The Horse; Herd Dynamics In-Foal

April 28, 2020

Evaluating Foals

One of the most frequent questions we get asked at THT Bloodstock is; “Can you get much herd dynamic information by evaluating a foal?” The answer to that question is a profound yes, and what we’re going to find will be woven around the loosely fitted individual psychology knitted to the core of basic instinct. A good comparison is if you think of a psychological umbilical cord; from the moment the youngster hits the ground they’re equipped with the precocial basics of instinct yet tethered to the broodmares definitive herd dynamic. As time goes on and this mental tethering begins to stretch, the initial clues to the assemblage of unique herd dynamic ingredients available, will be found within the communicated relationship between foal and mare. As this bonded relationship starts to transition toward a more independent one for the foal, the emotional tether stretches, allowing the foal to guardedly begin exploring the new world and the development of their unique herd dynamics begins. The stage for the future has been set.

Psychological growth happens in stages and begins immediately upon birth. It’s very first lesson plan comes in the form of associations; association with the mother, immediate close (introverted) environment, followed by associations with the immediate outside (slightly extroverted) environment and so on. These associations wrap the young horse in layers like a tiny onion starting to grow, experience overlaying experience. The relationship the foal has with its mother in the natural world, and both the mother and handler in the domesticated world, is influential in that these relationships help nudge the inherent behavioral genetic ingredients into motion. You can’t ensure elite herd dynamics will one day develop in these initial stages, for ultimately Mother Nature decides this, but you can help ensure they have the opportunity to manifest where they exist. Creating an environment of success starts on day one and the most effective way to do so psychologically is to nurture without getting in the way of nature.

Evaluating foals has a number of benefits. Gaining an understanding of the young horse’s natural communication ability is among the more essential pieces of the early development puzzle; understanding emergent growth patterns, identifying the core relationship between the sensory system and the interpretational ability housed in the psycho-sensory and the influence of and between purposeful and reactionary motion. These things and more are the earmarks of ability; talent without ability is a horse not an athlete.

Foal evaluations are just that, an evaluation of the foal in his or her moment in time; there is no crystal ball predicting the future but there are clues to be found in the potential trajectory of herd dynamic ability. In the emotionally charged horse everything they are and everything they can become is largely influenced by the relationships they have and develop with each other and the changing environments they experience. An understanding of these principles is your first glimpse into their future.

Herd Dynamics; Ingredients Inherent

The excitement in and for the young horse-athlete is something special, young horses are not only endearing and beautiful they are also filled with all of the ingredients of hope that are representative of ourselves in many ways.

Talent is what stands before you in the physical horse, horses are athletic; you can see this clearly in the horse as they run and play and sometimes bounce around joyfully waxing their best kangaroo impression. The ingredients of physical genetics, while important to be sure, can do little in fulfilling the hope of greatness on their own accord. The ingredients of greatness are descried through the avenue of expression; talent is physical, ability is psychological. In the foal the ingredients of their herd dynamic, though yet to be fully formed and still revolving and evolving, are present. The peculiarity in which they are expressed can, will and does change as they mature, but the basic foundation is born with them. Identifying what is available is the first part of understanding who the young horse is and through a study of expression you begin to knit together an idea of who they could become.

Tendencies in behavior begin to develop almost immediately though without definitive patterns until a foal has enough associated experience. Patterns in behavioral expression in youth, as they form, are a key element to understanding how future patterns of behavior will subsequently translate to patterns in motion; something worth knowing if you’re invested in a race horse. It is true that initially the young horse is greatly influenced by his or her relationship with their mother. It’s also true that the parameters of this relationship are crucial because aside from the physical aspect the actual bond is emotional and the mare will by proxy impart and impress upon her foal all of her emotional strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncratic nuances.

