Every morning on the way to work, I have a cup of coffee. Since coffee on its own is lonely, I make sure it has some cake to keep it company. And since drinking a cup of coffee (and eating some cake) is something I do sitting down in a café, I bring an interesting book along, and read it for 15 minutes. Then I continue on my journey from station to office, my slight caffeine addiction dealt with for the day.
What does this have to do with horses? It’s the cosy café syndrome. It has a strong draw – it’s rather difficult for me to walk past, and it’s associated, in my mind, with something enjoyable. It’s something that happens at a specific time of day, and if it doesn’t happen, I miss it. It’s a bit like bringing a horse in to a stable where, every day at the same time, a bucket and a hay net waits for them.
Are there any parallels between their behaviour and mine? The first thing that springs to mind is how I would feel about my cosy café if it suddenly stopped serving coffee and cake. How much of what I feel about the café is linked to what I get there? We form associations in our mind between places and what happens at those places. Psychologists love experiments where clever rats find their way around mazes: in some early research with rats, the researchers noticed that the rats spent a lot of time hanging about a place in a maze where they’d got food before. They kept coming back to that place, even when there wasn’t food there any more. We find it very easy to add a mental map of places where good things happen to our map of the world, and we even have a specific part of the brain that it excellent at registering this kind of information. It’s called the hippocampus – the Latin name for the seahorse – because of its shape.
So I might well still have a very positive feeling about the café for a while, even if it stopped serving food, although my visits might begin to be a little less frequent – and I might find an alternative location where even better coffee and cake could be found. Or I might form a new pattern of behaviour – learning that I no longer get what I am looking for using my old mental map will start me off exploring, to find an alternative.
Horses do this too. At the moment, my horse waits for me every morning at the top of the field. He’s pretty punctual – if I’m very early, he might not be there. If I’m a bit late, he’ll be there but asleep! Every morning, my visit predicts the arrival of a tasty bucket of feed. This week, there’s been snow, and my little car doesn’t make it to the top of the hill, so I’ve been parking at a different gate. In the distance, I can see the horses at the top of hill, expecting the horsey equivalent of coffee and cake. But that cafe’s closed! It’s only taken two days for them to realise that the food now appears at the bottom of the hill – they were waiting for me this morning, having learned a new good association with a new place. Food is a really good way that both we and our horses learn – and learn fast – about where’s a good place. So stables are good – and horses will continue to follow us into stables even after all the food has been removed, because they have a good feeling about the place. Horses who’ve been fed on trailers (provided trailers have no previous bad associations) learn that trailers are good places to be. Horses know which fields have the best grass (and they’ll try to take us there…). And they know when the cafe’s closed – have you ever seen a horse drag their human from field to stable, or from stable to field? Winter grass does not compare to the instant hit of best espresso (aka ad lib haylage and a bucket of feed). And last year’s haylage does not compare to the green spring grass being served in the field up the road – our horses change their behaviour according to where they’ve found the best feed. Other things make horses learn about places too: today I saw a picture of a horse at a “cleaning station” – a feral Criollo horse in Venezuela who will travel to the spot where helpful birds are waiting to pick small parasites from the horse’s coat.
We can use this information to understand why our horses are keen to be in specific places, and why they sometimes change their minds. We can also use it to help them learn to like a new place, and finally we can learn ourselves that sometimes, we may need to think ahead to make sure the draw of the cosy café does not lead to detours to fields and neighbours’ stables en route to where we intended to go!
Next week, I’m going to the dentist. Expect an update on horses and dental surgeries… but in the meantime, here’s a pleasant association being formed: