Environmental Impact- The Nature of Dependency & Performance In The Horse

March 30, 2020

Basic Instinct

Few things have more influence over individual performance than interpersonal relationships socially defined. To identify and optimize potential in any individual horse a look at their emotional relationships and how they function party to these must be understood. Knowing how the individual manages outside stresses offers insight to their likely ability to manage their own, information that lends itself to helping create an environment of success. It can be difficult to truly understand and develop the individual horse without first knowing the natural dynamics involved in the herd structure.

Regardless of what we do with horses or what goals we set for them in our “domesticated” world, along for the ride throughout the horses life is the basic instinct as designed by Mother Nature, and within this design rests the key to not only understanding your horse individually, but horses collectively. The impact of basic instinct, though a part of the horse’s everyday life cycles, has profound influence on the horse during times of elevated stress. This is translated to “our world” of structured training, breeding, performing, in a wide variety of ways that can appear to us as head-scratching random. Basic instinct runs much deeper than fight or flight; it defines the relationships individual horses have with their environment, with their herd mates, with us.

At its core basic instinct is a firm foundation of sameness, yet it is often manifested and expressed in everyone a little differently owing to the necessity of herd structure. Tendencies and uniquely expressed behavioral genetics allow individuals to maneuver within the herd structure that a hierarchy of leadership is developed, sustaining the species; common basic instinct binds the horse with its environment, different expressions of it allows the horse to adapt and assimilate to the changes within it. Mother Nature is wise, she knows that without individual assimilation the herd and ultimately the species, would struggle to continue.

Basic instinct in the societal prey animal has built-in co-dependencies acting as the thread that binds the individuals, even the elite herd dynamic leaders that have few or even no individual dependencies, still have one that keeps them from floating away from the herd, harmony. Companionship and accord, comfort and calm define the greatest reward, from the bottom rung to the top, this basic instinct has maintained the herd structure through time and environment. 

Herd Structure; Relationships in Nature

Horses by their very nature are a societal species and therefore subject to the physical and emotional changes within and without the family unit. Emotionally charged and expressed relationships where the goal for the horse as a species is survival, and the ultimate “win” for an individual, is harmony.

The relationships between individual members of a herd can be and often are as diversely proportioned emotionally as any other family structure, but always the common basic instincts help keep them threaded together. The hierarchy of herd structure is as much a necessity of species survival as it is a tool to help keep weaker individuals safer than they would be otherwise; herding mentality is the natural aversion to straying unless to seek or join another herd or mate.

The herd hierarchy totem-pole of leadership can have a few layers from top to bottom depending on the number of horses or whether it is a bachelor herd or a well-established family unit. Bachelor “herds” can be made up of only two horses and even when several young colts are mingling, they will quite often pair up in a shared leadership role and it’s not uncommon to see them segregate from others. The shared leadership role is uniquely suited for colts as they rough-house and trade barbs in combative play, and duke it out mentally, all the while preparing themselves for an eventual effort to take over their own breeding herd. The most essential requirement for a colt, and those who are most likely to one day take over their own family unit, is emotional intelligence. Brute force can help fight and defend in circumstances that demand it, but psychological sagacity sustains, helps avoid compromising environments and is the primary requirement for leadership.

In the natural herd dynamics, devoid of human goals associated with athletics, leadership is an expression of behavior, not of physical force.

Not all horses are created equal, and there is a reason for that, herd survival. Without built-in dependency/co-dependency principles, there could be no hierarchy, if there is no hierarchy, there can be no sustainable herd. Shared leadership is an earmark of a successful family unit, with differing slants on their roles there will be both a “lead” mare and “lead” stallion. The lead mare largely operates from within/among the herd members or just slightly askew but always maintaining governing contact. The lead stallion is generally operating outside the herd maintaining the perimeter, identifying threats or stragglers and cares less about the “day to day” inner workings and in fact can be “pushed out” to where “he belongs” by the lead mare. Seasoned mares are little afraid of raucous colts.

