" A horse lives by the laws of their nature. Where they fit in to the herd, how they interpret their world, how they learn, how they're coached, how they
ultimately perform, is governed by the rules of that nature; it is wise to make an effort, to understand it." ~ Kerry M Thomas
"The Race Between the Ears"
|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