Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Update, Federico Tesio And Behavior Triggers In The Equine Athlete

In a recent conversation with my friend Kerry Thomas, founder of The Thomas Herding Technique, he wanted me to pass on to my blog readers and his Kentucky friends, old and new, that he had a wonderful time at the Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale.

Kerry extended his stay in Kentucky past the sale and returned to his home base of operation in Pennsylvania last Thursday.

Kerry said he hated to leave but plans to return to Kentucky sometime in February. Later that month he will go to Oaklawn Park where he will do some Emotional Conformation Profiles of some horses for a client.

Kerry is the co-author with me of a book being considered for publication by a major publisher and now that he has returned home, we will need to see if we can come to an agreement with the publisher on a book deal.

One of the things Kerry and I mention in chapter two of our book is the destructive impact behavior triggers can have on the equine athlete.

World-renowned owner, breeder and trainer Federico Tesio also knew about their destructive influence.

Here’s a sneak peak:

Triggers are the mechanism from which a new experience is introduced and it can be anything great or small. Once this new piece of information is introduced it becomes associated with the trigger as something basically learned. Once it is learned, it becomes an associated memory.

A couple of good examples of triggers come to us from the late Federico Tesio – a world-renowned owner, breeder and trainer of thoroughbred racehorses. In his book, Breeding the Racehorse, published by J.A. Allen & Company Limited, Tesio tells a story about a feverish foal with an abscess that was treated by a veterinarian wearing a white coat. The veterinarian did not use an anesthetic when he lanced the abscess. After treatment, the foal recovered and returned to the equine circle happy and content. However, from then on, whenever the foal saw anyone wearing a white coat it would run and try to hide.

In another illustration Tesio tells the story of racehorses that were stabled near a racetrack. The stable gate had a bell attached to it and the horses could hear it ring whenever anyone opened the gate. The racetrack also had a bell that rang at the start of each race. At feeding time, if the horses heard the racetrack bell they became so excited they would go off their feed.

The association of the white coat and racetrack bell became triggers of unwanted or bad behavior resulting in stress and discomfort for the foal and stabled horses. Anything within the horse’s circle, large or small, even people or events that seem to have nothing to do with the horse can have a profound effect on its behavior. Recognizing those triggers is crucial for the handler to enable the horse to live in comfortable, stress-free environment.

Identifying triggers of behavior can be likened to putting the pieces of a puzzle together. In a natural environment, the Basic Instinct and Acquired Instinct enable the horse to neatly piece together the puzzle of the equine circle and triggers of behavior are formed by environmental settings. The cry of a mountain lion and howl of the wolf are triggers signaling the horse to run from danger. However, in a domestic environment, the pieces of the equine puzzle do not fit so neatly together because of the human presence in the environment. There is no threat from a mountain lion or wolf and the triggers of behavior are completely different than those learned by a horse in the wild. The feverish foal with the abscess does not have any fear of the man in the white coat until he lances the abscess without applying an anesthetic. In the wild the horse can run from danger but the feverish foal has no where it can truly run and hide – safe from danger. The foal, horse, is completely dependent on man for its safety and comfort. When that trust is betrayed, the equine circle is broken resulting in stress and discomfort for the foal, horse. Reentering that circle will take time and patience on the part of the handler.

Associated memories enable the horse to piece together the puzzle of the equine circle. If we study the mystery of the equine puzzle, we find that the foundation of environmental growth is assimilated imprinting which is the integration of new triggers to old associated memories. Assimilated Imprinting is the purest form of learning and it is the foundation for adaptability which translates into survival. A prey animal will retain strong Basic Instinct dynamic and keep a close hold on the associated memories that have contributed to its survival.

For the horse to be adaptable, it must have the ability to override associated memories by new ones overlapping the old via the introduction of new triggers and stimulus. Being able to adapt and therefore survive as a species shows us that even as the horse grows, it can be socialized to new environs. Socialization is being adapted to new environments, a task at which the horse is master. How this is done is through the equine’s ability to assimilate.

Overriding associated memories by using assimilated imprinting is possible because of the generally friendly, gregarious and curious nature of the horse. The feverish foal can be taught to have no fear of the veterinarian in the white coat if its handler wears a white coat during the daily routine of feeding and taking care of the horses. Over time, with patience and careful handling, the foal soon learns there is nothing to fear about the person in the white coat.

One might ask: “Why go to all the trouble? Wouldn’t it be easier to have the veterinarian remove the white coat when taking care of the foal and other horses?” Yes it would, but the trigger of unwanted behavior still remains in the associated memory of the foal and you don’t want it to re-fire three years later when the foal is grown and about to run in the most important race of its life. Unresolved triggers of bad behavior can have a profound impact on the racehorse, resulting in it acting up in the paddock or balking on entering the starting gate.

Sometimes behavior is not a reaction to a trigger but it is merely a tendency or trait of the horse’s Individual Horse Personality. The key to knowing the difference between personality traits and triggers of bad behavior lies in ones ability to recognize the triggers that dictate certain behaviors or stress. …

…Often, horse owners, trainers, do not know the difference between an expression of the Individual Horse Personality and behavior triggers. They only see the effect those triggers have on the horse. In the example of the horse balking at entering the starting gate, it is logical to assume that the starting gate is the trigger of the horse’s behavior. But, in reality, the white windbreaker worn by the gate handler is the trigger of behavior causing the horse to balk at entering the gate. Long ago, when the horse was a feverish foal with an abscess, it learned to fear anyone wearing a white coat. Unfortunately, when the horse acts up in the paddock or balks at entering the starting gate, physical restraints, the whip, and will of man, forced on the equine, is sadly our solution to fix the problem. Far too often, treatment for the effect is all that is doctored.

The Thomas Herding Technique can help the owner, handler, identify triggers of bad behavior and enable the horse to live to its fullest potential.


  1. Calvin
    ..what a wonderful sneak peek into your & Thomas' book. I so look forward to your & his process to getting a publisher and getting to print. I will be in line and asking for an autographed copy, my friend. Best wishes!

  2. SR Vegas,

    Thanks for the best wishes my friend.