Herd Dynamic Nicking

October 28, 2020

Introduction; the Herd Dynamic

The herd dynamics and their primary function is the cornerstone from which THT Bloodstock has been built, studying them and identifying their inherent nature, my passion.

I define the herd dynamic as 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. In short, it is the operating system of the physical machine.

The evolution of herd dynamic profiling has been and will at length always be, a journey of discovery; learning to discriminate between that which is perceived to be and that which is, relies heavily on both experience and instinct. The science of herd dynamics is based more upon what you feel than what you see in many ways, for what you see can wear many cloaks. The horse is their herd dynamic, the horse athlete is their herd dynamics’ relationship with physical talent; it is folly to consider one without the other, and a mistake to under-appreciate talents’ dependency upon ability.

Any horses particular herd dynamic makeup is their representative psychology and the efficiency with which it functions; key in evaluating this is in determining just how “individual” the herd animal is. It is a simple but extremely important virtue in athletics that a horse, though instinctively attached to the herd environment, be as detached from it as possible. Horse racing isn’t a team sport, horses are competing against, not with, one another, which is by its very nature counter intuitive. The very first order of business in the evaluation process for determining ability is identifying how self-reliant the horse is. Physical expression runs through the herd dynamic; talent is within the manner of that expression. If you’re adding a horse to your team, you’d do well to realize that value is found between the ears, pedigree and physicality pinioned by herd dependency does not an athlete make. Identifying the degree of an individuals’ herd dependence or independence is vital, for this ultimately determines what type of athlete the horse actually is and how well they will optimize talent under competitive stress.

The herd dynamic of an individual horse tells you a great deal about that horse and his or her singular strengths and weaknesses, clues you in on things like trainability and how they are likely to handle competitive stresses and environmental chaos. In competition, horses that are closely aligned in HD strength can easily take turns trading victories over time. Where the herd dynamic tells you who the horse is, their behavioral genetics help you understand the collection of their puzzle pieces; not just physically but also mentally, what has been imparted from the progenitors, influences the trajectory of their progeny.    

Behavioral Genetics; Ingredients of Success

Determining true potential runs much deeper than just what is found standing before you in the young horse. Athletic by nature, the potential of that talent can be surmised by the physical foundation of the horse; a certain hip, shoulder angle, top line and so on, clues you in on physical efficiency in motion. The physical horse is representative of the self, the psychological horse running through that body is the representation of many herd dynamic ingredients combed into one; the behavioral genetic sequence.

Behavioral genetics matter because ultimately, it is the psychological athlete that determines the physical athlete; the optimization of talent is predicated on ability. The study of behavioral genetics on both sides of the family tree, Herd Dynamic Nicking, helps to shed light into the shadowy room of speculation and hope. The identification of traits, tendencies and characteristics within the family lines are only one part of the process, identifying which among them are being competitively expressed, is another. Because of the natural structure of the herd unit, colts and fillies playing different roles in the family structure, the manner in which the imparted behavioral genetics are expressed stand to be different.  

The psychological make up of fillies/mares is designed by nature to fill their respective role in the herd, in their purest sense they will often have a shifted slant toward the Group Herd Dynamic. Cohesively and by design, colts/stallions play a different role in the natural herd structure, and they are most often slanted toward the Individual Herd Dynamic. It is true that every horse has a combination of each, and the ratio of these, unique to the individual, is dependent upon the prevailing traits, tendencies and characteristics, of their parents. It is a certainty, herd dynamic stamping happens, and the influence of the stallion is often thought of as the primary source to look at, but never underestimate the power and influence of the broodmare. In fact, because of her role in nature, the broodmare’s behavioral genetic influence often has more potency and consistency than may be expected. Not only is she imparting her characteristics, she is also helping to form how both hers and the stallions are being expressed through the weaning process. The emotionally charged horse at once absorbs and reflects their environment.

There are any number of varying traits in each horse that are seemingly unimportant to the competitive nature of that horse, things that are “overlooked” because they don’t seem essential, but everything is important. The difference between competitive nature and competitive edge is centered around the ability to manage stress, and the ability too manage stress is comprised of psychological characteristics. Emotional stress is the great antagonist to athletic performance and stress unfiltered in a horse’s daily life is going to be carried forward. Training, coaching, performing, are not dismissed from the equation of life; I always remind myself when evaluating prospects that a supple mind allows for a supple horse.

