Herd Dynamics, the Psychology in Motion
By: Kerry Thomas
The study of the herd dynamics in horses and the vital role they play in any athletic discipline is a study of the many pieces of the psychological jigsaw puzzle that make up what I call the behavioral genetic code. There are to be sure a great many singular areas of essential importance and influence, but none of the collateral pieces are as influential as the sensory system.
Commonly desired in the horse-athlete, physical soundness is important, but just as essential to the optimization of talent but far too often undervalued, is sensory soundness. It’s an analogy I make all the time and worth the reminder, horses are not race cars, in a horse you’re investing in both car & driver. Regardless of the athlete or the discipline, stress is a factor to be reckoned with, and there is both physical and emotional stress. The sensory system plays an essential role in stress management for it communicates the external world of environment with the internal world of the psyche. The efficiency with which this information is transferred directly governs the optimization of what we identify as talent.
As with any sport, there is a fine line between being physically capable and psychological able; it is not enough to consider if the horse can physically handle the rigors of life as an athlete, they must also be capable of handling the emotional demands. The sensory system plays an integral part in the psychology of motion; the driving force behind the ability to fully realize physical talent.
The Sensory System; Soundness
There are two aspects of sensory soundness; the physical sensory system and the psycho-sensory system. One ID’s, the other interprets. No true understanding, in my opinion, of the pros and cons, or the when to and when not to… use sensory depriving or altering equipment, can be embraced without first understanding sensory soundness and the individual horse’s strengths and weaknesses within it.
The physical sensory system aids in the direction and distribution of emotional energy, assists in stress management and is responsible for funneling identified environmental information into the psycho-sensory system, (emotional intelligence). Sensory soundness is for all purposes, that which weaves together the outside world and inside world; external environment blended with internal self.
By nature, the physical aspects of the sensory system which are commonly known as sight, sound, smell and touch have another partner that comes in to play in the rear of the horse when vision offers no aid, it is for lack of a better term, the instinctive “feel” sensory aspect. Feeling that something is present or approaching and responding to it, known in our lexicon at THT Bloodstock as the Anticipatory Response Mechanism, is an instinctive sense of emotional intelligence. Herd animals that rely on things like fight or flight and social structures all are equipped naturally with this aspect of the sensory system; not only does it help them tremendously moving through the environment and through a crowd of other horses at high rates of speed, it also aids them in survival when the instinct of “move first, ask questions later” is required. The sense of ‘feel’ is a specialized form of quiet communication instinctively placed.
When it comes to a horse being considered as an athlete, knowing the physical direction of push, or tendency of motion under stress that is expressed as a result of this non-physical emotion, is a key element. You’re not going to train or coach-out the naturally expressed anticipatory response mechanism dynamics, so you’d do well to understand how your prospect is expressing them.
The primary physical senses work together to cover all areas of the environment; but sight and sound, with the accompaniment of “feel” in the blind spots, each have their primary quadrant in the circular world of the horse. In the sensory sound horse, this radar system surveying the external world communicates with one another on an as needed basis; if say a sound is such that the horse needs a visual assist they will in essence “hand-off” to vision smoothly and seamlessly without unnecessary physical movement. (Keep in mind, physical movements can bring attention to an individual otherwise blended into the herd or environment, thus making a target of oneself to the watchful eye of a predator that is often triggered by motion.) Sensory soundness allows the horse to make these “sensory-lead-changes”, the communication of stimuli from one sensory aspect to another, without unnecessary physical expression. The outside world is often in motion, yet the horse doesn’t have to be moving to match it or counter it with sensory lead changes clearing space of approaching threats, yet by the same manner when they are moving, sensory lead changes help clear space like a blocker in football opening space for the running back, taking the lead that allows for smooth, fluent physical motion.
In order for the horse to move swiftly and efficiently through the environment, (or choose to remain still and invisible) and to competitively sustain movement as an athlete, the physical “radar” system, senses locating stimuli, is not enough, the information being funneled must also be interpreted; the interchange where physical sense meets psycho-sensory.