 A “good mare” is one with a balanced psychology, she didn’t have to be a top athletic talent in order to have progeny that are; the real advantage in a broodmare is her degree of herd dynamic soundness, not to be confused with her level in the herd dynamic hierarchy. Again, the difference between talent and ability plays a significant role; broodmares with both physical talent and herd dynamic soundness are ideal but not necessary. How a horse does what they do, colt or filly, carries more weight when/if they become broodmares or stallions, than does what they did. If you’re main criteria for value is reflective of performance results and pedigree alone, you can find yourself quite misguided. These may be identifiable markers in the human point of reference, but in the eyes of Mother Nature, they are just an appendix. What the parents did isn’t going to be handed down the line because talent is independently expressed, but the manner in which they performed, “who” they are, flows on down the line merging together to become the available ingredients of character.

Which ingredients will become the “new” horses prevailing behavioral genetic traits and which ones will be mostly dormant is often a wait-and-see thing; I have two full brothers and though we each have similar prevailing traits we also express these in vastly different ways. The tendencies and traits that most influence me, though available to my siblings, are mostly dormant in them, and vice versa. However, we also share certain traits and tendencies equally; we are “stamped” in some aspects by our fathers and our mothers.

Every thoroughbred born has by nature some degree of physical talent inherent, and where you will often see physical stamping in horses, making certain physical characteristics easily identified, this is mostly anecdotal because ability ultimately governs how well these physical traits will actually perform. The real gold in the panning-for-gold process is identifying prevailing character traits; psychological stamping.

Herd dynamic “stamping” is a powerful marker because behavioral genetics are the ingredients that drive the emotionally aware and environmentally sensitive horse in every part of their lives; athletic performance included.

Physical stamping we see in certain body parts or proportions, head, neck, back, feet, hocks and so on. Behavioral “stamping” is expressed through individual tendencies, and tendencies under stress govern physical efficiency. No one needs to tell you how influential competitive stress can be during training and performance. Earmarking which broodmare and stallion tendencies have more influence on the young horse and evaluating how and if these influenced their performances where you can, goes far in ascertaining the degree of influence they are likely to have.

Core character traits and tendencies are drawn upon in the foal and begin to guide them, playing a vital role in their psychological development. The ground floor ingredients of mental aptitude are all available throughout the horses’ life but not all of them utilized, it’s during times of stress where you discover the true nature of behavioral stamping as they become the prevailing traits of a particular individual. These baseline markers are the footers from which the house is built; a stunning and expensive second floor layered upon an unstable foundation will look good when the environment doesn’t present any challenges but may shake or even fail, during times of stress.

The Foal & Competitive Nature

The identification of early herd dynamic markers is a key step in postulating the bigger picture, but this of and in itself does not mean a for-sure translation to athletic ability. There are a great many horses with fluid, fairly well-balanced herd dynamics and physical talent that at length are underachievers as athletes; however, “underachieving” may not be a fair label. It may well be that envisioned expectation and actual ability are often not on the same page. Something quite essential in athletics is competitive edge, that ability to optimize physical talent under stress especially when pressed and threatened by mental fatigue; dogged perseverance and grit defines competitive edge in its purest sense.

These characteristics, while obviously not fully honed in the foal, will be in the mix of mental ingredients and will show themselves in various degrees in the manner of expression. Competitive nature in its rawist form is something every horse has, it’s what they rely on during times of stress to evade danger or joust for mates and herd positioning and so on. Yet in the racehorse we are seeking a more specialized version of this natural instinct so that competitive nature affords competitive edge. When you’re breeding thoroughbreds, a breed that is “born to run”, you’d do well to consider if you’re also breeding to race. There can be a wide gap between horses running in space, and horses running through it.

 The foundation of the athletic version of competitive nature that we desire can be difficult to see clearly in foals however this too has core markers that indicate its existence. When you consider the difference in horses running in or through space, what sets them apart is not what they’re doing but how they’re doing it. This same lens and point of reference can be used when studying the patterns emerging in the foal’s behavior; they’re going to be kids sure but even so the degree of either reactive or purposefulness in their expressions and movements is very telling. Peculiar slants in one direction or another begin to emerge over time and as the foal more and more stretches that emotional tether these leans start to take on a larger role for the individual herd animal.

