Home Sweet Home

I’ve moved house a few times in my life now. I’ve moved away from the family home where I grew up – and I had to pack up my home and decide what part of my “life” I was going to take with me. I’ve also moved into temporary accommodation (a student flat) that was shared with complete strangers.

With each move, I’ve learned new things about myself. One of the first things I learned is that the things we choose to move along with ourselves have functions. Some things are necessities of life: we move pots, kettles, clothes. They’re things we’re going to need regardless of where we’re living, and they will work equally well no matter where we go. Other things we take because when we see them (or feel them, or sniff them) they evoke nice memories of the place we used to live. They give us a feeling of comfort and security. Another category of things we bring are things we want other people to see. We put them on display in our new homes, because they say something about us.

In my first ever house move, I moved from the family home where I’d grown up. I was the only one left there. Both parents had died and it was a rented house, although we’d lived there for 20 years. It was the only home I remembered, and my dad had (with a very small amount of help from me) created the garden from scratch. So I dug up my favourite rose bush – one called “Peace” that had a beautiful flower the colour of ripe peaches – and I transplanted it into the “garden” of the house I’d bought myself. The scent of the rose when it bloomed reminded me of gardening with my dad, and although people told me you couldn’t transplant a mature rose bush, it grew perfectly in my new home.

When we move horses to a new place, in some ways it’s similar to a house move for us. They find themselves in a new place, disconnected from the smells, sights, familiar pathways and safe places of their previous “home”. But home for a horse is a “home range”, not a cosy flat or house, and in that way, they are different from humans. Horses are not usually territorial: their home range would naturally overlaps with the home range of other groups of horses, so finding a pile of dung is interesting rather than threatening. When we move, we are as curious about our new neighbours as they are about us, and we’ll often seek them out in a safe place to get to know them. A casual “hello” when putting out the bins, or a chat over the fence while gardening are all safe ways of meeting.

A different situation for both us and our horses are when we’re thrown into the “home” of an established group, or when we and a group of strangers are thrown together. My student flat was a bit like this! Six complete strangers, a range of nationalities and cultures, and a small flat with shared bathrooms, living area and kitchen created a challenging test of our social skills. Here, we had to compete for shared resources, and we all edged carefully around each other, testing who used the bathroom at what time, and how much of “our” stuff we could safely put in the shared fridge.

When moving horses to a new place where other horses already live, it’s safest to find a neutral zone for meeting. Because the resident horses will have their own photographs on the mantel, and their own food in the fridge, as well as their own sheets on the beds and clothes in the wardrobes (metaphorically, of course!). The new horses will want to incorporate their own scents, make their own new paths and find the best grazing, resting and drinking spots. You can experiment with different ways of helping both groups get to know each other… but beware of the “shared resources”. People often find that horses will meet and quickly settle down with new horses on the other side of a fence, but when they’re put together things can become strained. Thinking of it like the student flat, it’s not all that surprising. I would get on fine meeting and living next to new people in the next door house – but it’s quite different if they moved in with me and started to eat my milk and eggs! Even though a field may look quite large to us, it’s still a lot smaller than the home range a group of horses would share with other groups, so we need to work to minimise friction due to horses feeling crowded.

Horses enjoy exploration – but they generally do it from a secure base. They explore incrementally, knowing that they can return along paths they know if they feel out of their depth. When we move them, we take away the landmarks and mental maps. Helping our horses build new ones can help reduce the stress of the move. It might be worth thinking about bringing along “treasured possessions”, just like my rosebush! Think about things you can bring that evoke feelings of safety and security in your horse. If they have to leave a close friend, borrow something that smells of the friend along: a nice sweaty saddlecloth, or an old rug, and hang it somewhere your horse will rest in the new place. Think about creating a rolling pit, using soil and dust collected from favourite rolling spots in your horse’s previous home.

You can also help your horse create positive associations with the new home by creating treasure hunts, and exploring with them. Short walks where carrots or some sweet feed are discovered will help them learn that the new place is a good place to live. You can help them learn where the good water supply is, where the shady resting spots are, find good lookouts. Ideally, if you can manage to move your horse along with a companion from their previous home, the “social stress” of the move is reduced, and explorations of the new place can take place in pairs, making both horses feel more confident about their new home.

IF the new home includes a stable, make that stable smell and look like home before your horse arrives. Bring some dirty bedding from the old place. In the student flat, one of the first things I did was make the bed with my bedlinen. Once the room looked and smelled familiar, it felt less strange.