Among the corner stones of an individual horses’ herd dynamic is that individual’s ability to interpret stimuli without the aid of other horses or “outsourcing”. Herd structure serves a great many survival purposes, the chain of command in normal herd life for the prey animal helps camouflage those individuals who are not entirely sensory sound. You will find very often a horse that appears “complete”, self-assured, confident even, in the friendly confines of routine and family or buddies, but when the environment changes, or they are suddenly isolated, things aren’t so calm and confident. When you isolate the horse, you’re exposing both their strengths and their weaknesses, something of great importance to remember when you’re considering a horse as a potential athlete for your program. The ability to properly interpret the information delivered by the physical senses is the earmark of emotional intelligence, emotional intelligence is the operating system for the physical machine; extremely vital information to comprehend as part of the investment strategy. It is the difference between physical athleticism and psychologically athletic, it is, in competition, the difference between grit and deference. In the normal herd setting, it is also governor of hierarchy and fitted perfectly in the structure of the family unit where individual survival is largely dependent upon group communication. A simple “equation” to remember; the senses survey and identify, the psycho-sensory absorbs and interprets, tendency governs initial physical response.
The Sensory System; Environmental Dependencies
The reality is that by the very nature of design, very few individual herd animals are naturally equipped with complete sensory soundness. The majority of horses from a psychological standpoint find themselves with average to good sensory systems; making them the bulk of the overall family structure, say roughly 75% make up this middle ground area of the herd dynamic, 20% the lower end leaving only 5% of individuals with high level herd dynamics.
From this 5% are found the natural leaders both present and future, and there are earmarks in youth housed within the sensory soundness and tendencies; patterns in behavior which translate to patterns in motion. It is important to note, emotional intelligence relative to dominance is not the same as physically dominant. Physically expressed “dominance” is often rooted in underlying stress and anxiety, being “pushy” the only way that “moment” can be properly filtered. This is not leadership as much as it is individual moments of projected dominance.
This is also a natural playground style rule of expression and a “loud” horse can often indicate insecurity or lower rank; the general rule here is for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Let’s remember, bringing undue attention to oneself is an invitation to predators to target you as much as it may be bullying in the ranks; Mother Nature cleverly conceals her true leadership in plain sight. True leaders while certainly allowed to be reactive and expressive, more and more over time will evolve into almost purely purposeful motion and emotional communication, having the ability to control their environment and influence everyone in it. The high-ranking sensory sound horse absorbs and discerns their world while efficiently interpreting it, allowing them to lead because they are not required to outsource, greatly minimizing any dependencies on their peers.
Sensory holes or what we commonly refer to in-house as “potholes” in the sensory system, are not only commonplace but are required within a herd unit. Any herd structure found in nature sustains and survives as a group because they have an element of co-dependency, these create links in the chain, the fabric that binds; you have my back I have yours, alone we are vulnerable but together we have a chance.
It is the basis of and between the predator/prey relationships; predators alone or in a team targeting and seeking to separate a face in the crowd or one who has isolated themselves or has been isolated from the herd because of things like age or sickness. When a herd animal that has sensory potholes is isolated from their herd, a wide range of expressions can take place depending on if they’re able to manage emotional stress and anxiety; rather an important factor to wrap yourself around if you’re scouting horse athletes.
Co-dependencies in the herd structure allow horses, who alone would have trouble doing so, the ability to feel safe and completed because their sensory equation is supported by their peer(s); the “peer” can be and often times is for many domesticated equine partners, their human. It is important for the human partner to keep in mind that unlike predators where food is a grand “reward”, for the herd prey animal, comfort is the grand reward. When training a horse with sensory potholes, an important aspect to include in your education program is an escape route to comfort out of stress. When you want to overcome anxiety in your horse and still move forward with your training, layer comfort zones within your program; physical training and psychological coaching must be blended together to optimize total horse talent.
During times of calm and quiet the herd dynamics are more relaxed and the hierarchy structure, the dependency/co-dependency relationships, more loosely knitted. It is during times of high stress and rapid, sudden environmental changes where this fabric tightens up and starts to bring order from out of panic and chaos. The longer time a horse is in motion, the more reliant on their herd position and their peers the individual horse becomes; sedentary herd dynamic structure can appear fluid, while a moving herd dynamic structure begins to transform into a firm network designed to allow the unit to evade predatory threats.
Co-Dependency and the Equine Athlete
Because most horses come with naturally occurring sensory potholes in some form or another, necessitating reliance on environmental dependency in varying degrees, when it comes to equine athletics it is self-evident that a great physical and pedigree are only two parts to the puzzle. This makes an understanding of the overall herd dynamic and degree of sensory soundness of utmost importance; nurture the horse, develop the athlete.
