A View from The Hoof Stress, Communication and Performance

October 28, 2021


Where good communication is the foundation of any successful relationship, stress is its antagonist. In athletics, the cornerstone of sustainable performance is predicated upon the dynamics of that relationship. 

Any effort to machine physical talent without a focus upon psychological ability, the operating system of that machine, cannot long be sustained. Emotionally driven athletes are always at risk of seeing their athleticism gnawed away by the attrition of emotional stress, stresses that can compile within the individual from three primary sources; individual to individual, herd peers to individual and environment to individual. The only constant being “self” in the ever changing, be it subtle nuance or dramatic, world around them. 

No horse can realize true athleticism without first having the inherent ability to operate freely as an individual amidst the nature of the herd instinct that binds them. There is a difference between self-aware and self-absorbed; one interprets the environment and moves through it purposely, the other assumes their position within it and is subject to be moved by it. All horses are exposed to a variety of stresses, it is how they are communicated and processed that separates a horse. In order for any horse to realize their true athletic capacity and achieve sustainable, consistent performance, they must first be a “horse among horses”, in a manner of speaking. If there are no identifiable characteristics of separation within their behavioral genetics, you are building on common ground while trying to reach uncommon glory. 

It is the nature of herd dynamics that the greater number of animals will share a bulk of behavioral characteristics where the fabric of the herd itself is bound inseparably by a dependency/co-dependency relationship. Identifying the outliers for athletic purposes requires that you identify the characteristics of competitive nature and determine how those special set of stresses are likely to be communicated. The inherent nature of this communication ultimately determines athletic output. It must be remembered that as stress increases for the individual, so does the natural desire to outsource. The most difficult thing for any herd animal to do is sustain independent nature during protracted and elevated levels of stress. It’s much easier to be a voice in the choir than it is to stand out front for your solo; when determining athletic capacity in the emotionally driven, you need to identify inherent tendencies that aid in the mitigation of stress to avoid future addictive outsourcing.

How the horse communicates individually with the world around them will affect every facet of their lives from herd placement in their natural world to their ability to perform in ours. The true artistry of the horse is that which is find within them. 

Part 1 

The Addictive Nature of Stress

Few things are more compromising to personal contentment than internal stresses. Stresses that manifest within the individual horse from the anticipatory and/or associative aspects often have no avenue of succor and bounce around inside the psyche like a pinball. Ultimately these internally fabricated stresses will either be individually filtered or externally expressed; disrupted behavior patterns are generic and momentary events for the most part, however altered behavior patterns run the risk of leading to dependency which is one step away from addictive nature. The way in which any horse instinctively communicates internally manifested emotional stress determines ultimately their capacity to adapt to psychological isolation. 

The characteristics of dependency are rooted in the sense of confinement, it is from this perception which addictive tendency, (bad habits), is born. Profoundly affecting the sustainability of competitive nature is the athlete’s ability to properly communicate and subsequently filter isolative stress; when you isolate the herd animal, you’re exposing both their strengths and their weaknesses. Keeping in mind that unlike predatory species, contentment is ultimately the naturally desired reward for the prey animal, not food. Humans have introduced food as reward as a reflection of ourselves which often creates food-driven tendencies but these are artificially manufactured and can bring forth fabricated behaviors. When coaching and training various species of animals it is always important to align with their nature lest you run the risk of manufacturing dependencies. The capacity of the herd dynamic plays a vital role in how much you can “get away with” before dependency is conceived. 

The irony for the psychologically herd-based horse is that the majority of equine disciplines requires them to perform and compete segregated from the herd environment; racing isn’t a team sport. It can be a confusing fine line for the horse to be asked to know the difference between competing with/alongside and competing against. Horses define harmony in the plural sense, identifying horses who are not entirely pinioned to this common notion is the baseline for identifying athletic tendency. 