Sleep is very important in helping horses (and people) deal with change, yet it’s one of the things that’s often disrupted in a new place. Even if you have familiar bed linen, the noises during the night are different, there are different scents, new neighbours may have different sleep/wake cycles. Stabled horses have no choice but to learn to deal with this, but bringing some used bedding from the previous home may help deal with this a little better.

Finally, a great way to both learn about your new environment and settle into it at the same time is to do things you already enjoy doing, but in the new place. So if you love Sunday brunch, you find a nice place near your new home, buy yourself the Sunday papers, and head off to spend a relaxing morning. On the way, you learn where the papershop is, you meet some new people, and you get to taste some new food. If your horse has well learned activities they enjoy (this would especially apply to horses who have a range of well learned and positively reinforced skills – touching and following targets, for example), doing these things in the new home is another way of learning that it’s a good place to be.

These are just a few ideas about ways of helping our horses find moving home less stressful. I would love to hear about other ideas people have, or about things you’ve done that have worked for your horses. If you post your ideas as a reply here, other people who read will be able to benefit from them!

I suppose there’s no coincidence, in the end, that the rose I chose to bring was called “Peace” – since that’s what I was hoping to find in my new home. Horses are the same, and helping them find it is both an interesting challenge for us as well as ultimately very rewarding.


It all adds up…

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The sudden and much anticipated arrival of Scottish summer over the last week or so has made me less productive in terms of writing: it’s hard to focus on working on a computer when there’s sunshine and happy horses waiting to have fun!

But I’ve been given a topic to write about through a discussion about a horse who’s had a nasty infection in two out of four legs that seems to be very resistant to vet treatment.

It’s taken me back to an amazing time in the history of psychology: the years during the early 1960s when it suddenly became clear that some physical illnesses were related to our emotional responses to things that happened to us.  To say it now isn’t all that surprising, but back then, the brain and the body were considered separate.  Illnesses of the body were caused by outside agents – germs, poor hygiene, wars, bad lifestyles.  Problems with the mind weren’t considered illnesses at all: there was no such concept as mental health or mental illness.

Part of the change happened because two researchers, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, asked 5,000 people with physical illnesses what had happened in their lives in the previous year.  As a result of what the people told them, Holmes and Rahe worked out that the more things that happen that disrupt your life, the more likely you are to become ill.  They went on to test this by asking healthy people to keep records of what happened to them over a period of time.  The people who had the most things happen to them (Holmes and Rahe called the things “life events”) were the people most likely to become ill.  Although there was a range of illnesses, many people who had experienced lots of life changes suffered from heart disease, asthma, skin allergies and ulcers. They also tended to get more coughs, colds, flu – and there was a slower healing time for minor injuries.

As a result of the research, something called the Social Readustment Rating Scale was developed.  Different life events were given different scores: bereavements and marriage breakdown tended to have the highest weighting.  Loss of job and retirement were also rated as being very challenging, as was moving house. What these things had in common was that they generally put the person in a very stressful situation, where they didn’t have access to their normal social support.  The most important thing about the scale was that while a person could probably deal with one or even two quite difficult situations, if lots of smaller scale things were heaped on top of this their health would start to suffer.

I think we should think about our horses’ lives in a similar way.  We do often realise they’re under some stress, but once it’s all done and dealt with from our point of view, we forget it.  But horses, like us, are very sensitive to social stress, and like many of the people studied by Holmes and Rahe, they have very little control over what happens to them.  So in a given year, how many life events has your horse experienced? One? Two? A few minor ones?  Here are things I think are horse life events: please add to my list!  Moving home, leaving all familiar companions behind.  That’s a huge one!  Bereavement – death of a companion – that’s bad, but in many ways for the horse, it’s not that much different from being moved to a different home – in both cases, they lose their friends.  Box rest – there’s another big one – familiar friends are there but they have no access to them – just like being sent to jail, which is the fourth most serious life event on the Holmes and Rahe human life events scale.

Humans rate difficulties at work as very stressful, especially change of job.  So think of a horse being ridden for the first time – they have to learn many new things in a short space of time, they may take a while to understand what they need to know, and they’re learning in a situation where their social support isn’t present.

A change in eating habits rates quite a few points on the Social Readjustment Rating Scale. This happens to horses at least twice a year: from summer turnout to winter housing, from winter housing to summer turnout.

