The Classic Distance Horse

February 27, 2020

Aptitude, the Competitors’ Edge

Distance horses, stayers, routers, whatever terms you use to denote the classic distance athlete; it cannot be denied that an elite horse competing against their peers at 10 furlongs and beyond comes with unique requirements and strategies. Competing at distance has its own set of physical demands, being competitive at distance has its own set of psychological demands; the elite classic horse embodies the convergence of both.

True classic distance horses often beat to a different drum that can be harder to recognize at an early age and even harder to develop because it can take time, and I feel that far too often shortsighted vision and/or the desire for early speed can deprive at least some horses of the opportunity to develop into classic athletes. Be it financial strain or human impatience, or both, the beauty of the classic horse in a “plain brown wrapper” is sometimes overlooked and the art of developing one can seem a rarity. But if you’re truly looking for the classic horse, there are signs.

Even at an early age there will be attributable characteristics both physically and mentally; identifying the behavioral characteristics is essential because regardless of how well the body grows, flaws in the herd dynamic will put a cap on the amount of time the horse can mentally compete, shrinking by extension the physical distance that is mentally competed for, marking the difference between horses running through space and horses running in space. Physically and mentally the young horse will have indicators that help shed light upon their likely athletic fit and then there is the paper trail behind them to also cross reference.

It is a rare thing to identify horses with the complete package in potential, mental, physical and supporting information on their page and rarer still to see the physical and mental horse reach full potential in both aspects as they grow. The fewer holes in their evaluation the better, for one negative can counter two positives, the herd dynamically sound horse can overachieve with higher frequency than the purely physical horse. When the athletes competing are physically similar in ability, by the very nature of herd dynamics those mentally strong will prey upon the mentally weak. Herd dynamic influence is often the space between success or failure, consistency and inconsistency, the ability to lead and the desire to follow. The rules of nature are emotionally charged, competitive stress, especially over a period of time in motion, has a way of settling the argument of hierarchy.

Competitive edge is found where the psychological athlete divides the physically talented; no amount of “data” can truly define what only the horse can tell you.

Time & Distance; Physical V/S Mental

To understand the cohesive, symbiotic nature of the complete classic distance horse one has to break the horse into two parts, the physical athlete and the psychological athlete. The distance horse is one aspect, the horse that competes at distance is another, thus how 10 furlongs and beyond is measured is also in two parts.

Physical distance we measure in ground coverage, psychological “distance” is measured by the duration of competitive focus. For example if you have a horse that checks all the physical boxes for running 10 furlongs and it takes, let’s just say 2 minutes to physically get that far, then you had better make sure the horse can race (mentally compete) for at minimum, 2 minutes of time just to be relevant. Because races 10 furlongs and longer often have within them many situational chaos challenges, each one altering physical pace and gnawing away at mental fortitude, your horses psychological reservoir should have much more “time” in its bank; in other words, the mental aptitude should exceed physical demands.

Distance races against high level peers is as much a battle of wills as anything else and quite often you see developing internal battles for space and position, battles that are emotionally charged and physically expressed. A horse being able to save ground and/or stay out of trouble isn’t always possible, playing it safe isn’t always an option. How a given horse reacts to sudden changes, how they handle stress, has significant influence on total performance ability. How they manage things leading up to the race is also a piece of the total performance puzzle; for this is a part of the “time” equation psychologically. Time of emotional stress is a factor above and beyond physical speed. Emotional stress gnaws away internally, affecting the horse’s ability to be independent within the herd environment lending itself to herd dependencies that subsequently create indecision and drag in moments when swift action is needed. Herd dependency and drag, (delayed responses), compromises versatility; affectively influencing space is thus transitioned to asking for permission to share a space. None of these things translate to consistently competing at classic distances. The shorter the duration of competition the easier it is to outrun one’s own flaws.

The difference between the “one-off” good distance race and the routinely competitive classic athlete is that mentally sound herd dynamic horses are competitive regardless of their herd environment; they are not dependent on it. Horses that struggle managing their emotional stress in herd environments find their performances often disrupted and inconsistent owing to that conflict of minimizing stress. Combat stress is real. Physical fluency is directly related to the herd dynamic ability to manage competitive stress; the same principles that create hierarchy in a natural herd of horses, effect the separation of horses in motion.

