Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bob Baffert, Federico Tesio, Tom Smith: Emotional Conformation In The Equine Athlete

If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that Bob Baffert knows about the importance of Emotional Conformation in the equine athlete. (More about this later.)

My friend Kerry M. Thomas is the founder of The Thomas Herding Technique and creator of Emotional Conformation which is a profiling tool he uses to measure the behavioral and emotional aptitude of his client’s horses.

Here’s how Kerry describes Emotional Conformation in a book we co-authored:

When buying, selling, training or breeding, all horses are graded on Conformation which is an analysis of the overall physical horse. In addition to physical conformation, I grade a horse’s Emotional Conformation which is a term I use to describe the psychology of the horse and I use it to analyze the behavioral dynamics, as well as the social tendencies, that impact the potential of the individual horse. Because the overall mental capacity and aptitude of each horse is made up of both seen and unseen emergent properties and tendencies of behavior, the mental preparedness of a horse, to react and interact with environmental and social dynamics, becomes a vital indicator of its ability and a source of important information for anyone working with horses.

What prompted my reasoning about Baffert was inspired by recent comments at Frank Mitchell’s “bloodstock in the bluegrass” blog about the merits of Lookin At Lucky as a stallion prospect. Of course, Baffert and his horsemanship were also part of that discussion.

I’ve never personally seen Lookin At Lucky or met Mr. Baffert and I have no knowledge of his daily operation. Neither has Kerry seen Lookin At Lucky but he briefly met Baffert last year when he went to California to profile some horses. However, it is difficult to truly know someone in such a short time.

So neither Kerry, nor I, can attest to the horsemanship of Baffert but he evidently has a pretty good knowledge of horses. Baffert has won three Kentucky Derbies, five Preakness Stakes and one Belmont Stakes, mostly with horses that had some sort of imperfection or conformation flaw, and Lookin At Lucky is the most recent example.

Mitchell aptly stated it in his blog post:

From the knees up, Lookin at Lucky is an outstanding animal by every measurement and proof of ability. But looking at his legs from the knees down, I am highly impressed by trainer Bob Baffert’s nerve and by the finesse of his training program for this horse.

Because Lookin at Lucky ain’t perfect.

Despite his flaws, Lookin At Lucky became a Classic Champion Thoroughbred in winning the 2010 Preakness Stakes. In addition, Looking At Lucky won four grade one stakes and three grade two stakes races en route to earning an Eclipse Champion Male award as a 2- and 3-year-old, becoming the only horse to achieve that honor since Spectacular Bid.

Not too shabby for an imperfect horse.

Lookin At Lucky, along with Super Saver, was one of my top picks in the Kentucky Derby and in my blog post I wrote he had the “will to win” despite the fact that he had rough trips in several of his races. If I could see that quality in Looking At Lucky by watching his races on television, surely Baffert saw it, too, in the sales ring.

The late Federico Tesio, a world-renowned owner, breeder and trainer of thoroughbred racehorses, was keenly aware of the importance of Emotional Conformation in the equine athlete and he spent hour upon hour at auctions studying the physical and Emotional Conformation of the horses he planned to purchase.

In his book, Tesio, Master of Matings, noted author and bloodstock agent Ken McLean wrote:

His first-hand knowledge of the peculiar characteristics of each individual in his stable, and their subsequent progress on the racetrack enabled Tesio to be in a unique position to judge whether or not his reasoning behind each mating was accurate or otherwise.

Indeed, Tesio knew how to embrace the magic within the spirit of the horse. He was known for his ability to purchase horses with unfashionable pedigrees for his bloodstock program and turn their produce into champion Thoroughbreds. 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.

Like Tesio, Tom Smith also knew how to embrace the magic within the spirit of the horse. Smith knew about the importance of Emotional Conformation in the equine athlete and that is how he turned a down-and-out, neglected, and ragged horse by the name of Seabiscuit into a champion thoroughbred and the hero of a nation.

Smith had seen a spark of magic in the “Biscuit” when, while scouting horses for his new boss Charles Howard, he watched Seabiscuit win an allowance race at Suffolk Downs. Smith knew, then, that he had to have Seabiscuit for his stable.