Taking this into account, a competition horse can experience many life events in the course of a few months.  So the high incidence of ulcers, colic are to be expected in many performance horses, because each event, each change is added on to the total score.  In two or three months, we’ve forgotten that our horse has changed yards, changed turnout, lost close friends, had to fit in with a new group, been taken to lots of shows, changed diet… We’ve forgotten, but our horse’s body hasn’t.  Here’s one example of what can happen: elevated stress levels lead to the release of a substance called histamine.  Histamine is a broncho-constrictor, it narrows the passages in the lungs making it more difficult to breathe.  It also increases gastric acid production, and it increases our skin’s response to irritants.  In horses, you may see coughs, breathing problems, hives, gastric ulcers. A substance called cortisol is present in higher than usual levels in our bodies during times of stress: it keeps our bodies functioning in adverse situations.  However when the stress levels drop, and cortisol levels start to return to normal, it leaves an after effect of low immunity, so we’re more likely to catch colds, and small injuries take longer to heal.  This is just like the horse that started me off thinking about this: tiny injuries on the leg that just wouldn’t heal and are getting worse instead of better despite time and treatment.

Because it’s our (and our horses’) emotional response to things that happen, and because the things that have most effect tend to involve having to deal with changed social situations, we should try to take this into account when working with them.  If your horse has to move, can you make it so that they move with a companion, a horse they already know?  When they get to a new place, can they meet just one or two sociable horses in a situation where there’s no pressure in terms of scarce resources (plenty of space, plenty of food).  If they’re being trained in something new, can you arrange so they have a familiar companion with them?  At shows, can they have familiar company?  If on box rest, can you arrange a stable where they have as much familiar social contact as possible?  It’s sometimes not possible to remove all the damaging stress from a domesticated horse’s life, but by keeping a mental tally of the changes they’ve had to deal with over the last year, we can help them stay fit and healthy.

Please feel free to share – and let me know anything you think should be a horsey “life event” either here or on the HorsesUnderOurSkin Facebook page (if you “like” the page, you can be sure to get updates when there are new posts).

I’m off out to enjoy some Scottish evening sunshine, thank you for reading!

The Jigsaw Puzzle

IMG_20151213_091020603A few years ago, I decided to learn to snowboard. This was a painful process. There seemed to be multiple skills to learn. There was the balancing on a flat board that had a tendency to slide, there was the weight shifts that made the board move in the direction you wanted (and sometimes very fast in directions you didn’t) and there was even complex skills like attaching the board to your feet and then standing up. I began by getting some lessons on a dry ski slope and spent lots of time catching an edge and flipping forward onto my face, or backwards onto my (already very bruised) left bum cheek. I kept going, grittily determined to crack this annoying puzzle.

It was a little bit like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle, but one where you hadn’t been given the picture to aim for, just a bag of tiny pieces and no instructions. The end goal of the task is fairly clear, but to start with, you have to work out a strategy using skills and knowledge you already have. You also have to gain some new skills: working out which bits won’t ever fit together with other bits; deciding what to do with those confusing pieces that have a tab on each of the four sides; trying to find the corners and the edges. All the while, you still don’t have a mental picture of what the end result will be like, although you might have seen other completed jigsaws.

Skill learning for humans and horses can be a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle with no picture, yet both species manage very well to acquire new skills.

Imagine trying to teach a horse to step sideways when ridden. You want them to understand that although up until now, you’ve always asked them to move forward in a straight line, you now want them to cross their legs over and move forwards and sideways at the same time. You want them to understand not to do it when you don’t ask, and you want them to understand what the signal is for when you want them to start. Besides the new movement skill, they also have to work out your cues. Just as with the jigsaw puzzle, the horse has no mental picture of the end point that you’re trying to reach, they just have lots of little pieces you’ve given them. To the horse, there’s probably no obvious connection between any of these pieces!

In a (human or horse) training session, we try to practice the component skills of what we’re trying to learn. We build new skills onto a foundation of existing skills by combining the parts in a different way, or by adding a variation on an existing skill.

We try training our horses during schooling sessions to both refine and improve existing skills and to add new ones. Sometimes, these sessions can end up frustrating for both horse and human, as we try again and again, sometimes coming very close to what we want to achieve, and then finding we’ve moved even further away from the completed jigsaw. This tantalising process leads to us trying over and over to get just a tiny bit better.

There’s lots of research on learning new things that can help us with this process, and some of it is not at all what you’d expect.

The first thing to think about is that new skills involve two things: acquiring the clever knack of doing the new thing, as well as being physically fit enough to do it. We tend to plug away at both of these at the same time, thinking that they’re inextricably linked and that if we practice enough, we and the horse will be able to do it. But that’s not actually how the brain and body work together to learn new skills. You can get fit and supple enough to begin doing the new skill without ever actually doing it. Unfortunately, the repeated and not quite successful attempts actually make the learning process less efficient and more offputting to the trainee.

