Horse Racing: Stress & Herd Dynamics

Horse Racing: Stress & Herd Dynamics

Horse Racing: Stress & Herd Dynamics

by KERRY M. THOMAS of THT Bloodstock

Few things are more performance, health or growth inhibiting than stress, be it physical, mental or as is often the case, both. To understand performance anxiety is to embrace the notion that emotional stress can come from worry about an anticipated event based on either an experiential or associated/anticipated event or outcome. Physical discomforts associated with an experience are learned behaviors that can cause performance inhibiting emotional stress long after the physical has healed. Physical stress from attrition of effort, soreness, strains and so on are, we always hope, short term stresses. Short term stresses psychologically speaking are fleeting in-the-moment stresses; though they can sap a horse’s physical and emotional energy reserves, they generally have a minimal shelf life. An individual horse’s herd dynamic, where they fit within a herd environment, has a great deal to do with stress management and therefore, performance anxiety and their ability to optimize talent.

As a herd animal there is a natural structure to the hierarchy that is not physically based, but rooted upon sensory soundness and emotional intelligence. Roughly 85% of horses by nature fall into the middle ranges of the herd dynamic; lower middle, middle, and upper middle by shifting degrees, (which is why you may see a lot of physical ‘talk’ in your horse herds). Interaction within the herd is based upon a complex system of emotional communication.

The lower you go on the herd dynamic scale quite often the louder the horse is in reckless expression, the bully hiding the most insecurity. The higher you go the more purposeful their expression, like the quiet one in the crowd who is unassuming but clearly in full awareness of the environment and those in it. I’ve stated this many times before; one of Mother Nature’s keys to herd survival is that she hides her leadership in plain sight; high level horses can turn to ghosts. Predators see the loud talking bully or the lingering infirm, the yet unaware young, and these become targets.

Short term stress naturally occurring in the herd environment has little lasting impact but can become a highly toxic inhibitor once isolated. When you isolate the horse from the herd structure, you isolate any and all of their herd dependencies. Not that they aren’t physically capable but because on the stage alone and isolated emotional stress can be overwhelming, exposing dependencies and co-dependencies; isolation reveals strength and exposes weakness.

The majority of horses depend a great deal on one another for emotional stability, as we go higher up on the herd dynamic scale the less dependent the horse is on their peers, the highest levels being less than 3% of horses give or take. These horses are self reliant to a large degree. Their inherent emotional intelligence is extremely capable of adapting to sudden changes in the environment without exposing disruptive performance holes. High functioning sensory systems and psycho-sensory systems (which is the interpretive aspect) manage more situational chaos in isolation than most horses can in their herd. This is what nature has in place to allow natural leaders to peel off, take over a herd, and why some horses cannot handle life without their herd and never wish to leave it. When removed, we see the reflection of their insecurities in their actions.

Manifested from these behavioral genetics are two types of athletes; the physical over mental athlete and the mental over physical athlete. The physical over mental athlete will be far more dependent on other horses in a race as well as upon their environment and changes within it, less able to manage situational chaos and more prone to stress limiting their performance. In essence, they must physically out-run their psychology in order to be competitive and unless a pure physical beast, this will be talent inside a time & distance box. The longer time-in-motion the more mental attrition chews away their emotional fortitude and they will only go competitively as far as their bodies can take them. There are plenty of really good even great physical athletes, but these often come with an expiration date because the emotional rigors of training and racing gnaw away at them at a faster rate.

The physical athlete measures time as a physical distance, giving the jockey their all until physically tiring. The mental athlete measures distance only by the time it takes to get there; giving the jockey every ounce of emotional energy even when the body starts to tire. Versatility in situational chaos is inherent for the mental athlete, anticipating environmental changes even before they happen; some horses can be ridden with feel, some must be guided. The most capable are those elite athletic psychologies synchronized with elite, peaking physical talent.

by KERRY M. THOMAS of 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 emotional capacities of the equine. Emotional Conformation Profiling is the study of Emotional Intelligence & Ability in three key areas; Trainability, Behavioral Genetic Traits, Aptitude, with Communication being the primer.

Thomas’ theories on herd dynamics and equine communication have applications on all equine disciplines, in addition to human team communication and performance. His first book Horse Profiling: The Secret to Motivating Equine Athletes was released on the international market on April 25th, 2012 and continues to grow in international favor and popularity.

Thomas made the breakthrough discovery that it was mental/emotional conformation of the horse, and not the physical body, that governed the dynamics of the herds. With an understanding that this was the foundation of the equine world, no matter the breed of horse or career choices we as people make for them, an entire new world became visible.

Focusing on this research, Thomas began to identify ways in which horses could be mentally conditioned toward a given goal. He spent 10 years streamlining his unique system of Emotional Conformation Profiling of equine athletes. In 2008 he officially created his company The Thomas Herding Technique (THT). Kerry’s study of Patterns-Of-Motion have reached an international audience in the last several years because of THT’s work in profiling the Kentucky Derby fields.

Teaming up with now THT Director of Equine Services, Pete Denk, Kerry’s work has gravitated to international Bloodstock where profiling “who the horse is” and how well balanced their sensory system is, is helping THT clients hone on suitable athletes.

Thomas’ work in the field of equine behavioral genetics has pioneering applications in all the sport horse industries, but Thoroughbred Racing embraces the most of his efforts owing to his intensive study of Herd Dynamics & Behavioral Genetic Sequencing. Exciting new efforts are currently being made into the study of how emotional stress affects physical performance.

Considered by many the “Money Ball” approach for horse racing, Kerry moves forward with the belief that “the economics of behavior, simply makes sense.”

A few High-Lights:

*Kerry was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal Friday, May 1st 2015

*Kerry is often contacted for quotes and Derby thoughts by the LA Times etc..

*Kerry is a board member of Quest Therapeutic Services in West Chester Pa.

*Kerry help found the Octorara HS Equestrian Sports team

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Shayne Heffernan Funds Manager at HEFFX holds a Ph.D. in Economics and brings with him over 25 years of trading experience in Asia and hands on experience in Venture Capital, he has been involved in several start ups that have seen market capitalization over $500m and 1 that reach a peak market cap of $15b. He has managed and overseen start ups in Mining, Shipping, Technology and Financial Services.

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