Is competing just for the sake of competing a unique human characteristic? As a species, we love competition. Sometimes the prize is something tangible and we can see its importance to our survival as an individual: watching brothers and sisters using sophisticated “dirty tricks” to win the largest portion of dessert can be very entertaining to watch. On the other hand, there are times when winning doesn’t guarantee our own survival, but it may contribute towards the survival of our genes. Human courtship is a clear example of this kind of competition, and we can spend hours people watching in nightclubs, spotting who’s wearing the most eyecatching outfit or doing the most outrageous dance! Much of the time, though, our competitions don’t obviously feature prizes that help us survive either as individuals or as a species. Rosettes and trophies that we win in a range of equestrian competitions are examples of these: they are very important to us, and some may go to extreme lengths to earn them, but the reasons we compete in this way are complex and even after tens of thousands of years of human speculation, we still don’t have a complete understanding why we’re driven to act this way.
When we’re asked to explain the human desire to compete, we often refer to other species. We can see quite clearly that many species compete fiercely, and so it makes sense to us that we should have this drive too. We see lionesses bringing down prey and then being driven off their prize by hungry lions. We see stags engaging in spectacular fights over access to does. In hot countries, water sources are often the scene for competition over access to fresh, clean water both between members of the same species as well as between different species. In domesticated animals like our own horses, we can see subtle competition between animals over access to friends. In humans, we can watch something very similar in school playgrounds!
Humans are unusual in the animal kingdom, though. We enlist other species in our own competitions, and winning is subject to them behaving in very specific ways. Over millennia, our keen hunter’s eye has allowed us to spot behaviour characteristic of many species that we can use to satisfy our own competitive urges – so we’ve watched horses in their natural state and seen them showing off to rivals, running from predators and migrating over many miles to find food and water.
Quick to spot the sporting potential in situations, we devise human entertainments that involve our horse running faster than other horses, our horse jumping higher than other horses, our horse having greater stamina than other horses, or our horse being able to perform better display behaviours than other horses. We set about training them to perform these behaviours on command, but not content with that, we start to attribute the emotions we would feel in that situation to the horse. We say “he loves to race”, “she loves to jump”, “he wants to show off”… Yet freed from our motivation and our constraints, the horse somehow fails to perform these actions of their own accord. Rather boringly, they just walk off to their companions and start grazing, ignoring the arena, the jumps and the carefully manicured gallops.
Do our horses understand competition? Do they feel satisfaction when they win a rosette, or win a race? Do they feel less satisfaction if they come third, or fail to complete the course?
For humans, winning is about that occasional feeling of elation that comes with the knowledge that we have reached a certain standard. We look out like hawks for the signs that we have won – the applause of a crowd, the score on a dressage test, the photo that shows our horse was first past the post. For our horses, the feedback is more likely to be relief and release. They know that we slacken off slightly after each jump, and completely at the end of a round. They know that at a certain point, the jockey stops driving them. The pressure on the poll, mouth and sides of a dressage horse is increased to ask for a behaviour then slackened fractionally when they perform as told, and they are allowed to resume a relaxed posture at the end of a test. Horses in human competitions are working to regain freedom, not to achieve supremacy. They learn quickly that there are things they can do to get to the release point faster. If we let them, they will speed up towards jumps, because they know the release is on the other side. They will speed up past other horses in the race, because their jockey will drive less when they are in front.
We have chosen to compete using a species whose primary aim is to cooperate. They were domesticated in the first place because of their cooperative nature, and they allow us to sublimate our urge to win because, instead of competing with us, they follow our direction. Horses love to run, but there is no reward for being in front. In running from predators, horses bunch together because a lone horse is an easier target. A horse will jump an obstacle they can’t go around when they’re making an escape or to get to something they want – but leave a horse in a ring with 10 jumps, and even the most motivated won’t jump more than one. Horses will elevate their paces and move like dancers for very brief periods when showing off to rivals, but they don’t sustain the postures for more than a few seconds at a time, and they certainly don’t do it when there’s no rival or potential mate there – otherwise, how would they know their showing off has been successful?
The posts in this blog use aspects of anthropomorphism to highlight similarities between horse and human behaviour, with the aim of showing a different way to think about why horses behave the way they do. I wouldn’t dream of saying that horses aren’t competitive, but I would argue that they are very unlikely to understand the competitions we construct around them. What they’re doing with us is co-operating, not competing. As a species, affiliative interactions are the glue that keep them together, and keeping together is what keeps them safe and provides the opportunity to reproduce.
There’s a name for a relationship between two different species where both benefit – it’s called mutualism. There’s also a name for a relationship between two species where one benefits and the other doesn’t – it’s called parasitism. A funny example of mutualism exists inside the horse: horses need bacteria to help digest the food they eat. The bacteria need the forage that the horse eats but can’t process on its own… Both organisms benefit.
When we compete with our horses, we benefit. We choose to compete because there is a personal reward. We don’t always win, but there is always the chance that we might. But is the horse-human relationship mutualism, or is it parasitism? From the horse’s point of view, there is a clear cost to cooperating with us. In many cases they lose the chance to reproduce, they miss out on social interactions with companions they choose themselves and they lose the ability to choose where to live and what to eat. Our rationale – if we offer one – tends to be that our competition horses live a life of pampered luxury. We make sure they don’t have to walk more than two steps across their deep bedded stable to get access to the highest quality feed, we remove them from the risk of injury during rough play or sexual rivalry, we shelter them from inclement weather… In fact, we consistently remove almost every single aspect of our horses’ lives where they might, in natural situations, compete with other horses!
Can we have it both ways? It’s hard to believe our own explanation that a horse loves to compete, when we’re so careful to make sure that they never experience any competition in their lives in case it affects their health or causes injury! If we accept that horses have no understanding of our goals in competing, that doesn’t mean that the natural cooperation they offer us can’t be rewarded and rewarding. There are many things we can do to make the relationship mutualism and not parasitism… and I’d be very interested to hear people’s ideas on what these might be!