Nothing tells you more about an evolving psychology than the emergence of assimilation and adaptability. This process, which stems directly from the interpretive aspect of the herd dynamic, plays an essential role in the way in which competitive nature is expressed. When looking for athletic “potential” in foals much can be ascertained by the study of their naturally occurring ability to interpret and adapt relative to physical action. This process is the determining factor between reactive body movement and controlled body movement.

Competitive nature funneled through a less than high functioning interpretive aspect is physical motion expressed before it’s interpreted; this reactive motion is often accompanied by a co-dependent necessity to outsource interpretation to other horses compromising its manifestation. Competitive nature funneled through a high functioning interpretive aspect becomes physical reaction after interpretation lending itself to purposeful physical motion and no required outsourcing; the ground floor from which competitive edge is realized.

Here again it is important to remember that what is done is less important than the manner in which it is done. A foal in a field showing a large degree of “independence” from mommy, for example, of and in itself doesn’t mean you have an emerging elite and independent thinker on your hands. It could mean that, but the act itself does not indicate herd dynamic potential; a careful study of the young horses’ psychological rhythms in relation to their proximity to anything, especially momma, is a better barometer. Every individual horse “personality” has what I dub a unique psychological spin-cycle, a natural rhythm to the flow of emotional energy innate making each horses baseline normal singular. This is why, from a herd dynamic standpoint, you cannot place horses in a box or typical “typing”. You have to determine what the individual’s internal rhythms are before you know what are “normal” behavior patterns. I use this analogy often; race horses are not race cars, with the horse you’re getting the car with its own unique driver. It’s a package deal, investing in only one aspect is an unwise investment strategy.

Psychological rhythm in essence is the rate at which emotional energy is distributed and the tone in which it is expressed determines the resilience of mental stamina. You can forget all about trying to figure out by the foal’s physical structure and pedigree what distances may be ideal in the future if your horse is devoid of mental stamina; the only ideal distance is the distance mental capacity can take you. Matching physical challenges to mental aptitude and physical distances to the rate of emotional energy rhythms is a far more productive way to match athlete to goal.

Individual rhythm alone is only a part of the developing minds story, how this emotional energy is distributed, accessed and utilized hinges greatly on the horse’s unique relationships between themselves and their environment. Here again we see the importance of developing adaptability as the foal stretches the tether from mom and begins to negotiate what is happening around them and what they perceive to be happening. The fabric that binds the outside world to the inside world, so to speak, is the intertwining of the physical senses funneling external information to the internal psyche for examination. Foals and yearlings can have a lot of space between these two and there will be resulting “baby bumps”, seemingly erratic physical expressions, which are both normal and healthy because the raw materials are yet to align. Emotional energy and rhythm are beautifully unmolded in foals and interpreting the world highly dependent on the broodmare; yet just as the young horse “gets their legs” they too will begin to “get their herd dynamics”.

For competitive nature to translate into competitive edge, a proper alignment between the speed of sensory identification and the speed of interpretation has to emerge. The sensory system hits the ground running; the healthy foal has the full complement of the sensory toolset available upon birth, the framework is there and soon beginning to scan the environment independently. What the horse grows into is command of competitive nature and the environmental interpretations that run through it. This happens over time as experiences begin to get absorbed and layer into the psyche; the avenue of learning.

As the horse starts to “get more confidence”, (begins to self-interpret and be less reliant on outsourcing) the emotional tether further loosens and stretches. Early in a horse’s life things we recognize as self-assurance and confidence are directly related to and channeled through the efficiency of interpretation, efficiency of interpretation allows for controlled and fluid physical motion, (As they get older confidence also manifests from associative experience). For fluid and efficient physical motion to be maintained in changing environments, the interpretational rhythm of the herd dynamic needs to be cycling faster than the physical body is moving through the environment not unlike a blocker in football clearing space for the running back. The “mind ahead of the body” applies regardless of actual physical speed and this is in place as an extension of the basic instinct for survival.  Controlled motion and the conservation of emotional energy depend upon it, important factors for the athlete.

