What’s mine is mine


Humans are very sensitive to any perceived threats to what they value.  Unlike other animals, as well as placing value on things like space, mates, offspring, friends (our “tribe”), food, water and shelter, we also value intangible things or things that have indirect value… property, for example.  Money. Oil.

We’re usually pretty good at getting on with each other, and we manage to share a lot of things without anything going wrong. Problems only start to happen when something we really value appears to be in short supply.  I live a happy little life in the countryside, abandoning my car outside the gate of the field and leaving it there while I go out for hours with my horse or pony.  Nobody’s bothered – the car isn’t taking up any space that anybody else needs, and if 20 other people wanted to do the same, the verge is long and the road is quiet.  It’s a different scenario if I want to park my car near the flat where I used to live.  It’s in town. Everybody has cars, and often more than one.  Everybody wants to park their car outside their own house (because if you can’t see it, bad people might try to take it, so you need to keep it safe).  Have you ever inadvertently parked in a space that somebody else thinks is theirs?  That’s the way neighbourhood wars start.

And while that’s an amusing example of how intent we get on protecting something intangible, and in the scheme of things, pretty unimportant, wars really do start over similar things.  Suppose it’s a time of recession, and jobs for your kids are scarce.  Suddenly, as a result of a drought, a war, a flood, an erupting volcano, a whole group of people have to leave their homes and find a new place to live.  They’re moving in down the road, and they’re taking the homes and the jobs your kids are absolutely, 100%, entitled to have.  Or someone’s fishing off your coastline and taking your fish.  Or they’re marrying the girls your sons should have been marrying.  Everything from neighbourhood “hedge” and “tree” and “parking space” wars, right up to actual armed conflicts, are usually started because someone, somewhere, felt that a resource that they needed was scarce and being taken by someone else.

So when I go along to work with a new horse and the owner tells me “he’s the dominant one in the group”, I know there are a few things I need to explain.  It turns out that very few people have ever had resource guarding in horses explained to them, but lots of people have heard trainers, instructors, breeders, and the person whose horse lives in the next door stable use the term “dominant” in a way that sounds authoritative.

A lot of the time, it turns out that what they’re actually describing is “resource guarding”. At this point, I usually spend a little time explaining resource guarding. I go through the things that horses think of as resources – food, a mate, personal space, companions, water, shelter/shade, scratching/rolling areas. Then I explain how horses don’t usually compete for things unless they perceive the things as being scarce. And that’s also scarce for them – the horse who’s had to live on her own knows about scarcity of companions, the horse who’s always lived in a group isn’t nearly as bothered.  I go on explain that if more than one resource is scarce, you get unpredictability and internal conflict.  While my “herd” has lots of space, so we can turn out newbies carefully knowing that they can get away from the group but still have the reassurance of being able to see and stay in touch with them, the group members all have preferred companions they believe a new horse may try to steal. At the same time, some of the group members have been kept in restricted space (small stables) so they have issues with other horses getting too close.

That’s when you see the normal “displays” that say “I am bigger and I am having this first but I do not want to get involved in any interaction that may result in me or you being hurt” turn into skirmishes where there’s actual physical contact. The displays are natural, and designed to reduce harm, not cause it. But in domestically created situations, horses want to keep a newcomer away from their companion, but to do so they may have to get closer to the companion than is comfortable for them… That conflict is uncomfortable enough to make the horse’s interactions have more of an edge than they would in a simple resource guarding situation, and the conflict escalates. Bite threats become bites. Kick threats become kicks.

It’s all a nest of complex ways in which we’ve screwed them up. We keep them in stables that are smaller than their personal space bubble, so other horses passing constantly crowd them. We give them food in parcels and give out to them if they tip it out of the bucket to make eating more natural (and we give out to them for sharing, because other horses are eating our horse’s expensive feed). We take them away from their family, but expect them to get on with random new horses that we put in their field. We constantly take their preferred companions out for hacks (or we take them out and expect them to just abandon their friends never knowing whether they’ll see them again). We move them from yard to yard, and then wonder why, over time, they start to get upset when they’re taken away from the other horses, or when the horse they’ve become close to is taken away from them.

All the insecurities we create, we then try to mask by putting the horse in individual turnout, so they can’t get too attached to another horse, they can’t interact with another horse and get hurt, other horses don’t eat their special food, other horses can’t get into the shelter and block everybody else from using it. Or we just decide it’s easier to keep one horse, because two will be annoyingly clingy.

I have a mixed sex group of between 5 and 6 horses and ponies. They live peaceably provided there are no humans around. I try to manage how I am around them to minimise their need to resource guard, but I recognise that every single one of them has issues that we (and I am as guilty as any horse owner) have created, so it’s my job to ameliorate the effects as best I can. And that doesn’t include resource guarding my horse by keeping him in a safe deposit box in case some other nasty person’s horse kicks or bites him…

Master of my Fate


“The capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is the essence of humanness”, Albert Bandura, 2001.

Have you ever had a splinter in your finger?  A horrible little pinprick, just underneath the skin.  You worry at it, you suck your finger, you try to grasp it between your nails, but nothing shifts it and it seems to affect everything you do.  In the end, there’s nothing for it, you have to get it out using a needle.

