Horse Athletes: The Physical Impact Of Emotional Stress

June 1, 2020

Daddy Long Legs

Photo Credit: Courtney Snow/Past The Wire

Stress; An Introduction

Few things in life are more compromising than stress, it is universally experienced, individually managed and presents itself in two basic forms, emotional stress and physical stress. Stresses that are physically emanated, especially those which are more protracted in their recovery time, can negatively affect the psyche. Depending on circumstances, where physical stress is or has been experienced, you can be hopeful that once the physical issue is remedied so is the collateral psychological anxieties that hitched a ride. You don’t get off so easy when the stress is sourced through emotion; physical stress is generally from a singular source causing pain or discomfort, but emotional stress saturates the psychology and is a shadow that can be cast with no light.

When physical stress is the source of emotional anxiety or behavior disruptions, you can expect to see these melt away once the “physical pain or discomfort”, is gone. When emotional stress is the source of physical issues, inefficiencies and even injury, you’re not going to “fix” it by trying to address them from a physical standpoint. You have to put out the fire if you want to get rid of the smoke. In order to have any chance of accomplishing that you have to unravel the onion layers and look for the source; putting a band aid on the result is often an endless stream of frustrations.

In young horses especially, the manner in which emotional stress is physically expressed can be affected by things like environment, time and seasoning, but the fact that it is being physically expressed, is not going to change. This becomes quite an important piece of the evaluation puzzle when considering young prospects for a racing program. The experience of stress cannot be avoided and in fact, in the natural environment, actually plays a significant role as part of the glue that helps bind the herd together. From a natural herd dynamic standpoint what separates an individual within a group is how stress is filtered and processed, which by proxy affects physical expression. These expressions are indicative of the horse’s visibility within the herd structure, which can either put a target upon them or camouflage them from dangerous predators or environments. By the same rules of nature, translated into our “domesticated” structured environment, how stress is filtered and processed determines whether a particular expression is purposeful or reactionary; in the purely athletic version of this, the ability to perform is subject to these interpretations.

If you’re scouting talent in any athlete where a physical reaction to emotional stress can occur, it is wise to determine to the best of your ability the degree of its influence and the manner in which it is being communicated. Some athletes while under duress will be inclined to seek refuge among their peers, some will recklessly abandon them altogether becoming obvious targets, and others will nearly be invisible by virtue of their effortless motion; rising above the white noise of environmental confusion allows the horse to become invisible within it. Mother Nature is a clever magician, hiding herd leaders in plain sight.

The understanding of how any species interacts with and is equipped to survive their natural environment is at the core of identifying and developing characteristics of athleticism, in ours. Understanding the parameters of emotional stress offers us a window into how effectual these characteristics can be.

Stress; Naturally

Horses free to live by the rules of their nature are not devoid of the experience of stress, yet there are differences in the way horses cope with stresses that occur naturally as opposed to those that occur unnaturally. In the game of life on the stage of nature, to win means the individual survives, winning means the group is surviving. Horses have by basic instinct a built-in connection with one another, naturally occurring codependency’s specifically suited for individual survival in herd settings helping to manage every part of their lives, stresses included.

There are many differences between horses living collectively in the natural world, and a horse living collectively with us in our domesticated world, chief among these are the variations of emotional stress. Together in nature stress can be shared and filtered by and through other herd members, but when a horse is removed from its herd environment, stress becomes isolated within that individual. The naturally shared processes of managing stress are subsequently forced into an unnatural process of purely self-filtering. The resulting affect this has on the horse is totally dependent on their natural ability to internally process a wide variety of external stimulus which by proxy becomes ground-zero for a horse’s ability to actually perform and/or compete.

Stress collectively experienced by members of a herd has far less influence over an individual than it does when that individual is isolated and alone has to “deal with it”. Emotional distribution aids in keeping the individual safe from injury and from predators regardless of where he/she is on the hierarchy totem pole, redistributing the weight of the sometimes-troublesome interpretational process which could lead to reckless physical expressions that can put a horse in harms way. Harmony through emotional connection is the natural desire of a horse and in varying degrees every horse requires it in order to shrug off the burdens of stress, a very significant aspect of herd life. Not to be injured and not to be seen by a predator requires that the horse has as little individual stress to process, individually, as possible.