Descending the hierarchy scale a wide variety of character traits and tendencies under development can be found, here we find a large majority of those built-in co-dependencies. Community surveillance is an important aspect of the herd and each horse making up the body of the herd, plays a role. Very few horses by nature have both complete sensory and interpretation efficiency, an asset that affords them the luxury of independence and leadership. Inefficiency in these areas in some form or another is the glue of reliance and community co-dependence that allows the herd to function as a group. This creates a natural, built-in propensity to follow; Mother Nature very cleverly cloaks continuity by its manifestation of harmony, safety, comfort. This has nothing to do with who is bigger, stronger, faster, this is the emotional cord that permeates and sustains the herd. In terms of athletics, this is the root of the reality that as emotional athletes, horses are often a reflection of their environment.

Varying strengths and weaknesses are defined in the horse as tendencies, slants of character under times of stress; within a herd their effect on the individual is minimized and often unseen but in isolation, they can translate from co-dependency shouldered by another, to dependency confined within. When this happens the strengths and weakness are both exposed and the otherwise calm horse can become reactive, nervous, anxious; if they cannot internally process properly, they will seek to outsource. The desire to outsource is itself the dependency, not that which is sourced. Desire over action; in the beginning need is more powerful than the random succor.

Where communal harmony is reward, there is another very powerful byproduct of emotional stress that threads the yearning to follow, fear. The stress of fear and uncertainty is a powerful emotion and naturally applied tool of the co-dependent relationship within the heard, helping maintain order. Fear often results in willing self-subjugation to leadership, helping maintain order without force. Horses that are equipped with tendencies and traits that lend themselves to a higher degree of emotional intelligence will bubble-up over time; there is a significant difference between the perceived necessity of physical influence and often unnoticed power of emotional influence, until times of stress. In terms of athleticism, competitive edge is an emotional force.

The dynamics of the group are comprised by the dynamics of the individual members making up the group, and these have varying degrees of character “slants”. These ingredients of personality, for lack of a better term, present themselves in two forms I have long dubbed GHD (Group Herd Dynamic) and IHD (Individual Herd Dynamic). Understanding the herd unit is one thing, understanding the psychological rhythms and capacity of an individual, something else. Essential in athletics are these where the horse is required to compete in isolation; asking the herd animal to train and compete individually, going against the grain of built in co-dependency, can be a challenging task. Identifying particular traits and tendencies and working within them, while providing for the individual what the herd structure does, harmony as reward, rests within knowing the nature of their herd dynamic.

GHD; Group Herd Dynamics

From a psychological point of reference, I consider individual horses as having two aspects to their behavioral genetic; one aspect associated with their interpretation of the group, the other associated with their interpretation of self within it. These characteristics combine and mingle in varying percentage “slants” in both male and female horses. From a tendency standpoint Mother Nature provides a lean on efficiency of IHD and GHD because of the differing demands within those roles of the sexes; high level colts/stallions because of their “job description” are highly effective interpretively for example, in recognizing and interpreting singular targets and causes of stress. High level fillies/mares have the same functionality regarding multiple stimuli in their environment.

Efficiency of stress management and environmental interpretation, (emotional intelligence), is the natural separator within the hierarchy. This ability is not only functional within the natural herd dynamic, it influences the ability to learn new tasks (train) and affects physical output under stress (competing).

Group Herd Dynamic is just that; its primary function is the management of multiple stimulus provided by the group. Emotionally it’s the dynamic that allows the horse to communicate with the environment of their peers, to feel and interpret the rhythms of herd environment and allows them to quickly react to potential danger without themselves having detected it. The ripple-effect you see when one horse suddenly jumps or moves etc., and it seems to go on down the line…, this is GHD in action.

From a community point of view GHD is communicated through the co-dependency relationships between horses, regardless of the shift in the efficiency that separates them in the hierarchy. GHD is the tie that binds emotional horse to emotional horse, it is what allows them to know where others are around them whether standing, feeding or moving at a high rate of speed. Group Herd Dynamic houses a horse’s ability to realize intent before action or to swiftly respond to the intentions of the leadership above them. For an example of what this looks like, consider a large flock of birds or school of fish evading a predator.

