Nurture the Horse, Develop the Athlete

July 11, 2020

When you nurture the horse, you’re developing the athlete. It’s a statement I use all the time to describe from a herd dynamic point of reference what I feel is the best approach for blending together ultimate ability with ultimate talent. In essence it is an appreciation for and an understanding of the two parts that make up the horse; the psychological and the physical. As emotional athletes, horses are often a reflection of their environment which begs for both coaching as well as training; you coach the mind, you train the body.

Further up stream this is no less important a consideration. Prospects at the sale or on the farm being scouted for potential should have, as part of that evaluation process, their “mind-set” be a large portion of the decision-making process. The bottom line is, obvious physical talent is only as useful as the innate ability to get the advantage of it. The question that must be asked is, how likely are both the physical and mental parts of the horse to evolve athletically, allowing full potential to be realized? The operating system conducts the machine if you will, and that controlled space between mind and body where talent meets ability, is where “potential” is found.

Understanding the horses’ herd dynamic makeup and paying close attention to its progression and its needs for progressing athletically, will by proxy make developing the physical horse more efficient. A mentally prepared athlete completes physical tasks with more ease and thus benefit, than one that is ill prepared. When the mind is ahead of the body the athletic horse becomes an athlete, and the very best way to ensure this has a chance to happen is to always be mindful that you’re coaching and nurturing the horses’ psyche for its eventual merger in performance or competition with their physical talent. The most productive way to have athletes in your program capable of this eventual merger is by compartmentalizing the evaluation process into those individual parts which make them whole.

The environment any horse is in will have an influence on the nurturing process, but especially that of the young athlete. We have to keep in mind that as the adaptive-horse absorbs and reflects their circumstances, we as humans equally reflect who we are into the environment; the emotional terrain the horse is in is just as important to their evolution as is the physical environment created. The horse psychology is both mirror and sponge; everything the horse has experienced, is experiencing, and will experience, affects the manner in which they express themselves.

Mind Ahead

The ground floor of everything the horse is and will become runs through the basic instinct; basic instinct is not a physical act but rather an action of emotion. This action follows the core laws of nature and though we remove the physical horse from their natural environment, we are not segregating the functionality of the basic instinct away from its nature, we’re asking it to fit into, a new, domesticated climate. In order to capitalize on raw instincts and how they dictate tendencies and reactions, we have to nurture them along. This process is keyed within the associative aspect of basic instinct which itself is subject to the efficiency of the various compartments of the herd dynamic.

To optimize athleticism or have the potential to do so the horse has to, independently, have at minimum a 2/1 ratio between environmental interpretation and reaction in order to physically move through space freely, fluently and uncompromised. What this means in essence is that the horse can identify and interpret the environment 2 times faster than they are physically moving. Depending on a discipline’s requirements, ideally, you’d like to have the base athlete ratio be at 3/1 or 4/1; increased physical acceleration requires increased psychological speed in order to clear the space. It’s important to keep in mind that the closer the ratio the more opportunity there is for “drag” between sensory recognition and physical reaction. The delay between “ask & do” increases in likelihood when duration and or speed is required and from any incurred emotional stress.

When we’re scouting talent for clients, one of the primary notes we make is M/B or B/M; what this means to us is either the horse is clearing space smoothly before and or while moving through it, or they are not. Mind ahead of Body or Body ahead of Mind. If you do not have independence before you, you have dependency and you’re going to run into a lot of frustration trying to nurture a dependent laden psyche to become its opposite. Talent is the expression of a capable mind; purposeful movement by nature can be coached through the horse, reactive motion dictated by the environment, can only be managed environmentally.

It is essential to coach through the basic instinct of a horse in order to nurture them forward and not be antagonistic to it; the basic instinct is the chalkboard upon which lessons are written and learned. A moving body operated by a sedentary mind does not a competitor make.

Nurturing the horse with the core ability to interpret their world effectively is done through the associative aspect, this is how they learn and begin to knit together their experiences with the fabric of who they are. Augmenting existing ratio efficiency is done by creating what amount to exercises in interpretation of environmental stimuli. The goal is to sharpen the ability of interpretational skills to make them faster and nurture versatility of mind by the layering of associative stimuli; i.e., stimulus that is associated with but not directly related to the completion of a physical task. Horses are what I call “linear-learners”, which to me represents the basic nature of the anticipatory response mechanism and its symbiotic function with adaptability- (associative).