What impressed Smith the most about Seabiscuit had nothing to do with his racing record, pitiful as it was, or his conformation. Seabiscuit was a knobby-kneed, short, blunt, ragged, loser mostly, who had a wild thrashing and flailing of his left foreleg as he raced around the track.

What impressed Smith the most was the confidence that Seabiscuit displayed as he walked around the Suffolk Downs paddock. Smith knew the difference between a commoner and a King among horses. Seabiscuit had the confident look, the Emotional Conformation of a natural-born herd leader.

Smith knew that look. He had been around horses all of his life and he had seen that look of confidence in other horses.

Of course, while Baffert and Smith have not been as successful as Tesio, it seems they also were able to achieve success from their selection of unfashionable horses. While the term Emotional Conformation was not part of their vocabulary, it was an important factor in how they select[ed] their Thoroughbreds.

I bet that Baffert knows about the importance of Emotional Conformation in the equine athlete.


  1. Good post! I have an OTTB that won a bit but was mostly not competitive. I refer to him as "lacking the fire in the belly" to become a top racer. His pedigree (Eastern Echo x Cherry Lady x Bold Lad) is filled with many famous names--HOY winners and Triple Crown competitors. On paper he looked as though he could have won the world. But he worries--even today at age 17 and more than a decade off the track--and that self-doubt and almost compulsive desire to do the right thing as long as he knows what that right "thing" is, is what kept him from winning. He lacked the requisite emotional confrontation to take it all.

  2. TBDancer,

    I wonder how many other horses there have been that on paper looked good, but, as you aptly stated, did not have that "fire in the belly" to be a champion.

    Thank you for following the blog and the kind compliment.

  3. Seabiscuit was not a down and out neglected and ragged horse. He came from one of the best racing stables in the country and was trained by Sunny Jim . Smith picked him out but was lucky to get him. Most trainers understand the importance of the mental makeup of racehorses.

  4. When I was a small child Sunny Jim was a very old man, still training, one thing I recall clearly is a Sunny Jim horse had legs with scars from the pin firing and the yellow stains on the leg bandages. Few of his horses ever looked really good, most were wild eyed and nervous looking. He trained some great horses, but I always felt sorry for his horses.

  5. Emotional Confirmation is the most important characteristic in all athletes. The majority of horse buyers are not able to ascertain this trait. A horse with perfect confirmation, likewise pedigree but poor emotional confirmation will probably bring a high price and will be untrainable to most. There are many human athletes with poor Emotional Confirmation who never reach potential as with horses, There won't be many who respond to this insightfull article because they don't know what your are talking about. The mind is the most important consideration when selecting a horse.

  6. Calvin
    I really enjoyed this article. It made me think of a Blueblooded pedigree horse I was watching for a couple years. 'Colors Flying' (2006) AP Indy out of Storm Flag Flying. a "WOW, if I saw one. In short, 7 starts 1-1-3 and 51K in earnings. Sent to So Korea in 2010 for stud duty. Stands at Horse N Farm in Jeju ,Korea.
    So, in part..What kept this horse from being a champion?
    As always nice to stop in and visit your site.

  7. Anonymous, March 2, 9:54 AM,

    Thank you for your response. I'm glad you like the article and thanks for the compliment.

    SR Vegas,

    It's always good to hear from you. I'm glad you liked the article, too. I remember Colors Flying but I don't know anything about his history.

  8. #1 about 9 hours ago by bob bright
    Emotional Conformation is the most important trait in the making of a champion in any athlete.
    Seabiscuit had a human counterpart when it came to Emotional Conformation. Both were short and stumpy and both were champions. Neither had the physical look. The human was the 1984 Olympic Marathon Champion, Joan Benoit. As she went to post Ms Benoit was the least imposing of the top competion. About mile 17 on a desolate stretch of LA roadway she dialed up a massive dose of Emotional Conformation and ran away from everybody. She could will herself down the road faster then the competion. How many times have we seen a great horse with the will to win. Many like Seabiscuit wouldn't pass muster in the sales pen.

  9. Bob Bright,

    Thank you for the story of Joan Benoit and how emotional Conformation is also applicable for the human athlete.

    Kerry writes about that in the preface to our book:

    "The concept of mental capacity and training is also true for the advanced development of the human athlete, hence the cross-over concept. Once you establish the focus and agility of an athlete's mental ability, human or equine, you can nurture that into physical conditioning and thus enhance and advance the potential hidden within the athlete."