These groups depend on a high level of communication through intent and subtle physical action for maneuverability, if not a great many birds would fall from the sky from collisions, and a great number of horses would be slamming into one another during times of chaos. This is no magic trick, it is put in place as a self-preservation tool by Mother Nature; you will not erase it, so it’s best to understand it and work with it. Communication is everything and GHD is its foundation.

Environmental communication is also essential. Psychologically Group Herd Dynamic governs the interpretation of environmental stimulus; drawing on learned experience and associations as well as drawing on the reactions of others the horse may be co-dependent upon, to determine their reaction. The manner of and the ability to, assimilate to sudden changes or new challenges, is rooted in the overall efficiency of GHD.

Group Herd Dynamic also plays a vital role in the physical sensory system owing to its interpretative aspect. Whether stimuli are moving through the various sensory aspects or multiple stimuli is all around the horse, standing or in motion, sensory lead changes take place. (See the paper Sensory Soundness & The Psychology of Motion for more). The GHD governs the efficiency of these psychological lead changes or deflects the interpretation of them by sourcing other horses or something else in the environment. By virtue of this, GHD is also the key to emotional energy and how it is distributed.

The Group Herd Dynamic is in effect the individual horse’s family dynamic tool, it has a broad brush of impact on the socially dependent horse and is the key avenue of communication, learning and placement in herd structure. It’s role in adaptability is crucial for survival, it helps define the fight or flight instinct, allows the horse to sense danger or feel harmony. Our relationship with horses is so natural because of the Group Herd Dynamic; emotional communication transcends the barrier of different species and spoken languages. (See paper Destination Hope).

IHD; Individual Herd Dynamic

Even the most tightly bonded groups are made up of unique individuals, and these individuals, though highly co-dependent on one another for survival, also have a powerful element of self; the partner to GHD, Individual Herd Dynamic.

Individual Herd Dynamic in its purest sense is, like the GHD, reflective of its namesake; the individual horse and their relationship and communication with themselves and individual stimuli in the environment. These targeted focus points can be objects within the herd structure, but more often is anything and everything outside of it where the individual horse is focused on things without the buffer of GHD’s codependency tendency.

This psychology of self is the avenue from which the individual horse sees or perceives his or her place at any given moment in the herd hierarchy and the foundation upon which the inclined individual seeks to challenge another for their link in the chain. IHD tendency by nature has more prevailing character traits expressed in the males owing to their herd dynamic role as outlined by evolution. It is what encourages them to at length seek out a bachelor herd and the tool lead stallions use to move them along. A strong and high functioning IHD allows the horse to single out individual threats, targets, mates, food and water sources, and identify as leaders. Individual Herd Dynamic is prone to more physical expression and an indication of how functional it is can be found in the manner of that expression. By themselves high level GHD nor IHD is leadership though either can be mistaken for it; true leaders have both high functioning GHD & IHD in their makeup. There is a checks and balances system in place that allows for controlled and purposeful physical expressions.

A horses Individual Herd Dynamic is rarely exposed in natural settings, it wasn’t designed to operate entirely on its own or isolated from a herd environment. Any weakness in IHD when isolated from the buffer of co-dependency is prone to develop dependencies, the isolated psychology can be suffocating for mid-level horses (most horses), these horses begin to outsource for succor. When this happens, their behavior is easily disrupted, and physical expression is more reactive than purposeful. Not only does this antagonize training and performance in our world, in the natural world it puts the horse in danger and they instinctively know this; they lose all sense of interpretative awareness as “fight or flight” takes over. Even in the high functioning horse who seems to do quite well on their own, an element of GHD should always be incorporated, if not, over time or at random the horse will “suddenly act up”; but it’s never suddenly, it’s the exhaust of emotional stress.

