GHD manages the distribution of said energy. The IHD in competitive sports is much longer lived and utilized when launched from the platform of a high functioning GHD.
The GHD also provides an essential balance between the individual and the outside world regarding fluency of movement. Many an otherwise talented horse finds their short-comings at the end of a long race in those moments before the gate ever opens. Anxiety inevitably builds up in these moments; you can see this being expressed in the post parade quite often. An efficient GHD is crucial for conserving emotional energy during this period and is also a key ingredient for any horse to find mental and physical balance enough to get out of the gate properly. *There is a difference between nervous and controlled energy expression. Horses that can ID and interpret oblique stimuli while maintaining a forward emotional ‘reach’, get out of the gate with greater consistency and fluency and are also more naturally maneuverable when dealing with herd chaos. Competitively the GHD allows the horse to anticipate the movement of other horses while the IHD allows them to act upon it. The GHD also contributes substantially to the “cruising” gear, allowing the horse to hit a psychological cruise-control at what we often call a hi-rev GHD, conserving emotional and physical fuel for a sustained IHD attack.
Breaking down the herd dynamic probability of success in this unique race is a combination of identifiable traits physically and mentally, and is not unlike splitting hairs. I always look at the probability of success based upon psychological growth patterns and herd dynamic tendencies leading into competition. We must be mindful that the reason we look for these patterns of behavior, is because they directly translate to patterns in motion.
Sensory Soundness & Emotional Stress
It is said that all things start with the horse’s feet physically, and it can also be said that all things start with the sensory system psychologically; sensory fluency precedes physical efficiency.
A physically sound horse is undeniably important, so too is a sensory sound horse. While the herd dynamics’ function is in part interpreter, the sensory system is responsible for cohesively sweeping the outside world sonar style, the equine version of sensory-location.
To gain an understanding of how athletic any horse psychology is by nature, two things must be determined; one, how efficient the sensory system is in its different aspects and two, at what speed does the psyche operate. Tracking many horses over the years one of the more profound things we’ve discovered are the varying degrees of what I dub the “psychological spin cycle”, the mental rhythm of the horse. Some psychologies operate at a high level of athletic efficiency only while in motion, and others have the versatility to adapt to changes in the environment regardless of how fast or slow the body is moving; these are your most efficient athletes. Naturally occurring rhythms in all horses are indicative of their “personality types”, as they accent and influence every part of the horse’s patterns of behavior. Performance aptitude and optimization, stress management and filtering, natural athletic ability, all are key ingredients led by the radar system. Efficiency and “soundness” here allows the horse to be competitive even during times of stress; the IHD feeding off sensory leads, the GHD providing balance through the sensory lead changes.
A “sensory lead” is a focus point. A “sensory lead change” occurs when a focus point is moved to, or through other sensory aspects be it from individual movement or objects that are moving past or around an individual, or both.
Sensory lead changes are as vital to athletic performance and efficiency as are physical lead changes; allowing the horse to move through changing environments without delayed responses or “drag”, keeping their emotional energy from being wasted, conserving their physical energy by proxy. This is the very definition of athletic fluency. To understand sensory soundness we must first understand the primary function and subsequent equation of both the individual psycho-sensory (interpretative) and the collective psycho-sensory of codependent herd members.
The senses both individually and collaboratively search and collect information from the outside world and transfer it to the inside world of the horses psyche for interpretation, followed by action or inaction according to that interpretation accented by herd members or learned experience. Stimulus alone doesn’t cause emotional stress, this happens in the psycho-sensory during interpretation directly affecting physical actions. The sensory sound individual is able to filter and process, interpret and adapt to situational changes in their environment without the help of other herd members. Again, when you isolate the horse from the herd, you are isolating them from any “second opinions” of herd mates.
In competition you want the horse that independently separates from the herd and not a horse that will be dependent upon outside influences such as other horses or equipment to find their separation. Smooth sensory lead changes, the transferring of information detected in one sensory aspect to another, allow the horse to survey and interpret stimulus in their environment regardless of the speed they are moving in any direction. This in turn translates to physical efficiency, allowing the horse the chance to fully optimize natural ability. The sensory system needs to be detecting and the psycho-sensory interpreting at a faster rate than the body is moving through a given space. Like a blocker in football, the sensory system clears space for the body to move through.
By virtue of being designed to live in a herd structure many horses have naturally incomplete sensory systems as individuals but in the group they are made whole. These are what we call “potholes” in the sensory system creating “sticky” sensory lead changes (resulting in the aforementioned physical drag). Those horse’s that hang or always have trouble out of the gate, running great sometimes and average the other; it’s these cases and many more that the culprit can often be found within. Horses whose sensory systems have too many potholes are likely to become herd-dependent, or “herd-bound” to some degree leaving you fewer tactical options. Horses that are having issues with interpretation and are asked to separate will not feel all that comfortable running at full speed much like you may not run all-out if you cannot see what you’re running over, toward or potentially into.