This is because there’s a key part of the jigsaw that’s missing. Our brains have two important things to do: they need to remember all the information about the experience of trying to do the new thing that we gain during our practice session (and these include the times we almost managed, the times we were way off and the occasional times when, by accident, we did it exactly right). One part of our brain is expert at storing all these: it’s like the cache on your computer, a temporary store for recent events that you might need to think about later. Each day, this gets all filled up with what you’re doing. If you tried to permanently store all the information you take in each day, your brain’s hard drive would end up full! The magic part is the second part of the brain… It’s the part that has stored all your skills and memories of how to learn – but while useful stuff is stored there, it needs to be uploaded again to be used.

So, picture the situation. You’ve made lots of progress today learning your new skill, and the memory trace is in the temporary cache. If it gets added in a meaningful way to the stuff already stored, you will make an amazing improvement in the skill. But your brain is busy with daily life and you can’t manage to integrate the two. So your brain waits until there’s enough processing power available to integrate the two things. This process happens while we sleep, and is most likely one of the really important reasons why we do sleep. Horses’ brains are exactly the same (in fact, we could propose that every animal that sleeps most likely uses this “memory consolidation” process to learn new things).

So that’s why you often see big improvements between training sessions that are separated by a rest period when the animal sleeps. It certainly worked for my snowboarding – I would almost always start the new lesson – a week after the previous one – looking much more competent than I had at the end of the last lesson. With horses, we sometimes laugh and say “wow, I think she’s been thinking about this since yesterday”. And that’s partly true, although it may not be during the hours of consciousness! What’s happened is that the new information has been matched with the older, stored information and pieces have fallen into place that make the jigsaw start to make sense. This jump between training sessions is called “latent” learning: it’s learning that’s hidden away until there’s a reason for it to be revealed. It can be hidden from one day to the next, or it can remain hidden for a long time until there’s a good reason to use it.

Training sessions are hard brain work. The research shows that a brain during the training process is using lots of energy, and that lots of different parts of the brain are working hard. In contrast, once the overnight storage and processing has taken place, we (and our horses) both look much more skilled while using much smaller brain effort to achieve a better result. Our brains are set up to be as efficient as possible, and to use as little processing power as possible when doing something. This allows us room to learn even more new things.

So there are a few clear tips we can incorporate in our training of new skills. Whether we’re trying to learn to sit to a bouncy trot, or whether our horse is trying to learn to step sideways at the same time as going forwards, it’s much better to focus on the new skill for only a short period of time during a longer training session. That’s because filling the brain with lots of not quite successful attempts makes the overnight process of weeding out the good attempts more difficult, and it’s also because endlessly repeating something without quite getting it right isn’t much fun. The other thing is that we can work on fitness and flexibility separately from the new skill, so we can prepare the body to be able to do the new skill once our brain has sorted out the knack involved. And the final thing is that the new (but hidden or latent) skills tend to be revealed when there’s a good reason for them to appear: the horse is more likely to try using them if they can see a benefit for themselves in the process. I suppose that must be the reason my most successful snowboard runs were the ones that ended up on a sunny terrace with a giant hot chocolate, extra marshmallows, and no bruises!

Paths of Desire


Sometimes, even though there’s a clear path to our destination, we prefer to choose our own route. All over the countryside, and in parks and green spaces in towns and cities, you can see little unofficial pathways. They might be a quicker way from A to B, they might be more scenic, they might go under shady trees or on drier ground. The name for these unofficial routes is Paths of Desire (or desire paths). There’s often nothing to see at first, just a few locals who know that there’s a different way to get to a specific place. As time goes on, and more feet wear the grass, the path becomes visible. Eventually it may become the main path: recently the builders of a new university campus chose not to put paths in until they saw where people wanted to walk.

Horse and human brains work a bit like this. Brains are able to connect “what just happened”, “what we did”, and “what happened next”. One neuron fires, it sets off another neuron, and then another. If they all fire in sequence a few times, a pathway is formed, and if this keeps happening, it becomes a highway. Neurons in the brain have lots of neighbours, but like us, they tend to choose familiar pathways and soon, when we’re in a familiar situation, we automatically do the same thing each time. It gets difficult to choose another pathway (a different behaviour) – we just get routed off down the well travelled path.

This happens for a reason. It’s part of the way we learn which behaviours get us what we want. Very occasionally though, it can work against us.