Now, that’s where things get interesting.  The splinter under the skin, or the bit of grit in the eye – they’re under your skin, they’re in your eye.  But you are starting to get the feeling that you’re going to have to ask someone else to get them out for you.  You don’t often put the feelings into words, but what’s there to the fore is that nobody else understands how it feels to be in your skin.  You know that when they touch your eye with their finger, they can’t feel it, and they might not stop before hurting you.  You know that it’s going to hurt when they pick the splinter out, and because they can’t feel the pain, they might just poke too hard.

We all live inside our own skins, and have an awareness of our own bodies.  We also have a consciousness that decides what we do, when we do it, how much of it we do, and we know that we act to get the things in life we need and like, and to avoid the things in life we fear and dislike.  We walk around feeling in control.  How fast to walk? As fast as I need to get where I’m going.  How hard to scratch an itch? Hard enough to relieve it, not so hard as to hurt.  How long to stay in the sun? Long enough to enjoy the warmth, not so long that I overheat.  How long to swim? Long enough to enjoy the silkiness of the water on my skin, not so long that I get chilled.

The feeling of control over our destiny is sometimes called “agency”, and it’s often a feeling we only recognize when it’s not there.  There’s actual fear in the splinter removing scenario, because we’ve handed over our “agency” to someone else, and even though we trust them, it’s hard to feel we’re not in control of our body. It’s only a small subset of people that we trust enough to ask for splinter removal help: for horses, it’s only a small subset they trust enough to allow teeth to be used in mutual grooming!

The flip side of this is what happens if we feel we’ve lost control: if we believe our actions are having no effect on the world, we give up.  We stop trying, and we shut down.  Many horses reach this state through our training.  I’m fairly sure that it’s rarely what we intend: most of us want our horses because of who they are and what they do, we don’t want unquestioning machines.  We understand the feeling of loss of control ourselves, but often fail to see when it happens to the horses we train and ride.

This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks, because of a lovely young horse I’m training.  He has no trust or understanding of humans.  I don’t know what’s happened to him: he may have had minimal handling, but by people who think that you can get a horse to accept things simply by doing them to the horse.  Trapping them and putting on a headcollar or a bridle, trapping them and trimming their feet, trapping them and brushing them, injecting them, hosing them, spraying them.  All the things we do to horses as part of our duty of care for them.  Equally, he may have had almost no handling at all, and is now learning about people from a position of suspicion.  When I met him first, he was trapped: he was alone, in a stable, with no other horses around him, in a situation where he was almost helpless and very fearful because he had no idea of what was going to happen next, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and no herd to run or hide with.

Working with him, I realised there was something that horses and humans had in common that I hadn’t yet included in a blog post.  Because as the weeks have gone by, I haven’t done anything to him at all. I have tried very hard, even when he was in the stable, not to do anything to him, but to allow him to choose what to do to me and with me.  If he looked at me, I rewarded him.  If he touched my hand, I rewarded him. Once he was out of the stable (and that took a leap of faith on the part of his owner, who like most horse owners believed that a horse outside had no reason to want to be with people), if he moved towards me, I rewarded him, if he walked with me, I rewarded him.  We’ve moved on now to thinking about headcollars, brushes and – most difficult of all – human hands touching him.  But I have stayed still, and allowed him to act, and rewarded every time he interacts with me.  He touches the headcollar, he puts his head near my arm, he puts his nose in the open noseband. He touches the brush, either with his nose, with the side of his face, with his head dropped so it brushes between his ears. Now he will even place his head so my arm covers his eyes, a huge piece of trust in a horse who needs his vision to stay safe.  Every single one of these things, I allow him “agency”.  I do this because I want him to have confidence and the freedom to explore.  One of the best days so far was the day I left the brush on the ground while getting other things ready, and he picked it up and ran off with it!  He had got the confidence to feel playful while I was nearby!

I know he’s not my horse, and I have an agenda: I have to “make” him ready enough for the human world that he will be able to tolerate the things that will be done to him in the future, by people who haven’t stopped to think that there might be a way to achieve what they need in terms of being able to care for him while still involving him in the process.  So, for example, he will need to learn to stand when tied up, because people will want to restrain him so that they can brush his beautiful mane…  And yet, as humans, we understand perfectly with young children that there comes a day when a child refuses to allow you to brush their hair, because they want to do it themselves… they know how it feels to have something done to them, and they want the control themselves.  We can teach children so that they can take control… and we can also teach our horses in such a way that they have more control.  We can teach them to tell us when they’re ready for us to do things, rather than making that decision for them, and the magical thing about this is that if we do it right, it doesn’t make them less likely to participate, it makes them more willing and interested to work with us.

But the point of this blog post is that in order to do that, we have to give up some of our own control, some of our own agency.  We have to step back and acknowledge that another animal – a member of another species – has feelings and opinions about what we want to do to them, just as we do when someone wants to do things to us without our permission.  And we need to invest the extra time – in a world that has us under constant time pressure – to work with them so that they want to be brushed, have their hooves trimmed, have a headcollar put on.  Rather than having a horse who puts up with what’s done to him, because we need it done now, we need to give him control of the timescale so that in the end, he can say he’s happy with the process.

It’s through giving control away that we learn the real way to be the master of our fate, the captain of our soul: we’re not independent, we’re interdependent. Being able to depend on others at the same time as acknowledging that they need to have control over their own lives too, is what makes us complete human beings.


