The Making of a Racehorse, the Next Level Athlete.
An article discussing Tapwrit's recent triumph in the Belmont Stakes makes mention of the belief that many powerful buyers have as the surest means to achieve a victory in the American Triple Crown — one must acquire animals of an excellent conformation, physique, and blood. These animals are valued at upwards of one million dollars and the buyers who hold these beliefs are also willing to make these acquisitions.
Despite these high investments, many examples seem to indicate that flashy pedigrees, excellent conformation and flawless physique are not sufficient to achieve such goals. To this day, Tapwrit is only the fourth instance valued over a million dollars to have triumphed in one of these race, joining Rags to Riches, Fusaichi Pegasus, and A. P. Indy.
To a regular visitor of young animal sales for racing prospects, it is a fact that buyers base their selection on two fundamental criteria: the physique, which includes its conformation, and the pedigree. Whichever other factors there may be, these generally receive little to no consideration when the time comes to make a selection.
Without ignoring the importance of angles, proportions, deviations, physical development, and superior predecessors, it would seem that physique and pedigree, on their own, are not sufficient to guarantee a superior racing horse. An additional component of the equation is missing.
An interesting concept discussed by experts in positive psychology is that of "flow." According to its definition, flow indicates a state of immersion or concentration in an activity that enables an individual to engage their skills to their maximum potential. Without pretending to apply human psychological concepts to an athletic horse, this nevertheless presents an interesting situation in the context of an emotional individual such as the racehorse.
Kerry Thomas, a pioneer in the application of "Herd Dynamics" and "Emotional Conformation" to evaluate and select potential high level athletes, who has always cooperated with us in writing articles related to this topic, mentions a condition specific to a high level racehorse, and which in my opinion, relates to the findings of positive psychologists in their studies of "flow."
Thomas states that "by nature, the athlete of the next level has a certain type of rhythm that flows freely in each activity it performs."
Thomas's observation implies that the adequate psycho-sensorial condition of the superior horse is capable of perceiving and processing surrounding stimuli at such a rate and efficiency that it in fact precedes its corporal movements, independent of its current running speed. This high speed processing power results in a controlled and oriented response, creating rhythmic, fluid, and orderly movement that avoids any uncontrolled energy loss.
In the case of animals with an inefficient sensorial system, its processing speed will eventually lag
behind its physical movements during the chaos of the race. Consequently, the horse will produce a disorderly movement pattern, incurring unnecessary energy loss, decreasing its speed, and depending on other herd members to solve its sensory deficiencies.
Thomas explains in a highly graphic manner how the relationship between the sensory system and the rest of the body modulates speed and movement.
“Imagine driving along and suddenly hitting an area of dense fog. Because you’re having difficulties interpreting what is in front of you, you slow down. After all, you don’t want to have an accident or get hurt. Because your sensory system cannot ‘see very far ahead’ you slow your speed so that you have time to interpret the path before you; your senses are leading the way, clearing the path, and you need to keep at a safe distance behind your rate of sensory clearance. Keeping your physical self behind your sensory self, keeps you safer. Under this stressful condition taxing your senses, you may find you’re filling in the gaps by using reference guides in the environment to complete your task and help manage your pace; looking for the line on the side of the road, or reflectors in the center or perhaps even ‘buddying up’ with the car in front of you to stay at a safe pace. You are now leaning on the environment, and thus have become at least temporarily, environmentally dependent.”
(Picture courtesy Kerry Thomas)
For Thomas, a superior horse possesses an elevated "Herd Dynamic" and an adequate sensory system, which imply that the horse is capable of freely moving and processing stimuli without assistance from the environment or other horses. A superior horse is capable of truly optimizing its physical abilities in conditions of chaos and stress. This individual can be considered mentally offensive or with an important level of leadership within the herd that influences those considered as mentally defensive. The mentally defensive horses are considered within the herd hierarchy as simple "followers" due to their dependence on the environment and the need to "pair" with other animals to compensate for their deficiencies and complete the stimuli interpretation process. Whether the dependencies are with the environment or other herd individuals, they are antagonists to the capacity of the individual to achieve their true physical potential. Knowing the psycho-sensorial aspect of the equation that results in a superior racehorse is important from an informative point of view concerning the general understanding of what a racehorse is. But even more important is the practical application in the selection of animals in a sales context, keeping in mind each of the factors necessary for an animal to function at a high level.
