Horses; The Athletes Within – Herd Dynamic Rhythm

April 6, 2021

By Kerry Thomas

Nothing inhibits physical talent more than the lack of psychological ability; function and execution, when measured through the lens of competitive stress, can become two different things. Horses are themselves athletic, but it is the athlete within, that divides them.  

Early on in my research efforts to identify the “ideal personality type” that was the equine athlete, I mistakenly tried to match peculiar types with particular styles and distances; what I dubbed psychological spin-cycles I tried to translate to output. However, this was not the full story as I began to realize when we continued to compile and track data. It became quite evident that athleticism is not found in a “type” of psychology but rather it is found within the manner of its expression. This fits the natural herd dynamic in as much as any group of physical horses are separated in hierarchy by their psychologies; for example, their innate ability to manage stress is an expression of “who” they are and where they rank regardless of their personality typing or physical abilities.

Horses are anything but a one-size-fits-all species when it comes to their varied “personality types” expressed through what I categorize as three main psychological spin-cycles; fast, moderate, methodical. The cycle assigned to a particular horse is based upon a study of their naturally occurring psychological rhythms but does not itself ascribe to them an assumed performance style, distance aptitude nor competitive nature; the manner of expression of the three elements that matter most is where the evaluation of ability takes place and is what brings latent physical talent to life. It must be remembered that any horse that has to “outrun” or “outperform” themselves first are only achieving as far as their physical talent will take them.

Style of performance is housed within natural tendencies under stress, the characteristics of this expression are found in what we identify as natural patterns of motion in the herd environment. Left to his or her own devices, it answers the question of what the horse is inclined to do in the chaos of natural herd motion and common stresses; not to be confused with competitive nature. Closely related cousins if you will, competitive nature is revealed during times of elevated stress and situational chaos in rapidly moving/changing environments. The ability for a horse not only to react appropriately during these moments but also to control themselves and influence others within it, is what defines “competitive edge”. The ability for any horse’s competitive nature to transcend into a useful competitive edge is reliant on its being sustainable. We at THT Bloodstock often talk about Time-In-Motion or T.I.M.; Time-In-Motion is the duration that the psychology is able to maintain competitive edge i.e., “mental stamina”. (To be optimized this must be at minimal, correlated with the horses’ physical stamina/distance ability). Each cycles relationship to distance is both separated by and merged through physical and mental stamina capacities to determine “competitive distance” but is not predicated upon the speed of cycle. Each necessarily being measured differently as fatigue brings the risk of both physical injury as well as a gnawing away of competitive edge.

There are many other factors at play in these equations, such as “equine erudition”.

The manner in which an individual horse expresses themselves plays an essential role in their ability to learn, while the “speed” of their mental rhythm determines the best manner by which they should be taught. Coaching and training and overall preparedness, in order to be affective “when it counts”, must adhere to and align with the individuals’ natural herd dynamic. (More about this subject in Part 2).

Where the rate of spin itself is not solely responsible for the athletic expression, the physical construct of the horse must match the intensity level inherent in it for expression to be athletic; in short, the pieces must fit. Body type has to be complimentary to rate of spin in order for athletic expression to manifest in its full capacity.

There are a great many moving parts that all need to work together in order for the horse to sustain their performance, their stamina and manifest their competitive edge; the complex nature of the herd dynamics can give the impression of confusion and chaos, but when separated into their individual roles we find there is enough complexity in the herd dynamic to explain the diversity of its expression.

Category 1

Fast psychological rhythms in a race horse may at face value seem to be the perfect fit for the tasks at hand, but that of an itself is not indicative of true athletic output. The wrong thing to assume is that a fast mental rhythm will translate to a fast, efficient, physical turn of foot. When putting together the entire athletic puzzle and to help ascertain the risk/reward potential you have to look at the pieces, mentally and physically, and determine what is complimentary and what is not. Yet this relationship only actually matters after you have found the requisite athletic characteristics in the expressions of the herd dynamic rhythm. The building blocks matter; you probably wouldn’t shop for a Ferrari in a tractor shop.