The HD Nick is the result of the study of as many closely related individuals’ herd dynamics as can be got, with a special emphasis on the broodmare and any of her progeny, in order to identify common and consistent dominating traits. Once these are identified in more than one horse a picture of prevailing characteristics begins to take shape; this is at length behavioral genetic sequencing. When the behavioral genetics come into view, the study of their expression can begin.

There are a multitude of indicators to identify and sift through to be sure, each one connected to the other within the psyche, in the end however, what you really want to know is “what is the level of herd dependency and what is the nature of their competitive expression.”

You always have to keep in mind that as herd animals by their nature, very few horses born will have the inherent ability to lead their peers without being in some way dependent upon them. Identifying a horse who is entirely devoid of dependency is rare, finding that “special” horse that also happens to have top rate physical talent, rarer still. With some degree of dependency naturally occurring in most horses (in my experience roughly 95% of horses I’ve evaluated in my lifetime so far) what becomes more important is to determine how these are influencing the horse athletically and among the chief places to look is within the horses’ sensory system.

An efficient sensory system is the lead blocker that allows the physical horse to maneuver through their environment regardless of the speed of motion, it controls versatility and plays a significant role in managing competitive stress.  The manner in which a horse is communicating with their environment matters a great deal, how something was done is a more honest representation of the horse than what they did, to overlook this is to dismiss what is in my opinion the most influential part of any equine athlete, their herd dynamic.  

Defining the efficiency of the sensory system, or as I say, the degree of their sensory soundness, is found within the interpretative aspect; how capable are they at interpreting the information that is funneled in? This becomes quite important when you consider that when you isolate the herd animal by asking him/her to operate independently, you’re exposing existing individual strengths as well as weaknesses. How much outsourcing is required to complete a task, be it through other horses or equipment, needs to be answered because if not, your base information becomes tainted. Outsourcing is not rooted in a dysfunction of the physical senses, it is squarely placed within the psyche (interpretative) and a natural webbing that helps bind herd members together.

Where it is true that each horse comes with fundamental ingredients, the manner in which they express and distribute their emotional energy has to be considered through the lens of either IHD or GHD, male to female. By nature, females will be equipped with a higher percentage of GHD and males a higher percentage of IHD in their respective mental make ups. Both the distribution and functionality of these dynamic “leans” can be closely related or widely separated, athletically it isn’t the actual degree of either that matters, it is how it is being translated through the body. It isn’t a given that a fillies’ GHD is higher functioning than a colt or that the colts IHD is more functional than a filly, what is a given is that one or both aspects can be an asset or an antagonist to the competitive attitude.

There will be dominating characteristics within this kaleidoscope view and your attention must be on how they are being expressed. The collection of information will offer up prevailing tendencies and traits as well as characteristics that play a lesser role in the individuals’ competitive nature. Recognizing and understanding these markers within the behavioral genetic sequence affords you deeper understanding and recognition of the individual’s herd dynamic. 

HD Nicking Applications; Scouting Talent

Scouting talent is the art of envisioning potential where it has yet to manifest. Aside from horses already on the track where you have some information of “what” they’re doing and you’re profiling to learn “who” they are, the evaluation of weanlings, yearlings and two-year old’s in training is the process of determining “who” they are that you can postulate “what” they’re likely able to do. Your best advantage in this effort is to establish who is going to be driving the race car.

There is no specific herd dynamic “type” that makes a horse a competitive athlete, for there are all sorts of variations and herd dynamic combinations, however there are key markers that consistently align with competitive edge. Looking for these innate markers in behavior is the first step in scouting potential. Where it is true that the younger the horse being evaluated the less defined and refined are the key markers, it is also true that the base value of them are present. The psychological foundation, those prevailing traits imparted, are accessible and yes most certainly “prepping” has its influence, however you can only paint upon the canvas that is present. The evaluation process is one of peeling back the layers in an effort to bring clarity to the idiosyncrasies of that canvas.

Once we have established there are key markers evident, and the horse passes the physical requirements, the next phase of the evaluation process begins. There are many horses that have elements of athleticism that never see them come to fruition and many reasons play a part in this. It simply isn’t enough to have the key markers, they must be consistent, distributed properly and compliment the physical horse, to be useful. A discombobulated assortment of ingredients is as meaningless as are a few key elements of greatness co-mingled with a variety of below average ones. Fools gold sweeps away the dreamer more often than not.

Digging into the behavioral genetic sequence whenever possible is an important step toward discovering who the horse is; HD Nicking in this manner helps to understand not only through whom the prevailing characteristics come from but how dominating traits are likely to be distributed during times of competitive stress. Again, these may be in the form of GHD or IHD propensities and thus their representation, though predominant, can very well be different in the colt or filly on your short-list. For example, a dominant trait in the broodmare and/or stallion can manifest quite differently between colts and fillies, not to mention how it is represented from body-type to body-type. The distribution of emotional energy plays a significant role in things such as mental and physical fatigue, trainability and duration of focus.