Thomas explains that horses have a tendency or inclination to athletic activity that is specific for each individual animal. In his opinion, there are components within this tendency that characterize a racehorse with a superior level. "The Big Three," as he refers to them, include traits of personality, physical components, and a sensory system that functions adequately. When these three cooperate efficiently, it enables a horse to perform at a high level in the chaos of movement in a herd or race.
Federico Tesio, as those who had the opportunity to meet him tell, studied and gave real importance to the personality of the Stallion he was selecting to serve his mares. Tesio definitely
understood that personality was a trait with a high hereditary component. That a "foal" may be cocky or cautious, combative or timid, or that he may be curious and pay attention to the situations that take place around him rather than remain indifferent depends on the genetic information passed down from its parents, grandparents, and possibly later in its ancestry.
Results from human studies, which may be applied to other mammals, suggest that a mother's failure to identify with or bond with their child is associated and related to various unsatisfactory aspects of the child's physical and emotional development.
The traits or characteristics that form the personality of each foal and that Thomas calls Natural Tendencies are vital, unteachable, and play essential roles in the process of emotional stress. Even though the Natural Tendencies of each individual foal cannot be erased or eliminated, they can be influenced, accentuated, or softened with the maternal effect through the identification of the mare with her foal. In the same way, they can be modified through the management it is given, especially in the first stages of its life.
The relationship between the mother and child and the effect of its management, particularly in the early stages of its life, can produce a variation of the Natural Tendencies that Thomas calls Learned Tendencies. These two sets of Tendencies juxtaposed create the behavioral pattern of the animal.
The behavioral pattern of the animal will directly impact its movement pattern and by extension its athletic capacity. This will contribute to the production of a orderly and rhythmic movement with minimal energy loss in conditions of stress and chaos.
Another component of the athletic tendency or inclination are the Physical Tendencies. The Physical Tendencies include those related to size, muscle development, proportions, angles, in the same way as the conformation and energetic metabolism. The important aspect of these is that they are the most vulnerable and on their own accord do not produce the optimization of the athletic capacity. A horse that is solely physical is one with a singular speed. It only knows how to run in one way and while it might be competitive in short distances, it will not be able to maintain its speed as the distance lengthens and the stress and chaos increase.
Thus, a sensory system capable of running through the entire process, that connects the psyche with the corporal movement via the capture and interpretation of stimuli and subsequent generation of a orderly, rhythmic, and fluid response is the most important condition to support the natural and physical tendencies and therefore optimize the athletic ability.
(Picture courtesy Kerry Thomas)
Ken McLean, a recognized pedigree scholar, mentions in one of his books that the superior racehorse is one capable of accelerating more than once throughout a race. Gary Stevens, a star jockey, on one occasion praised among the virtues of champion Beholder that of giving different options, tactical speeds, to her jockey during the race. Confronting unexpected chaotic situations, stumbling, making violent turns, accelerating more than once, obeying the jockey's commands
with ease are all conditions that depend on a versatile mind. The sensory system collaborates in the relationship produced between mind and body, filtering and processing stimuli in an efficient manner and generating a behavioral pattern with an orderly, rhythmic, and efficient movement.
Recognizing a foal's strengths or weaknesses at a sale should be a priority before making a significant investment. Hence the importance of considering the factors that form the athletic tendency or inclination in an animal, "The Big Three," as a means to guarantee that a racehorse is easy to train, learns with ease, is less vulnerable to injuries, and is lastly capable of optimizing its athletic tendencies to higher levels.
"As emotional athletes horses very often are a reflection of their environment. I have long believed that Nature has her own rules on what is great and what is average. We cannot create it, we can only be prepared to recognize it's potential and be willing to nurture it's development." Kerry M Thomas. www.thtbloodstock.com/