The faster the psychological rhythm, the more elevated the intensity, the greater the pressure on the accuracy of interpretations of environmental stimulus, which translates to expression. When we’re evaluating horses, I always make a note that indicates whether the mind is ahead of the body, or the body ahead of the mind leaving the horse needing to catch up with his/herself. The road between psychological rhythm and subsequent expression runs through the sensory system where the complex nature of interpretation births the characteristics of its expressed diversity.

It may appear at face-value that rapid mental cycles translate to rapid sensory system transitions and response times, and ultimately rapid physical reaction. But the athletic value is found not in the rapidity of response/reaction, but in the efficiency of it; if there is a disconnect anywhere along the line you have gaps gnawing away at athletic output. Horses with naturally brisk mental rhythms are an investment in a volatile market inasmuch as yes, you can realize great gains if everything aligns just right, but you also can find yourself at the bottom of the market looking up. If you’re investing in an athlete with identified fast herd dynamic rhythms, you have to weigh heavily the pros & cons of what these horses represent in your portfolio. They can most certainly be extremely affective athletes but their margin of error is razor thin.

Of the many things to consider, you have to start with the understanding that these “hi-rev” spin cycles are inherently harder on their bodies than otherwise. A byproduct of these cycles is very often added quick and reactive physical movement; emotional stresses have less time to filter and subsequently are exhausted through the body gaining the THT Bloodstock sobriquet “physical filter”.  This doesn’t itself pull us off a prospect but it does lend itself to consider the physical athlete from a different viewpoint. There are often correlating emotional to physical stress points that need to be looked at making wear and tear, always part of the equation, even more so. You’d do well to be mindful of this if you’re considering buying at a two-year old sale, for example, where the hi-rev mentality can look impressive for that one breeze; evaluating the manner in which they’re filtering stress should never be overlooked. Afterall, you’re paying for that moment but investing in the future.

Fast cycled herd dynamics need the physical construct to support any added emotional stresses along with the body type that lends itself to true talent. It’s fairly straight forward this spin-cycle to body equation, but the way this herd dynamic rhythm translates to expression of athletic output, (ability), can be as impressive as it is uncertain. The reason for this is that these horses place almost all of their emotional energy into singular focus points or actions often bypassing or leapfrogging the buffer of interpretation. The efficacy of interpretation of stimulus is an essential part of the herd dynamic picture, it is the fabric that binds and blends the external environment with the internal horse, managing stress and action both mentally and physically. Hi-rev psychologies have a habit of going from A to C with little attention to B, and the process of reading the emotional terrain before reacting to it or acting within it is minimal. Their natural pattern of motion, performance style, adheres to and relies heavily upon one dimensional, singular focus points, going through the environment point to point, target to target, often with an all or nothing gusto. Try as you might, you will not nor should not try to “train it out of them”, doing so will not assuage but only deepen their stress levels.

The fine line between great athletic expression and chaotic disappointment is highly dependent upon the environment for fast cycling mentalities. When things line up just right hi-rev horses can offer impressive performances, emit powerful competitive nature and effective competitive edge, and appear to have endless mental and physical stamina. At the same time, they can be hard to manage, overreactive and seemingly “temperamental” and difficult to coach and train because they’re so “head-strong”. But there is a difference between headstrong/gritty and headstrong/reactive and if you’re considering one of these psychologies to become part of your team, you need to take the temperature of their expressions. Headstrong and gritty is the fast-cycling herd dynamic that, despite their inherent cycles, is able to maintain an athletic expression through all of their tendencies. What they lack in mental versatility they can make up for in having the determination to stay the course, power through, stay focused regardless of the changes in the environment around them where the reactive version (more common), has the tendency to bounce mentally from stimulus to stimulus and get “bumpy” when trying to transition competitive nature to competitive edge. Because of this their movement can become a little reckless, reactions that leave them open to injury at a higher probability than others.

Fast cycling herd dynamics run the risk of being the kind of athletes that run hard in spots but are always on the precipice of burn-out; the ability to maintain their level of intensity over protracted Time-In-Motion is always a point of question. In order for any horse to fully maximize both talent and ability there has to be a compatible merger between who they are and what they’re capable of doing. The alignment of these two determine competitive distance. There are fast rhythmed horses that can run competitively for 10F and there are those that are pure sprinters, but because these types of psychologies run through and over their interpretative aspect, they are much more dependent upon the environment they’re in.

