Racing to Breed

December 29, 2020

By Kerry Thomas

Herd dynamics play a central role in everything horse, and among the most influential pieces of the puzzle is the significant influence they have in Mother Nature’s breeding program. Here at THT Bloodstock Pete and I have spent many years looking at the various considerations of breeding programs and ultimately, regardless of all the data points which can clutter and complicate, at the core is simplicity. Mother Nature has done the complicated equations of a successful breeding program over countless years of her evolution, and though we certainly have tinkered with that, whether to its benefit or not can be debated, deviating too far from home base can see us marooned.

You’re not breeding race horses; you’re breeding horses in the hopes their progeny will race. I personally feel that the wrong way to fulfill this hope is by focusing on an endgame that is racing itself. Naturally athletic can describe many horses, but not every horse can be ascribed as being naturally competitive. While we “breed to race”, Mother Nature “breeds to sustain”; where we tinker and attempt to add or detract certain characteristics to guide what the horse may do, the rules applied by nature determine who the horse is going to be. Regardless of the degree of physical talent available, it takes athletic ability to execute it. A breeding program focused on herd dynamic ability matters a great deal; if you want to breed a winner, you have to breed a competitor. Any particular horses’ racing results and career data isn’t necessarily reflective of who they were/are as athletes in the purest sense, there can be a wide divide between our perception and their reality.

There are more horses that can run in a race than there are those who can compete in it; breeding to run and breeding to compete can be very different things. Developing a breeding program that is corner stoned solely or primarily upon results based mating’s can be fraught with fools’ gold.  That is not to say that results and pedigree do not matter, they most certainly do; though to get the full benefit of their offerings I feel, one must peer through them from different angles. An investigation of “how” will reveal more than a face value look at “what”.

Breed to Perform; Talent & Ability

Construct of talent, necessity of ability; the truly competitive race horse depends upon the merger of these two things. Any mating plans that do not incorporate them are, in my personal opinion, shortsighted.

The rendition of talent runs through the expression of ability, the efficacy of which governs output potential. While assembling the physical pieces of your preferred puzzle, pedigree in tow, your ultimate goal when breeding a herd animal is to breed out herd dependency, breed in independence. Answering the question of what it takes to be the physical athlete who can achieve at a high level, is only as relevant as the attention paid to what it takes to be an elite psychological athlete.

The mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete; athletic intelligence matters.

In nature, sustainable herd structure is contingent upon co-dependent relationships; herd members with weaknesses depend upon those that counter with their strengths. This fabric that binds helps to sustain the herd unit, with far fewer high functioning herd dynamic individuals who bubble-up to become herd leaders than exist mid-level members. In nature, emotional intelligence is a collaborative reality, but in competition, this collaboration necessarily is called upon to become narcissistic. The question of mental aptitude is not asked through the horses’ physicality but rather through the lens of their psyche. The first question to answer in any breeding program is, what herd dynamic qualities are required in order to infuse ability through talent? Chief among those is the manifestation of individualism; Mother Nature by design breeds a finite number of true individuals, yet for sport we must endeavor to corrupt this natural process of dependency by filtering out those characteristics. In order to do this, we need to recognize that emotional stress is the basic root of dependency, and gain an understanding of how and why it manifests.

Few things suffocate physical talent more profoundly than emotional stress. Taking care and effort to avoid breeding into it is a vital piece of the athletic puzzle. Communal in nature, horses are less inclined to manage stress individually and thus outsourcing the filtering process is far more common. When the horse is seeking to outsource while being asked to operate without the comfort of other horses, many disruptions can take place impeding their athletic development. Things like “bad behavior”, stall vices, environmental attachments and even a high reliance on routine are all forms of stress management in one degree or another. These stress responses are not abnormal, they are an extension of common basic instinct shared by the majority of horses. Each horse has elements of basic instinct that are communal and that are singular in their expression and manifestations, varying degrees of these are at the core of the herd hierarchical structure. This is no accident, for this structure of “pecking” order serves a greater purpose than the survival of a horse, it is essential for the survival of the herd. Of equal importance and by design, upper-level herd dynamic horses, or what we denote as “leaders”, have less communally expressed instinct and by proxy are more singular among their peers because of their inherent ability to filter emotional stress; in sport this level of emotional intelligence is what we call the Athletic Instinct.