When we single out a horse for their apparent physical strengths and abilities, we are equally isolating both their psychological strengths and weaknesses. We must be mindful that when we ask the herd dependent horse to be an individual athlete, what we see in them physically will always be subject to who they are mentally. By disrupting the otherwise natural processes of collective stress management, the seemingly “sound” horse can manifest into something entirely different.

Where the natural process of filtering and managing stress is geared toward safety, calm and harmony, its design works incredibly well. It’s when we ask these entrenched processes to operate without peer resource for optimal athletic output, disruptions occur. We can separate the horse physically from the herd, but their psychology is not so easily departed.

Athletes; Performance Stress & Competitive Stress

The management of stress in the highest form means maintaining a sense of calm through moments of chaos; leadership is found in the ability to elicit harmony and control where others become nervous and reactive. Few things will challenge this ability more for a herd animal than being asked to perform or compete at a high level while also being isolated from the natural inclination to outsource their uncertainties.

Performance stress can be as real for the horse as it is for the human, and is among the primary dividers between preparation and execution. Being practiced and prepared doesn’t always translate to being able to execute when the time comes “for real”. How many athletes have looked great in workouts but when there is the addition of competitive stress, they begin to show the earmarks of faltering under the pressure? Stress unfiltered psychologically will suffocate competitive edge and when antagonistically expressed physically, greatly affects efficiency of motion; neither of which are performance enhancing tendencies. The truth is, there just is no way of knowing 100% how any athlete-to-be is going to handle the emotional stresses, often accumulative and protracted, of competition, but there are indeed various clues evident in the psyche.

There are two basic variations of emotional stress the horse athlete will be asked to deal with depending on the actual discipline they’re in, subsequently their management markers need to be considered accordingly. The athlete performing and being judged on time or elegance of movement is doing so in isolation from peer factors knocking on their door. Thus, their stress management style will be a different variation and capacity than the horse athlete destined to compete against peers where situational chaos from multiple sources bombards the psyche.

Identifying stress factors in performers isn’t the same as identifying stress factors in competitors, this is not a one size fits all situation, making it easily misunderstood or even overlooked altogether, which can prove to be in the end, a costly mismanagement of information. There is quite a contrast, for example, in evaluating the physical performance of “time” at a two-year-old sale and considering their ability to manage competitive stress. I always wondered, how much money has been spent and lost by investing in a horses’ performance while their ability to compete went unasked? 

For the athlete that races there is both performance stress and competitive stress. Their individual performance, while certainly a factor, is itself ultimately governed by their ability to compete; the ability to compete is governed by the capacity to manage emotional stress. In order to have any hope of real success and longevity as a race horse the thoroughbred will be required to have sufficient ability in dealing with performance related stresses and an above average ability in managing stress relative to competition.

Performance stress stems from the manifestation of activities associated with isolation, from a developmental point of reference this is most often experienced during the preparatory stages; “practicing” and getting physically fit. This is of course quite important; being able to handle the emotional challenges and demands of isolative stresses incurred during the prepping stages of development are essential. For the race horse, managing peerless stresses are by and large all they have to do early on and owing to a horse’s natural resourcefulness to adapt, far more will have the ability to “prepare for” than actually “compete at”. The demands of performance once experienced and adapted to for the most part remain psychologically consistent and are repetitive, and we all know how most horses seem to love consistency in their lives. Consistency helps provide the always sought for harmony in a horse’s life. It is a road of less attrition to get better at what you practice alone than it is to execute what you have learned under the pressure of one’s peers.

However, the ultimate goal for a race horse is not as simple as looking great while standing, walking, galloping or breezing by their lonesome, it is of course to be consistently competitive against their rivals.

Once the transitional switch from singular performance to competition kicks in, any number of additional, and very often foreign stresses, bombard the psyche asking to be identified, interpreted and properly filtered. Being able to individually manage situational chaos in changing environments presents the herd animal with his/her greatest challenge, add to this the demands already adapted to in the performance stage, and it isn’t hard to see why some horses appear lost in the crowd. It’s because they are.