A horses’ ability to adapt to variable stimulus as an individual is housed within their psycho-sensory ability. From an athletic standpoint, assimilation should be an individual act and not a herd action adapted to, this will allow the horse to manage environmental changes with greater alacrity, including surfaces.
Sensory System & Equipment
Equipments’ purpose is to eliminate or inhibit one or more areas of the sensory aspect; when a horse is dealing with “radar” issues this can be useful. However when the performance is being compromised by the psycho-sensory, the interpretation process that follows, equipment can add to an issue.
Among the more common things we see in an effort to combat or assuage sensory inefficiency are blinkers and or shadow rolls. Equipment has its place in certain situations though I am far more in favor of allowing the horse every chance they can get to overcome their potholes naturally through experience. Equipment used too early or as the simple “easy-fix” from frustration, (impatience), in my personal opinion, disrupts the natural growth patterns, inhibiting associative and experiential learning. This is not to say that a horse cannot benefit athletically from equipment. Obviously there are many horses that perform very well and actually need the sensory inhibiter to be competitive. At the same time, when you alter the natural sensory fields you run the risk of losing something in another area. The odds must be weighed, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction more often than not. There is only so much air in a balloon and when you squeeze one part of it you’re pushing an overload of pressure into another. When “pressure” is applied to one area of the senses, you run the risk of unnaturally speeding up the psychological rhythms as the horse works to overcompensate, sapping emotional energy depth, and disrupting physical rhythm.
It’s very easy to over think and overload our own thought processes with analytics and the like, but in the end it’s about feel and instincts, horses are not machines. For me, accessory information, while good and useful to be sure, never supersedes my instincts or feel in life or in horses. I consider the Kentucky Derby contenders the way I do any of the horse athlete recruits we’re evaluating at auctions; I want to know how they’re likely to influence their environment, instead of worrying about how it will influence them.
The process of splitting hairs to come up with a herd dynamic power ranking for the first Saturday in May is never an easy task, this year is no exception. In racing where first and 4th are sometimes measured by head-bobs and nose hairs the order in which the horses cross the line doesn’t always indicate their actual psychological hierarchy at the moment they crossed it. For me it’s a “how many times out of ten” scenario; who is physically and psychologically peaking, who has peaked, who needs more experience. This is a Herd Dynamic synopsis of “who” the horses are from our point of reference in the spring of their 3yo year and where they may be headed. Though the race may take place on a track, it’s truly a race between the ears.
I have always strived to press the envelope personally and professionally. Not everyone gets a trophy in real life; you have to work for it. Our goal at THT Bloodstock is to offer our clients diversity in their information portfolio about horses they may purchase, or horses they have. Horses are emotional athletes so whether buying, breeding or claiming, when it comes to investing keep in mind you’re investing in both car and driver. If you hope the horses have the potential to outrun the money invested in them, you’d be wise to get as much information about the mental and physical horse, the entire athlete, as you can.
Pete and I are considering adding to our own portfolio of individual clients by offering THT Partnership opportunities in one or more areas such as yearlings and two year olds, pin-hooking. Whether you are interested as an individual owner in learning more about our services or are someone who views partnership opportunities your chance to get on board, feel free to contact Pete at [email protected]
Some other new adventures have come to fruition since last years’ derby report. I am honored to share that I have become a board member of the Non-Profit, Quest Therapeutic Services which is located in Chester County Pennsylvania. Late fall 2017 I had the pleasure of helping start a new equestrian program for my local High School and I’m also excited to share that Nature’s Way Feeds & THT Bloodstock have teamed up to offer an organic performance feed, THT Optimum Organic.
The one thing I have learned over the years is that the first step to realizing your dreams is believing that you can. A risk taker by nature, I have never been one to let life happen to me, when I can happen to it. Horse racing is a sport where losing is far more common than not, but where winning, even small wins in reciprocity, feels like nothing else. This journey I am on via THT Bloodstock would not be possible without business partner and best friend, confidant, Pete Denk. To say that I am thankful, appreciative, grateful, only touches the surface. I think that quality over quantity in life is what’s important and I am fortunate to have a very small circle of high quality individuals in my life.
I’d like to reach back to the beginning of our Kentucky Derby journey and thank the original platform, Kentucky Confidential, for providing us the stump to share our initial reports and for helping us find a place in the derby media confetti the year Animal Kingdom ran down the roses. I’d like to also thank Ed DeRosa and the folks at Brisnet for helping us further our audience reach through their efforts and platform.
Most of all I thank you, the folks who purchase our report, your support and interest is the reason we do this. It takes a monumental effort for Pete and I to work through, compile, organize, study and evaluate, then write it all down; each year it’s a major task that quite frankly I would not undertake if not for Pete. We truly appreciate your support and interest in how we at THT Bloodstock, go #Panning4Gold!
Follow us on Twitter: Pete @petedenk & me @thomasherding Visit: www.thtbloodstock.com for more.
~Kerry M Thomas
Founder, THT Bloodstock
|Posted on November 7, 2017 at 6:40 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