 Competitive stress is felt regardless of the speed of motion; physical motion can often be expressions of internalized urgency making it wise to understand the natural tendencies of the horse. Physical expressions of stress athletically manifested can be useful, yet if recklessly expressed you may have a boat with no rudder and lose time and ground while control is regained.  Loss of forward focus equates to loss of pace. Stress in any form is exhaustive, athletes that are able to adapt to and anticipate things such as herd rhythm changes, help deflect exhaustion and extend both their physical distance and the duration of their competitive distance.

Fatigue is the enemy of sustainability and presents itself in two ways, physical fatigue and mental fatigue; I never want to recruit an athlete who is likely to give in to mental fatigue before physical fatigue. Not only are they often underachievers but they are also far more difficult to coach and train. These horses will achieve to their physical ability, but not beyond it. Athletes that mentally fatigue easily have a shorter competitive time frame and they are left to rely on whatever they can do physically; physical talent can only outrun when it cannot out-compete. This can get you through a lot to be sure against less capable physical competitors, but against peers, over classic distances, mental fortitude (heart, grit or whatever you want to call it) splits the hairs at the top. It is wise to consider behavioral bias when handicapping, selecting horses to invest in or finding races in which to enter. Herd dynamically sound horses by their nature are able to “hold it together” over longer periods of time; extended time-in-motion extends physical distance, competitively.

The distribution of emotional energy is a major component and the clues to identifying natural time-in-motion athletes are found in their unique character traits because of the impact on performance mental fatigue has. Any horse with holes in their herd dynamic are prone to mental exhaustion when they are asked to perform/compete independently of peers, the last thing you want in a classic distance is being unable to close the deal because your horse is relying on another horse for its rhythm, but when mental fatigue kicks in the likelihood of this happening increases.

You always have to be mindful that when you isolate the horse, you’re isolating both their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Things that are less of a concern in a mad dash sprint race can become singularly important with increased time in motion demands. It is essential to consider how an individual’s psychology is likely to affect them physically in the heat of battle; being able to physically withstand the rigors of becoming an athlete is one thing, being equipped to do so mentally, is another. The whole horse is manifested in two parts, both reliant on the other to augment talent.

Mental Fatigue; Physical Stress

Lackluster performance is not the only side effect of mental fatigue, when the focus is short, scattered and withdrawing, physical efficiency is compromised. Not only does mental fatigue shorten competitive distance, it also speeds up physical exhaustion because of anxiety and emotional stresses which translate to and are expressed in, physical movement. When this happens horses are “harder on themselves” than they would be otherwise, stiffer and less fluid increasing wear and tear. Both distance and longevity are arbitrary when the psychological athlete is less than capable and requires a lot more feel and finesse along their journey to the racetrack to keep sound the “not so easy” keeper.

Psychologically sound and independently capable athletes not only give themselves the best chance to optimize their physical talents, they are also helping maintain their own physical health. Horses that “take care of themselves” preserve their bodies by virtue of mental capacity and fluency, minimizing physical wear by not adding to it with mental stress. Perfect conformation is not always easy to find and when found, can be harder to afford and though it is the ideal the reality is a great many horses have some physical concerns, risk is inevitable. Minimizing risk is always the goal and is best done by comparing the physical machine with the operating system running it; the more holes in the herd dynamic the more soundness the body will require because it will have to absorb some degree of additional stress. By the same token a sound herd dynamic allows the body to be more fluent and these horses can move through themselves without added stress from anxiety helping tremendously in optimizing physical talent; you don’t want the mind to get in the way of the body, you want the mental athlete to lead the way. You also do not want to get in the way of the horses psychology by inhibiting their growth patterns and risking further physical stress with unnecessarily applied equipment or pharmaceuticals which can compromise a horses self preservation instincts.

Physically sound horses are valuable to be sure, but true value is found within the psychological athlete; competitive nature not only optimizes individual talent, it can wear down lesser peers. Distance and longevity are tied to both physical ability and competitive nature; scouting athletes requires an evaluation of both, proper training and breeding of the equine athlete, does to.  

