Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Book Update, Federico Tesio and Behavioral Genetics

Recently, Kerry Thomas, Founder of the Thomas Herding Technique, and I received a flattering letter from an editor of a major publishing house about the book we co-authored (See the August 24 blog).

The editor said that the book was “novel” and “exciting” and we have begun discussions about publishing the book. So Kerry and I may have some good news to pass on to you soon.

In the meantime, Kerry has been busy with his research and has written a new essay on horse behavior which I will pass on to you at the end of this blog post.

Kerry will be at the Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale, January 10-14, and if you would like to schedule a meeting with him, you can reach him by email at http://www.thomasherdingtechnique.com/ or by telephone at 1-610-593-4889.

Here’s a look at Kerry’s new essay:

Physical Genetics, Behavioral Genetics:
Nature’s Breeding Program

Physical genetics breeds us the horse, behavioral genetics delivers us the athlete.

Federico Tesio knew that.

Of all the renowned breeders and trainers of thoroughbred racehorses, Tesio was one of the greatest. Tesio spent a lifetime researching and studying the horse. He knew pedigrees inside and out and was keenly aware of the importance of selecting the right bloodlines.

In addition to his knowledge of pedigrees and bloodlines, one of the keys for his success was due to his study of horse behavior or, stated differently, Tesio studied the Emotional Conformation of the horse.
Tesio knew that a horse “wins with his character” and that, in addition to pedigrees and bloodlines, Emotional Conformation is the final piece of the breeding puzzle needed to produce a champion.
And Tesio was good at that. He bred and trained and incredible 22 Italiano Derby winners. His champions Nearco and Ribot are legends of the turf.
Franco Varola, a noted writer and author instrumental in the development of Dosage, knew Tesio and he, too, knew the importance of horse behavior. His Dosage (not the one commonly used today) consisted of five “aptitudinal” groups and Varola was more interested in the behavioral traits and characteristics that each sire transmitted to its offspring.
“The differences between the five aptitudinal groups are of essence or character,” noted Varola in his book Typology of the Racehorse. “It matters very little whether a racehorse is 16 hands or 16.2, or whether it is chestnut or brown; but it does matter a lot they way he behaves in actual racing, whether he is consistent or erratic, brilliant or slow, bellicose or resigned, in other words which pattern or mode of being is he expressing. …It is of great utility to be able to distinguish between these various aptitudes, this being something that plays an effective part in mating.”

In order to understand and identify the various traits and characteristics that make up the horse, we must first recognize the intent of nature’s stud master. Nature has designed the horse to live in a group, the equine circle, and thus Mother Nature has masterfully crafted each horse to fit into the circle like the pieces of a puzzle.
Try as we might to manipulate the puzzle, we can never artificially manufacture what nature provides - all we are doing is tinkering with what already exists. We know that nature’s intent for the horse is to have sustainable survivalism within a group, or herd dynamic.
So how do we put the puzzle together?
Nature adjusts itself over time to fit properly into changing environments and, once accomplished, the physical living conditions having dictated physical properties, we essentially have a standardized end result or breed types which are in essence the characteristics of that physical standard. The physical breed obviously has some variations owing to the mixture of physical genetics that lean toward certain traits over others, but never too far outside the basic platform or else it would be a different physical breed altogether.
Nature, however, also allows for certain complexities within any herd dynamic. A sustainable group or herd can only be such when a group with similar physical features and abilities is layered with variable behavioral types. Structure in a group is nature’s weapon against time and attrition and this order overlaid with individual behavioral dynamics is what allows the pieces of the puzzle to fit together for group survival.
So, then, in addition to pedigrees and bloodlines, your two main pieces of the equine puzzle are the Physical Conformation layered over with individual Emotional Conformation and they should be the primary consideration when selecting horses for a breeding program.

Nature’s successful breeding program allows a basic physical standard to be necessarily controlled by variations of behavior or personalities. Every family member has to be able to fill a role to make the herd a success, but it is the diversity of behavior that allows the herd sustainability over time and in changing environmental circumstances.

Physical evolution is the body’s adjustment to new and changing environments which occur as a result of a mental recognition that change is needed in order to survive. In other words, if the horse recognized that it had to go higher and higher to reach good food and water, over time their bodies would adapt to the requirements necessary to reach the higher elevation. What this means to a breeding program, and indeed to training protocol, is that the mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete.

You can train the mind of the horse the get the most from its body. So, then, you should breed for mental aptitude that will allow the horse to live up to its fullest potential.