It is the reason we at THT study and consider the symbiotic communication between behavioral and physical genetics; gaining an understanding of “who” the horse is as an individual helps you better understand their true potential and how to get them there. We must be mindful too, that for an animal equipped to see the world in basically a circle, running in a straight line efficiently and with control requires rapid sensory lead changes individually and/or outsourced guidance lest you have a high-speed boat with no rudder.
Just because the horse has sensory potholes somewhere in their equation does not at all mean that they cannot and will not become fine athletes, it is not a death knell to performance. The discipline the horse is bred for or targeted for plays a large role in how much of an impediment these sensory disruptions will be and how they need to be coached to move forward. The first thing that needs to be identified is, are these sensory, thus herd dynamic, issues specifically antagonistic to the discipline or the goal?
Every discipline of athletics has at least some overlapping requirements of sensory efficiency, even when the emphasis on particular areas can change or be contrasting. For instance, a racehorse requires different sensory efficiency and herd dynamic demands than a jumper or dressage horse even though they share some of the same. What is an area of antagonism to one is not so impactful to another, so when you’re considering the horse you must consider the job requirements and demands psychologically just as much as you do physically?
This is why each horse’s naturally occurring strengths and weaknesses need to be identified quadrant by quadrant; for example how strong is the horse say on the left oblique as compared to the right, what is the range of binocular vision as opposed to monocular vision left side/right side, how well does the horse sensory lead change when moving through various stimulus demands and so on. These are all vital questions just as important to athletic performance and training as is say shoulder angle, hock, hip, throat, knees, and pedigree. Each discipline also has within it different levels of competition, which requires greater ability and athletic optimizing potential; in order for a horse to psychologically achieve physical potential, their environmental dependencies in key sensory areas must be at a minimum even though you can work through potholes in areas that are not so essential to a given disciplines performance.
Bridging the gap in your horse to help manage sensory and herd dynamic outsourcing and potholes starts with knowing where they are and how deep is the dependency. It is equally as important to identify the strengths in your horse, because it is those strengths that will allow you to offset any weakness as you work to develop your athlete. Keeping in mind always to build into your program avenues of comfort and reprieve from emotional stress is a key coaching tool; stress and anxiety just like with us, is your horse’s enemy.
Horses are by nature hi-level emotional communicators and emotional communication is a herd dynamic, when you are with your horse you are responsible for the emotional environment you create. You can help absorb emotional stress and create comfort zones in chaos, or you can impart emotional stress and add to it. If your horse has any outsourcing needs for fulfillment, you want to be sure that you’re able to be that bridge in the sensory lead change sequence; not all horses are right for all people or trainers. Horses with environmental co-dependencies can still achieve great athletic feats so long as the environment created for them assists their development, which over time will allow the horse to assimilate with increasing efficiency.
Speed and efficiency are expressed in two separate ways, there is physical speed and there is psychological speed, and each of these also has elements of recklessness or control, or a mixture of each, especially during competition. The sensory system plays an essential role in governing physical speed and fluency and it is a basic instinct wrapped around self-preservation; for the horse to move safely through space at any speed they must identify and interpret faster than the physical body is moving.
The senses manage the throttle and the steering, the maneuverability and the changing of gears; the physical horse supplies the physical power. For a horse to be truly versatile in rapidly changing conditions, they must be equipped with sensory lead change ability enough that allows nearly instantaneous assimilation or be able to rely on outsourcing to complete the sequence of adaption when needed. Again, each discipline has its own requirements of sensory speed and clearance that allow for physical fluency; the dressage horse having different requirements than the racehorse, than the jumper and so on.
The speed and efficiency of the psychological athlete dictates the efficiency of speed and distance to the physical athlete; if you’re driving 55 MPH and suddenly hit thick fog you slow down to a speed that allows you enough time to interpret the road and what you’re moving into. How “fast” a horse’s psychological rhythms are, are not always reflected in their physical expression, but for an athlete you want these things to complement one another by virtue that the psyche is always cycling ahead of physical motion in a manner that is purposeful and controlled.
Physical expressions under emotional stress are the tendencies in motion, tendencies in motion for the athletic horse is an earmark of how well they will optimize their latent talent, especially when time of motion is protracted. The operating system runs the machine.