Unlike the generally singular aspects of performance stress, the nature of competitive stress is within its plurality. It is much easier, even for a species with the inherent ability for assimilation, to adjust to singular environmental changes than to accommodate multiple ones. In training and coaching athletes, the “one task at a time” achievable goals mantra can bring forth growth and goes a long way toward preparation to be sure. Even so, the best prepped performers often find themselves “learning on the fly” when thrust into competitive chaos for the first time.

Competing among ones peers requires the horse to be aware of and react to not only what they are doing and experiencing but also what other horses around them are doing and experiencing; add to this a lot of congestion and physical speed and you will understand that some athletes withdraw themselves from competing and default to performing. Nothing is more debilitating to physical talent than emotional stress, like a horse with a bad airway, emotional stress can suffocate desire. In small doses of time horses that have mastered performance can manage well enough, especially when their adversaries are of equal or lesser herd dynamic capacity. The more time of competition (longer the race) against equal or even stronger herd dynamics, the more stress management is required; when you see horses clearly losing the battle of competitive edge over time, there is a very good chance that the pressure of competition is suffocating their effort. I give this example often; there is a big difference between running and competing, moving in space and moving through it.

Performance stress, most often singularly sourced, can and does run the risk of building up over time, like a balloon filling with air slowly and steadily, but competitive stress, because it comes from multiple sources, can fill that same balloon much faster. By the same token, single sourced stresses are far easier to manage and adapt to than stress in multiplicity; repetition and consistency eases emotional stress, daily routines and familiar surroundings are the comfort foods of the emotional horse.

Time itself is an influence upon the management of emotional stress be it incurred externally or internally. The physical speed demands of an act will require psychological interpretation to be comparatively faster by at least a 2/1 ratio to assuage a build-up in the “balloon” and allow fluency in motion. Horses often adjust their own physical speed in accordance with their innate ability to interpret what is going on around them, this is a natural pressure relief valve tendency that can be utilized when developing young athletes. Always providing a mental escape route can help soften attrition and offer air to a suffocating mind.

There are many faces of the experience that is emotional stress, manifesting from a variety of places like a shapeshifter that can be difficult to pinpoint and even more difficult to succor. Be the horse performing or ultimately competing, the nature of emotional stress can obscure and camouflage, crowding out potential.

Emotional Stress; The Ultimate Chameleon

It’s far easier to see the effects of emotional stress than to isolate their source, leaving one to often “treat the expression” because we tend to address what we see in hopes of a “quick-fix”. This may or may not prove adequate, but it certainly leaves those ghosts-in-the-closet the ability to emerge at seemingly random, unconnected times.

When I consider emotional stress, I compartmentalize it into three areas; stress that is related to the physical horse, communicated stress from the external environment and a form of psychosis where emotional stress is rooted within the associative aspect.

For obvious reasons the most direct form of emotional stress is that which comes from the physical horse, be it outright injury, underlying pain, or a heightened sensitivity to things as seemingly innocuous as equipment or as worrisome as poor footing. Anything physical that disrupts the desired harmony within the self is going to cause emotional stress in some way and the degree of impact is commonly relative to the degree of cause. In other words, the mantra that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” fits pretty well in the cause and effect sequence. Physical discomfort regardless of the reason is, fortunately, quite often short term and the relative stress it causes generally little more than an inconvenience. Protracted physical pain however, has more emotional impact for obvious reasons and outright injury even more so. These things often take the shape of anxiety and the hope is always that any discomfiture or injury is short term, for the longer they exist the deeper they go in the psyche, the deeper they go in the psyche the more likely they are to become seeds of future associative disorders.

