The herd dynamics and emotional conformation of Eblouissante

With everyone talking about undefeated Eblouissante's second career victory, I thought it would be interesting to analyze her from the standpoint of herd dynamics and emotional conformation with help from my friend and cohort Kerry Thomas.

For those not familiar with Kerry, he is the founder of The Thomas Herding Technique (THT), author of Horse Profiling: The Secret to Motivating Equine Athletes, and a pioneering researcher in the fields of equine communication and herd dynamics, among other things. I am THT's director of equine services. Our company specializes in the study of herd motion (aka a horse race), the minds and emotions of horses, and behavioral genetics.

Kerry emphatically states Zenyatta is the highest level herd dynamic mare he has ever seen, on all levels. So when we talk about how Eblouissante lacks the vision and mental proficiency of her famous half-sister, keep in mind she has nearly impossible shoes to fill.

While no doubt there are some similarities between Zenyatta and Eblouissante, there are vast differences between them when viewed through the lens of emotional conformation herd dynamics. In fact, they are quite different horses.

When Eblouissante bounces out of the gate, she is in the individual dynamic zone. She is immediately looking for another horse to match rhythm with. This is in contrast to Zenyatta, who would break out of the gate in the group dynamic zone and immediately start sizing up the entire herd of motion.

After Eblouissante finds comfort with the nearest horse, she realizes she is in a race. A slight hesitation follows as she transitions to the group dynamic and begins to grasp the bigger picture.

But unlike Zenyatta, Eblouissante relies on the individual dynamic for most of her forward movement. Zenyatta only exerted her individual dynamic when she had to (when she encountered a talented and stubborn foe).

But most of the time, Zenyatta viewed the entire field as a unit to overcome. She could project herself to the lead horses, even when she was a dozen lengths or more behind. Eblouissante has thus far reached the desired destination in both of her starts, but she does it mentally by passing one horse at a time. She is a point-to-point mover.

Eblouissante has been outfitted with blinkers in both of her career starts. Blinkers restrict a horse's ability to take in the big picture. Throughout both of her races, Eblouissante spends a considerable amount of time trying to recognize what is behind her or to either side.

Her head movements in close proximity situations (when another horse is in her space but she cannot see it) indicate she is using her sense of feel to compensate for her restricted vision. She sometimes is confused in terms of what the other horses are doing, and where they are in her space. The result is a drag on Eblouissante's point-to-point releases and forward motion.

Watch Eblouissante's win on Thursday. It is good that she doesn't go backwards when she is unsure of a situation, but notice she idles at various points of the race because she is concerned with a horse next to her, or wonders if there is one coming from behind. Eblouissante has considerable physical ability, and she moves strongly into space when she can clearly see her targets or when she is confident where she is at. But note how she shows lateral motion almost everytime she passes a horse. It is to her credit as a physical athlete that she can overcome that inefficiency.

Now watch Zenyatta's amazing debut race. The distance of six furlongs is far too short, and she has never been in a race before, but notice how quickly she grasps the big picture and how seamless her transitions are. When the field turns for home, she is still in traffic. There are seven horses in front of her, but Zenyatta quickly zeroes in on the horse that is leading the front pack. She is unconcerned with the horses in her immediate proximity. That is the sign of a huge herd dynamic and a strong distance focus ability.

I get chills watching Zenyatta. She shows amazingly clear and smooth transitions from her very first race, and absolutely no lateral or compromised motion. She is in complete control of her environment, because she is interpreting everything perfectly. Instead of matching the rhythm of a horse in her immediate circle, she looked to match and surpass the rhythm of the horses way out in front. That allowed her to overcome huge deficits.

Eblouissante is far more affected by the rhythm of the horse that is closest to her. I asked Kerry why horses, in the wild or in a race, look to match rhythm of motion. 

"Rhythm is a matter of herd movement, kind of like a flock of birds. Moving in unison with a partner makes you less likely to be an individual target for a predator. That's instinct, a naturally occurring pattern of motion in all horses. There is comfort to them in mimicking rhythm. High-level horses like Zenyatta can break free of the rhythm of the horses around them and move forward."

So what lies ahead for Eblouissante? Improvement, for one. Her delayed release points will matter less the further she runs, and Kerry thinks 1 1/16 miles is the low end of her stamina range. He profile is indicative of a sweet spot in the 9-10 furlong range.

Eblouissante is a talented athlete. She has probably run speed figures similar to what Zenyatta ran in her first two starts and has room for considerable improvement in her patterns of motion.

There is no reason she won't continue to improve. But as she faces higher dynamic horses, her inefficiencies could hurt her. Because she is an individual dynamic, point-to-point mover, she needs to be efficient in her target-and-release skills.

Eblouissante doesn't have the long-distance, forward focused vision of Zenyatta, or the amazing group dynamic. But few (if any) horses do. Zenyatta had an incredible way of seeing the entire race, knowing what every other horse was doing, and feeding off the herd.

Eblouissante is a graded stakes talent with a bright future, but she has some work to do.

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