Imagine you have a new horse and you decide to clip him. The horse might have heard clippers before – he already has a store of experiences with clippers, some positive, some not. When you approach with the clippers, he tries a few different things: stepping away, raising his head, swinging hindquarters away. You think to yourself, “that’s not bad, just a little reaction”, you get a helper to hold the headcollar and work away. The horse’s worry doesn’t go away, so he makes his behaviour a little bigger: a few mini-rears, or a cow kick. Something he does eventually gets you to stop and he’s learned that clippers are worrying but it’s possible to stop the worry. Next time, he’s worried already when you approach, and acts up a bit sooner. The brain path for the behaviour that worked gets a little more deeply etched. This process is called sensitisation: the horse is becoming more sensitive to something that worries him. Just like having sensitive skin, it means that each time, the reaction happens a bit faster and gets a bit worse. The horse is still able to do other things – the brain pathway isn’t the only pathway yet, so there are still days when he doesn’t react much and tries different responses to get you to stop.

Eventually, if we persist, the horse learns to fear the clippers. You know this has happened when he reacts before the clippers are anywhere near, it’s a big reaction and it’s exactly the same each time. His heart rate will be up, his breathing will be faster and he’ll try very hard to get a safe distance away from the clippers. Now there’s a fast motorway between stimulus (the clippers) and response (escape or fight).

If the horse meets the scary clippers for the first time in a situation where he’s already a bit worried, this pathway can be burned in deep the very first time. At the same time, the horse learns an association with the clippers: every time the clippers are there, he feels anxious and afraid. So not only is there a brain pathway that leads to a specific behaviour, there’s also a brain pathway that leads to a specific emotion: fear.

Humans have the same way of dealing with anxiety and fear: when we get to the fear then escape stage, we call it a phobia. If you’ve ever had a phobia, you know you spend quite a lot of time making sure you never encounter the scary thing, so the escape response doesn’t get set off. I have a worm phobia. I don’t remember a specific trigger event, but spring a harmless wriggly thing on me (including worm shaped twigs and abandoned shoe laces) and my heart is in my mouth within microseconds. I know people who have bird phobias, plant phobias, claustrophobia and social phobias. All of them keep themselves comfortable by going to great lengths to avoid the thing they fear. Horses do this too.

If you go back to the idea of the desire path, it also gives you the key to getting rid of the fear. We know there’s a safe distance, where although the scary thing is out there somewhere, it’s far enough away that our anxiety levels are low. This is the key to a structured way of starting to deal with fear reactions that’s called Systematic Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning. Big long name, but in many ways quite simple: all it means is that you need grass to grow back on your fear response highway, while you create a lovely alternative pathway, bordered with flowers and fruit trees and butterflies.

Because it’s not a very useful thing to spend life terrified of lots of different things, our actions will often try to help us deal with phobias.  We avoid the unpleasant emotions associated with the things we fear by creating a mental map of the pathways, and we place a big “No Entry” sign near the one that we’ve learned leads to the fear.  For example with my wormy phobia, I learned that gardening wasn’t a good idea, but that hill walking was usually fine. Then, without consciously realising, I started to build up good experiences in areas that were slightly risky without ever allowing my brain to fire off the neurons down the bad pathway.  How did I do that? I started spending a lot of enjoyable time with horses!  Seeing a bit of wriggling at a safe distance in the field, while spending time with a lovely group of calmly grazing horses, was a pleasant rather than a scary experience.  Over time this built up, until yesterday, I was picking out my horse’s hind hoof in the field after a rain storm and a worm emerged out of the grass about 6 inches from my nose! I just looked at it, thought “wriggly worm”, and went on cleaning the hoof.  I didn’t feel a surge of fear, I didn’t leap sideways to avoid it, and it didn’t affect what I was doing.

We can use a structured version of this natural learning process to help horses deal with fears like clippers, farriers, trailers and baths (as well as a whole range of other things).  We need to do two simple things: first work out what our horse’s “safe zone” is – how close they can be to the scary thing without reacting (even subtly) or needing to escape, and second, start making the edges of that safe zone a very pleasant place to be.  We get them to the start of the pathway, within sight of the No Entry sign but not so close they feel they have to react, and then we do things they like.  We feed them, if they’re hungry.  We scratch them, if they ask to be scratched.  We massage them, if they enjoy a massage – and after a very short pleasant experience, we take them away.  All the while, we make sure they never even have to think about responding to the scary thing.  Once that start place is nice (and you’ll know, because they’ll be telling you they want to go there), you can begin to make a new pathway, a different route to the scary thing.  You’re building both a new response to the thing that’s been a problem as well as new set of emotions. You’re allowing grass to grow over the fear response pathway, and instead you’re creating a new pathway: eager anticipation and approach.