Athletic instinct is that part of the basic instinct which is defined in competitive nature, an enhanced, more individualized expression of basic herd instinct weakens the cord of dependency. This is an essential element of the emotionally driven athlete, for where efficiency of physical talent hinges upon structure and mechanics, the expression of emotional intelligence cannot be mechanized; an athlete’s psychological profile matters.

Breed in strength of individuality, breed out weakness of dependency. The first step in doing this is through an understanding of the horses’ characteristics of dependency, for this is the leading edge of emotional stress and among the determining factors of one’s ability to manage it. Considering the basics of what it takes for the horse to assimilate to the lifestyle of racing, which itself is foreign to the natural herd dynamic, and to maximize talent during competition in a sustainable manner, is the ground floor of aligning the pieces of the athletic puzzle. The ability to adapt and assimilate to changing environments and effectively manage emotional stresses is directly linked to the individuals’ capacity to interpret these changes. In its simplest explanation, the “speed of the game” cannot supersede an athlete’s speed of interpretation of it. Every level higher in competition requires another degree higher of interpretation; some athletes look quite promising until they move ahead and their heretofore hidden weaknesses become exposed. When under-equipped horses find themselves in tougher competition, the emotional stresses are harder to process and outsourcing begins. This is no fault of the horse, if he/she wasn’t bred to compete, they are left to having to physically outrun their psychological self.   

Breeding in stress management ability and individualism does not have a formula that guarantees it, however focusing on the tools required to achieve it brings you quite a bit closer. Among the primary requirements is sensory soundness. A large portion of the horse’s singular world is funneled through their sensory system, and where it is true that a horse’s physical senses are common, each individual has unique degrees of interpretational efficiency within them. These often-subtle differences impact profoundly both herd placement and ultimately, athletic intelligence. Athletic intelligence revolves around two main aspects of sensory soundness; the swiftness with which stimuli, real or perceived, is processed and interpreted (thus prompting response) and the horse’s naturally occurring ability to sensory-lead-change relative to the speed of motion.

We all know what a physical “lead-change” is, and a sensory lead change is much the same in a manner of speaking. Stimuli that itself (as in a standing horse) moves through sensory aspect to sensory aspect, or a horse that is moving through herd/environmental stimuli; for example, if you don’t want your horse to be a hanger, you best be sure he or she can sensory lead change faster than they’re moving. If not, the drag between stimulus identification and interpretation delays response, delayed responses can cost you physical position and seed emotional stress from the anxiety of uncertainty the speed of the game demands. Leaving you with a horse who will need to outrun himself in order to move ahead of his peers. Physical talent not operated by athletic intelligence is often the very definition of the under-achiever and most certainly opens the door for outsourcing dependency under duress. Taking care to mate horses who have the tools to fill in any holes one to the other, and who psychologically complement each other, is every bit as important as hip and shoulder angle and so on.

The degree of sensory soundness is also expressed in another essential of athletic intelligence, versatility. The ability to adapt to environmental changes and assimilate to situational chaos is vital for many things from a horse’s early development and coaching to being fluent and competitive on the track. The less versatile the psyche, the more dependencies the horse will have, subsequently the more everything has to line up just right.

While sensory soundness itself goes a long way toward a horse’s individualism, the speed with which the process of identification – interpretation – response happens, is the key to how athletically intelligent the horse will be when in the heat of competition. You want to mate horses that are not only sensory sound, but are fast and efficient processors of information. By extension, these horses will have accelerated psychological growth patterns, they will impart less physical strain from emotional stress because they have the capacity to self soothe and properly respond. Horses with elevated degrees of mind to body continuity, what we call “fluency”, take better care of themselves and are better suited for the physical demands of life as an athlete. 

Lineage; Essential Behavioral Genetics

Psychological pedigree, it may not be a concept that is commonly considered, but as far as I’m concerned, indeed it should be. I am not a fan of purely paper matings if it can be avoided, horses aren’t the assemblage of inanimate objects on an assembly line, they are a collaboration of physical and behavioral genetics; emotionally charged, emotionally driven, emotionally connected. Gathering as much information as you can in both families is a great asset, an understanding of historically prevailing herd dynamic traits will help guide the decision-making process whether you own a mare seeking a stallion, or you have a stallion you’re trying to get mares to. Know the ingredients as best you can before you attempt to amass them.