Hawks and Doves


Is competing just for the sake of competing a unique human characteristic?  As a species, we love competition.  Sometimes the prize is something tangible and we can see its importance to our survival as an individual: watching brothers and sisters using sophisticated “dirty tricks” to win the largest portion of dessert can be very entertaining to watch.  On the other hand, there are times when winning doesn’t guarantee our own survival, but it may contribute towards the survival of our genes.  Human courtship is a clear example of this kind of competition, and we can spend hours people watching in nightclubs, spotting who’s wearing the most eyecatching outfit or doing the most outrageous dance!  Much of the time, though, our competitions don’t obviously feature prizes that help us survive either as individuals or as a species.  Rosettes and trophies that we win in a range of equestrian competitions are examples of these: they are very important to us, and some may go to extreme lengths to earn them, but the reasons we compete in this way are complex and even after tens of thousands of years of human speculation, we still don’t have a complete understanding why we’re driven to act this way.

When we’re asked to explain the human desire to compete, we often refer to other species.  We can see quite clearly that many species compete fiercely, and so it makes sense to us that we should have this drive too.  We see lionesses bringing down prey and then being driven off their prize by hungry lions.  We see stags engaging in spectacular fights over access to does.  In hot countries, water sources are often the scene for competition over access to fresh, clean water both between members of the same species as well as between different species.  In domesticated animals like our own horses, we can see subtle competition between animals over access to friends. In humans, we can watch something very similar in school playgrounds!

Humans are unusual in the animal kingdom, though.  We enlist other species in our own competitions, and winning is subject to them behaving in very specific ways.  Over millennia, our keen hunter’s eye has allowed us to spot behaviour characteristic of many species that we can use to satisfy our own competitive urges – so we’ve watched horses in their natural state and seen them showing off to rivals, running from predators and migrating over many miles to find food and water.

Quick to spot the sporting potential in situations, we devise human entertainments that involve our horse running faster than other horses, our horse jumping higher than other horses, our horse having greater stamina than other horses, or our horse being able to perform better display behaviours than other horses.  We set about training them to perform these behaviours on command, but not content with that, we start to attribute the emotions we would feel in that situation to the horse.  We say “he loves to race”, “she loves to jump”, “he wants to show off”… Yet freed from our motivation and our constraints, the horse somehow fails to perform these actions of their own accord.  Rather boringly, they just walk off to their companions and start grazing, ignoring the arena, the jumps and the carefully manicured gallops.

Do our horses understand competition?  Do they feel satisfaction when they win a rosette, or win a race? Do they feel less satisfaction if they come third, or fail to complete the course?

For humans, winning is about that occasional feeling of elation that comes with the knowledge that we have reached a certain standard. We look out like hawks for the signs that we have won – the applause of a crowd, the score on a dressage test, the photo that shows our horse was first past the post.  For our horses, the feedback is more likely to be relief and release.  They know that we slacken off slightly after each jump, and completely at the end of a round.  They know that at a certain point, the jockey stops driving them. The pressure on the poll, mouth and sides of a dressage horse is increased to ask for a behaviour then slackened fractionally when they perform as told, and they are allowed to resume a relaxed posture at the end of a test. Horses in human competitions are working to regain freedom, not to achieve supremacy. They learn quickly that there are things they can do to get to the release point faster.  If we let them, they will speed up towards jumps, because they know the release is on the other side.  They will speed up past other horses in the race, because their jockey will drive less when they are in front.

We have chosen to compete using a species whose primary aim is to cooperate. They were domesticated in the first place because of their cooperative nature, and they allow us to sublimate our urge to win because, instead of competing with us, they follow our direction.  Horses love to run, but there is no reward for being in front.  In running from predators, horses bunch together because a lone horse is an easier target.  A horse will jump an obstacle they can’t go around when they’re making an escape or to get to something they want – but leave a horse in a ring with 10 jumps, and even the most motivated won’t jump more than one.  Horses will elevate their paces and move like dancers for very brief periods when showing off to rivals, but they don’t sustain the postures for more than a few seconds at a time, and they certainly don’t do it when there’s no rival or potential mate there – otherwise, how would they know their showing off has been successful?

The posts in this blog use aspects of anthropomorphism to highlight similarities between horse and human behaviour, with the aim of showing a different way to think about why horses behave the way they do.  I wouldn’t dream of saying that horses aren’t competitive, but I would argue that they are very unlikely to understand the competitions we construct around them.  What they’re doing with us is co-operating, not competing. As a species, affiliative interactions are the glue that keep them together, and keeping together is what keeps them safe and provides the opportunity to reproduce.

There’s a name for a relationship between two different species where both benefit – it’s called mutualism.  There’s also a name for a relationship between two species where one benefits and the other doesn’t – it’s called parasitism. A funny example of mutualism exists inside the horse: horses need bacteria to help digest the food they eat.  The bacteria need the forage that the horse eats but can’t process on its own…  Both organisms benefit.