There is no “normal” cookie cutter psychological rhythm, no one size fits all neatly into this discipline or that discipline, there are only ranges of behavioral genetic types and how they fit into the goals and requirements of a sport is highly individualized. And just like individual sports have varying levels of competition, varying degrees of psychological ability will also influence what the achievable goals are. Some horses will look like super stars up to a certain point, and then show signs of leveling off or altogether caving in under added stress and pressure or from peers in competition. For racehorses, it is the difference between horses running in space, and running through it. The horse that runs through space is making their own hole through the environment, the one running in space is outsourcing to other horses, hovering herd bound. Herd bound or what we at THT dub “buddying-up”, are horses not impressing themselves upon the environment, but subject to it.
The moment the psychological rhythm and sensory sequence becomes too slow to stay ahead of the physical motion, is the moment the isolated horse pin-balls, and is the moment the horse running with peers outsources, creating “drag” in their efficiency and assimilation’s. Pin-balling is when an identified stimulus is neither properly interpreted nor properly “handed-off” to another sensory aspect and gets stuck somewhere in between for a period manifesting in desperate attempts to outsource or a move away from or through, increasing emotional stress. Physically this is often seen as delayed responses and changes in physical pace and or direction, hanging in mid-air so to speak for a few strides or much longer, depending on horse and circumstance, or abruptly changing directions. These inherent tendencies under stress of competition lend themselves to the running style of a horse; another example of their patterns of behavior translating to their patterns in motion. You will not erase these tendencies but when you are aware of them you can find ways to help your horse outsource through them and be effective and efficient athletes. I like to remind our clients that their horses cannot be made into something they’re not, the goal is to help them become the best version of themselves. Patience, understanding, creative thinking and innovation are often your keys to proper coaching and curriculum development for the psychological athlete, coaching the horse and training the athlete must merge in order to optimize the natural talent sometimes hidden within them.
Stress can affect the spin-cycle in various ways, and this can lead to what is basically a misdiagnosis of the horse. For example, certain horse psychologies that spin fast, “hi-rev” in the THT lingo, may be equipped with high functioning and highly efficient sensory soundness but when they are not moving or are asked to be sedentary and “behave” they become agitated or bounce all over by way of expressing their disdain.
There is a fine line between purposeful expressions and a horse being reactionary and bumpy, they both can look very similar when observed. But a deeper study of the herd dynamics can often unveil those horses operate at optimum efficiency, mind and body symbiosis, in full motion when the body begins to catch up with the psyche. Likewise, a seemingly sluggish non-reactive psychology does not equate automatically to a sluggish, complacent performer, sometimes, attributable to purposeful motion, these horses can be the sweetheart turned into wolf in the chaos and excitement of competition. Again, there is no normal or specific “type” of horse psychology to fit neatly into the discipline they’re bred for, each of these behavioral genetic traits have a range within them, a range that will be reflected in the level of their performance. Gaining an understanding of this range of ability in the horse prospect before you invest, helps greatly in making informed decisions.
Equipment; Risk V/S Reward
When it comes to finding value in your investment, the first place to look is between the ears. How your horse is distributing their emotional energy and in what manner it is being physically expressed tells you a great deal about their overall ability to optimize talent. Understanding stress management and the inherent filtering processes, be them outsource dependent or internally managed, are your guides to understanding your individual horse and to developing a proper program for them.
When it comes to the use of equipment such as blinkers, shadow rolls and so on, depending on your discipline, I personally feel that too often equipment is called upon to try and Band-Aid an issue not entirely understood, far too quickly. Each horse like each human has a different way and different rate of learning, and equipment gone to too quickly can disrupt naturally occurring growth patterns. A quick fix in anything rarely exists. These are not cars you put into the shop, adjust the carburetor or fuel filter and then toss back out on the racetrack, as much as the impatient ones wish they were.
Using physical sensory altering or depriving tools only alter or deprive the physical senses; regardless of how the physical sensory system is “adjusted”, the emotional aspect, the psycho-sensory, still must properly process the information being shuttled into it. Just because you change the way the environment is being surveyed doesn’t mean you’re enhancing the way it is being interpreted.
The difference between helping and hurting the ultimate ability of the horse varies greatly and depends on the way a horse changes their expression and emotional energy distribution. I am not at all against blinkers and shadow rolls and so on, but I am always in favor of not knee-jerk reacting before the horse can sort things out and before tweaking their curriculum in any number of ways to help them bridge their own gaps.