Lineage & nature; consistency v/s anomaly. Identify when possible in the closest family members their traits of communication within changing environments. The most important behavioral genetic in family lines is the inherent characteristics of assimilation to situational chaos; for this is a base element of competitive nature that is desirable in both the stallion and the mare. Horses need not have competed to have this characteristic, though it is easier to ascertain in those who have. Behavioral consistencies, regardless of what they may be, are key to identify whenever it is possible to do so; another term for this is “stamping”. Behavioral stamping, especially of primary traits such as sensory efficiency, assimilation and the efficacy between interpretation and response, are important parameters for the athletic mind. These do not have to be expressed in the same manner, in other words the stallion nor the mare had to necessarily be special athletes in order to house the ingredients that pay-it-forward, getting too caught up in results is overlooking the process. Grade 1 fillies and Grade 1 colts do not automatically produce Grade 1 progeny; wouldn’t it be easier if they did…? Mother Nature doesn’t work that way, thus ensuring a healthy compliment of mixture in the gene-pool.

There is no natural reason that an unraced mare and a pretty good colt can’t produce a damn good athlete, especially when there is historical consistency in athletically inclined behavior patterns. Neither horse need be a complete package of herd dynamic strengths, in fact this is extremely rare; both horses however should be historically compatible as well as behaviorally complementary if you hope to improve upon them. It is very important to be mindful that lineage reveals consistency of traits, but the individuals reveal their most recent expression of those and it is that most recent expression, which has the lion’s share of influence on the yet-to-be behavioral genetics. The concept of random within a proven structure is a reality of nature, it is what allows a species to sustain itself within ever changing environments. In order to give yourself the best chance to avoid this natural arbitration, matching herd dynamics that complement one another by having the capacity to fill-in psychological gaps while supporting strengths, is vital. Dismissing the process and getting too excited by perceived results can often lead you to disappointment.

Remember, it isn’t what was accomplished, but how; results don’t enter the breeding shed, but the stripped-down versions of the pure horses, do.

You should always be wary of the anomaly, that “one-off” out of nowhere elite athlete that seems to break the rule of consistency mold, for this can be a shining example of the random trickery of Mother Nature. A sudden rise in elite character traits blossoming in a way not common or congruent in a family line is great for the owners of said athlete, but do not by proxy automatically mean these will be transferred into his/her progeny. In fact, quite often any sudden bloom of athletic intelligence is more likely to default to whatever was a common thread before. Getting over excited especially by a new stallion who had awesome results on the track but who also was something of an historical aberration, is in my opinion even more of a roll of the dice. The wait and see stance may turn out to be a better investment strategy, allowing you opportunity to study the progeny for any signs of consistency in psychological stamping.

Consistency of traits is important, identifying components that are being stamped (this goes for physical stamping too) are an indication, be they good, bad or indifferent, certain characteristics are being carried forward and more importantly, expressed. When this is happening, you have a natural template from which to proceed, when it isn’t, you’re feeling your way blind. Dormant ingredients though still available, become prevailing with far less frequency than those actively expressed; the further removed from the present, the less likely (though certainly not impossible), a long-ago largely inert character trait will reappear. Physical traits carry forward much further than herd dynamic traits, the reason for this is that the basic horse physical template does not need to evolve at the same rate as the psyche needs to adapt in order for a species to survive.

Identifying behavioral stamping of prevailing traits from a new broodmare obviously takes more time, however the broodmares value measured in herd dynamics should never be underappreciated. You can study all the available family members for historical markers, but the buck stops at the mare’s doorstep. Once you evaluate her and cross-check whatever you can find in her lineage, you’re guessing forward. A solid broodmare is one with a well-balanced psychology, she does not need to have shown a high degree of competitive nature to have inherent athletic intelligence that is useful in breeding. In fact, by virtue of the female role in herd society, it is oft-times a safer bet to breed mares who are psychologically balanced and sensory sound; core, available ingredients of athletic intelligence, rather than to those who are excessively/emotionally, aggressive. The reason for this is two-fold; an aggressively expressed athletic intelligence can challenge the desired stamping in the stallion selected for her, and in the natural herd environment true leaders only selectively express aggression. It is rare for this pairing to produce measured athletic fluency. This is because Mother Nature must conceal her leadership in plain sight, camouflaging them from the prying eyes of predators. A good broodmare prospect has the herd dynamic characteristics that complements the stallion selected for her; there are no blanket matings, one size does not fit all. It is the horse-to-horse relationship that matters.