Distance; Rhythms in Motion

I’m often asked, especially each year as the Kentucky Derby approaches and we begin work on our patterns of motion, herd dynamic analysis (reference Big Race Analysis section on THT Bloodstock website) if there is a certain style or pattern that works best for classic distance. Honestly, early on in my career and at the onset of my research into the psyche of the equine athlete, I used to think that certain patterns of motion were better suited, but once the dust settled on the studies of countless horses with different inherent patterns, it became apparent that inasmuch as patterns of motion certainly play their part, these patterns are an extension of inherently occurring rhythms within the psychology expressing themselves physically. Going further upstream to the source to consider the execution of pattern of motion, has made a profound difference in our evaluations

Each horse’s baseline “normal” behavioral tendencies are largely individualized, horse to horse; these are varied in any number of ways making a behavior type less influential than the manner in which the tendencies are being expressed. 

The key to competitive edge at classic distances is not the rhythm or what we call the “psychological spin cycle” but rather its fluency. When we at THT are evaluating horses, identifying the markers of fluency in the sensory system is an essential part of that for there is a very wide divide between performance ability and fluent or disruptive behavioral tendencies. Running style is dictated by behavioral characteristics, patterns in motion are an expression of them. If there is fluency in the psyche they will be fluently expressed allowing for physical efficiency and optimized performance, if they are not, they will be expressed in a manner that will disrupt physical efficiency, capping performance and potentially increasing harmful physical stresses.

Horses that consistently and effectively come off the pace, close, pounce, like to be up front, are comfortable emerging from the middle of the herd chaos, all have one thing in common; an efficient sensory system. The role of the sensory system as the leading edge of total fluency is vital. Clearing the environment for the body to flow through like a blocker for a running back, sensory soundness is every bit as important to optimizing talent as is physical soundness. (*see essay on Sensory Soundness for more). A sensory sound athlete does not depend on other horses for guidance, only for reference, and be they in a crowd or isolated from it, their rhythms are their own and they do not need to be hidden and carried by other horses to cover a distance of ground. Horses with sensory potholes outsource reflective to whatever degree is required to fill in the gaps, the more holes in the sensory sequence the more volatile the psychological rhythm, the more volatile the rhythm the more susceptible to things like physical inefficiency and drag between sensory and physical lead changes. Horses with herd dependencies have delayed responses and are more often chaperoned through chaos instead of leading themselves through it. All these things gnaw away at distance aptitude and are among the major differences between horses who are left to sprint and those who are more versatile with physical distances.

Herd Dynamic flaws such as holes in the sensory system also affect how emotional energy is distributed thus affecting its sustainability. The further the distance the more useful is energy conservation; saving ground physically and saving time of combat mentally are equally advantageous coming down the stretch. Physically efficient horses can better maximize physical stamina and strength, and herd dynamically sound athletes are able to maximize the stamina of their competitive nature because they can adapt seamlessly while in motion; in classic distance races assimilation can be indispensable.

Anticipate and adapt. Adaptability in nature is versatility in expression; anticipatory response is a herd dynamic game changer.

As horses grow and experience life starting with day 1, they are developing their anticipatory response mechanism via learned experiences and the accompanying associations. In place to help the horse anticipate everything from dangerous situations to what, when and where “my food source is”, anticipation during competition becomes an important component to reaction and response. The anticipatory response mechanism needs to operate with high efficiency in order for any athlete to consistently and competitively cover a distance of ground. It allows the horse to independently complete the sensory sequence of identify, interpret and process before determining response; auto-response and knee-jerk reactions are indicative of herd dependency lingering somewhere which gnaws away time-in-motion emotional energy distribution and athletic efficiency.

Of the influential things that separate individual horses within the natural herd dynamics is the degree of their herd dependency; leaders are prepared to respond after interpretation of situational chaos, follower’s auto-respond to situational chaos. High functioning anticipatory responses allow the horse to maintain speed and pace and or adjust it as needed in accordance with the herd motion without losing mental efficiency. Physical speed may be adjusted for any number of reasons like requiring a re-kick or perhaps a launch from off the pace, that extra hammer to run away from pressing competition; the ability to anticipate environmental changes allows the competitive nature to operate normally, an important virtue for “putting away” a competitor. Sustainable grit even when physically exhausted is a defining factor of greatness, being able to change mental gears without necessitating dramatic changes in physical pace and position is a power-tool in that definition. 