By the laws of nature, few are the number of horses who can be removed from a herd environment and subsequently remove themselves confidently from it. Any horse heavily reliant upon their codependency’s to find balance and harmony in changing environments will be driven to find a replacement; that which is taken away must be recovered. If you are dealing with a physically talented athlete who is saddled with attachment disorders, your hopes for realizing that talent runs through their dependency and is hinged upon your tactful ability to provide for it. These are not a one size-fits-all sequence of events, psychological outsourcing is often fragmented and ironically in nature, the fewer number of (areas of dependency & attachment) the stronger is the bond to it. In other words, lower-level herd dynamic horses are actually less prone to be securely attached to their multiple areas of herd-bound tendencies than higher level horses who have one or two. Mid to lower-level herd dynamics subsequently will exhibit more “reactive behaviors” across the board in isolation yet are at a lower risk of any of those leading to an addiction for a replacement. Higher level herd dynamic horses have fewer attachments but their relationship with them internally, is much stronger; this heavy dependence if not carefully managed (it is easy to overlook) can lead to emotional trauma. Emotional trauma is uncomfortable and its soothing required to mitigate it, lest it take one down the winding road toward addictive behaviors. 

Addiction is manifested from the secure attachment to one thing that appears to offset the emotional trauma of another; harmony is always based within a checks and balances system of the psychology. There is a fine line between emotional trauma that beds down with the associative aspect and that which attaches to the anticipatory response mechanism; one paves the way for Equine PTSD and the other for nuisance savoir-faire. Both are risk factors for addictive behaviors most especially when these go unchecked, and the insecure individual is heavily reliant upon his/her outsource-tendency to enlighten the darkened spaces of their mind.

These internal stresses are rarely revealed as overt impediments to the individuals’ nature within a herd structure, but exposed in isolation, even the most physically talented will shrink in the eyes of competitive stress. Competitive stresses are not limited to our human point-of-view of what competition is, not every horse has competitive-nature enough to emotionally handle the nature of competition. For the human it is often viewed as moments, for the horse it is experienced as a journey. The manner in which a horse’s emotional energy is communicated internally, how they manage internal stresses, dictates the manner of expression when external stresses are communicated to them through the vehicle of environment.

Part 2

Environment; Adapt & Assimilate

The largely unseen though inhibiting nature of anxiety upon performance is itself manifested from and determined by, the ability or inability to harmonize emotional stress. Applied environmental influences veneer this base and are communicated through the sensory system, eliciting secondary physical reactions. 

Physical objects in the environment cannot themselves be addictive, nor the cause of bad behaviors or stress, only emotion can realize stress in this sense. However, through the associative aspect their influence can be profound both in providing quarter or enhancing anxiety. The sensory system communicates the external to the internal, making the efficacy of it of primary interest when considering how an individual is likely to perform. The physical expression we see, runs through the sensory inputs they feel. Overlooking this fact is ignoring the natural herd dynamic. Environment can be a tremendous tool for success when understood through the lens of the horse, but can become the ultimate antagonist if not. It is a mistake to attempt to out-maneuver Mother Nature in the herd dynamic game of chess.   

Environmentally speaking, adaption is a psychological process of herd function where assimilation is a psychological process of individualism. Closely related they yet serve the horse in very different manners; one aids in “binding the herd”, the other is an indicator of the ability to separate as an “athlete”. It is folly to overlook these processes for they are the difference between the environmentally dependent, “herd-bound” and those individuals who slip through their environment untethered, “athletic”. 

The ultimate success of the competing psychological athlete on the race track is based upon that individuals’ ability or inability to be just that, an individual. This is a tendency that must be coached through its assimilative nature and not the adaptive in order to realize true athleticism. Horses that naturally assimilate more smoothly anticipate their environment and the changes in it, opening the way to mental versatility; these horses are using their sensory systems proactively. The differences between the horses that are prone to adapt from those whose tendencies are to assimilate can be difficult to discriminate between however their divergence in approach to coaching and training are vast. The variance in the psychological learning process is naturally occurring within the herd dynamic itself. Through the course of time in a natural setting the majority of horses adapt while a minority begin to move from adaption to assimilation as the anticipatory response mechanism matures. 