Dealing with phobias and fear responses (in humans and in horses) takes time.  If you work systematically and create your new pathway carefully and patiently, you will change your horse’s feelings about the scary thing. In their brain, the pathway that went “See Clippers… RUN!” hasn’t had hooves on it for ages, it has a nice covering of grass so that you wouldn’t even know there’d been a path there.  Right next to it, there’s a lovely new path: “Clippers… scratches, treats, dozing in the sun, feeling good…”.  The brain rewires itself, and eventually the old pathway is gone completely.

We’re lucky that we and our horses have the ability to remodel our brains this way.  It means we’re not prisoners of unnecessary fears and worries, and that we have the power and the motivation to change.  What’s even better is that the process of change, if we do it right, is so gradual and so positive that it’s a nice experience. It’s like landscape gardening: not only do you get to create a beautiful landscape, you also enjoy the journey.  That’s how horse training (and human training) should be.

Please do share this if you enjoy the ideas, start discussions with your friends – and tell me any thoughts or ideas it triggers off. I love hearing people’s stories about their horses and I love ideas for new blog topics! You can click “Follow” on WordPress or you can “Like” the HorsesUnderOurSkin Facebook page if you would like to get alerted when there’s a new post. Thank you for reading!

The Castaway


“Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”
―     Honoré de Balzac>

Alexander Selkirk was a Scottish sailor who spent more than four years alone on an island off the coast of Argentina in the early years of the 18th century. He was the real life inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. He wasn’t shipwrecked  – he chose to leave his ship and shipmates because he felt the ship was unsafe. I wonder did this make any difference to how he felt during the four years he spent alone on the island?  Writers tend to say that humans love solitude and seek it out, but hate loneliness and work hard to avoid it. Solitude means wanting the space to think or work but knowing that if we need someone to laugh with us, cry with us or listen to us, they can found.  Being lonely is when we find ourselves in a situation where there’s nothing you can do to find any of these human comforts.

Selkirk was eventually rescued, and the captain of the ship who found him wrote “at his first coming on board us, he had forgot his language for want of use, that we could scarce understand him”. During the four years he spent alone, we probably wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual about Selkirk.  He built a shelter, hunted for food, read his bible, tanned hides and made clothes for himself. He even talked to himself and sang. All the while, he suffered internally from his isolation to the extent that he felt like harming himself.  He even found things that we would consider funny or distracting absolutely terrifying: for a long time he couldn’t bring himself to go near a beach where there were “roaring monsters”.  They turned out to be sea lions.

You don’t have to be on a deserted island to be alone.  Over the last few decades, we’ve become more aware that there are people in the middle of our society suffering from social isolation and loneliness.  There’s even research evidence that shows that being alone is as bad for the health of older people as being a heavy smoker. Being alone – for a social animal like a human – makes us more likely to become ill, and makes us more likely to die of any illness we contract. All the while, the lonely person is going about their daily life, cooking for themselves, going to the shops, watching the TV, going to bed. If we could see inside their homes, they wouldn’t look distressed or afraid, angry or in pain. Loneliness creeps up on you slowly, until you can’t work out how to fix it and it’s starting to damage your health and happiness.

As part of our management of horses, we often choose to keep a single horse.  If anybody suggests that horses are social animals who need companions, we protest that our horse is quite content.  Look! He’s eating, he’s lying down, he’s not running around or calling out in distress!  Like us, horses have a wide range of different individual traits and preferences, and like humans, you will occasionally find a horse who likes some solitude.  I’ve seen one – a mare in a feral herd who spent a lot of time alone, just out of sight and hearing of the group.  The stallion was young, it was his first group of mares, and he was having enough worry keeping the other two mares and their foals together.  The maverick mare probably just didn’t gel with him, and was confident enough to stray a little so that she could bump into another stallion if one happened past.  At the first hint of danger, she and her foal would run back to the group – she was choosing to spend time alone rather than being made to do so.

Even allowing for individual differences, horses don’t choose to isolate themselves completely from other horses – they just want to choose which horses they spend time with.  They’re not leaving the group to be alone, they’re leaving the group because they want different company. Some horses are poorly socialised – we’ve separated them from their dam and their social group before they’ve learned how to interact with other horses as an adult.  Some horses – like Alexander Selkirk – have lived alone for so long that they’ve almost forgotten how to speak to other horses.  In both cases, the horse doesn’t want to be alone. What they want is enough space and time to learn how to be part of the group without causing either themselves or the group any harm.

