Book Review: Horse Profiling: The Secret to Motivating Equine Athletes
By Kerry Thomas with Calvin L. Carter
c 2012 Trafalgar Square Press, North Pomfret, VT 170 pages
I was attracted to this book two years ago when I saw it at Equine Affaire in Springfield, MA , by the words in the title of “motivating equine athletes”. I thought perhaps it would offer me some insight into the quirky and unique personality of the Dark Mare, and it also seemed like an equine topic which was a little bit new and fresh. Those who know me recognize that I hoard books and I am a slow reader, particularly on equine-themed topics (overall a tough combination of variables), so it was just this fall that I finally got down to really reading this book and understanding what author Kerry Thomas is all about.
Thomas is a self-proclaimed “pioneering researcher and service provider in the field of Equine Athletic Psychology” (from the book jacket). He has spent time studying the behavior of the American Mustang as well as that of domestic horses in a number of settings. Thomas has developed a system of assessing a horse’s “emotional conformation”, which looks at the psychology of the horse as opposed to the anatomy of the horse, as in an evaluation of a horse’s physical conformation. Thomas assesses the social tendencies and behavioral dynamics of each horse as an individual, which then can help to predict their performance capability. It would seem from reading the examples he provides in the book that a large percentage of his clientele comes from the Thoroughbred racing industry, which does make sense. If I were about to invest thousands in a racing prospect, I would sure appreciate knowing whether or not that horse wanted to race.
There is a need for experts who can analyze the why’s of what horses do and who understand that horses don’t act in “bad” ways to make their owners upset. We need experts who are patient enough to get to the root cause of why horses act in the ways that they do and for why they fail to meet the owner’s expectations, once physical issues have been ruled out. Thomas and his “Thomas Herding Technique” (THT) aim to fill this need. Most horsepeople would agree that horses don’t always live up to their conformation and pedigree, in both positive and negative ways. We can give plenty of examples of horses that had all the necessary raw material in terms of conformation, bloodlines and genetics to be an upper level or elite contender, but who mentally couldn’t handle the pressure or demands of that kind of ridden work. On the flip side are horses that look like an assemblage of spare parts, horses which have no business doing anything remotely athletic or sporty, who are accomplished, successful competitors. Thomas tries to get at the root of why this is such a common situation in the performance horse world.
Thomas advocates the importance of breeding horses not just for their physical conformation but for emotional conformation as well. He says that by considering this quality, we are breeding horses more in keeping with the way intended by nature. Not every horse is meant to be the leader of the herd, but every horse plays a distinct and critical role within it, and these roles contribute to the overall survival of the group. “Every family member has to be able to fill a role to make the equine herd a success, and it is the diversity of behavior that allows the herd sustainability over time and in changing environmental circumstances” (Thomas, 2012, p. 57).
I had high hopes for this book, but for me personally it became too bogged down in customized terminology (for some examples: “emotional conformation”, “emergent properties”, “individual and group herd dynamics”, “P-type grading”, “Focus Agility”, etc) which became hard to follow. Additionally, I felt like the book had a heavy emphasis on the training and performance of Thoroughbred race horses, which did not feel as applicable to the performance of riding horses. However, I did appreciate that Thomas uses many specific case examples from his personal work to help highlight his concepts, and it is quite interesting to read how he problem solves various behavioral issues in the horses he is asked to evaluate.
While I don’t think I am capable of going out and assessing my horses’ personalities using Thomas’s system after reading this book, there were several positive aspects and messages that made me appreciate reading it anyway. First, Thomas emphasized throughout the book the critical importance of good equine management in terms of maintaining the mental and physical well-being of your horse. In Chapter 9, Thomas discusses “The Broken Circle: Potential Withholds and Equine Mental Illness”, and in the ensuing pages, details eight key causes of behavioral problems. Many of these issues are the direct result of less than ideal horse management, including lack of exercise/excessive confinement, improper weaning, separation from herd mates, and the stress of a change of career (i.e., a horse used to full work or showing/performance is abruptly transitioned to a retirement setting). Thomas emphasizes the importance of movement, social interaction and mental stimulus in maintaining a horse’s overall health and happiness.
One more concept which I took away from this book is a reminder that the horse is a creature of movement, and movement/action is part of their mechanism of communication within a herd. We as trainers need to bear this in mind when working with our horses. Thomas uses the term “Focus Agility” to define the natural ability of the horse to interpret stimulus while in motion (Thomas, 2012, p 114). A horse may be physically athletic but if they cannot maintain their mental focus at the same time, their performance will be diminished. Additionally, horses must be able to interpret stimuli while in motion—i.e., is that thing over there a threat or not, is that thing something worthy of my attention. To help horses develop this skill, Thomas advocates incorporating simple management strategies to help continuously challenge your horse through “mental stimulus exercises” (Thomas, 2012, pp 43-47). For one example, on a daily basis, change how your horse enters and leaves his paddock.
Overall, I found Horse Profiling to be easy to read, well-illustrated with current photographs and clearly organized. I think that the book gets weighed down with terminology that is unique to Thomas’s system; it would have been helpful to have some way of continuously reviewing the terminology and its definitions as you moved through the chapters, or perhaps a glossary of these terms. The examples cited in the book for the most part come from Thomas’ own experience, and they do help demonstrate how his theories work in practice. However, I would have liked more specificity in terms of examples of “how to try this at home”—how to classify your own horse’s emotional conformation.
In general, I would recommend this book as worth a read if you have an interest in equine behavior. But be prepared to study it with care before the pieces come together.
From this site, you can read more about Thomas and his work. Also, you can download a free excerpt from the book!