Among the functions of the Individual Herd Dynamic is in the relationship the horse has with their physical environment. Group Herd Dynamic is largely corner stoned on emotion, but IHD is shifted toward physical reaction to targeted stimuli in the environment, it is in affect the physical feature of GHD. The psychology that governs IHD is everything that manifests the self and much of this is within learned behaviors. In isolation a horse only has themselves to rely on and they will draw upon their learned experiences and anything associated with them that have also been perceived as experience, (this is the function of the Anticipatory Response Mechanism basic instinct provides to aid self-preservation). The high functioning psychology manages stress and properly interprets environmental stimulus, maintaining controlled physical expression whether alone or in a herd, the not so high functioning psychology does not, and seeks assistance (becomes dependent and develops addictive behaviors) and has trouble controlling physical expression.

It’s worth noting that Mother Nature safeguards herself from an over-saturation of mid-level horses breeding and plays by the rules inherent in the predator/prey relationship. Horses that bring attention to themselves become targets for the predator; quite cleverly Mother Nature in this manner conceals true leadership while offering sustenance. It is the only way for the species to survive.

Individual Herd Dynamic does not itself have adaptive qualities, assimilation relies upon GHD and when the horse is isolated their adaptive parameters are founded upon their learned experiences, both good and bad. Here again it rings true, when a horse is isolated so are their strengths and their weaknesses, in few ways is this more prevalent than when the individual horse is asked to assimilate to new environments or is in a situation where they’re required to adjust and adapt. Competitively speaking it’s that big difference between the horse that has no trouble running away from peers and the horse that lingers, hangs, falls back or sees herd chaos as untenable.

Operating in IHD while under emotional stress and situational chaos requires the horse to have a fast cycling sensory interpretation rhythm to maintain physical pace. Individual Herd Dynamic is not charged with sensory lead changes like Group Herd Dynamic, it is charged with focusing on individual targets identified individually in each of the sensory aspects. Sensory lead changes are only required when either the horse is moving through an environment or things in the environment are moving around or past the horse, otherwise IHD has no need to hand-off stimuli to another aspect. This is a very useful part of the IHD as it allows the horse to maintain focus even at distance, on a singular target; especially advantageous in the forward aspect for horses competing in a race, chasing off a predator or challenger to their herd.

When a stimulus is in only one aspect and it’s moving toward the horse or the horse toward it, physical fluency and controlled motion can be easily maintained. The identification and interpretation process are not overcrowded in the psyche and is less stressful. It’s during the transition from sensory aspect to sensory aspect that the IHD is required to hand off to and work with GHD, where disruptions to fluency can occur. A high functioning IHD is very useful with individual targets but does not have the capacity to interpret multiple stimulus and when asked to do so, the results can be widely random.

Dependencies & Performance; The Nature Of

Herd dynamics in a nutshell are those naturally occurring traits, tendencies and characteristics that make up the individual psychology and where they place the horse in the hierarchy of the herd environment. This is a constant thread regardless of whether in the “natural” setting or the environment set in place by humans. The principles inherent do not change, though the expression of them and how they’re viewed certainly can.

Dependencies and co-dependencies; where they exist in any given horse they will always exist, we cannot erase natural herd dynamic, it wasn’t designed to be erased. However, this thread of basic instinct does lend itself to assimilation and “learned patterns of behavior” can adjust to changing physical and emotional environments, positive or negative. It’s one of the things that allows inner herd relationships to fluctuate for hierarchy adjustment. Group and Individual herd dynamics are designed in such a manner that allows the body of the herd too sustain itself and is a system of symbiosis that works quite well. It’s when we pluck the herd animal from the co-dependent family structure that we can begin to see dramatic disruptions and inconsistencies in behavior. The truth is, these are not at all inconsistent behavior patterns but rather consistent in expression with a horse’s level in the herd and the degree of efficiency in GHD & IHD. Once again, we must be mindful that when we isolate the horse, we are exposing their emotional strengths and weaknesses. An operating system designed for herd living doesn’t always willingly and freely operate with the same efficiency when largely displaced from it.

How herd dynamics translates to athletics really comes down to a case by case basis. Athletic performance is physical ability optimized by mental capacity; horses are physically athletic, but not all horses are athletes. The reason for this is rooted in the efficiency of their Group Herd Dynamic and Individual Herd Dynamic and the fluency between them. Added physical and mental stress applies more pressure on the weak spots and more demands on the strong points.