It’s worth noting that the adaption process does not only happen in response to herd dynamic v/s herd dynamic scenarios, it also helps in physically managing environmental changes. For the race horse this means things like the cacophony of sound and visuals and smells of scenes like the Kentucky Derby and surface conditions faced during a race. Proper interpretations in these and similar circumstances are vital, pre-race the “scene” can be very stressful and taxing, drawing upon a horses emotional strength and sapping energy that would otherwise be conserved for competition. Big races with chaotic environments can have tremendous impact on overall performance and not every horse is cut out for it. Holding it together at 6 furlongs is a lot different than doing so at 10+ furlongs.

In-race conditions like weather and surface can also add another layer to the assimilation process which can affect time in motion and physical distance aptitudes. Ten furlongs at one race track and ten furlongs at another may very well be quite different and alter effectiveness from race to race because of variances in an athlete’s psychological rhythm. Knowing the total horse helps in finding spots that fit them from the handicapper looking over a card, the trainer looking for the right places to enter, right down to we as talent scouts who say “yes” or “no” to investment choices.

Distance; Nurture & Develop

I have always felt that in any sport there is a wide divide between a trainer by name and a trainer by nature; one working to develop what is, the other working to develop what could be. Data and numbers are useful reference tools, but when coaching emotionally charged athletes, instinct must guide you; nurture the horse, develop the athlete.

Physical conditioning is only part of coaching an athlete, getting a horse physically fit to get 10 furlongs or more only means they can get 10 furlongs or more, it doesn’t mean they will be competing at the wire. Running with the herd and competing against one’s peers are two different things and preparing the horse for both can take time, finesse and some outside the box thinking to exercise the mind while conditioning the body. Even horses with high functioning herd dynamics need to have them developed to hone their skills, something we often see are horses “learning on the fly” as they progress through their races. There are certain things that can only be learned through trial by fire, however competitively natured athletes benefit greatly from mental stimulus and mock challenges in “practice”. Training chisels the body for completion of a task, coaching sharpens the mind preparing it for battle.

When the psychology is left to its own devices for development the horse may or may not ever hone their competitive nature and if they do it may not be in the manner that is best suited for competing at distance. Horses left to be physical athletes first mental athletes second, if at all, give you all they can inside a box of time until physical exhaustion sets in and they literally “run out” of being competitive, where mental athletes will run into it.

Coaching up the competitive nature of the horse means expanding the duration of their competitive focus, exercising the efficiency of sensory lead changes and assimilation to environmental changes. Mental stimulus training for any discipline increases efficiency and minimizes herd dependencies; increasing the duration of focus increases distance capacity and time of performance. Distance works at varying, alternating pace not only benefit the physical stamina of the horse but also help prepare the psychological athlete for extended time in motion, and incorporating mental stimulus assists the development of the competitive nature. I am a big fan of the “long work” and trail rides through the woods, anything that increases the demands in duration of mental focus will aid in distance aptitude.

Some horses that are gifted with herd dynamics well equipped for distance can remain underdeveloped and pigeonholed as pure sprinters because their tendencies and character traits are mishandled along their journey. Horses are emotional athletes and therefore often reflect their environment, any limitations in the coaching and curriculum can greatly impact potential in the athlete; the environmental influences can be one of the greatest assets or one of the greatest antagonists.

Going the Distance; Bottom Line

Competing at classic distances is mentally and physically demanding, when physical exhaustion looms mental fortitude and “grit” makes all the difference. Nothing shortens a horse like emotional stress and exhaustion.

There are certainly many factors involved in a horses athletic journey, not emphasizing the development of their competitive nature along that journey, be it selecting a horse for purchase or coaching them up along the way, can compromise true potential. Horses love to run naturally, but not all horses are competitive in nature; herd structure has built-in co-dependencies and a majority of horses are subject to them. Whether or not dependency will be antagonistic to athletic potential and to what degree, has to be considered, physical talent without the advantage of competitive edge is a great recipe for underachieving. 

There’s a difference between recruiting bodies and recruiting athletes; behavioral characteristics play such a significant role in the horse’s life, to marginalize there influence on performance is a mistake. For me the bottom line comes down to one simple analogy, the operating system runs the machine.

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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