Part of HD Nicking is establishing the relative rate of psychological cycles or “spin” through GHD and IHD aspects and its compatibility with the prospect you’re scouting. What “spin cycle” means to us at THT is a terminology which is indicative of the internal rhythms of the horse. Each individual personality has an internal rhythm to their behavioral genetic; “this is a hot horse” is a common phrase for example. This rhythm itself does not determine ability but it does determine the duration of that ability via its efficacy. Clues of which are found throughout the HD Nicking process. This matters a great deal in the investigative equation because if an athlete’s internal clock runs out before physical fatigue, your prospect is more physically athletic than he/she is a psychological athlete. You need to know this before you invest that not only your goals are realistic but that your horse enters a program that is compatible.

How any horse communicates with their environment matters, and you absolutely cannot underestimate the crucial role that environment plays in the developmental process. Among the most important factors in gathering information throughout lineage when available is within the environmental aspect; were the horses moving in the environment or were they moving through it? This is the space between a herd horse and a competitive horse athlete.

The process of identifying a horses HD Nick that is already on the track is the same with the added caveat that you have additional information provided by their performance(s). There is a great deal of valuable information that can be applied in isolating hidden, yet to be revealed ability where it exists. Finding claims or scooping up the athlete at a HORA sale can be a very savvy investment strategy as part of the overall vision of the stable. Both the individuals’ herd dynamic and their HD Nick can help reveal untapped potential; the value in these horses is not in what they have done, it is within what they may be able to do.

The trade-off is, wherever there is more information available there can be more risk. Whether horses on the track or horses at a two-year old in training sale, where you get to see how they move and/or are competing, and you have additional information to add to their profile about stress management and the like, you also have to be mindful to consider any possible wear and tear. Not all horses mentally or physically mature at the same rate nor do these two aspects mature at the same time.

HD Nicking Applications; Breeding

I’ve always felt that perhaps the most underutilized area of herd dynamic profiling and HD Nicking in general, is when it comes to matings. Most certainly there is valuable information to be considered in pedigree research and body-type, but the fact remains that the psychological pedigree should be of equally strong, if not the spearhead, of the decision-making process. Behavioral characteristics are more than just an anecdotal side effect; herd dynamic stamping carries a higher degree of amassed influence over potential than does physical talent alone.

Whether you have a stallion and you’re considering a mare, or you have a mare and you’re considering the best stallion, detailing the behavioral genetics so they have a chance to fit and not be antagonistic to one another is as vital to outcome as any focus on specific body typing. HD Nicking of the male and female families through the lens of GHD & IHD aspects allows you to note behavioral stamping, how dominant traits are being consistently expressed and goes a long way in identifying compatible ingredients. In order to avoid diluting your chances in an already uphill battle, you have to be sure you’re mating has been selected in such a manner that you’re avoiding a weakening of the horse. A strong body with a troubled mind affords but little hope.

There are many things to look at when it comes to working through the assemblage of psychological factors, and here again it is paramount to remember that you’re breeding who the horses are, not what they have done. Breeding horses would be quite simpler if all there were in the equation was the physical horse and their performance records, but “how” carries over, creating a disclaimer. Horses don’t go to the shed with blinkers and shadow rolls for example, but the reasons they required them (or not), do; psychological soundness should be high on the list of your breeding goals.

Mental stamping happens independently of physical stamping, and the reason some seem to produce better fillies than colts for example, is in the way the stamping of dominate traits are expressed in the GHD/IHD ratio. Things such as sensory soundness, the ability to manage stress, areas of herd dependency and so on, should always be represented in the process. The herd dynamic puzzle has many pieces available from the behavioral genetic sequences assembled in the room, and where there is no way of knowing exactly which of them will be personified in the horse, you can stack the deck in your favor.