Natural growth patterns in young athletes allowed to develop naturally is always better than risking disruption of them; disruptions far too often lead to “bad habits” and the creation of environmental dependencies that perhaps otherwise would not at length find a foothold in the horse psyche. Unfortunately for horses that have slower emergent properties, sometimes humans are not all that patient. When the physical sensory system is functioning well in their respective quadrants and information is singularly interpreted properly, but there is an issue when a sensory lead change is required, then a piece of equipment strategically employed can become very useful and affective without any risk of creating environmental dependencies.
Misdiagnosing the cause of a “lack of focus” for example, and abruptly putting blinkers on, may help in the short-term performance but ultimately put you behind the eight-ball moving forward in clearing conditions, or going to the next level. A quick fix in the moment often results in a growth plateau. Other things to consider regarding equipment’s’ affect are the internal rhythms of the horse and their emotional energy distribution.
Minimizing one physical sense puts more demand upon another, pushing additional focus and emotional energy into another sphere, this can help, or this can hurt, but one thing is for certain, it will concentrate the internal energy and rhythm into a smaller area. The results can be widely varied and random from performance to performance based upon the environment and herd peers, because when you concentrate or condense the senses, you’re robbing from Peter to pay Paul and challenging the assimilation-in-chaos process.
If you want to push your race horse forward, make them spin faster by using equipment, you alter the way they naturally distribute emotional energy by concentrating it into a certain area; you may make them “faster” but you also may make them “shorter”. The ability for a horse to be competitively versatile over a distance rests deeply within their inherent ability, or their learned ability, to conserve the bulk of their emotional energy reserves until it’s called upon.
As an individual the herd dynamic defines who the horse is relative to their behavioral genetic sequence, and within the herd itself these dynamics carve out their placement among their peers; governing emotional intelligence managing physical movement.
“The herd dynamics are those naturally occurring traits, tendencies and characteristics that make up the individual psychology and where this places the horse in the hierarchy of the herd structure. It is in short, the operating system of the physical machine.”
There is no getting around it, an athletic psychology is the difference maker in high level competition against physically similar ability and the rules of the herd dynamics will have their influence. If your horse can’t lead for themselves, they will be left to be led by another. It is a required element for any “society” to become knitted and sustainable that a majority of its members are codependent, an essential asset, while a scant few are not bound by its laws but are inclined by Nature and their nature, to be both independent of and party to, that herd societal structure. There is a set rule-of-thumb in the natural order that allows individually incomplete sensory soundness to be completed by the fabric of the unit, even if isn’t correspondent with the athletic goals we might have for the horse. Horses with “potholes” are thus naturally dependent, but their natural environment provides succor, masking deficiency, sustaining survival. Horses do not “think” of herd survival in a group sense, but herd survival happens as a byproduct of the basic instinct of individual survival, and this could not happen without codependency in their societal structure. Removing a horse from a herd environment can be like holding a loose wire whipping with sparks at one end while you’re trying to control it from the other; as well, you can often see the disruptive nature of the removal of this puzzle piece in the emotional and physical actions of their remaining peers. Herd dynamics matter.
When we attempt to bridge the sensory pothole gap by the use of equipment to alter the physical sensory sequence we must be careful not to enrich nor cultivate dependency by attempting to counter it with anything that itself can become prerequisite; for those with the inclination will naturally depend upon it. Substitution for is not an elixir against; better to embrace what is and work through it than to sidestep one and risk creation of another when the sensory disruption is hinged upon the interpretation aspect, the psycho sensory. When an individual horse with dependencies is isolated from peers, equipment can aid (but never erase), allowing them to compete; this helps most when horses are competing/moving individually. However once with other horses, especially in high stress chaos like a horse race where environmental awareness is keyed by communication, equipment can add another disruption and alter physical output owing to the fact that the horse may be struggling to identify where they fit into the evolving herd structure moving in close proximity at speed. By default, horses will seek corresponding communications with their peers to fill in any gaps; equipment can help keep them from so doing as urgently and free up emotional energy, or it can pinion its fluency because the sensory impediment is blocking this effort. Again, this is highly dependent upon whether the issue being “treated” by equipment stems from the emotional or the physical aspect of the sensory sequence. Knowing the difference makes all the difference, for like I always say, herd dynamics matter when you’re #Panning4Gold.
For more information on our work, equine services and for previously released papers, visit our THT Bloodstock website. Free estimates as well as Herd Dynamic Seminars and Clinics are available. Contact us today. *Evaluation and profiling services available for all disciplines worldwide. Twitter: @thomasherding & @petedenk / www.thtbloodstock.com