  10. Emotional Conformation can be enhanced or diminished by the horsemen during the starting process [breaking]. An athletes mind and body need to be on the same page to compete well. A champions EC needs to propel a superbly conditioned horse to the beyond. Will to win. Many a horse has left his stall on the way to the Derby post, a potential winner, only to finish up the track. On the walk over his EC or lack of went south. Man caused problem. A perfectly conformed, classic pedigree colt who snaps off a 10 second panel will sell for millions even though nis brain is lagging behind his athletic ability. The buyer assumes he will grow out of it or his new trainer will correct the problem. Big mistake. Some athletes, man or horse have it all together right from to get go. Most do not and need help. Bob Bright

  11. Bob Bright,

    In regard to your March 2 post where you said: “There won't be many who respond to this insightful article because they don't know what you are talking about.” Well, you sure have helped to enlighten my blog followers with your numerous comments.

    Thank you for the excellent commentary.

  12. Mr. Bob Bright,
    Thank You So Much for comments re:Emotional Conformation:
    Mr. Bob Bright, I too am a runner and work with Calvin and Kerry as Chief Advisor of THT.
    Dave Wottle had Emotional Conformation, along with Pre and Billy Mills.

    Larry Knepper

  13. Mr. Larry Knepper.
    I was a runner but I am old and decrepit, bike and ride ranch horses now. A life long student of anything that runs. Currently I ranch and ride working horses every day.
    Your right on, Pre, Wottle and Billy Mills had EC. Pre had enough he could have lent some to his fiends. I knew Pre pretty well and saw him run many times.
    Let me explain. From 1980 thru 1988 I was the Director of the Chicago Marathon. During this period Steve Jones set the World Record, Joanie set the American Record and Chicago was the fastest marathon in the World. I travelled the world, recruiting and studying great runners.
    Human, sled dog or horse, the training concept, focusing on Emotional Conformation is really very important.
    During the 1970's I worked on the NY tracks, moved on to a Ky breeding farm and sold a few off the track horses. My running fascination extended to 3 runs in the Iditarod Trail sled dog race and the Chicago Marathon for a number of years.
    If it runs, I am keen to know how far, how fast. End of the day I own two Mustang mares and love Goldikova. Bob Bright

  14. Mr. Bob Bright,

    I too am old and decrepit, if 54 is.
    I was a sprinter and quarter miler in high school and college. I was not te most talented, but I wanted to improve and get better. I lost a year of track in HS because of a motorcicle accident. So, between my junior and senior years I did 20x50yd dashs full blast 3 days a week and distance the other two days. Improved my 100 time dramatically more than half a second. But, the 400 proved to be my race running a 49.00 split and qualifying for the IC4A Track Championships.
    I too love Goldy, if your of Facebook took pics of her at BCday, friend me Larry Knepper.
    And love Zenyatta. She is the prototypical alphamare and runs to her herd dynamic.
    Thank You Sir and Thanks For Your Service,

    Larry Knepper

  15. Of all the great marathon runners I ever worked with Joan Benoit was the toughest mentally. If she were a horse the term "monster" would have made the DRF. She could hurt you real bad on training runs and reduced most folks to rubber legged incoherent pretenders. Bob Bright

  16. Bob Bright,

    Here’s some more from the preface of our book:

    “Any evolution or improvements in the physical condition of the horse always originates from a decision of the mind. The difference in achievement often comes in the gray area that lies between changing the focus from pure, physical training, to that of mental training to advance to the next level.

    “The mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete.

    “Training the horse for physical conditioning, is training for mediocrity. So it also is in breeding the horse only for physical conformation. In focusing only on the physical, you may have to breed and train an extreme number of horses in order to get one miracle horse that will make your career. If ten horses do not bring you success, you breed ten more – so on and so forth. The result of this breeding and training program produces a surplus of would-be equine athletes.

    “Real athletic training involves the act of training the mind to control and influence the body. The difference between success and failure, excellence and mediocrity, often comes down to the mental capacity of the athlete to focus on a given task. Athletes who possess that mental capacity to focus are able to utilize all of those hidden emergent properties as well as every piece of physical power and talent, thus controlling every aspect of their physical ability.