From a coaching and training standpoint, the adaptive horse is far more prone to leveling off psychologically despite their physical talents, hitting a competitive plateau. Ironically this more often than not fits into the physical training part of a program. The adaptive process once molded to an environment is akin to repetition and familiarity, that is to say, you won’t get much of an argument from the horse you’re training-up to physical condition in the morning. But in the afternoon when the environment can be vastly different, your horse can struggle greatly from the psychological demands, defaulting to their adaptive, herding nature. Physically prepared to complete a task amidst their peers, maybe, mentally willing to compete against them as an individual, unlikely. The basic herd adapting behavior, which by nature makes up the bulk of horses, is quite happy to move within the environment, seeking a partner to run with if the crowd isn’t available. 

Adapting to environmental changes is a process of wait-n-see, allowing the environment to “sort itself out” before determining a place to fit in to it. The time and effort that this takes is closely bound by the interpretive fluidity of the environment funneled in to the psyche. On the racetrack where things happen fast, this process can leave even the best physical athletes seemingly lost in the crowd one race and out front in another. This is because while the psychological speed is one thing, the physical speed is another, and simply put some horses can outrun their own internal fractions. This can be fine in races when running of and in itself is probably enough, however in scenarios where the horse has to actually compete against capable peers, they are at risk to mental fatigue. Mental fatigue sets in when the buildup of emotional stress begins to disrupt the ability to adapt to environmental changes, this is the blade that separates adaption from assimilation in competition. 

Stress is unavoidable, a common thread of life itself; the space between athlete and athleticism is found in the manner with which it is processed. Long before the horse ever sees a racetrack, there are identifiable characteristics of what that process is. 

Assimilation is the “next-stage” of herd dynamic development that allows for the natural separation between the majority of mid-level horses and the minority of those that move themselves upward on the leadership totem pole. Standing upon the foundation of the universally common herd mentality, assimilation is realized through the anticipatory response mechanism (*Horses; The Athletes Within- Part 2 The Psychology of Learning) which through time and experience allows the upper-level herd dynamic to begin to identify more individually within the herd fabric. This in turn opens the way for “a horse” to be less affected by the actions and interactions of “the horses” around them and ultimately the environment at large. Independence requires the individual have an enhanced sensory system and interpretative aspect to allow them to determine their own course of action, their mind-to-body fluency is not implied by the herd nor the environment after it reveals itself. Instead, these horses assimilate while maintaining fluency by anticipating changes in their environment and being able to comprehend the entirety of said environment while discriminating between what will and will not affect them. By virtue of this the building up of emotional stress is greatly minimized, reducing the likelihood that the upper-level HD ever is acquainted with mental fatigue. These athletes will go as far as their physical talent can take them, and in some cases, even further. 

Part 3

Psychology & Sustainability

The question of how any horse will perform on the race track is fun to ponder, and indeed a great deal of financial investment is funneled in (and mostly lost) to its speculation. The real question that must be asked is, does the prospect mentally and physically have the foundation tools to even get there? Getting there and projecting how competitive they’ll actually be is yet another layer to the question altogether. 

The process of recruiting an athlete I liken to standing on one side of a canyon and ascertaining whether or not you have the tools available to build a solid bridge across. There can be great expanse between dream and reality and much open space for your investment money to fall into while you bridge the gap. Both physical structure and mental fortitude are required to get it done right. As your horse works their way across and navigates the many minefields laying in wait to derail all efforts, many will psychologically plateau even while they continue to develop physically. Physical development without emotional enrichment is an unsustainable combination when the ultimate goal is “one against many” and/or head-to-head competition.  

In order for a herd animal to strongly desire separation in the chaos and stress of herd motion, (competition), firstly they have to have the innate herd dynamic ability to do so and secondly it must be properly cultivated in order to be affective. A properly prepared athlete “on the playing field” is one who has been both nurtured and developed along the way. 