Footing and the sense of “feel” connected to it can cause immediate surface related emotional stress and dramatically alter, as any racehorse would tell you if they could, the manner in which they move over it. With footing too there are varying degrees of impact from the hardly noticed and little remembered brief slip and slide sort of affair to the more consequential, where a horse is asked to run a large portion of a race competing over a surface that is causing them uncertainty. With enough time uncertainty will bleed into anxiety, anxiety feeds into fear, fear takes hold through association; association itself is a tool of the basic survival instinct. When emotional stress becomes interwoven with the survival instinct, it will not be unwound. The interesting thing about footing from a horses’ point of view is, it is all about comfort and security, not about speed and thrust. Emotional comfort and security precede physical output. Dirt or turf, deep or sticky, sloppy or firm are all things as acutely related to the psyche as they are to the physical. When someone says to me “he really moves over that surface well” that translates to “he’s quite at ease upon it”; a horse’s best surface is the one that causes them the least amount of stress. The same can be said about a horse’s best environment; the more stress free the work place, the more productive it will be.

The development of internal stresses from external sources is a prevailing demon and source of contention for the overtly herd dependent horse embarrassed by the wont of it. The capacity of the horse to communicate with their environment carries tremendous influence with their ability to navigate athletically within it.

The area of environmental communication where internal stress builds, putting that pressure in the balloon as it were, is in the interpretation of it. Every horse’s basic sensory system operates the same but not every horse has the ability to interpret the information with the same fluency. In the natural circumstance this matters less than in the unnatural circumstance because a horse is designed to live among horses where individual uncertainty is absorbed by committee. This works great out in the wild, but can become quite the antagonist to the competitor; the speed and efficiency of interpretation regulates the degree of emotional stress, the degree of emotional stress governs the fluency of physical motion. The weight of anxiety can smother athletic talent and compromise speed, pace, distance, competitive nature and so on. It also influences “running style” or what we at THT Bloodstock denote as the natural pattern of motion, a phrase those of you familiar with our Kentucky Derby Analysis know well.

Stress that manifests from poor environmental interpretation limits the “sweet zone” of the athlete by the placement of parameters; the horse only competes well when the environment around them molds to their capacity. Versatility in competition is psychological, the more the horse is able to communicate sudden and multiple external stimuli the less likely these are to build internal stress, allowing the horse the freedom to athletically respond. If there is a delay in this communication the stress begins to mount from the uncertainty, slowing the interpretation which compromises the filtering process creating “drag” between cause and effect as the horse becomes stuck between intention and execution. When the horse is in heated debate for position, drag from indecision can take you from 1st to wherever, in a hurry. Residual stress stifles desire, suffocating the fire of will, and brief moments of recurring hesitation could be a sign of a deeper rabbit hole.

Emotional stress affixed to experience attaches itself to learned behaviors; when emotional stress is associative in nature, the root of the cause can be quite elusive. The anticipatory response mechanism in each horse helps them to, through associative experiences, navigate their world safely. Getting the jump on a predator, for example, means knowing the difference between a sage bush blowing across the ground and a mountain lion rushing in. Anticipation with attached emotional stress from a bad experience or a perceived uncertain experience changes physiology and movement. Heart rates elevate, a horse can begin sweating for no obvious reason, physical expressions can become erratic, emotional energy needed for competition starts to be consumed long before the horse enters the gate, some “bounce” as if on a pogo stick and on and on. 

Associative stress disorders, where they exist, could have been put in place long before their impact is truly seen or felt by us. From the time a horse is born the anticipatory response mechanism kicks in, essential in nature, essential to nurture; these are the building blocks of the future mental health of the horse. And again, there’s a ghostly aspect within these disorders in their seemingly random expression that happen far removed in time and space from the event that seeded them; it’s called associative stress.

Associative stress can come from anywhere and it can be as unassuming as a little worry or as consuming as completely changing patterns in behavior and is often as fleeting as it is protracted.

Any stressful event that causes an emotional response can leave a mark, and if that emotional response was in the form of anxiety, uncertainty or fear, whatever was accepted as the “cause” as well as whatever is associated with it, gets imprinted, (on the positive side, this process also imprints positive events and harmonized associations). We ourselves access this associative aspect regarding our experiences, and anticipate positively or negatively; in the name of self-preservation, what is perceived to be is as powerful as what actually is. Each of these elicits a response, one because of necessity, the other “just in case”. If a horse had a bad slip on a sloppy surface, they may very well alter their speed and gait whenever they “think” they feel the same sensation underfoot. If a horse had a frightening experience in their youth you may see the result of the perception of it carried forward years later; the associative aspect of horses is for them a version of reason.