The Emotional Conformation of Seabiscuit, Zenyatta, and the mental fortitude of basketball star Michael Jordan propelled them to greatness. Their mental aptitude, combined with their physical talent, set them apart and made them a success.

In the typical herd dynamic you will find anywhere from 4 to 8 possible variations of Emotional Conformation types – from the closely related to the drastically different. I call these P-Types, which means Personality Propensity Typing and you can learn more about Emotional Conformation and P-Type Breeding at this link.

Breeding Synergy Within an Artificial Herd

A tremendous amount of research and consideration is in play when it comes to breeding the horse. Conformation, achievements and history, are all key components breeders use when hedging their bets that their breeding will measure up to their intent. But how often does that really happen?

If I am considering which horses to mate, the very first question I need answered is how well will the mind run the body I make from that mating? The governing factor of your breeding program should be the Emotional Conformation profiles of the horses on your short list. Without considering Emotional Conformation in your breeding, you at best have a 1 in 4 and, at worst, a 1 in 8 chance of getting the behavioral genetics necessary to get the best performance from your equine athlete. This is why so many good looking horses just don’t seem to have the necessary giddy-up to go.

Breeding in large numbers is not the answer. Sure, your chances of getting the formula just right by chance increases with more matings but this manner of breeding only creates a large number of horses that will never make it to the racetrack.

Consider again what nature’s design for the horse is meant for – herd living. The herd is generally made up of 3 to 6 horses in a family unit. Often in a herd you will find that nature provides the proper pieces in the proper proportions to sustain itself, with the mares of the herd being the only real constant.

A stallion leader may only be with the herd for 1 to 3 mating seasons before a new stallion overtakes him to ensure herd diversity. If able, during his time with the herd the stallion will most likely breed the same mares at least two consecutive seasons. During this time he has produced, even from the same mare, different behavioral genetics with very similar physical traits – this is nature’s design. Then the herd will have a physical standard that is consistent with a varying but closely related behavioral aspect. This creates a unit and we can use this same approach in our breeding program to create an artificial herd.

If you have a proper match both physically and behaviorally your chances of getting your intended product increases dramatically provided you maintain this consistency and breed the same sire to two or three mares with similar physical makeup but complementary mental differences for a minimum of two, if not three, years in a row. In doing so, you are now managing your herd more closely to nature’s plan by re-applying an element of natural selection in the breeding of your bloodstock.

Because behavioral genetics governs the output of physical genetics, Emotional Conformation has a great deal of influence over the actual result of your breeding intention. Matching horses on what they are and what they were, does not always allow for what they will produce. There is no assembly line.

For more on Breeding For Behavior and related articles, go to this link.

Simply put, the economics of behavior makes sense.


  1. Calvin , This makes complete sense to me . Zenyatta had great physical prowess but I think it was her mental attributes that set her apart. Her standing at the top of the stretch and looking down the stretch instead of warming up like the others I believe was visualiZing what she was going to do.Smarty Jones my sis would roll her eyes when I'd say that but she knew I was serious as I'd been telling her for years that thats how I could grab a street sign pole and stick straight out. She knew it couldn't be because I was physically strong because I wasn't but she wasn't sure horses could be given that much credit for mind over matter. Sometimes other coaches would look at me funny when I'd say it was as or more important for a player to visualiZe as it was to practice the fundamentals. I knew it to be true because I always played bigger than I physically was by using my mind to be competitive vs superior physical specimans when I played. Jack or Tiger make those clutch puts because they really see them going in before they stroke them. If it works for humans I see no reason why it shouldn't work for horses. For example I coached the full brothers Clay & Brian Mathews (clay will be all over the field in todays Super Bowl)Clay was a visualiZer Brian could not control his emotions enough to be effective despite the fact they were both physically blessed.He was a panicer The younger brother Casey that used to hang around practices was more mentally like Clay and he performs more like Clay wreaking havoc on his opponents.He doesn't give up or give in. When Oregon was dead in the water in the BCS championship with 2 minutes left it was Casey that tracked down Auburns QB and stripped him of the ball allowing Oregon to tie the game. All 3 kids were specimans only 2 were emotional specimans.

    I really like your site Calvin. BSB

  2. BSB,

    Thank you for the personal anecdote about Clay and Brian Matthews and their younger brother Casey. That’s a perfect illustration of mental aptitude as well as physical athleticism make for an outstanding athlete.

    I’m glad you like the blog. I always appreciate hearing from my readers.