Fast rhythmed herd dynamics can become elite athletes and there have been several, however the rhythm inherently struggles against sustainability and consistency. Higher intensity, higher stress, the greater the demand for purity in their athletic expression lest you invest in an athlete with a shorter than desired career. 

Category 2

Where fast rhythmed horses distribute their emotional energy like an arrow piercing through the environment, often skipping past anything that isn’t a designated target, the methodically rhythmed horses sweep through their environment with a wide net of environmental awareness, their designated target not always so clearly engaged. Fast rhythms are inclined to deflect, methodical rhythms are inclined to absorb.

Herd dynamics with an even hum about them are predisposed to process stress internally and go through their sensory sequences in entirety before response. Their interpretational process benefits them greatly in the herd environment, allowing them to operate consistently and evenly in the normal chaos of motion either alone or within the herd. Because of this they are at lower risk of emotional fatigue and burnout over protracted periods of time and by proxy put less stress upon themselves physically. Taking the time to assess and in essence, evaluate the emotional terrain around them prior to action, their performance patterns are subsequently based upon interpretation. This allows the horse to move within herd motion with accurate space awareness and to chew up a lot of physical ground with minimal emotional stress, ideal for energy conservation.

Methodically rhythmed herd dynamics, for all of their performance consistencies, can be rather tricky to train. They often take to the entire process with ease, never turn a hair and assimilate to their environments smoothly, doing “everything right” during this performance conditioning process. However, the great antagonist for these herd dynamic rhythms comes in the drag between transitions and in compromised competitive versatility. That even hum in the barn and in the mornings doesn’t always translate to a concise competitive nature, that all important predecessor to competitive edge. It is common in these psychologies for the competitive nature, where it exists, to never fully develop into an athletic expression on its own. Even further, if the horse is only conditioned physically but not coached in a competitive manner, they’re even less likely to find a sustainable “combat zone”. What you may well end up with is a horse that mentally can cruise along for any distance their bodies can take them, without ever really sustaining competitive distance.

Horses such as these who may not be tactical benefit greatly when the environment is used tactically. When there is less fire in competitive nature than you’d like, but the horse you’re investing in has the physicality to move freely and a body type lending itself to distance, their methodical rhythm can realize benefit over longer periods of Time-In-Motion. Your core advantages come in two forms; their emotional energy distribution is rarely wasted and mental fatigue is uncommon to happen before physical fatigue. These characteristics go a long way both literally and figuratively and inserted into the right competitive environment can allow the horse to methodically grind away at their competition.

It’s important that every horse’s herd dynamic is aligned with and complimented by their physicals in order to realize true athleticism, and where the methodical cycles are not entirely devoid of mental agility, their processes can be expressed with greater efficiency through a lighter, agile body. The methodical emotional energy can be what we at THT Bloodstock term, “heavy”, and is more athletically expressed through a lithe body.

Versatility is the name of the game. The ability to adapt to situational chaos as it manifests into the choreography of combat, is sourced through mental agility and its fluency of expression through the vessel. The moderately rhythmed herd dynamic psychology affords the greatest opportunity for this and is the apogee of athleticism.

In Mother Nature’s handbook, moderately rhythmed psychologies make up the lowest percentage of individuals and the highest percentage of natural herd leaders. The key to sustainable herds is that the leadership is concealed from the eyes of the predator, singularly adept at maneuvering through the often volatile and demanding changes in the environment; these horses protect themselves not by turn-of-foot, but by mental acumen. Where the fast rhythmed is prone to react before assessment, where the methodically rhythmed are prone to react after delayed assessment, the moderately rhythmed can evaluate the emotional terrain and react based upon circumstance; before, during, after, affording them optimum control of motion.

Category 3

When it comes to being an athlete in the structured world of the human, optimum output on the track or in the show ring is hinged upon the ability to manage stress, adapt, anticipate and distribute emotional energy in properly placed proportions. None of which start in the physical horse; the road to success is a mind-to-body highway.

