"Competitive edge is found where the psychological athlete merges with the physically talented;
#HerdDynamics matter, every horse, every discipline, everywhere." THT
|Posted on August 7, 2017 at 1:30 PM|
At The Top; Longevity
The Herd Dynamics of Colts in Nature
Opinion Piece By:
Kerry M Thomas
One of the questions that arise along the way in the world of racing is "why did this elite athlete suddenly look quite beatable?" It’s a question with many possible answers and when put to me, as has been recently regarding Arrogate I said, “Probably nothing but nature.” This may or may not have satisfactorily answered the question, but for me it created a reflection of the true nature of the Herd Dynamics, and Mother Nature’s rules as played out in a sport of our creation.
It is my personal opinion that Mother Nature’s basic and comprehensive design will always, in the end, govern the principles of the species regardless of the humans who infringe upon them their will. The very many intricate parts that make up the natural herd structure are sex dependent because of their individual characteristics, and group sustainable because of their cohesive, codependent nature.
The overall herd structure is, like any good relationship, a cooperative of different dynamics all working toward a common goal. For any social group to be sustained and survive in changing environments there has to be two things; a hierarchy of leadership which allow for different roles within the group, and interchangeable characters rising up within that group to allow new leadership to develop and adapt to these changing environments.
Roughly 75% of the herd pool is made up of Mid-Level-HD (Herd Dynamics), horses that have herd dependencies relevant for their individual survival. This level is also the spawning ground for greatness as young horses with the least herd and environmental dependencies (rooted in their natural tendencies under stress and their overall sensory soundness; psycho-sensory interpretations at this level are the building blocks of psychological growth patterns). Fifteen percent of horses never reach mid level status; these are the infirm, the overly herd/environmentally dependent, the very young, the highly deficient sensory sound and so on. These horses represent the greatest risk of being targeted by predators so they often struggle for position in the “loudest” physical actions which only serves to further their being targets. In this way nature helps ensure predators nearly always select from this lower rank. Likewise, the higher a horse elevates, the less noticeable is the individual within the crowd thus the less likely to be selected as a target; Mother Nature craftily conceals her true leadership in plain sight. About 10% of any given herd has individuals who will have the natural ability to move up above the mid level range, the “prepping” ground for true leadership, and 3% to 5% of those will actually achieve it.
The bigger herd picture is then broken down yet again within the sexes. Mares/Fillies are roughly psychologically made up of 75% Group Herd Dynamic (GHD), (*See our website’s Glossary of Terms*) which means in short that by their nature they are more inclined to overall herd sustainment by awareness of multiple members and multiple environmental stimuli. This is because their required job is to maintain inner family continuity and structure. Colt psychology is the counterpoint with 75% Individual Herd Dynamic (IHD) which essentially means their propensity is toward singular members and singular stimuli in the environment because of their natural job. As herd protector the lead colt operates on the fringes of the family unit more often than not, with a focus on individual targets.
An example of this in operation can be found in the fact that in nature there are bachelor herds roaming about; often a random mixture of loosely affiliated colts both young and old who are likely to band up with just one other peer within this loosely organized herd structure. A high level Colt/Stallion only needs one comrade for companionship, a high level Filly/Mare often prefers the company of more than one subordinate in her environment and when she doesn’t have that, emotional stress and miscreant behaviors can develop. As well, especially as a colt matures into a lead herd dynamic stallion, too many targets in a defined area can often result in erratic behaviors and emotional stresses.
The part of the Bachelor Herd in nature is an essential piece of the sustainable herd structure, playing a key role in the bubble-up of herd leadership and the development of future challengers of herd dominion. Taking the fabric of the actual herd structure in consideration we see Mother Nature puts restrictions in place that allow for new blood to be, through the course of time, injected into the family unit so that a micro-evolution is always happening. This safeguard for “over-interbreeding” comes with a time limit for the male leadership. Females can stay within the same family unit for most if not all of their lives, but males must come and go over periods of time for the health of the herd. In short, to ensure that the very best males are breeding at any given time, the lead, high level herd dynamic stallion is tirelessly challenged for his position. In descending fashion, the up and coming hopefuls are always vying for position in some manner whether successful or not. The successful climb to the next rung, the unsuccessful continue to be boxing partners who prepare them.
Among the most difficult things for a colt to do is to hang on to his elite herd dynamic position. Therein can be found, in my opinion, the very nature of 'why', when asked about an apparent dominant male athlete who suddenly appears beatable and average.
