Space: the final frontier?

Kilinallen Beach, Islay, Scotland.

I love beaches, especially when they’re deserted. There’s something about how they’re neither land nor sea, neither sky nor sand, neither water nor air, more a fusion of all of these things, a borderland between what we are and what we’re about to become. Nothing compares to finding a new beach, washed clean of footprints, full of lovely shells and buried treasure and new paths to make. Redpoint and Oldshoremore in the Scottish Highlands, Kilinallen on the Isle of Islay, Killiney beach near Dublin, Koekohe Beach in New Zealand – all of these have been my beach at some point – a beach all to myself, a clean sheet, a new beginning.

So it’s irritating when someone else arrives on my beach. All that pleasure I felt, thinking it was my beach and nobody else’s! An empty beach is a real rarity, I recognise how lucky I am to find it, and it’s the arrival of someone else that makes me realise how valuable a deserted beach all to myself can be.

We don’t have a conscious awareness of scarcity or rarity. How we act tells us how we feel. We each have our own mental bank vault, where we store and count up the things that matter to us, and where we keep a tally of how much of each is out there, how much other people are getting and whether we’ve ever found it hard to come by that precious thing in the past. Not just beaches! We value all kinds of things: people who grew up during a time of rationing value certain foods. People in towns value open space, and green places. People in the country value good neighbours. People in the desert treasure water, people – like me – in Scotland value a well drained field.

We also do strange things when we detect that something is in short supply. In times of recession, when jobs are hard to come by and our livelihood is threatened, people become much more likely to dislike strangers, people who don’t seem to be part of “their” group. In times of plenty, they’re much more likely to welcome newcomers, as interesting additions to the community. We become more territorial when space is in short supply: people can be grumpy commuters when they travel at rush hour. Suddenly, a seat is worth arguing over while on an off peak train, nobody comes up and chases you off your seat just for the sake of it. Everybody gets to choose the seat they’d prefer.

Aggression is something we tend to see most often in situations where something is scarce: it’s predicted that 21st century wars may be caused by disputes over access to water, an increasingly threatened resource.  It’s not just food and water that can cause us to behave aggressively: in 1983, riots broke out at toy stores when a new doll called a Cabbage Patch Kid became the most demanded Christmas present, but available only in limited numbers.

Horses also have things they value, and they are also able to judge how plentiful it is. In the same way that humans, we can work this out by watching them.  Like humans, each horse is both a member of a group and an individual, with individual preferences.  Not every horse places the same value on the same resource.  My gelding has a very relaxed personal space concept – even strange horses are allowed to stand and graze very near him from soon after introduction.  Other horses have a very strong concept of personal space, and it takes them a long time to allow even familiar group members to approach. These preferences are partly innate, and partly formed by experience. The horse I know who most strongly protects his personal space was born in a foaling box and didn’t experience a group environment or a field for some time after birth… from day one, space was a resource to be defended.

A horse like this may appear quite aggressive to other horses passing his stable in a barn situation, because his personal space bubble extends outside the walls of his box.  In making an aggressive approach to a passing horse, he’s not trying to take space from them, but to try to ensure that the limited space he has is still available to him. Horses are not territorial: a stallion defends his group against others, not a particular space. However, they do start to defend space when it’s restricted for some reason: a particular group of feral horses living on a small island are unusual in that they try to maintain a preferred territory.

We call this behaviour of defending a scarce resource “dominant behaviour”. Dominance is the behaviour we see in relation to that resource, not a quantifiable part of the animal. Labelling a horse as dominant is quite misleading: a horse can be dominant over food, but not dominant over space (my horse would be an example). The behaviour may less frequent in summer when grass is abundant than in winter when all the horses are hungrier. You might label my horse as dominant if you watched him defending food, but not if you watched him defending space.

Another example: mares who don’t make much of a fuss over access to shade, water or preferred companions can change behaviour abruptly when they’re feeding a foal.  In particular, they can become very determined to gain access to water supplies, especially during warm spells of weather and they will fend off other mares where previously they wouldn’t have confronted them.

The way we manage horses domestically means that we place lots of resources in short supply that feral horses wouldn’t worry about.  In a feral group, there is a constant magnetic pull inwards to the group: it provides the horse with safety in numbers, with family bonds and with access to mates.  At the same time, there’s a constant pull away from the group: other group members may compete for the shady spot, the chance to stand next to a preferred companion (and skilled fly swatter), or access to mum and dad.  The tension this causes is very neatly balanced by a range of behaviours designed to minimise conflict. A feral group is very peaceful and harmonious to watch: aggressive behaviours are limited, because they are not in the interest of individual horses.  You don’t want to jeopardise your safety, so you compromise.  Humans do this too: the study of Proxemics looks at how people move together in groups.  We maintain a delicate balance between moving in the direction we want to go with collaboration to ensure we don’t bump in to each other. This works really well until the crowd becomes too big – then we are annoyed by being jostled, having to weave in and out and slow our speed to avoid collisions.  This in turn can lead to loss of tempers.

Everything we do with domestic horses places them in a resource conflict.  We overcrowd them:  in a standard sized field, there are more horses than would choose to be near each other, and they’re not family members but transient acquaintances, so they require even more social distance.  Similarly, in the barn, the stables are often not as big as personal space bubbles.  When aggression occurs, instead of giving the whole group more space, we isolate the “troublemaker”, meaning that they now identify horse companionship as a scarce resource, leading to attachment problems and separation anxiety.  We feed individual feeds and haynets, making the one resource freely available to feral horses (forage) into a valuable item.  And again, when aggression happens, we isolate the troublemaker rather than changing how we feed and giving more space.  We parcel water out in individual bowls.  We give a single companion (of our choice) rather than a mixed group and plenty of space.

When we do these things in human society, we empathetically understand that food shortage leads to disputes, that overcrowding leads to friction: and, when we’re smart enough, we work to resolve these issues rather than choosing to label and isolate each “troublemaker”.  We know that because someone starts a revolution due to shortage of feed that they won’t, next week, start another revolution just for the hell of it.  People act to defend what they value, not just because they can cause trouble.  Horses are the same.  When you’re next on that deserted beach, remember the value you place on the wind in your hair: when you give your horse space to be a horse, the joy that comes from that is your payment.

Space to gallop: Irvine Beach, Scotland.

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7 thoughts on “Space: the final frontier?

  1. Love it, have a blog on the tip of my pen that I have not been getting to, based on the observation of changes in temperament of a horse who suddenly has limited resources after a lifetime of open spaces and buffet grass, and I feel just the same about beaches as you do:)

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