    “Training any athlete for success means identifying and nurturing the emergent properties within the individual.”

    Thanks Bob, Larry for contributing to the blog discussion.

  17. Mr. Carter, How do I get the book. You fellows are are way more eloquent then I. Bob Bight

  18. Bob Bright,

    Thank you for the compliment Mr. Bright.

    The book is currently available online. However, Kerry and I are working on a contract with a major publisher and when it is signed the online version will no longer be available.

    The online version is unique in that it gives the reader a look at the authors original manuscript, as I am sure that there will be some changes made in the editorial process.

    The web address is:

    Thank you so much Mr. Bright for your comments and personal anecdotes during your tenure as Director of the Chicago Marathon and "life long student of anything that runs."

    Also, here is Kerry’s web address if you would like to learn more about the Thomas Herding Technique:

  19. Bob Bright,

    I receieved an email notification that you made a post but I do not see it. Anyway.

    "Emotional problems in horses need to be addressed at the farm or the starting facility. ...In the starting process the bottom line is, You want to capture the horses mind and develop trust.. Desensitizing, equipment familiarization and accepting a rider are just part of the process."

    Kerry and I agree that proper care of the horse begins at birth and continues throughout the lifetime of the horse.

    In our book we talk about "Nurturing the Natural Herd Dynamic" of the horse in the domestic environment and how important it is to "embrace the magic within the spirit of the horse" in order to provide the proper care the horse needs.

    Kerry is out of town until the middle of next week and I am sure that he would enjoy talking with you further. He and I are also on facebook and you can friend us if you wish. If you would like to talk with Kerry you can reach him at 1 (610) 593-4889.

    Mr. Bright you are more than welcome to post your comments as they are enlightening and educational and I enjoy reading them. Thank you so much for the excellent commentary.

    I've enclosed below some links you may appreciate reading.

    Here is a link to Kerry's latest article about "Discovering the Communicated Equine":

    Here are several links to blog posts I've made:

    In this post I introduce our book to my blog readers. Also, in this post there are also several links to articles that Kerry has published about Emotional Conformation and Behavioral Overcompensation:

    Here is an important link to a blog post I made about Burchard Von Oettingen and it is also included in our book:

    Mr. Bright, thank you so much for contributing to the blog.

  20. Mr. Bright,

    You can call Kerry's cell, he's Oaklawn working with a client:7179894711


  21. Before I get ruled off I wanted to touch on a few more thoughts about the focus of this blog. As indicated by my previous rants, Emotional Conformation is an important consideration.

    Emotional problems in horses need to be addressed at the farm or the starting facility. Once they get to the track the problem is much more difficult to correct and it really isn't the trainers job to retrain head cases. As with children the problems need to be corrected when they are young. A 17 year old boy or a 1000 pound horse with minimal early schooling can be very challenging. Lets include the girls.

    The two trainers mentioned in this blog, Smith and Baffert, I believe have the touch. Looking forward to how Baffert handles The Factor in the coming weeks. Athletes who need to be in front no matter what the cost fall right into your topic of discussion.

    In 2008 I attended the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita. I observed most of the horses as they entered the saddling area. Goldikova's EC was solid and Stardom Bound was good. Both looked like winners. Since the first BC win Goldikova's EC, the result of skilled handling is bomb proof. She is afraid of nothing and cannot not be intimidated. Stardom Bound went the other way because tentative handling.. I exclude the late Mr. Bobby Frankel from this group. He was dealing with a tired filly [mentally and physically] and did a superb short term job. The fillies connections and NY based trainer moved her around quite a bit, tried to change her running style and she lost whatever EC she had. Game over. I noticed in the BC paddock she was a little more fragile mentally then Goldikova.

    Zenyatta looked the part but I wasn't as enthralled with her as Goldikova. I like smaller handier horses. Curlin came into the saddling area looking troubled as did many of the horses. Troubled and anxious are quite different. Troubled horses don't usually win.

    In the starting process the bottom line is, You want to capture the horses mind and develop trust.. Desensitizing, equipment familiarization and accepting a rider are just part of the process.

    I certainly wouldn't want to be led into battle by some creature I really didn't trust who keeps banging on my nose with a lead shank.

    Bob Bright

  22. Thank you for the info.
    I can be contacted at
    520 508 4535
    Bob Bright