When we transplant the herd animal into our domesticated world, we are assuming responsibly for their emotional well being.

Processing Stress; Filters

Stress happens, it’s a simple fact and unavoidable byproduct of life indeed and how it is filtered and processed defines the individual.

Horses being the great “quiet communicators” they are, absorb the emotional world around them, adopting what I consider “short-term stresses” by virtue of their natural communicative process. Because horses are capable of filtering the stress from others, a part of the herd dynamic that binds them emotionally with their herd mates, it also connects them with their human counterparts. Very often you can see the “vibe” of others through the expressions of a horse; this is at its core a filtering process. The degree in which a horse is able to filter the emotional stress of others reflects the depth of their herd dynamic and their role within the herd itself.

Understanding how a horse processes and filters stress helps you understand how it is likely to be expressed in them physically as an athlete. Is the horse offloading competitive stress and seeking herd favor? Is the horse unable to process the influx of stress in the environment and defaults to withdrawing from competition? Or is the horse processing and filtering in a manner that frees them from the pinions of others? Any attempt to ascertain the ability of an athlete to compete without making an effort to understand their tendencies when under stress, is in my opinion, a flawed attempt.

Regardless of the source, the manner in which emotional stress is physically expressed plays a central role in total athleticism. Emotional stress will be filtered in some way; sometimes it is all held within and largely unseen, internally filtered, and sometimes it is physically expressed in movement, externally filtered. Each of these forms can range in degree of impact.

Internal filtering at its highest levels is the act of absorbing and processing stress with ease and no loss of body control or environmental awareness, at its lowest levels it is emotionally suffocating, marginalizes environmental awareness and is a mechanism of attrition for athletic output. 

Horses who, for better or worse, are prone to process emotional stress internally, qualify themselves in two ways; highly efficient athletic psychologies shed stress with relative ease, allowing their full potential to be accessed uninterrupted, inefficient mentalities pin-ball on the stress allowing it to build pressure in the psychological balloon. When unfiltered and accumulative, internal stress is burdensome, especially when performing or competing, and a desire to outsource emerges in order to divest themselves of it. Psychological outsourcing dramatically compromises an individuals’ physical fluency, in affect separating the operating system from the machine; the definition of average. The interesting thing with these horses is that their course to outsourcing is rarely marked by “loud” physical behaviors from themselves, instead they move in unison with others, helping them stay invisible in open space. From a survival standpoint, the less attention to one’s self the better, lest they place a target upon their back; herd mates sponging up the overflow confuses the targeted focus of a predator.

In the herd environment even those who are externally filtering emotional stress, by and large, enjoy the camouflage provided by their herd mates. Their physical expressions rippling through other horses helps their personal concealment. Athletically speaking, physically filtering stress does not mean athletic fluency is automatically compromised, in fact there are cases where these expressions under stress are quite useful in combat. The key is, identifying them as such from those that are compromising. Emotional stress externally expressed has a very definitive pattern in the way and direction of exit. Each horse has unique tendencies under stress and these will either be athletic in nature or antagonistic to it, which it is depends greatly on the discipline. Regardless of the manner of expression the filtering process absolutely is a factor in optimizing talent and ability. Whatever affects the mind, can certainly affect the body.

When we isolate the horse from the herd to perform, and ask them to be individuals in crowded competition, we are subjecting the manner in which they process stress to scrutiny that in nature they are protected from. Because of this, one horse can sometimes seem to like two, what we fail to recognize in one setting, can become all too prevailing in another.

Processing Stress; Vices

Often a byproduct of psychological isolation, sequestered emotions that need soothing can manifest into vices, some of these we see, some of these we do not. The most common (but not the only) reason we see them is because they’re being expressed in a stall where everything is condensed. When we think of vices in our horses where they exist, we have to keep in mind that though they are commonly physically expressed, they are psychological in nature.

