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.

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