The first thing I think of when #Panning4Gold is “versatility of mind”, this is the key that unlocks athletic expression and is found at a higher rate in the moderately rhythmed herd dynamic. The key to versatility, (the predecessor to being tactical), is housed within the efficiency of interpretation of the world, inside and outside. Knowing how and when to react without having to outsource to other horses (or humans) both enhances the rate of efficient physical action and minimizes the waste of residual overreactions. Their tendencies translated to performance allows them to assimilate and adapt smoothly much like the methodical herd dynamic, while their individual recognition of situational chaos allows them to switch gears into a much higher rev commonly seen in fast rhythms. The difference being, moderate psychologies are far more adept at doing what is required without unnecessary overkill, picking their spots and duration; hovering in competitive nature and quickly transitioning into competitive edge at will. This elevated degree of athletic expression is made possible because moderate rhythms have greater efficiency in their anticipatory response’s; the psychological mechanism that allows elite herd dynamics the luxury of identifying the intent of lesser minded horses around them. From a herd dynamic standpoint in athletic terms, there is no higher compliment to physical talent than this.

Because moderate herd dynamic rhythms operate at a higher tone level, their existence in the natural herd environment is a notch or two above their peers. Their minimal herd dependencies elevate them and in the language of sport, this means these horses are more often looked upon by their peers to help guide them through uncertain environments. This may seem at first to be a small point but it has powerful implications on the racetrack. As horses begin competing, especially in larger fields, the aforementioned “choreography of combat” inevitably builds up stress in an environment open to sudden and unexpected changes. During these moments the individuals in the field who outsource will seek to do so with the closest peer “next up” whenever possible. This plays out visually in horses that “hang” or show “drag” between their transitions, making them reliant upon their physical ability and momentum to outrun themselves, in effect, to overcome this psychological impediment.  

The bottom line is simple, horses with more herd dependencies realize their tendencies of performance through the leadership of horses with fewer, a co-dependent relationship which is the fabric by which the individual connects to his/her self and manifests as the very fiber of the herd whether through “buddying-up” with one or total herd dependency. By contrast, a singular horse with minimal dependencies can influence the environment of many.

Another inherent asset to moderate rhythms expressed athletically can be found in the fact that they swiftly and smoothly transition from their competitive nature into competitive edge on an as needed basis. Able to hit mental cruise control for protracted periods of Time-In-Motion, they easily drop the clutch when required. From a herd dynamic standpoint, elite athletic expression in these psychological athletes comes with a deep well of mental stamina; grit, heart, relentless tenacity. They have both the mental ability to achieve above physical talent, and the environmental awareness that enhances physical preservation.

Owing to their overall versatility of mind moderately rhythmed horses will have a variation to their cycles; some will lean toward a fast cycle and some will lean toward methodical, but all can tap into what they need when they need it. It becomes important to identify which lean there is if any when cross checking their herd dynamic with their body type to avoid a mismatch as best you can.  

Closing Thoughts

Where a horse is athletic, only their mind can make them athletes; for what defines the nature of athleticism is the manner in which it is naturally expressed.

You cannot nor should not remove the intangible of emotion. I think too often analytics and the crunching of numbers is allowed to snuff out the intrinsic beauty and appeal of emotionally driven sports. The emotional aspect is not just “along for the ride” but is indeed a driving force behind the journey. I have always found the variations of expression in the herd dynamics a fascinating study and where nature has a common template, she allows for flexibility within it. This is where inner-species evolution occurs, and where we as horse lovers, handicappers, owners and fans etcetera, evolve our understanding of them,

All three herd dynamic rhythms have within them flexibility though the space between there variations differ, and subsequently so does their manner of expression.  Fast cycles and methodical cycles each have within them disparity of rhythm, however they are more tightly cropped and knitted, where moderate cycles are less confined allowing for greater flexibility as they weave there way seamlessly through the environment.

The natural cycles of individual horses are the symphonic rhythm of herd life, the hierarchy both separated and connected by them, and must be a consideration when placed within our world of sport and structure. These rhythms are the story of “who” and is the avenue from which all must travel from determining their probability of success at a yearling sale to developing a training program that fits their physicals and a coaching program built around their inherent strengths and weaknesses.

Psychological rhythm, emotional expression and physical capacity all have to be contiguous and complimentary in order to realize potential; the athletes we see, are a product of the athlete, within.   

Photo Credit: Nick D’Agostino

Great read! Thanks @jonathanstettin Feels like you’re sitting across the table breaking down the day with the expert…

Scott Raymond (@onehorsestable) View testimonials