There is any number of examples from which to draw when it comes to colts that appear simply untouchable, like Arrogate, who shatter our fragile image of greatness with an injection of mediocrity. The disappointment and finger pointing of humans notwithstanding, quite often the real culprit that should be charged, is Mother Nature herself. What appears as a moment of weakness in the face of competition may very well be little more than a natural progression within the herd dynamics.
There is no time table that governs with exactness just how long any individual colt that rises to the elite levels of the herd dynamics will stay there; it can be as random as pin-pointing where lightning may strike. Part of the survival strategy in nature is the fact that along with the potential for a more sustained leadership role, moment to moment leadership exchanges often happen and this also serves a purpose; it allows for a random injection of new blood into the family units. This leader one day, adjunct the next reality serves a greater purpose in aiding in the evolution of a sustainable herd over time.
A myriad of factors play their critical part in this overall equation from the obvious physical health of the horse to their continued ability to manage the emotional stress within an environment of leadership. The elite stallion of the herd is not the part to be played by an individual horse but rather it is a herd position to be filled by whoever is elite and earns the position; new leadership roles are always available to any would-be competitor. The longer period of time any given stallion maintains his position, the more impressive he is as an individual embodiment of elite IHD and by virtue the longer he has to inject the family unit with his genes. This too plays a role as it helps to ensure both the physical and behavioral genetic health of the herd. Short term leader’s help by mixing in some random genes from time to time, long term leaders help build a base of herd dynamic strengths; together they help keep a healthy mixture of different but similar individuals.
If we take this template and translate it to competitive sports, especially a herd motion sport like racing, and we allow ourselves to think of this herd motion as basically combat for leadership both mentally and physically, we can see just how challenging it is. When a colt is able to string together a number of wins at the highest levels of combat I sit back in admiration and awe, because from where I sit, it is by nature one of the most difficult things to do. Sometimes human caprice doesn’t let us fully appreciate achievements because we begin to idolize achievement for the greatness it is, but then we allow one sign of a chink in that armor to water down the previous until it is a quagmire of “used to be”.
When we view elite athletes we must understand the reasons behind the true rarity with which they are found to fully appreciate their existence in the first place. When we consider that the normal herd environment will see roughly that 3% to 5% of its members elevating high enough to become true leaders, this has little to do with their physical ability and more to do with their emotional intelligence. Mother Nature already has developed the body, so it becomes the operating system of the vessel that defines leadership.
In racing we must take it to another level where both physical and mental in an efficient cooperative of the Big 3, natural tendency, sensory soundness and physical ability, (*see 2017 Kentucky Derby Analysis Introduction on THT Bloodstock website Big Race Analysis section) must come together in a perfect storm of optimization. While short-listing those elite herd dynamic markers from the top prospects pool for our clients, we have found that only 1 or 2 percent from this pool will grow both physically and mentally elite. Factor in the human influence good and bad, freakish accidents and injuries etc., it’s nearly a miracle when any horse continues to thrive and elevate. Considering that there is no defined time table for natural leadership, which is often brief, we should not fret but marvel at the rarity of both physical and mental greatness, regardless of how long we see it, that the truly elite horse athlete embodies.
Stripping it down into the purest and simplest form of herd dynamics, I marvel at the achievements of elite athletes like American Pharoah, Always Dreaming, Arrogate, Nyquist and on and on through history. In their natural moment of time, they were the leaders of the day. These “once elite” horses on the stage will always carry within them elite characteristics whether they rebound or not. When pure and true and not influenced by human hands, elite herd dynamics once established and developed, do not in themselves disappear just because in practice their influence seems to be less affective amongst their peers. Former leaders naturally give way to new ones and there is no shame in this. Physical and emotional wear and tear have been an antagonist to the horse we see, long before we see them. An appreciation of the horse we see in a given moment should be coupled with an appreciation of the journey taken to be seen.
The revolving door of leadership is, as we have established, always open for audition to new character actors who seek to fill the role. In the business of horses, timing is everything for the capitalization of return on investment; but it is true that the way a horse is publicly viewed at any given time doesn’t necessarily represent the true nature of the actual horse.
When we take the overall template Mother Nature has employed for herd survival and we extract from it that section that is competitive and place it in a sport like racing, we magnify it. When we magnify it we expose many of the average herd dynamic traits, but then every so often, we get a glimpse of the astonishing grace and beauty of a truly elite horse. Beauty can be fleeting or it can be lasting, but regardless of how long we are privileged to experience it, we should treasure that it exists and that we saw it, and not loathe its passing as if it becomes less beautiful because it has come to pass.
Racing isn’t about the horse in the winner’s circle; it is about the journey of the horse.
Kerry M Thomas