That is not to say that emotionally aggressive fillies can’t become quality broodmares, especially when it is their expressive traits you desire to see imparted in her mate. However, her particular character traits will be best utilized when paired with a stallion who is himself the sensory sound, evenly tempered and balanced psychology. A stallion who isn’t himself prone to behavioral stamping is a better herd dynamic fit for a mare who is likely to do so. Either way you slice it, from a herd dynamic point of reference, the pieces you have need to fit together complementary, not antagonistically; mind to body fluency is essential to optimize talent, breeding out mental disruptions, an important first step toward that fluency.

There are many variable ingredients locked away in so many rooms within the kaleidoscope of family lines and to attempt to open them all is next to impossible, focusing on the requisite fundamentals of athletic intelligence however, is your key to unlocking the largest one. Herd dynamics matter; if you’re not thinking forward, you’re already behind.

Closing Thoughts; Trusting Mother Nature

I have always believed that the best approach to the all-important decisions in a breeding program was to strip away the human clutter and see the horses for who they are. Racing to the breeding shed in a fast and furious, hold-your-breath, hope they can make it mindset, offers less to the stability of the breed than do sustainable, performance focused programs. Within the ever challenging world of the natural environment, where emotional intelligence is often the deciding factor between life and death,  a flash-in-the-pan stallion would find himself hard pressed to mate with very many mares.

Working with the template provided by Mother Nature is always the best approach, and keeping in mind that in nature, profound changes that stick are made incrementally. It is always best to mate horses who are herd dynamically closer than they are apart in your effort to improve upon them through their progeny; nature allows subtle changes to slip through more often than she does drastic ones. Psychological over-correction efforts are a slippery slope and should be avoided, too much space between strength and weakness rarely produces high levels of athletic intelligence. Breeding race horses and racing horses to breed are very different things. We must be vigilant in order to strengthen the breed, and I believe that one of the ways to help strengthen the horses being bred is to pay as much attention to their herd dynamic as we do their physicals; a capable operating system governing a well-made horse pays dividends that reach beyond the race track. Mentally sound athletes have greater longevity potential in whatever sport they’re in. The rigorous demands of becoming an athlete can chew away a great deal of a horse’s mental aptitude if they’re starting off less than proficient at handling the stress in the first place.

Breeding athletic minded horses alone doesn’t promise great achievement on the race track, talent also has to be available, but what it does gift you is the inherent probability that talent will have a chance to develop and emotional stress is less likely to shorten the horses career. Not applying herd dynamics is inviting the element of average. The herd dynamic is supplied by nature, it is counter-productive to ignore or try to circumvent it and when this happens, we often see strong physicals being operated by average, dependent riddled psychologies. These horses are far more challenging to coach-up in spite of their promise, many a great looking, well made horse find themselves underachievers on the racetrack.  Dependency in the herd animal can become hard to manage when they’re asked to be individuals, here again we are reminded that racing and competing is not a team sport, trying to put a square peg into a round hole can bring about much emotional stress and even trauma. Not only is this counterproductive in the racing environment, it also can have lingering psychological affects, impacting the horse’s future.

Breeding sound herd dynamics is forward thinking, breeding for sustainability highly responsible. We have to face the reality that only a very small percentage of horses “make it”, and those that do themselves seem to have such brief careers, we really do not know how sustainable they actually are.

Because the vast majority of horses will necessarily be guided into a second career, giving them the best chance for that demands breeding beyond the race track. Anything less is shortsighted and threatens to weaken the breed over time. The very first step in providing for a horse’s “aftercare” is ensuring an effort is made in their having been capably bred; it is a far more viable option to rehome and repurpose the career of a horse who is mentally sound enough to do it.

Regardless of the discipline a horse is bred for or the career they may have, the greatest value that can be found in any of the horse industries, are the horses themselves.  

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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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