Adaption is the most basic form of preparation. For a time in the early stages of development the adaptive process adequately serves both the psychological as well as the physical. Yet, as the physical horse may well benefit in strength and stamina by continued stress demands layered one upon another in a training program, their body adapting to these new demands, the psychological athlete is often left behind. If adapting is all you teach, the process of adaption is all that will be learned by most horses. The majority of horses, which naturally fall into the upper middle to lower middle herd dynamic range, will ultimately become more reliant on their physical ability to sustain them. It is the minority of horses in the upper-level herd dynamic range who do not have to wait for the environment to change in order to adapt to it. These horses can assimilate to those changes as they happen or even anticipate them, effectively getting the drop on their environment so to speak, allowing their physical talent to operate uninhibited by their psyche. Recognizing the differences between these herd dynamics is crucial. The sustainable athlete moves through the physical environment unimpeded by their psyche; this mind to body fluency is “athletic instinct” and an earmark of higher-level HD’s.

If you want the horse to be versatile during the chaotic stresses of competition against their peers, you have to do more than train them, you have to coach them. You don’t coach a horse how to adapt, they do this by nature, you coach up their assimilation ability through a multiple stimulus process. You cannot create versatility; you must nurture its growth where it exists. It must be understood that in order for your athlete to sustain their competitive nature against peers, they must first have the capacity to not beat themselves psychologically in the effort to do so. Coaching athletes through themselves helps them develop the anticipatory response mechanism which is the cornerstone of assimilation, a sequence of events that by proxy allows the horse the benefit of processing stress in a way that doesn’t impede physical ability. 

Before any of this can happen, you have to determine the manner in which the horse is naturally distributing emotional energy, a basic fundamental revealing of their herd dynamic. As I have said many times, horses are emotionally driven athletes, how and where they place the bulk of their emotional energy during times of stress dramatically affects their ability to sustain performance in a controlled and purposeful deportment. Not only does it translate to the style of performance, where the bulk of emotional energy is distributed in any individual stands to be stamped into their progeny as a tendency. These “markers” are imparted as behavioral genetic traits, if they collide with similar markers in a mate instead of being complimentary, the result is often less than competitively useful; but that’s another topic for another paper. 

How a horse distributes their emotional energy is a reflection of how they are communicating with their environment as a whole, this includes the relationship with the environment we create. 

Matching athlete to environment is far more delicate than just figuring out what “type” of talent you have in determining what type of program they should be placed into. What a program is must also fit who the program is run by; the athlete’s herd dynamic should be compatible with the mental approach of the humans involved. The cooperative relationship between human and horse emotion will weigh heavily on the developmental process over time; the manner of expression in the student subject to the manner of impression from the teacher. Similar curriculums represented through the environments of two even slightly different teachers can translate to vastly different outcomes. The young athlete’s herd dynamic should be carefully paired with a schooling environment that is at least compatible, if not fully in tune with them.  If the young horse has a herd dynamic befitting the mostly adaptive process where their ultimate success will be predicated upon physical talent, a basic “cookie-cutter” approach will be less detrimental to their psyche than a horse who has the earmarks of assimilation. 

Getting the advantage of an upper-level herd dynamic and sustaining that advantage over competitive distance means having it nurtured and cultivated along the way. Higher level herd dynamic horses will naturally find their own separation along their respective journeys to be sure, however it is a misuse of rare ability not to recognize it early and work to advance and hone its translation above and beyond that natural course. The HD Profile once identified should be monitored along the way to help match the variations of its natural growth pattern with the challenges being presented to it.

It’s better to let a horse develop an utilize their own naturally occurring competitive nature than it is to have them purposefully or by proxy be taught or learn something counterintuitive, which risks becoming under the strain of competitive stress, counterproductive. As emotional communicators horses are both sensitive as well as responsive to changes, even subtle changes, in the emotional climate around them. This is true of every horse regardless of their respective places in the herd dynamic hierarchy. Because of this, it is folly to underestimate this reality in any training program even where we as humans consider the physical training to be the most important; no physical talent is devoid of the impressions and intent of its operator. 