When we compete with our horses, we benefit.  We choose to compete because there is a personal reward.  We don’t always win, but there is always the chance that we might.  But is the horse-human relationship mutualism, or is it parasitism?  From the horse’s point of view, there is a clear cost to cooperating with us.  In many cases they lose the chance to reproduce, they miss out on social interactions with companions they choose themselves and they lose the ability to choose where to live and what to eat.  Our rationale – if we offer one – tends to be that our competition horses live a life of pampered luxury.  We make sure they don’t have to walk more than two steps across their deep bedded stable to get access to the highest quality feed, we remove them from the risk of injury during rough play or sexual rivalry, we shelter them from inclement weather… In fact, we consistently remove almost every single aspect of our horses’ lives where they might, in natural situations, compete with other horses!

Can we have it both ways? It’s hard to believe our own explanation that a horse loves to compete, when we’re so careful to make sure that they never experience any competition in their lives in case it affects their health or causes injury!  If we accept that horses have no understanding of our goals in competing, that doesn’t mean that the natural cooperation they offer us can’t be rewarded and rewarding.  There are many things we can do to make the relationship mutualism and not parasitism… and I’d be very interested to hear people’s ideas on what these might be!


In a Crystal Ball


Which would make you happier? The chance to change something in your past, or the chance to change something in your future?

Humans tend to believe that we are unique in the way we think about the past and the future.  We think a lot about things that happened to us in the past, and we’ll often talk about them at length!  It seems likely that animals from other species have “flash back” type memories of things that have happened to them, triggered off by similar situations or by associations with things around them, but we don’t think they sit around chatting about old times the way we do.

The ability we have to reflect on things that have happened to us in the past seems linked to our ability to think about what might happen in the future.  We can talk about future plans in a way that’s just as detailed as when we’re describing stories from our past.  Because we know horses are unlikely to have these kinds of reflective memories of the past, we assume they don’t think about the future in this way either.  You’ll often hear people say that horses “live in the present”, and that the past and the future are not important to them.  A well known vet was quoted in a recent British Horse Society member’s magazine, saying “…we shouldn’t worry about the horse, the horse doesn’t worry about tomorrow, it only worries about today and it doesn’t matter to the horse whether they are alive one minute and dead the next – that is a natural event for a preyed upon animal.”

This blog is about predicting the future.  While horses and humans  do not “think” in exactly the same way, there are still similarities in how we think.  One is our absolute hatred of things not being as they should be.  All animals have built in pattern detectors, allowing us to learn “what happens next”.  We love the security of knowing what’s about to happen, and as humans, we even create elaborate ways of entertaining ourselves based on our ability (or lack of ability) to predict the future.  We play poker, for example, and chess, dice, buy lottery tickets… It gives us a buzz if we guess and get it right.

Like us, horses want to know what’s going to happen.  It’s a survival mechanism, for them and for us.  Taking a very large and noticeable example, we know that when it gets dark, after a set number of hours it will become light again.  We can base our behaviour on the fact that this happens very reliably, so as humans we know “when it gets dark, it’s safer not to be out in the countryside with no lights”.  We’ve also learned that if we stand at a bus stop, eventually a bus will come along, if we turn on a tap, water will come out…  You’re reading this, but I bet you already have a good idea of what you’re going to do next!

Horses also have this desire. In domestically managed situations, they learn to watch all the things that predict good and bad outcomes for them.  They learn which car we drive, and that the sound of it arriving predicts food.  They learn very complex associations – for example, they can learn that if a particular person comes to the field carrying a headcollar, their companion will be taken away and they’ll be left alone.  They learn that the clothes we only wear on a show day means they’ll be asked to load in a trailer.  As they learn all these things, they start to act to control their own possible futures.  If they don’t want to be left alone, they’ll herd their companion away from the person who comes with the headcollar.  If they don’t want to load, they’ll move as far from the person wearing show clothes as possible.  If we try to take them from a stable full of hay to a field with sparse winter grass, they’ll be much harder to lead out.  If we try to take them from a summer field full of rich grass to a stable with dry hay, they’ll work out a way to avoid the trip. The actions they choose show that they understand what’s going to happen, and that they believe they have some level of control over it.

The reason I’m finding this interesting at the moment is my own horse is moving home.  He’s been in the same place with the same friends for some years now.  From tomorrow, he’ll be living with horses he’s never met before, although it is a field where he’s lived before.  From his point of view, many of the certainties in his life will be wiped out overnight.

When this happens to us, we behave in lots of slightly alarming ways.  In times of  war or natural disasters, humans take lots of drastic actions to give themselves back the illusion of control.  Many people become less altruistic and more selfish, hoarding and panic buying. Where they may have been independent, they become very supportive of authority: if you can’t control your own environment, it helps to think that someone, somewhere is in control of it.    Tolerance for difference is reduced: people who don’t act close to the norm are perceived as unpredictable and so may pose a danger to the limited control you’re only just managing to maintain over your own world.

In situations where they can no longer predict the future, horses act just like people: they try to regain control.  Because they can’t predict how a horse they have never met before will behave, they are wary and defensive. This helps them to avoid being injured and makes sure they still have access to space and food.  Because companionship is so important to horses, in a new place with new companions they may try to ensure they’re not split up. In their familiar home, they know what horses come and go, how long they’re away and that they will have company.