Even very young horses will begin to show emerging indicators of the efficacy of the filtering process that I call the psycho-sensory sequence; the physical senses identifying stimuli in the outside world to be funneled into the psyche for interpretation and subsequent reaction. Where the psycho-sensory sequence is less efficient outsourcing happens by default, herd animals have a back-up; if I can’t process fast enough individually, most surely another herd member will.

Built-in codependency is a highly effective way for species living in herds to sustain survival, but not so attractive for the hopeful athlete of the future who will need to be able to operate independent of these sticking points. For competitive nature to evolve into competitive edge, naturally occurring emotional rhythms have to always be a “step ahead” of the physical environment. The actual time/space required between identification and reaction to maintain athletic fluency will change from situation to situation but horses that have this ability have psychological versatility, a valued asset when negotiating situational chaos. 

Positioning for Launch; Growth Patterns

To say that you can predict the future with certainty is of course not reality, there are a great many moving parts and links in the chain and anyone working with horses will tell you that it’s far more common to have something derail your goals than optimize them. However, gaining an understanding of a foal’s core herd dynamics and the affectedness with which they’re emerging helps you in recognizing the trajectory of psychological growth.

Herd dynamics, though readily present in the foal, develop and manifest over time into recognizable behavioral markers or traits, and as experience begins to layer into the horse these markers begin to repeat themselves based upon previous learned experience, becoming tendencies. Growth patterns are represented in commonly occurring tendencies in environments or experiences that are loosely related. These repetitive patterns, responding to stimulus, are hard-wired to the basic survival instinct; “if this happens, I do this and I do this even if I think it may happen by virtue of association.”

Psychological growth patterns that develop in the foal are strong indicators of how well they will adapt and react to both emotional and environmental stresses that lay ahead; this is key information not only for the coachability of the future horse, but in understanding how best to coach them. Growth patterns reveal the efficiency of and the ability for learning and the avenue from which it happens.

Physically monitoring the growth of the foal is of course important, things like nutrition and veterinary care, farrier and so on are responsible husbandry practices and assists in the development of the physical athlete. This would be sufficing if your end goal was a correct and healthy beautiful show horse, but in order for the horse to look great in the winner’s circle in a Grade 1 race, he or she has to be far more than a beautiful horse, they need to be an athlete. Monitoring the mental growth in the young horse is every bit as important to their future potential as is monitoring their physical growth. Consider what it takes for a horse to ultimately become an athlete and not just athletic; being athletic in large part is gifted by Mother Nature and with proper care and nutrition can be maintained and strengthened. Yet to develop an athlete you often have to nurture competitive nature into competitive edge; leaving this to chance can leave a lot of potential untapped. There is a significant difference between training and coaching.

In order to get an idea of what the future could potentially hold for any particular foal, with so many herd dynamic pieces of their puzzle developing and evolving, you cannot get trapped into looking so far ahead you don’t see what is in front of you. Perception and reality often have a lot of space between them, but that doesn’t mean that even in the raw materials that make up the foal, you’re unable to find markers to help peel back the veil and peek into the future. In order to get any idea of what you have, you need to know what you have available and juxtapose that with what you know it takes to succeed.

Everything builds upon the next chain link, thus evaluating foals is in part a reverse engineering project of knowing the various herd dynamic traits of high-level athletes and looking for these base markers; because even the most chiseled competitive edge hinges upon a foundation that was present when they were still tethered to mom. Having the foundation will not itself ensure future success but it gives you a baseline for the nurturing process along the horse’s journey while giving their core foundation the chance to develop in the proper direction. Not having the foundation markers as prevailing traits doesn’t mean hope is lost, it does mean that the nurturing process along the course of their lives will need to be specifically manicured in order to cultivate ability.