When the familiar avenues of processing stress become compromised, an occurrence more prevalent in our domesticated world, it’s perfectly normal for horses that are more dependent than others on herd outsourcing (herd-bound), or physically expressive in their filtering process, to manifest vices. Vices are tricky because they do not always reflect the severity of their source; ranging from barely noticeable habits or nuisances to downright troublesome and even destructive behaviors. Trying to remedy these altogether is often a hopeless sequence of trial and error because unless you can pinpoint the cause, treating the result usually ends up inviting a different variation of the same commentary.  In most cases a physically expressed “bad habit” is the horse’s effort to self-soothe, therefore doing all you can do to keep them mentally stimulated is your best bet to harmonize them. Unless you know what the cause of their stress is and can subdue it, your next best thing is to look for a way to help them filter that stress less destructively via divergence.

Stress itself cannot be erased; whichever avenue the horse utilizes to filter it needs to be provided for. A crucial part of developing any athlete is centered up the ability to provide for their essential mental health needs, finding ways to balance these needs with the requirements requisite to become a top athlete is not the horse’s responsibility.

Just because we generally acknowledge a vice in its physical expression, common in the externally filtering horses, doesn’t mean that the horse who internalizes and seeks to offload their stress to peers for absorption do not develop them similarly. When they develop a “vice” it is expressed through a behavior pattern; these can range from sullen depression to walking the stall and a host of things in between. The difference between vices manifested from internal and external filters is found in the hole the act is intended to fill and not the act itself; when a physical act soothes and harmonizes normally, a physical act will become a substitute, when a behavioral propensity soothes and harmonizes normally, an act within behavior will develop to imitate it. 

If there is a desire or a need to try and minimize a horses’ “vice”, knowing where it stems from is essential. If what the horse is doing is inhibiting their ability to be trained and coached, to perform and compete, finding ways to creatively channel that emotional extension of themselves is much better than attempting to eradicate it.

I’ve always been of the opinion that when it comes to such things, it is best to weigh the pros and cons of the circumstances before trying to “defuse” the situation. If what the horse is doing is little more than a nuisance then let it be; if it isn’t disrupting their lives and training then it is most likely actually aiding them by helping them cope with the environment. Making combat for the sake of itself can lead to more issues. Vices are normal byproducts of personality, if it isn’t in their way, don’t put it in yours.

Emotional Stress; Physical Attrition

Emotional stress and physical health, the peas and carrots of athletic longevity, and one of the most important things to consider. Emotional health is an essential part of physical health and healing and is a reflection of how stress is being managed as well as a peek into the window of the future. How stress is managed and distributed influences not only talent and ability, but longevity of mind and sustainability of body.

Injury prone or not? Subject to mental fatigue or a deep well of competitive edge? Am I an athlete or just a horse? Make no mistake about it, emotional stress can translate to and alter physical motion by contributing to the strain where issues already exist and creating issues that otherwise didn’t. Emotional stress can make a supple and fluid horse moving with purposeful action become rigid, reactionary, reckless in movement. Every horse can fall victim to injury, but any horse that cannot mentally handle the rigors and demands of becoming an athlete will be more susceptible to them.

The affect that emotional stress has on the psyche can be powerful and behavior altering, and anything that affects the operating system of the machine, affects the machine itself. Whether we’re evaluating thoroughbreds or I’m giving a sport horse clinic, one thing always rings true, if you want a supple horse that horse needs a supple mind. 

There are already enough physical factors looming against the horse’s sustainable athletic health, conformation and mechanics of motion, points of pressure and acts of attrition over time, the last thing you want to add to this equation is the weight and grind of emotional stress. Anything that gnaws on the psyche puts stress on the body. A standing or walking horse dealing with building anxiety will have an elevated heart rate, can break out into a lather and all that anxious energy can make them nearly bounce out of their shoes.