Back in the 1970s, a psychologist called Richard Schultz carried out a very influential piece of research as part of his PhD.  He looked at the effects of predictability and control on the physical and psychological health of older people in residential care.  There are some interesting parallels between the life these older people lived, and the lives led by our horses.  In their day to day lives, the people in the care home spent a lot of time in their rooms.  They didn’t get many visitors, and there were set visiting times.  The staff may well have been kind, but they were there to do a job.  The residents didn’t get to make decisions about what time they would eat, what they would eat, what time they would sleep. Even decisions about the temperature of the rooms and their décor were made by someone else. They didn’t even get to choose who shared their environment  – someone else decided who stayed in which rooms.  Does it sound a little familiar for anybody with a horse on livery?

The researcher knew that people in these situations tend to experience more mental and physical health problems than you would expect given their age and fitness. He was interested in whether giving the people control over some aspects of their life would change their wellbeing.  He arranged for the people in the homes to receive visitors – but only some people were able to decide when the visitors came.  Others were told when they were going to have a visit, and a third group weren’t told anything. A final, comparison group didn’t have any visitors.  The people in the study who did best both physically and psychologically were those who knew when their visitors would arrive, either because they’d arranged it themselves or because they’d been told.  Those who did worst were those who had surprise visitors, or no visitors.  It seems we need to know what’s going to happen more than we need to be able to control it. This is probably because if we know what’s likely to happen, we actually believe we do have control, even if sometimes it’s only an illusion of control.

In our care, management and training of horses, we often forget that they too might have a need for predictability.  Yet we can see that they care about the future and take actions to control what’s going to happen to them.  They may not have long term plans in the way that we do, but just like us, knowing what’s going to happen next matters greatly to them.  Also like us, the ability to feel in control of events means they’re healthier horses – and the more individual situations they can control, the better. Can your horse control their own temperature, or do you choose their rug? Can your horse choose from a variety of forage, or do they just get “a haynet”?  Do they have any say in who their neighbour is, what their bedding is?  How many times does your horse get to exercise choice during their day to day life as a livery horse?

In our every day handling of our horses, we bump up against difficult situations linked to this all the time.  We say “horses need a strict routine”, where in fact we have taken so much of the control out of their lives that if we vary even slightly from “what always happens”, we upset them to the extent of causing colic, anxiety and stereotypical behaviour.  For the horse, this is akin to an older human being institutionalised.

When we train them, we drill behaviours. A lot of schooling can consist of repetitive chains of movements, yet if our horse shows us that they know what comes next, we punish that as “anticipating”: a horse should remain completely passive, awaiting our next command, since we believe the future is unimportant to them.

We need to understand that our horses are no different from humans in these ways.  If you have no idea “what’s going to happen next”, you will feel anxious and afraid and the world will seem chaotic.  If you have only a vague idea of “what’s going to happen next”, you will try to use familiar behaviours to make things happen the way you prefer: these may be classed as “bad behaviour” or even worse as “dominance” by your human handler. On the other hand, if new experiences are introduced in a gradual fashion, you’ll be able to deal them, because you’ll still be able to deduce “what happens next”, based on situations that have been quite similar and non-threatening.  For a horse who’s in a new situation, having a handler there who’s been calm, consistent and predictable is security in itself: they know that if you’re there, “what happens next” is nothing to fear.

I would love to hear ways people give their horses control over their own lives, as well as ways people help their horses deal with change.  Perhaps we can feed back to the vet who believes that “it doesn’t matter to the horse whether they are alive one minute and dead the next”, and help to change – for the better – the way we manage our horses.

The Phantom Flea

I know this blog is about horses and humans – but one of the behaviours we share is something that people comment about a lot in another species altogether. Have you even seen how a cat behaves when something they’ve just tried to do has gone wrong? For example, when they’ve fallen off a narrow wall, or tried to jump up on something and missed? They will often stop, sit down, and nonchalantly start washing themselves, as though that was really what they’d intended to do all along.

Humans do it too. The classic example is waving at someone you thought you knew, only to find they’re a total stranger. It’s so easy to convert that wave into a little hair adjustment, or let on you were just fastening your coat and your hand overshot… Nobody’s fooled, least of all our own sense of dignity, but it’s actually quite difficult not to do it.

The reason we find it difficult to resist is because the thing that hasn’t quite worked for us has been accompanied by a rush of emotion. We can feel embarrassed, ashamed, anxious, awkward, all depending on the situation. Although it happens most often when we know someone else is watching, sometimes it even happens when we’re alone, but we feel that if anybody had seen us, they would be laughing at us.

Emotions drive behaviours: when we feel strong emotions, they push us to act in some way. If we feel love, we want to hug someone, if we feel anger, we want to thump someone, if we feel fear, we want to run. As we grow and develop in human society, we learn that certain emotion driven actions will get us into trouble: the “anger=thumping” one in particular is one we need to learn to control. Even so, although we can hold back the socially unacceptable action, the underlying emotion is still there, needing to fuel a behaviour of some sort. So we do funny little things like fixing our hair, straightening our (impeccable) clothing or grooming ourself in some way.

I remember a work meeting from a few years ago, when my colleagues were presenting some rather uncomfortable findings to a group who’d employed us to investigate their efficiency. One man in particular had a lot of responsibility for things that hadn’t gone well. Also at the meeting were a few people whose opinion was very important to him, as well as myself and my colleagues: the pesky consultants. As we presented the findings, it was clear to me that he was feeling some pretty strong emotions about what we were saying, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he sat without making eye contact with anybody, and proceeded to remove the invisible bits of fluff from his elegant suit. There was no fluff on that suit, but he worked away methodically for about 15 minutes while we set out our findings. I’m sure he wanted to thump us, or run around shouting – but he knew that doing that would make the situation worse, and that he was being watched by people whose opinion was important to him.