The brain of a social animal is carefully set up to try to minimise the chances that we end up on our own. A researcher called Naomi Eisenberger was looking at how our brains react to rejection and social isolation.  She happened to be working alongside another researcher who was looking at how the brain responds to the pain of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. They glanced at each other’s results and realised how many similarities there were.  The same parts of the brain were lit up regardless of whether the pain had an obvious physical cause or not.  This led to a new understanding: when we say our feelings have been hurt, we really do experience pain.  This research was extended to look at the pain of separation from family with exactly the same results.  When a baby, a puppy or a foal is separated from their mother and they cry, the emotions are exactly as distressing as if they’d actually injured themselves. It’s nature’s way of ensuring that we don’t get separated from our group too easily.

There are all kinds of reasons why we might choose to keep a horse alone.  We sometimes, for convenience, provide them with the company of a sheep or a goat: Alexander Selkirk had a few feral cats as pets, Robinson Crusoe had his parrot Poll.  It was perfectly clear that this substitute didn’t in any way make up for the lack of human companionship and in the same way, goats and sheep aren’t the same as other horses.  Horses can be very protective of their “pets” – and in the same way, Alexander Selkirk would no doubt have been very angry if anybody had tried to take his cats.  Give him the choice between the cats and the possibility of a human companion though and he’d most likely hand you every single cat.

We can understand Selkirk and how he felt.  We can put ourselves in his position and realise what it would be like to be alone, day after day after endless day.  We can understand the sadness of isolated older people in the middle of busy towns and cities. It’s time we applied a little of that empathy to the situation of horses kept alone. If we want to ensure our horses have healthy, long and happy lives, and if we care about the emotions they experience when away from other horses, we need to start organising a rescue mission to get them off that deserted island.


Superstitious Minds

Uncle Jimmy's Horse Shoe: photo (and horse shoe story) courtesy of Kirsten Cowling.

Uncle Jimmy’s Horse Shoe: photo (and horse shoe story) courtesy of Kirsten Cowling.

My friend tells me that there is a local tradition where you nail a used horseshoe to your door in order to keep yourself and your family safe. The story goes that when witches try to cast a spell on you, the horseshoe on the door means that they must retrace all the steps the horse took wearing the shoe before dawn comes, and only after they’ve done this can they cast their spells. The more steps the horse took when wearing the shoe, the safer you will be.  The horseshoe in the photo was made by my friend’s Uncle Jimmy. Although it’s a lovely piece of work, apparently it’s not a lucky horseshoe as it’s never been worn by a horse!

There are all kinds of interesting superstitions in different cultures. In Ireland where I come from, the horseshoe is fixed with the open end facing upwards so that the luck doesn’t run out. In other parts of Europe, it’s considered lucky to nail it to the door with the open side facing down, presumably so that the luck can get out and benefit you. As well as superstitions passed down in families, we also have personal superstitions. The golfer Tiger Woods is known to wear red on Sundays, believing that this will help his game. The tennis player Serena Williams bounces the ball five times before a first serve and twice before a second serve.

What leads us to believe that these little rituals gets us something we want, or avoid something we don’t want? Human brains are set up to spot short cuts, so that we don’t have to think everything out in full every time we meet a new situation. Superstitions are a funny side effect of one of these shortcuts: the one where we make quick associations between what we just did and what happened next. They give us the feeling that we can control a situation, so Tiger Woods feels a bit more confident that by wearing red he is doing something that makes him more likely to win. In his case, this might be partly true: feeling more confident is, in itself, something that will improve his game. It could be a problem if he can’t find a clean red shirt on the day though – a game spoiled because of something that didn’t really matter.

All animals are scientists by nature. We observe what happens around us, we form hypotheses about what’s going on and then we test them to see if we’re right. If the evidence suggests we are, we incorporate this into our library of mental shortcuts. There’s a problem if we’re wrong, as the Tiger Woods example demonstrates. Most of us can laugh at superstitions, having walked safely under lots of ladders and found that we were lucky even when we didn’t touch wood or cross our fingers. We try quite hard to have correct mental shortcuts, but we need to strike a balance. We work out (unconsciously) the cost of being wrong and thinking that doing something that takes a bit of effort gets us a benefit when in fact it does nothing at all. And then we work out what we lose if we don’t do the magic thing, but later find out we could have been better off if we had.

Doctors are familiar with juggling these odds. It costs a lot of money to test the whole population for an illness, but you will pick up every single case of something you can treat. This is amazing, if you’re dealing with a killer disease. It’s less impressive if you spend lots of money screening to find every single case of tennis elbow in the population when many cases haven’t been causing any problems at all.