From the moment a horse is born he or she begins to take in the world one singular experience at a time like a dotted line: –  –  –  -, each dash representing an experience.  Individual experiences begin to get knitted together by what is associated with them represented by the underscore: -_-_-_-, task then is equal to experience or dash mark, and you coach by nurturing the associations that are connected to it, the underscore. By compartmentalizing the accumulation of the tasks required to achieve a goal you’re able to at once knit together commonly encountered experiences to increase ratio and expand psychological versatility for uncommonly encountered experiences, while creating various stimuli that remains associated with the task. When you have layered the desired associations of task or goal, the horses’ basic instinct has been stimulated to anticipate and respond which both speeds up the psychology as well as expands its versatility; you have nurtured the horse.

Enhancing the horses speed ratio helps them become more efficient and psychologically versatile, but isn’t the only part of the psyche that should be considered. Another key factor to athleticism is mental stamina and it should never be overlooked or underappreciated. The fact that a horse can do something fast and efficient is only as useful athletically as their ability to sustain. Speed, efficiency of ratio and duration of focus, i.e. mental stamina, though closely related, do not always work hand-in-hand; having one does not automatically mean you have the other. Many horses can do many things well but only for a certain amount of time, some horses can do one thing well for a very long time. To be able to perform and compete at the highest levels, you’re looking for or seeking to cultivate the herd dynamic that is high functioning over protracted periods of time.

In order to be proportionately distributed in competition, mental stamina needs to be exercised uniformly; proper distribution is a tremendous compliment to the athlete with natural determination. Where neither mental stamina nor “grit” can be manufactured, emotional energy distribution can be exercised and improved upon, further sustaining inherent competitive edge.

Mental fatigue is an enemy of athleticism. Nurturing a horse’s mental stamina is a process of extending the duration of focus by coaching the horse in a manner that requires or asks them to maintain a concentrated psychological rhythm. Long slow time-in-motion curriculums I have always been a fan of, regardless of the discipline, for their naturally occurring side effect of extending mental stamina. The only way to nurture mental stamina is to challenge it with achievable goals that inch the horse mentally forward; it is not about the time the body is moving but rather the time the psyche is concentrated. The long slow “work” for example, without a target or moving targets, becomes mentally mundane and more just a physical activity, yet with targets and challenges intermingled it suddenly becomes a strong mental exercise. Stimulus that the horse has to move toward over a period of time, or stimulus that is itself moving within the horse’s sphere over a period of time, is an example of protracting focus. The layered additions of multiple stimuli over the course of these exercises helps to develop a mental stimulus program that affords great benefits on multiple levels of the herd dynamic.

Extended time-in-motion work isn’t the only exercise that can be designed to help condition mental stamina, obstacles such as health and location that inhibit protracted time-in-motion call for creative curriculum. If the horse or environment has limitations and you cannot bring the horse to the classroom, you bring the classroom to the horse. Circumstances peculiar to limited space or ability such as when convalescing etc., and the horse is unable to do much exercising physically, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise their minds and continue to sharpen their senses and interpretations or protract and nurture their mental stamina. 

Mental enrichment is the area of coaching that can help take average talent to better than average results, an “overachiever” is the athlete mentally prepared to get the advantage of their competitors’ weaknesses. The well-groomed athlete maintains environmental awareness, is able to anticipate situational chaos, respond to it in a controlled, purposeful manner and not be subject to it. Task and duration must pragmatically align with talent and ability every step of the way in order to nurture the horse forward, if not, you’re working against basic instinct.

Communication is King

To truly communicate you have to connect emotionally, and where you can communicate, you can achieve.

Communication, perhaps the most influential tool at our fingertips, is one often wielded in a cavalier manner; poor communication can cause tremendous strife where good communication can harmonize. First about listening and second about expressing, communicating is less about words and more about instinctive feel; you won’t find “instinctive feel” in a letter, a word, or an emoji. Emotional communication is communion in its purest form and the currency of life, for you do not need to understand the words of the song, to be moved by its music. It is impossible to effectively nurture nor teach and share, without it.