To bring this back to our horses – have you ever had a horse stop dead in the middle of a schooling session and start to scratch his nose on his leg, or vigorously groom her flank just behind the saddle (and your leg…)? Have you noticed your horse shake their head repetitively when you were training something challenging? Or has your horse started yawning before or during work? All of these are similar to the businessman with the invisible specks on his suit. They’re called Self Directed Behaviours (SDBs) and they are a sub class of what we call displacement behaviours. They’re ways of dealing with emotions without the drive we feel getting us into hot water in a socially challenging situation. Displacement behaviours also include the ones that aren’t self directed, but are other directed: I have been known to kick the photocopier when it chewed up my document on the day I was running late. We allow the emotion fuelled behaviours out, but make sure they’re directed at something or someone that can’t fight back. Bullies use this a lot – they’re feeling very threatened, usually by someone stronger or someone they fear, so they can’t respond as they’d wish. Instead, they direct the emotion fuelled response at someone weaker. If your horse lives in a group, you’ll have seen the equine equivalent. If a horse is nipped by a horse they’d rather not take on, they just pass the nip on to a horse they know won’t respond with retaliation.

So we know displacement behaviours can be either self directed or other directed. Today, it’s the self directed behaviours I’m interested in. They’re subtle and they happen in very specific situations, and this applies not just to cats, primates (including ourselves) but also to horses. If we can learn to spot and read them, they can be almost as if our horses are speaking to us about how they feel. They’re signals that tell us about a horse’s state of mind and about the type of emotions they’re feeling.

The first thing we can consider is whether the horse (or person) who’s doing a self directed behaviour is experiencing a conflict. This just means that they’re being pulled in two directions at once: approach the scary thing or run from it? Accept a bit which is uncomfortable but which signals the chance to get out of the stable and get some mental stimulation? Yawning is one of the most common behaviours associated with internal conflict, and that’s in humans as well as horses. I’m a notorious yawner at work, when I have to interrupt something I’m doing to do something more urgent but less mentally engaging.

Conflicts can also happen in situations that have an element of social anxiety. For example, our close relatives the monkeys show lots of self directed grooming behaviours after family group bust ups! Just like my gentleman with the lint on his suit, they tend to show these grooming behaviours most after conflicts with individuals who are important to them, but who can potentially harm them. It’s thought the behaviours act as a signal to family members that the inidividual would rather work to maintain the family bond than engage in disputes… Moving your attention inwards, towards self-care, does two things: it signals clearly to others that you’re not focussing on them in an aggressive way, and it shows that you’re doing something that’s calming and that reduces your stress levels. We know grooming in most species has this effect, possibly one of the reasons that many people enjoy a visit to the hairdressers!

Self-directed behaviours during a schooling or training session also send us a message. Either the horse has a conflict about what we want them to do, or they’re finding what we’re asking difficult, and so they are frustrated by their inability to do what we want (especially if they like us and are trying quite hard). When a chimpanzee is asked to complete tasks of increasing difficulty, they will often stop and engage in self-directed grooming behaviours. These reduce when the chimp gets auditory “clues” about how well they’re doing – it seems uncertainty makes chimps more anxious and they show this by their behaviours.

Put this in the context of training a young horse – if your horse stops and itches their side, or rubs their face on their leg, shakes their forelock over their eyes, or twitches their skin as if an imaginary fly has just landed – maybe they need us to slow down the training, build it up in smaller steps, and make it much clearer what it is we want from them, rewarding small successes.

It’s not altogether clear whether horses think of a training session as a “social situation”, when there’s two species involved. However the fact that they occasionally interrupt the training with self directed behaviour rather than fight or flight is interesting. It’s a clue that perhaps they’re thinking of us as a teacher rather than a trainer, and as someone whose presence is valuable to them. At the same time, they’re communicating politely and quietly that they’re feeling a bit uncertain, giving us a chance to help and reassure.

On the other hand, it’s great to become an expert at spotting the small signals from our horses that are meaningful and that help us become better trainers, it’s best not to get too hung up on what every single twitch and mane shake means. After all, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes an itch is just an itch – the key is to get better at recognising all the clues that tell us about a horse’s emotional state.

Touchy Feely

Touchy Feely

Touchy Feely, photo courtesy of Kirsten Cowling

Humans don’t like being in the dark.  We have our favourite sense – vision – and then we have a range of second class citizens that we think of as useful in helping us make sense of what we see.  About 30% of our brain is devoted to receiving, processing and interpreting information we receive through our eyes.  For example, there are 5 times as many cells in our visual cortex as there are in our auditory cortex.

Because we’re so biased towards using vision, we tend to avoid situations where our vision isn’t great (although as I get older, I notice that I’ve become a bit less demanding in this area and seem to operate happily with things near the horizon forming an attractive airbrushed blur!).

As a species, we prefer daylight, although we’re happy enough at night provided there’s plenty of artificial light. Once daylight disappears, we find that things lose their colour, and we’re less good at working out how far away things are.  There’s nothing worse than a poorly lit restaurant… humans get a bit twitchy when we can’t quite see what we’re eating.  That’s despite the fact that we have perfectly functional senses of smell and taste!