Horses work exactly the same cost-benefit analysis all the time. Although we think we’re in control of delivering the food to the horse, it often escapes our attention that the horse is building a mental model of the world to explain how to obtain the food. They’re not just passively waiting for us to hand over the bucket. All of us, horses (and Tigers) included, like to feel that we have some control over our environment. The problem for domesticated horses is that in most cases, their theories are wrong. The food arrives when we humans bring it and little that the horse does has any effect. This doesn’t stop them coming up with and testing theories.

“Superstitious behaviours” are ones that horses (and humans) do intending to produce an effect, when they really have no effect at all.  A horse who has been in a stable all night and who really wants to go out may in frustration paw or kick the door. If it just so happens that the door then opens and they’re led out, they immediately enter this into their mental shortcut library for further testing, and the testing will involve doing more pawing and kicking. Although they weren’t right at the beginning (the human just happened to come along at the usual time), over time the horse will gather more and more evidence that they’re right because their banging and kicking is so annoying to the human that they may indeed get let out as a result.

Similarly, a horse may be tied up for grooming or being tacked up at a time when she would rather move around. In horses (and humans), being unable to do something we want often leads to impatient and frustrated movements. Humans tap their feet, drum their fingers and look at their watch. Horses paw. At first, the pawing won’t happen until the horse has been tied up for a while, so it’s more likely that shortly after they paw or scrape with their hoof, the human will finish the grooming and tacking up and lead them off. Again, the horse adds this shortcut to their mental library to test: “Pawing leads to getting to move”, so they test it sooner next time. Quite quickly, the horse will believe that pawing is what leads to being released, and they will paw constantly when tied up.

Getting cross about a horse’s superstitious behaviour doesn’t work, because by suppressing the door kicking or pawing by telling off the horse, you’re doing nothing to prove to them  that it doesn’t really work. All you do is make them even more determined to paw as soon as your back is turned.

The only way to fix superstitions is to prove that they don’t work, just as a scientist would test and then reject a idea that was false. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? You just ignore the pawing or door kicking horse and eventually, they’ll stop. Up to a point, this is true. What you need to remember, though, is that you haven’t removed the reason the horse was pawing or kicking in the first place, so they’re still motivated to find something that appears to get them what they want. If you’re waiting for a bus that’s late and you have been tapping your foot, or pacing up and down at the bus stop, after a few minutes you become aware of glares and disapproval from the other people waiting. It’s making their wait more unpleasant. You stop, but you still have that unpleasant gut feeling of frustration and impatience, so you may try to cope in some other way. Animals often engage in bouts of slightly frantic looking self grooming – humans nibble nails, twiddle or flick hair or brush invisible crumbs off their clothes! Horses will sometimes bite at themselves as if they’re itchy, rub their noses on their legs, or shake their forelocks into and out of their eyes.

All of this means you’re in danger of them fixing on another superstitious behaviour in order to give back the feeling that they’re in control. Instead, the best approach is to remove the reason for the impatience or anxiety. Rather than feeling that they would prefer to be doing something else, and that being stuck (in the stable, tied up in the yard, at the cross ties) is something they have to fix, make them think that what they’re doing just now is the best of many possible options. If the bus is late, I can pace up and down and feel impatient or I can immerse myself in my book and then feel disappointed when the bus arrives before I can finish the chapter!

To deal with superstitions in ourselves and horses, we need to work out what we think they’re getting us (or our horse) and then find a nice reward for sticking with the situation we’re in. Our horse will learn that standing with all four feet on the ground is not only the best way to get the human to finish up the grooming and let them move around again, but also that standing there with all four feet on the ground means they get lots of positive attention, fuss and rewards. They don’t know how long you’re going to leave them there – they have no more insight into the workings of your brain than I do into the FirstBus Glasgow timetable – but at least you’re making the wait a pleasant one.

The best thing to do with superstitions is to let them rust away!

A bucket of cues

Peggy Hogan on cues (and classical conditioning!). Great little blog post!

Clicker training horses - Peggy Hogan

I was thinking about a way to describe how a horse might respond to a cue for a behavior that has been taught using clicker training. By cue I mean the specific signal a trainer uses to let the animal know that it’s time to perform a very specific behavior. In the professional world the cue and the quality of response is closely monitored; training plans are geared towards maintaining good cue response. So I think I’ve found an example of a cue and quality of response that most horse owners can relate to. The fun thing is many people have already inadvertently created this powerful cue to which the horse responds enthusiastically.
If you start feeding a bit of sweet feed or something the horse really likes and you put it in a bucket, you KNOW how quickly the horse learns that the bucket is a good thing. Over time…

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