When the mental mechanics are disrupted, it plays havoc on the physical mechanics and the fluency of motion. Add the lifestyle of training and competing to a psyche that has difficulty in managing stress and any physical imperfections are going to receive the brunt of attrition. How stress flows through the body is an essential piece of the athletic puzzle; the mind should complement the physical and not get in its way. A horse doesn’t need to have a “perfect” physical conformation to compete, if they are equipped with the capacity to manage competitive stress, they will optimize whatever physical talent they have without adding a stiff grind to the equation. The ability to manage emotional stress correlates to physical soundness in that the more emotionally sound the less perfectly conformed the body has to be. Obviously, there are limitations physically that cannot be overcome, but the point is if the horse isn’t adding mental stress to themselves then you can consider the physical aspects on their own merit. Some horses “take care of themselves” and some do not.

The manner in which a horse is physically expressing emotional stress should always be crosschecked with their physical conformation because psychological work load put into physical motion becomes relentless and by proxy will add an additional element to wear and tear, which eventually has a breaking point. Owing to this reality the management of stress plays an essential role in not only the ability to compete, but in affording the luxury of time it takes to prepare to compete; it matters little if the horse has the body and the pedigree to become a top athlete if they do not have the psychology, to sustain it.

Time is also a question of consideration when it comes to how injurious emotional stress can be when translated to the body in motion. Mental fatigue is not only an enemy of competitive edge when it begins to kick in, it is antagonistic to physical fluency.

Mental fatigue is the result of a buildup of internalized emotional stress that happens during protracted periods of heightened focus demands. The longer the time in motion of combat, the more mental stamina will be required; you can grind through physical fatigue when you have mental stamina but without it, well good luck. You can physically condition the horse to go 10 furlongs however if the horse experiences the onset of mental fatigue at 8, your horse transitions from competing to running. Mental fatigue constricts the horse’s environmental awareness and their ability to react to changes in it with their usual efficiency. When this happens, there is in effect a disconnect between mind and body; when mentally tired there is a loss of synchronicity putting additional pressures on any physical flaws the horse may have. This is why it is essential that if you’re dreaming of winning at 10 furlongs, you need a horse who is mentally capable to compete longer than the time it takes to complete it.

A great amount of attention and time is given, and rightfully so, to the physical horse, but emotional stress and indeed, overall mental health, play such a significant role in everything horse, not to give it just as much attention and coaching, is folly. When you walk away from the horse, they aren’t walking away from themselves, mental fatigue and psychological wear and tear isn’t reserved for just the training hours. The body needs nutrition and conditioning, and so does the mind.

Closing Thoughts: Driven by Emotion

The most difficult terrain to navigate in life is the emotional landscape both internally and externally. You cannot identify and evaluate the physical potential in an athlete without first identifying and evaluating their likely ability to manage the emotional stresses they will incur. When a cacophony of emotions drowns out the ability to discriminate between the outside and inside world, anxiety replaces reason; emotional stress can make you feel the loneliest while you’re in a crowded room.

Regardless of whether we at THT Bloodstock are looking at horses for private purchase, at auction, evaluating breeding prospects or developing a performance profile, diagnosing as many stress managing factors as we can is an essential step toward gaining an understanding of the whole horse. Identifying a horse with the herd dynamic makeup to operate independently with as much ease as when with their herd is rare, finding one that has the compliment of elite athleticism, rarer still. I’ve always believed that you are far less likely to see future greatness than you are to feel it. Determining the raw materials of the entire horse and working within their nature to cultivate it requires that emotional communication supersede physical demand.  Physical ability is the vehicle through which grit, heart, and determination, are brought to bear yet just because a horse has been groomed to be a race horse, doesn’t mean they are one.

Naturally occurring tendencies of stress management dramatically impact a horses emotional and physical well being, it is the core of who they are as individuals and requires as much attention and nurturing than simply physical conditioning alone. True horsemanship is an act of recognizing natural instinct and emotionally connecting to it.

Horses are, after all, athletes driven by emotion and cannot be separated from their natural instincts. In horsemanship we should not distinguish between emotion and instinct, for instincts are emotional and horsemanship is not something you see, it is something you feel. Stress happens, and herd dynamics matter.

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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