A few weeks ago, on one of my regular cinema trips, I saw the film “About Time”, where there’s a funny scene in a restaurant with no lights.  People try to work out what they’re eating.  And even where the food is… Things are dropped.  Food is missed. Food ends up in people’s hair and on their faces…

Because we’re so anthropocentric, we believe that all animals have the same strengths and weaknesses that we do, and it rarely occurs to us that other species may have abilities we don’t.  We are willing to acknowledge that we can’t really imagine what it would be like to be a bat, able to navigate perfectly in the dark using sensory information we just don’t have. We are amazed to hear that some animals are able to use electric fields to “see”, or that bees are able to work out which flower has recently been visited by another bee based on it’s electric charge. Despite this, we make our pets and domesticated animals into small or large furry versions of ourselves.  Horses are no exception, and many people feel happier knowing their horses are inside at night. After all, if they were outside, how on earth would they get around?  They might fall over something in the dark! Or blunder into a tree, or fall into a pond!

Well, I’m here to tell you that your horse has a sense you don’t have. They’re just as exceptional and amazing as a bat, or a bee, or a pigeon who can navigate using information from the earth’s magnetic field.  Take a look at your horse’s face, and you’ll notice there are long whiskers sticking out above their eyes and around their muzzles.  We call them whiskers, but we’d actually be more correct to call them “feelers”, because that’s what they are.  Here’s an experiment to try.  Get a friendly person to pick a single hair from the centre of your scalp (it helps if you have quite long hair!).  Close your eyes, and ask them to move the hair like a joystick, left, right, forward and back.  If they’re not pulling on the hair, you won’t be able to feel that it’s being moved. You won’t be able to tell whether it’s moving left or right, up or down.  There are no special cells in your brain devoted to receiving and processing information about the movement of your hairs.  That’s where you and your horse are different.  A horse’s brain contains a set of cells that receive information from their whiskers.

This information is divided in two – and in this way, it’s a bit like the information we receive from our fingertips.  If you close your eyes, and someone touches your fingertips, you know when it happens: our skin is a passive receiver of information about what the world is doing to us.  At the same time, we actively gather information using our fingertips, to find out about the shape and texture of things around us.  We are able to construct 3D images in our brain using information gathered this way: with your eyes closed, you can still easily tell the difference between a ball and a cube, just using your fingertips.

Horses don’t have fingertips, but they do have whiskers.  Whiskers are passive receivers of information, like our fingertips: a horse can tell the direction of a breeze, based on the tiny pressure on their whiskers.  They receive communications from other horses in the herd – horses will sometimes look at one another and touch whiskers without any skin to skin contact.  If you’ve ever had a butterfly kiss from a horse, you’ll know what I mean by this.  They are also able to use their whiskers actively.  In winter, my horse who lives outside spends more hours in the dark than he does in the daylight.  He needs to be able to navigate, he needs to be able to work out distances, he needs to know what he’s eating.  I don’t think anybody’s done the experiment with a horse that’s been done with rats, but I’m pretty sure you would have no trouble training a horse to recognise the difference between a ball and a cube using whiskers alone.

A horse’s brain is able to tell exactly what direction a single whisker has moved when in contact with an object, and given that they have a whole muzzle full of them, you can see how touching a ball and touching a cube will move different whiskers in different directions.  Horses also have a blind spot just under their muzzles – so no surprise that if they want to know what’s down there, they use their whiskers to find out.  Many horse owners (and I include myself in this count) have watched their horses test whether there’s a current running through an electric fence by bringing their whiskers almost within touching distance of it.  When my horse decides it’s actually not on, and then happily leaps the fence into the luscious long grass, I’m never too sure whether I should be full of admiration or horrified.  Admiration has always won out so far!

Whiskers are also more versatile than fingertips: they are not damaged by coming in contact with things that hurt.  If we grope around in the long grass at night, we’re likely to end up with nettle stings.  If a horse wants to avoid nettles and brambles in the dark, they can use a combination of whiskers and their sense of smell to work out what’s under their nose and how close it is.

Unlike our fingers, whiskers themselves are just hairs: they don’t have any pain receptors.  This is most likely because a horse will wear down whiskers, and occasionally shed them, just like other hairs.  So if you cut your horse’s whiskers, they won’t yelp or run off, it hurts them no more than we’re hurt by putting on thick gloves or a blindfold.  Mind you, those gloves and that blindfold will need to stay on for months, because that’s how long whiskers take to grow back.  We don’t willingly deprive ourselves of senses, and we feel very uncomfortable when one of our senses is out of action…  we blunder around in the dark, we grope clumsily while wearing thick gloves, our food is suspect when our noses are blocked with a cold.  Why, then, are we so blasé about removing one of our horses’s senses?  We tend to justify whisker trimming because “it makes the horse look so much tidier”, and “they’re quite happy, they don’t object to being trimmed”. The horse doesn’t notice the lack of a sense until they come to use it… later that night, in the dark, while trying to pick out the weeds from the grass, or while attempting to “speak” to a herd mate and rudely bumping noses by accident.

Just because we can’t see a glaring difference in how the horse acts, we assume what we’ve done has no effect: you probably won’t notice that I’m wearing ear plugs until you repeat your question to me for the third time!  This blog post is a plea: don’t be afraid to be touchy feely. Allow your horse to be touchy feely to the utmost of her or his abilty too: leave those feelers alone!