The competitive athlete being comprised of both physical talent and mental ability, it is wise to be mindful that a targeted body type benefits from a compatible psychology; an Indy 500 driver may get pretty bored and restless if he’s driving a tractor. The speed of the psychological spin is not itself indicative of how fast or far a horse can run, it is the efficiency with which the horse is cycling that matters. Rhythm plays a significant role in the distribution of emotional energy as well as the pattern of motion during a race (or while performing if you’re in a sport horse discipline), for it is directly related to how much time-in-motion (duration of competitive activity) a horse has in their internal clock before mental fatigue sets in. This also directly relates to body-type in that a classic distance frame has its best chance of being optimized when the driver has a compatible rhythm. If mental fatigue from things like stress, sensory inefficiencies and herd outsourcing are minimizing the horse’s optimum efficiency zone, (the duration of time-in-motion where ability is optimizing talent) and yet your horse is built for distance, you are dealing with a mismatch that can be very difficult to smooth out. Try as you may to bring the two halves together by tweaking distance or adding or taking away equipment, you’re working against nature thus finding consistency is always a struggle. I will add here, that your best chance to find common ground and bring the two halves closer together is found within imaginative coaching.  

The importance of working toward breeding psychological soundness cannot be overstated, for the emotionally driven horse athlete this is the foundation from which a race horse is built. Sustained competitive edge becomes even more elusive without an infrastructure; what we refer to as “grit” and “heart”, are not references to the physical horse. It does you little good if the horse cannot mentally handle the rigors and demands along the way. How many horses with great pages and really nice physicals find themselves not up to the emotional demands of the careers chosen for them? I’ve always believed that if we want to breed strong and competitive athletes and not just runway models, behavioral genetics must spearhead that effort. The value found in any horse is within their ability to optimize talent.

Closing Thoughts; Thinking Forward

I’ve always viewed the strengthening of the athlete in two collaborative ways, enrichening the emotional while developing the physical. Whether you’re Nicking with the Herd Dynamics or trying to assemble the ideal physical horse, addressing and minimizing areas of stress should be a focus point. From a behavioral genetic and Nicking view, sifting through the ingredients and culling out areas of emotional weakness and dependency is addition by subtraction.

There is no way to erase what Mother Nature has written. The horse is a herd animal, and where they are athletic by nature, we are asking them to perform and compete and live a lifestyle they were not specifically designed for; in nature the athleticism of the horse is what allows them to maneuver swiftly through the uncertainty of environment when needed. Their adaptive qualities assist them in the transition and they adjust and even thrive, but the inherent instincts are yet prevalent. The herd animal who spends the majority of their time isolated from herd structure, is prone to feeling emotional stresses they would otherwise never feel, and display behaviors that can make them seem recalcitrant, defensive, withdrawn, hard to handle, difficult to train. Emotional health supersedes physical performance, and that can only be understood through their herd dynamic and accurately addressed through their behavioral genetics.

You can’t properly train unless you can properly coach, for the optimization of physical talent is dependent upon the psychological athlete and that which can detract, can also add. The horse’s behavioral patterns, tendencies and traits can be and should be cultivated as a powerful ally. Instead of working against these character traits, embrace them, for they’re not going anywhere, you can’t erase them and to try to cover them up or minimize their exposure is in my opinion, counter-productive.

I have always felt that the more things I’m “protected” from, the weaker I become, mental and physical preparation for a task should supersede (obviously within reason) what is likely to be required to complete the task. In this way, you are properly rehearsed for the unexpected situational chaos the environment may throw at you. Common sense safeguards absolutely, but bubble wrapping a football player, for example, in minimized (not too tough now) contact or too hard a practice (goodbye two-a-days, don’t yell at me it’s not fair) while trying to prepare for a sport that demands mental and physical toughness, lends itself to both under-performing and injury when the rubber meets the road. How quick or fast the athlete is having far more to offer the competitor when they are built upon a foundation of stamina.

I’ve always personally believed that focusing only on “putting speed into the horse” can be reckless without endurance which is essential to sustain it safely, mentally and physically. Taking time to build tolerance, strengthening the horse long before you worry about speed, allows you the opportunity to layer sustainability to that speed when the time comes and by proxy assists in lowering the risk that mental burnout and/or physical immaturity abbreviates the lifespan of the athlete.

The discipline of sport, in order to be advanced, should embrace two main things; exercise science and instinctive coaching. The way I see it the science of exercise is the combination of mental and physical athletics, coaching & training; and although exercise science for humans is many years of study ahead, equine exercise science and its value shouldn’t be underappreciated, it should be advanced. Correctly applied, mental aptitude nurtured forward lays the groundwork for the physical athlete to train into. Preparation requires attention to detail and the patience to see it through in a time frame adaptive to the nature of the athlete; the tempo of any successful program moves to the rhythms of the athletes they’re coaching.

Elite competitors, mentally tough and physically sound, are not manufactured, they are painstakingly nurtured and developed; allowed to be horses, asked to be athletes.

Photo Credit: Britannica “fair use”

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