The fluent relationship in the high-level herd dynamic horse who enjoys great efficiency in both GHD and IHD is very naturally athletic minded because these two aspects work seamlessly; these horses are emotionally adaptive and capable. I use a term often, panning for gold, while we’re scouting for elite talent and what that means to me is, we’re seeking to identify the rare combination of the naturally fluent herd dynamic with the body type best suited for the goal. If you find a coach-able mind in a trainable body, you have yourself some serious potential.

This does not mean that horses who come with inefficiency cannot be athletes, but because GHD & IHD is the fabric that binds, it is important to know how the roles they play are translated to athletics when determining athletic potential.

In thoroughbreds I consider the primary essential to be sustainable competitive edge; nothing is more antagonistic to physical talent than mental weakness. Understanding the role the two herd dynamic aspects play in this is a vital part of prospecting; they depend on one another to perform and compete. The more a horse relies on herd co-dependency in GHD, the more likely there will be dependency in IHD isolation; this translates to less fluency between them during times of stress and compromised ability to assimilate.

Group Herd Dynamic manages the functionality and derives competitive aspect from the emotional interpretations of rapidly changing environments and multiple stimuli, helping conserve and distribute emotional energy, supporting IHD by relieving it of the necessity of interpretation. It’s an essential element that helps maintain things like pace, space awareness and optimizes emotional energy conservation with its ability to read intent before the requirement of action. This is important because when physical distance and footing are part of the equation, mental efficiency translates to mental stamina and body control; better traction for the “tires”, more power delivered to the engine. Lack of efficiency in GHD pushes the onus of performance onto the IHD which among other things, can greatly compromise distance aptitude.

Individual Herd Dynamic’s competitive aspect derives from emotionally interpreted singular points and draws upon the emotional energy sustained in GHD for its strength and tactical power. IHD power and influence, to be functional in competition, must be expressed in a controlled and purposeful manner which stems from the fluency between IHD and GHD. Emotional energy without “guardrails” is energy often wasted because only some if it seems to be aimed in the direction the horse needs it to go. A horse’s ability to adapt to the situational chaos of changing environments plays a significant role in that horse’s ability to be coached, trained and to ultimately compete.

By its very nature and purpose, Individual Herd Dynamic is where a horse’s competitive nature is housed. IHD is competitive edge in function, but its functionality is highly subject to environmental interpretations in GHD. Without these IHD can be short lived, less than versatile and have a shelf-life much shorter than is required to successfully complete a task. Horses with fluency issues, though quite capable of holding singular targets without losing purposeful body control and expression, have issue with interpreting what’s going on around them making them “jumpy” and their behaviors erratic.

A good example of functional GHD during a race is when a horse is asked to re-kick. A horse operating primarily in IHD will struggle to find a re-kick or to change gears succinctly where a horse that can rely on both GHD and IHD to thread through the environment has the luxury of versatility and conserved emotional energy from which to draw upon. Mentally speaking, any horse can run in-space, but an athlete runs through space.

Closing Thoughts

The environmental impact on performance is often profound because of the very nature of dependency and co-dependency inherent in the horse. These shouldn’t be viewed entirely as negatives because they are collateral requirements of sustainable herd living, they’re part of the ingredients of the horse. Understanding and accepting them becomes a great asset in not only determining how to create an environment of success for the horse but also in selecting a horse for a certain end-goal to begin with. Simply put, fitting the right herd dynamic traits and tendencies with the proper discipline is just as essential as properly fitting body type or breed; ability must have the capacity to meet demand.

Understanding the nature of the IHD and GHD relationship and how it translates to athletic performance is a vital part in determining what is potential, what is practical, and what is unlikely. Decisions that not only have impact financially, but more importantly, for the well-being of the horse. Horses with herd dynamic deficiencies will put more stress upon themselves physically and thus require different management and developmental attention than those horses who are more herd dynamically equipped for the challenges. Emotional stress translates to and compounds physical stresses where a herd dynamically capable horse minimizes these stresses. A supple mind leads to a supple body.

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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