When I was growing up, I had a friend called Marie. She was a little older than me and she had lots of ideas for great games we could play. One day she decided she was going to teach me to play chess.
It took a while for me to work out that I wasn’t ever winning and, in fact, I wasn’t even coming close to winning. It took a while longer for me to begin to suspect that all was not as it should be. It took even longer again for me to work out that she’d made up the rules she taught me. I’m still a bit suspicious of chess! I learned the real rules and I play chess occasionally, but at the back of my mind I still have an idea that it’s not a fair game.
We know from a very early age about games and play. It seems to be hardwired, both the desire to play and the built in understanding that there are rules. There are different types of play – there’s object play, where we play with things. We share this with other species as anybody knows who’s watched a small child play happily with the box and packaging of a new toy – and then watched their cat happily play with the same thing. There’s also what’s called locomotor play – we share this with other species too: the sheer joy of running, jumping on things, jumping over things, running under things, and just running for the sake of running.
Then there’s social play. We share this with other species too: we’re drawn towards other young humans, we want to interact with them and play games, and the games have rules. One of the rules that was violated in my early chess matches was that the odds shouldn’t be stacked in one person’s favour. It seems that one of the functions of play is to help us learn about unexpected physical and emotional situations, and in order to learn this, we do something called self-handicapping. We make a physical challenge more difficult: if we’ve learned to walk heel-to-toe without falling over, we’re then driven to do it along a plank. And then along a five foot high garden wall! We also self-handicap in social games: my friend should have explained the rules of chess fairly to me, and then given me the occasional chance to win by making the odd duff move.
Watching horses play, we see this too. My horse is a hulking 17hh gelding, but as a youngster, he loved playing with his 14hh Connemara friend. Realistically, he could have flattened his friend, but he didn’t: there was a dance of “now I’m winning, now you’re winning” as they nipped at each other’s throats and chin hairs. Jackson had a constant line of lumpy love bites along the underside of his neck from his smaller friend who clearly treated self handicapping with the same contempt as Marie did.
Young horses and humans have a strong desire to play. It builds strength, coordination, stamina, and it teaches about social rules and social roles. It teaches about what we are able to do, and it teaches about what to do if things don’t go as expected. Playing actually changes our brains: it helps develop the important part of our brains that allow us to make good judgements, have control over our impulses, and over our emotions. It’s an essential part of our development. Humans AND horses!
One thing that doesn’t happen very often is interspecies play. I had a puppy when I was a child, and so I learned, eventually, what a dog’s invitation to play looks like. I didn’t know instinctively though, and he didn’t know mine. We also preferred different games. When we did play, though, the one factor that got us through was the knowledge that play is reciprocal. When it’s not fun for one party any longer, it ends. Both sides have to be made roughly equal, so nobody gets pushed around. And it has to be fun! The whole point of play is that it engages the reward and pleasure centres of our brain, making us want to do it again (and again, and again, and again if you’re a very small child playing peek a boo). Playing with our horses can be very rewarding, but both species need to learn the rules. Horse play is called horse play for a reason: humans don’t manage very well in games that involve lots of nipping and biting, nor do we come out well in games that involve charging at full speed, while leaping in the air and kicking out. Horses don’t know this! Over time (and with gentle hints from us) they can slow down the charging and still enjoy a run around with their humans.
Elements of horse training that get named as “games” or described by us as “play” often aren’t play at all from the point of view of our horses. The rules are broken: they can’t leave at any time if they don’t like it, as they’re attached to us by a rope. There’s no self-handicapping: we set these games up like Marie’s chess, so that we always come out on top and the horse has no chance of winning. They’re not games our horses would request to play, in the first place, and once played, they’re rarely requested again. There’s nothing wrong with training our horse, but there are issues with labelling the training as “play” or a “game” – creating beliefs on our part about how willing the horse is to engage with us and how much they’re enjoying what we’re doing to them.
That’s one horse/human play challenge: can we play games with them that both parties recognize as an enjoyable game with appropriate rules, and that both want to play again without needing (even gentle) coercion?
How we keep our horses leads to another play dilemma. Each type of play: object, locomotor and social, is essential to different parts of development. “Rough and tumble” play, or horse play, has been shown to be vital to the development of social and coping skills in other animals. When the animals don’t get a chance to do this, they still develop the full range of normal behaviours so that to us, they look normal. But in “novel, unexpected, or otherwise disturbing situations, [they are] less able to cope, and this is reflected by them not using the appropriate behaviour patterns”.
How do we raise our young horses? Many horses are born and raised with only their dams. Sometimes, there’s also one or two older steady horses. They don’t have the chance to play rough and tumble games with a group of similarly aged horses. They don’t have the chance to learn the emotional control and the impulse control that they would if they were raised with other young horses, at the time when they need this. We actually stunt their brain development without realising, and then we wonder why we have horses who find it hard to deal with stressful situations, to live in a herd and to pay attention to us in distracting situations.
At the same time, they’re like only children (I’m speaking from experience as a lone child plus puppy here!). When we don’t have the appropriate same species playmate, we still have that desire to play (to develop our brains) that’s like a strong itch, so we try to get adults, small dogs, and other likely candidates to play with us. I am sure I was a nuisance as a child. Many owners find their young horses a nuisance (and many even become afraid of them). They’re always bouncing around, wanting to play nip the human, play tug with zips, play chase the human: and all the things we do to discourage them just encourage them further. Swatting at the head of a young horse who’s just nipped you looks to them exactly like the way another young horse accepting the play invitation. Chasing off a young horse who’s just invited you to play “chase and charge” to them looks like you just joined the game.
What should we do? We should recognize that they, like us, have an urge to play that can’t be overridden, because without the different types of play, they can’t grow and develop as they should. We should recognize that our young horse may not have had opportunities to play when they needed to, so they may want to play with us. We should try to provide young horses (especially young male horses) with an group of similarly aged playmates so that they don’t need to direct their impulses at us. We should understand how to say “no thanks, I can’t play like that” politely, and we should learn and help them learn how humans and horses can interact playfully, but safely. Domestic horses, like humans, continue to enjoy the occasional game even in adulthood. So let’s remember the rules: reciprocity, fairness, taking turns, both parties must have fun, either party can end the game. We knew that already, of course, because our early friendships should have taught us the rules of fair play!