Physical training with physical ques as primary triggers run the risk of adding emotional stress to your horse because they ask the horse to respond instead of teaching the horse to react. Response motivated triggers teach the horse “if I feel this, I do that” often without the benefit of accessing their psychological field-of-view which leads them to operate inside a mentally closed space. This can represent the results we seek but also build-up emotional stress within them making these responses prone to being erratic or over-exaggerated.  Physical triggers ask the horse to respond first and deal with any emotional stresses that accompany it second, all while performing. This is a classic cause of what we call “drag” and hesitation, compromising versatility. Mind to body fluency and the optimizing of physical talent relies upon and defers to the herd dynamic regardless of whether your athlete is leaning on adaptive or assimilative processing. Accessing and incorporating ques that are “intent & feel” based as primary may never require a physical accompaniment and where a physical que is applied it can be done so with a soft hand. This puts the psychological athlete ahead, clearing space, allowing for the horse to react more efficiently and with less risk of stress. By proxy you’re extending the shelf-life of competitive nature because mental fatigue is less likely to become a factor. 

Physical triggers used as a primary source of motivation do not always come with the “quick-result” we seek most especially if the horse is having an identity crisis in the heat of battle in herd chaos. Subsequently these physical ques are, sadly, often applied over and over again with harsher force than otherwise. It must be remembered that physically applied triggers are themselves subject to those applying them and their emotions. Horses are such sensitive communicators their absorption of our stress can affect them, dramatically reducing response time of the emotionally driven physical triggers; this equates to, the stronger our emotion the less physical force is actually needed. To this point, the horse can be coached quite effectively with a soft hand and strong feel. 

If we wish to minimize, for example, the use of the whip in a race, we should also greatly minimize its role in the entire schooling process, and minimize too the reliance upon physically based triggers where they exist.  The extemporaneous use of equipment as a trigger or overly exaggerated aid is an indication of a lack of compassionate horsemanship, only adding to the burden of emotional stress.

Closing Thoughts

Emotional communication is Mother Nature’s dialect, it is the fabric that binds one’s self to another and transcends both time and species in reciprocity. Like the sound of music can move you regardless if there are words you can understand or not; emotionally the horse is that music, and your connection with them is manifest within the rhythms between you. You have to be emotionally sensitive, patient and aware in order to properly read the environment you hope to communicate with, and not yourself become a source of anxiety. Minimizing emotional stresses and coaching up your horse means in part, being yourself an absorbent of, not a contributor to, the naturally occurring stresses within the environment. 

A great many horses are asked to fast-track it emotionally through the processes we create for them. Dramatically experiencing “life” at a clip oft times faster than the herd-based animal is prepared for by nature. From weaning by the sale’s schedule calendar, tossed into a boarding school like atmosphere with other immature minds and so on. Wherever we rush the natural process we must then become surrogate for that which we have removed. The ever-adaptable horse can lead us to become complacent when in reality, to adapt is to survive in their world, and this early adaption process initiated into the developing mind can manifest firm dependencies hidden within the herd dynamic.

There are a multitude of physical barriers to have to get through for any horse to grow into a sustainable and efficiently talented athlete. However, there are equally any number of psychological road-blocks that can easily derail even the most robust and talented athlete. Having athletic talent does not always an athlete make, there is often disparity between the money paid for the perceived value of a horse and the actual athletic value found within them. Price prestige inside the sale ring may wow the onlooker, but rarely translates in remotely equal comparison outside of that on the race track. There is a lot of space between the hammer and the finish line, and it is my belief that through the herd dynamic this space can be drawn closer together. 

Regardless of physical structure, talent or proposed value, any would-be athlete devoid of the basic fundamentals inherent in their herd dynamic profile is facing more of a challenge than already exists. This is where expectation and reality can be at odds and the horse gets caught between them; it isn’t fair to the horse first and foremost, to be recruited for a career they aren’t suited for and it isn’t fair to the investor to invest into a dream where hope and reality are further apart than is already accepted. The individuals’ herd dynamic make-up matters, for at no point along their career path is there a separation of mind and body. What endears us to them emotionally, is physically translated into the world, by them.

No magic elixir can replace the value nor the effectiveness of the natural herd dynamic or replicate the sustainability of it. A responsible horse industry starts with being responsibly accountable to each horse within it. 

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Photos: Courtney Snow

Contributing Authors

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Kerry Thomas

THT Bloodstock Kerry Thomas is a pioneer of equine athletic psychological research and Herd Dynamics. He created emotional conformation profiling, which measure’s the mental and...

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