Horses are steeped with emotional communication skills, they “feel” their way through the environment with more purpose than they “see” or “hear” their way through it. The physical senses act as supporting cast to emotion; response to stimulus is a physical reaction initiated by the psyche, by emotion. Horses communicate with their environment and one another in order to survive and navigate, therefore you must always be mindful that you too are communicating in, out and through that environment just as much as you are directly with the horse. Your emotions set the tone of connection one to one as well as setting the tone in the environment you create; regardless of your message, how that information is delivered affects how that information is received. If you want your pupil to learn, both the classroom and the teacher need emit “agreeable environments”, a good message in an emotionally stressful atmosphere is tainted because of the associative aspect, a poorly delivered message in a comfortable atmosphere is often misinterpreted and less likely to “stick”. The bottom line, there needs to be a compatible relationship in order for it to become a viable one.

I always feel that if you wish to be understood, you must first be understanding. You cannot know the best approach to coaching the individual nor the best delivery of your message without first being able to understand the manner in which your horse (or student for that matter), is communicating with and through their environment. A large part of nurturing the horse forward will take place through their anticipatory responses, making the associative aspect your key to their learning. Taking the time to identify your horse’s reactions and expressions to various stimuli goes a long way in helping you understand them and one of the core aspects of a herd dynamic profile, for this is their emotional communication eliciting reaction. Training helps the horse execute physical response, coaching helps the horse properly interpret the preceding message.

From a communicative standpoint it is essential to understand how the horse is emotionally connecting themselves to the environment they’re in so that you can begin to help them communicate better in areas they need help, and strengthen the areas they are naturally good at. This is coaching 101, good communication skills precede and allow the affective sharing of knowledge and experience.

As the horse grows and is exposed to more and differing environments, their natural seasoning requires that the lesson plan change with it. Physical fitness training is often a collection of similarities and sameness from a certain age onward, however it is often a frustrating mistake to assume you can hit the cruise-control button on their psyche as well. Often amiss, hitting a mental plateau happens, and too often is “remedied” with equipment because of it, further frustrating herd dynamic progress.  

While the horse continues to adapt and associate so does their communicated expressions and left stagnant and unchallenged their anticipatory response mechanism, keyed from basic instinct, filters similar stimuli similarly; the reading of intent becoming tone-deaf. What this means is, you have to maintain the introduction of mental challenges to keep your horse sharp, focused, moving forward. Coaching a 2yo’s mind to achieve a goal is rather different than coaching a 5yo’s mind for the same. Though the goal may well be the same indeed, your manner of coaching must adhere and adapt to the changes that happen from emotional growth on a horse to horse basis. The method of communication has to align with the ability to comprehend, (read intent), or the horse will “fall forward” in their own way instead of being coached up to forge ahead.

Another vital consideration are personality markers; behavioral traits and tendencies related to communication play a significant role when considering both coach & athlete. The “type” of communicators involved in any relationship matter; some communicators are out first in second, earnestly expressing themselves prior to making any attempt of absorbing what is communicated to them, and others are absorbers first and expressive second. If you have only expressive first communicators the risk of friction runs high, and the static is always only one “wrong remark” or perceived intention away from a spark. The successful relationship that sees more harmony than abrasion, is equipped with at least one absorbing personality. In horses we find the absorbers to be deeply welled in the Group Herd Dynamic; adept environmental awareness its cornerstone. Communication dynamics are among the reasons some folks do better with “certain types of horses” and some horses respond well to “certain types of folks” or experience noted improvement with the proverbial “change of scenery”.

There are many important reasons to match communicative styles that are not antagonistic to one another when considering what horse to send to what environment, for two sparks can make a fire, so to speak, interrupting the education process. If one gets frustrated with the other, education is stalled. Diversity in horse psychology may well require diversifying where they’re sent and under whose tutelage. Emotionally driven athletes need emotionally sound and sensitive environments befitting them and that communicate well with them in order to flourish. Whatever we as humans bring emotionally with us to the horse is bound to be conveyed to them and affect the dialogue with its accent; the horse feels you first, sees you second.

Words, though used to communicate, rely upon emotion to be communicative, for communication is an art.