It is essential at every stage of individual growth that what is asked of the horse is within his or her capability; goals based in reality have a better chance of being realized. The simple fact is a large majority of horses as individuals will and do have co-dependent herd dynamic tendencies, some of these will influence athletic development and some of them will not. Knowing the building blocks of your foal helps you understand both the potential strengths and weaknesses within their herd dynamic, information that will help you monitor what begs watching and nurture what needs sculpting. Because foals are rapidly absorbing and experiencing their worlds, the environment they’re in becomes your greatest “coaching” asset.

Nothing helps steer budding competitive nature toward competitive edge like self-assurance and in order for a horse to develop the proverbial confidence, they need to develop sensory efficiency and interpretative fluency. The environment that provides discoverable stimuli for the individual within the group is a classroom well equipped. Mother nature is the foals’ best teacher because regardless of what we want for our horses and their futures, they are still horses. It is up to us to build our association with the young horse around and through their natural herd dynamic in our domesticated world. Horses at any age learn a great deal through the avenue of association and the associative learning process in foals plays a vital role in how ability develops.

Few horses have herd dynamics with no dependencies but this doesn’t mean they cannot go on to become great athletes because many indeed do. What the foal experiences as they grow becomes a layer of learned-experience, but the manner in which it has been exposed to them becomes the association and we always need to be mindful of this. How something happened and the way it was presented plays a bigger role in the psyche than what actually happened; if an experience is accompanied by emotional stress and anxiety, emotional stress and anxiety is what the experience is associated with. If an experience is accompanied by calm and comfort, then calm and comfort is what it is associated with. These are the layers of psychological growth built upon the existing foundation; layers emerge to influence tendency, tendency evolves into patterns of behavior, patterns of behavior translate to patterns in motion.

Psychological growth patterns are every bit if not more important to monitor and guide than are physical growth patterns alone because ultimately it is mental aptitude that determines the difference between horses that run and horses that race. The early environment is key to the future and knowing the pieces of the herd dynamic puzzle that is the foal helps in creating an environment for success. Being a successful athlete means the horse has gone on to capitalize on their existing physical talent and has optimized their existing ability.

Closing Thoughts; Talent & Ability

The building blocks of the future lay within the herd dynamics, all of the raw ingredients of what the horse can become are born with them and as much as it may be desired, you cannot manufacture something that isn’t there. 

When it comes to evaluating foals, it is not so much about predicting the future as it is identifying the aggregation of raw materials and seeing first and foremost what identifiable ingredients are available. Physically the horse has a wonderful chance to be talented if they have the framework to stay sound going forward, yet a lot of money has been invested in talent that never comes to fruition. Talent is far more common than is the ability to optimize it; many a time talent has been overpaid for where inherent ability has been underappreciated. I have personally always viewed “talent” as secondary criteria because in athletics it has little value without ability to maximize its advantages.

Value is found between the ears regardless of the horses age, foals however, by virtue of their unrefined herd dynamic, present the unique evaluation opportunity of cataloging their unformed but functioning traits and tendencies and monitoring growth through their expressions. Horses are not machines, they are impassioned, expressive and beautifully sensitive animals that feel and experience and this part of them plays an essential role in everything they do, including train and compete.

Optimized physical talent is emotionally driven and where there are any number of ways to aid the physical machine, you cannot mechanize emotion. The horse is an instinctive animal; thus, we must view him instinctively.

*For additional information about THT Bloodstock please visit www.thtbloodstock.com, you can also connect on social media by visiting THT Bloodstock on FB and following Kerry on Twitter @thomasherding and THT Partner Pete Denk @petedenk

**Be sure and check out all of Kerry’s articles available here on Past The Wire’s “Kerry’s Corner Column.

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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