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…