To Nurture is to Equip

To nurture and develop takes time and tact, how much of either depends largely on the parties involved and their ability to deliver and comprehend what is shared between them. The nurturing process may not always be the time-friendly option in a hurried, instant gratification, results oriented human world where return on investment is the underwriter of dreams. However, Mother Nature doesn’t beat to our drum or always align with our vision.

To nurture is to assist and streamline how and what the horse is learning through and with their inherent nature, giving the horse the opportunity to become the very best at who they are and not what we or their pedigree or even body type, says they should be. It’s great when what they are aligns with who they are, but we have to allow that this is not always the case and be flexible in adjusting to achievable goals. In those instances where athletes hit psychological plateaus and seem to neither move back nor move forward, it’s time to get very creative in your coaching to see if you can find that edge or discover if you have indeed reached as deep into the athletic psyche as you can. There are times too, after all else has failed, when the application of sensory altering equipment is a viable option. For example, some horses truly excel say with half-cup blinkers and a shadow roll. Used correctly equipment can make the horse more fluent and responsive, used incorrectly equipment will only get in the way, disrupting natural growth patterns and contribute to dependency. 

To help or to hinder? I’ve long been of the opinion that equipment should not replace education and coaching because it’s easier and a quick-fix option, and should be reserved for cases where the horses’ sensory system needs tweaking to smooth out interpretational potholes.

Proper use of equipment is using it for what it is designed for, assisting the horse in their sensory aspect prior to stimulus interpretation. If the athlete has a strong herd dynamic, efficient interpretive ability and purposeful motion, yet has a disruptive gap in the sensory system and they struggle with drag during sensory lead changes, equipment can become essential. It can help smooth out or minimize the sensory field, funneling emotional energy properly and enhance the efficiency of environmental interpretations. Equipment can bridge a gap and free the horse, becoming an asset to the nurturing process itself when it has become clear a sensory soundness issue is impeding progress.

Where proper use is an asset to the nurturing process, improper use is its adversary. The application of equipment during a time when the horse is yet in the early stages of psychological growth, when their associative aspect is still evolving through experience, alters anticipatory responses. Instead of learning to associate various changes in the environment with one outcome, which allows the horse to grow their versatility and confidence, this process is abbreviated, dramatically minimizing versatility. When that happens, the young mind is at risk of becoming more dependent on their equipment and less reliant on associative experience, thus less able to manage sudden changes in their environment. One thing sure, a versatile mind is a great asset during the random chaos of high-level competition. 

Deciding on when and how to use equipment should always be based upon the herd dynamic profile and a sensory soundness evaluation, and not knee-jerk go-to reaction. There is a fine line between equipping through nurturing, and preparing with equipment; the natural growth process will be aided by the allowance of one and compromised by the application of the other. Ultimately it is always better for the athlete to rely on their own ability to navigate rather than be dependent on something else to navigate for them.

Closing Thoughts

All horses by nature share the same core basic instincts, that said, the individual expressions of them are uniquely singular. Because of this, especially from an athletic point of view, the criteria for which they’re selected to become athletes, and their subsequent preparation, demands that both the mental and physical horse is catered to. Stacking the deck in your favor by recruiting ability & talent into your program to help offset natural attrition is always a good investment strategy.

Advancing the physical athlete can be more clear-cut and even routine compared to evolving the psychological athlete; you can see one in a picture, but you have to feel the other. For sure, developing a physical athlete takes a lot of effort, skill and attention to detail, there is no denying that, and by the same token, nurturing the athletic psychology requires at minimum, equal attention. The nurturing process is instinctive horsemanship where what you feel can be more trustworthy than what you see and you have to be flexible as well as creative to match the needs of enrichment. Avoiding the pitfalls of mundane predictability as best you can along the way helps to maintain an edge, keeps the ratio from becoming stagnant, expands versatility, protracts mental stamina and sustains competitive edge.

You cannot manufacture competitive nature nor mechanize competitive edge, but, with the herd dynamic profile as your guide, you can hone, build upon and maximize inherent ability. It’s a symbiotic relationship; when you nurture the horse, you’re developing the athlete.

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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@Tracking_Trips @jonathanstettin the pick 4 X 2 and the trifecta X2 in the classic...thanks for teaching me to approach races better.

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