Start as you mean to go on…

Who’s your ideal boss?  Is it someone who pushes you. or someone whose example you try to follow?  Is it someone who niggles at you until you get your work done, or is it someone who seems to be able to spot every time you progress and who celebrates it?  Are you your ideal boss, or do you rather “devolve” some of the responsibility for getting things done to someone else who sets paths, goals and milestones?

I suppose, like most people, I’m a mixture of all of those – having enough internal motivation to write blog posts during an unusual long hot sunny Scottish summer isn’t something I have, when there’s a chance to be outside having fun with lovely horses!  But now it’s the autumn, and I’m thinking of all the things I saw and learned during the summer and I would like to do a bit more writing.

There’s a few reasons I’m thinking about bosses at the moment. One is that after a long break, it’s difficult to motivate myself to sit at a keyboard and write.  The other is that my favourite ever boss was probably the person who had most effect on how I work with my horse.  Yet – to my knowledge – he has nothing to do with horses at all.

Nearly 15 years ago, I was in the last months of my Ph.D.  Then, as now, a bit of a procrastinator, I had somehow managed to use up all of my funded time and I still had a lot of writing up to do.  I needed some paid work to keep me going but not so much that it would stop me doing the writing.  Out of the blue, a colleague in the department where I’d done my research came to me and said “I’m taking a 6 month sabbatical, and I need someone I trust to teach my undergraduate courses for me.  Would you do it?”.  I said yes, then went home and began to panic.  His courses were Biological Psychology and Neuropsychology. They were final year courses and not directly the subject of my PhD, but he’d said he trusted me, so he must have thought I was capable, right?

The term started, and I began my first ever proper teaching job. It continued to be very scary, but I worked away, discovering lots of new detail about how the brain handled rewards and punishments, how animals learned and what kinds of emotions were associated with the learning. Having got my head around it, I did my best to pass it on to my students, making it as fun and interesting as I could. My rat cartoons went down well!  Every so often, I’d be sitting in my office wondering if I was doing OK and my colleague would appear out of the blue with a cup of coffee and a doughnut, commenting on how well I’d done something.  I never knew how he knew what I’d done, but somehow he kept feelers out and spotted all the good things to highlight.  He never mentioned a single bad thing even though I know I made the usual number of beginner mistakes.  Because of this, when things didn’t go as planned I was never afraid to go to him and ask for advice. And his advice was always good.

As the term went on, and I taught courses about how rats learned to like places where they received rewards, my slow brain started to make a connection.  This man knew exactly what he was doing. By the end of the term, I knew, he knew, he knew I knew… etc.  But I didn’t feel in the least bit manipulated.  I felt great – confident, happy, energetic – somehow I even managed to finish writing up my PhD!

A year or so later, I felt I deserved a reward for the years of research, study and writing, and I spent more money than I had buying myself a lovely young horse.  There was no doubt in my mind that there was only one way to train him – I wanted him to enjoy everything he learned, I wanted him to want to learn more, and I wanted him to be able to have a two way relationship with his trainer where he felt able to say “I’m not sure” or even “no, I can’t” without worrying about the consequences.

This is how I discovered training using reward, and how I began learning how to apply the area of behavioural science that forms the basis of “clicker training”.

At the end of this month, there’s the second ever Equine Clicker Conference happening in Northallerton in Yorkshire. The amazing trainers I read about when I first started working this way with my horse are going to be there, and I get to go and see them work and hear them talk about their methods, their discoveries and, of course, their horses.  What I’ve found about these people is that they can give people the same lovely warm glow I felt when doing that teaching job 15 years ago: they don’t push their amazing knowledge, wealth of experience or shining talent in your face: they make YOU feel like the clever, accomplished one. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a beginner, more experienced, or experienced enough to know you’re still an absolute beginner – they are the “perfect boss” who can bring out the best in you.

The conference is the weekend of the 21st and 22nd September, and I will be making lots of notes, learning lots of new things – and then blogging about them on here.

One final thought this week.  Teaching Physiological Psychology and Neuropsychology may sound dry – but many of the things I taught then form the basis of how I work with my horse now.  I like to think, when I arrive at the field in the morning that my horse gets the same feeling I did when my old boss arrived with the coffee and doughnuts.  This morning, for the first time, my horse jumped a four jump grid completely at liberty, in the middle of his field, surrounded by his friends (one of whom kept trying to demolish the 4th jump).  At the end, I jumped up and down and shouted “YAY”, and my horse said “huhuhuhuhuhuh”.  He got a big pile of treats on the grass to eat, and I sat on the grass beside him wondering whether horses can laugh or whether it’s very anthropomorphic to even think about that? Then I remembered one of the most interesting pieces of research to have emerged in neuroscience over the last few decades, and now I’m looking forward to the Clicker Conference even more.  Neuroscience isn’t all about rats lost in mazes: cheer up your day by watching Jaak Panksepp who set out to discover whether rats laughed…

If there’s anything you’d like me to ask at the conference, or anybody on the clicker conference agenda you’d like to know more about, ask here and I’ll make sure to include answers for you in my next blog post. If you’re going to be at the conference, please come up and say hello to me! I’m a proper shy academic type but am always delighted when someone introduces themselves!