An odd kind of sympathy.

There’s a little firefly that lives in Asian countries that begins to flash as dusk falls. If you sit and watch the fireflies in a single tree, at first they’re all flashing at slightly different times and at different rates. As the light fails, the firefly flashes start to fall into a pattern and by the time it’s dark, they’re flashing in synchrony with each other.

I was thinking about this during the week because when I was walking to work, someone crossed the street, darted between parked cars and emerged on the pavement very near me. Suddenly we both realised that we were walking at the same speed and in step with each other. I think we both altered our speed at the same time and yes, we were still in step! This synchronised movement seemed to be pulling us in to an uncomfortable sort of social intimacy and we both made a conscious choice to break it.

There’s some really interesting research showing that when we watch people who move in synchrony, we think of them as a unit. This is true even if they’re doing it because they’ve been told to, for the purposes of an experiment. This is one way our brain groups people – and this is where I learned a new word: entitativity. When we see people and animals moving together like this, we think of them as an entity. I still can’t quite manage to pronounce entitativity, but in my head it makes perfect sense.

We have exploited this in many ways throughout human history. It is quite clear that an army marching in step appears more unified and so more difficult to break apart than the Braveheart style band, ferocious but disorganised. When we meet someone we like, our movements start to match theirs after a short while together. Individual dancers will often fall into step with each other.

This isn’t just restricted to animals. Back in 1665, a clever man called Christiaan Huygens observed that two pendulums on his wall would gradually change their movement until they matched each other. He called this phenomenon “an odd kind of sympathy”.

What’s interesting is that while there is a tendency for us to match the movements, tones, speed of speech and even breathing patterns of others, we are consciously aware that doing so makes us appear to be a unit. So we can choose to break this coupling, in order to demonstrate that we’re individuals, or that we’re not part of that particular group.

IF you watch groups of horses, you’ll quickly start to see synchronies appear. Some horses stand together, move together, even chew together! In the field, my horse and his pair bond are an example of this. When one steps, the other is already stepping with the same foot, when one lifts their head, so does the other. When they take a break from grazing together, they stand together resting the same hoof.

The research on synchrony among humans shows that if we’re asked to synchronise our movements with someone we don’t know, afterwards we’re more likely to cooperate with them than we would be if we’d just worked together without synchronous movement. In fact, we’re also more likely to feel generous and helpful towards them, to feel sympathetic to them. So when we perceive people moving together as a group or a unit, we’re not simply basing it on a visual perception but on an implicit understanding of how this matching can change our behaviour.

When we’re riding out in a group, some horses want to go fast, some want to go slow and some are very happy to walk along together. However, this can often be different to the way they might be when they’re in their group in their field. It makes me wonder about the difference between when they’re in the field and when they’re out. One of the main differences is us, their riders. It occurs to me that our horses may be choosing not to synchronise because they don’t see us as a unit. Alternatively, they may be trying to synchronise, but being blocked by our movements as riders.

As riders, we’re encouraged to learn to move with our horses. Lessons can involve us sitting on the horse with our eyes closed, feeling the horse’s movements, their steps, their breathing. Once we learn to do this, we can influence the speed of the horse’s movements by thinking about speeding up or slowing down our own. Learning this is challenging in itself, and with it comes the knowledge that if things aren’t going as we want, it may be because we’re not as synchronised as we think!

This leads me on to something that intrigues psychologists and philosophers: joint or shared attention. Very young babies learn to attract the attention of adults to something that they’re interested in. It’s a really important part of developing into a social human. By a year old, they can show us something by either looking at it intently or by pointing to it. This is more complex than it seems, because in order to do this successfully, you have to understand that when another person looks at something, they see it just as you do. You also have to understand that when they look at it as a result of your pointing, they both see it and understand that you know they’ve seen it. It’s the point in the development of human babies when they start to be able to open their mind to think about what someone else is thinking. Psychologists call attention a “spotlight”: we shine it on the things we’re interested in. Things we’re not interested in around and about get a bit of light too, but the main thing lit up is what we’re focussing on.

When we work with our horses, we’re really pleased when their attention is on us. We’re delighted with the signs that our horse is attending to us and not everything else around. Some training systems insist that our horse should pay exclusive attention to us and that if their attention wanders, it should immediately be bumped back to us. What a great ego boost! Equally, we think it’s a mark of good horsemanship that we pay close attention to our horse, we carefully watch their ears, their eyes, their footfalls. In these training situations, we shine the spotlight of attention so brightly that the object of it is likely to be dazzled.

Joint or shared attention is different from this. We each shine our attention on something else. The object of our joint attention is lit up, but we don’t waste time watching and monitoring each other, because we have opened our minds to each other and for now, for this task, they’re working as one. These moments of shared attention are times when we can unconsciously start to synchronise our movements and actions. We don’t do it by watching each other or by trying to match each other. Instead, through the awareness of another mind with the same focus as our own and like the fireflies, we start to move in harmony. We share a part of ourselves and in sharing, we align.

When we ride our horses, we try to make sure we’re as tuned to them as possible. Just like the human choosing not to synchronise with someone they don’t know, our horses can choose to focus on us, obey us, and yet not synchronise with us. They can offer us their undivided attention, but without truly aligning with us. A perfect picture can be off by a fraction of a beat: a tail swish, a pinned ear, an open mouth, a rolled eye, a microscopic loss of rhythm. When we see true harmony between a horse and rider, we recognise it not because the horse is obedient and compliant, but because horse and rider seem to be able to open their minds to each other, to slip into synchrony of movement, breath and thought. A few wonderful horses and riders seem able to do this and I never tire of watching it.

I’d love to hear of situations where people have felt or seen this. As a rider, I’ve probably experienced it for a few seconds! I’m an average amateur rider who tries (probably a bit too hard) to “sense” my horse’s moods and movements. I’ve experienced it with my horse in his field, moments when I knew we were moving and thinking together. I know it could be argued there can’t be true shared attention between two species with different heart rates, different breathing rates and different brains. Equally, as Huygens began to recognise, the world is set up in such a way that many apparently unrelated things fall into synch with each other. My horse is quite as capable as a human infant of drawing my attention to something that interests him. If he can manipulate my attention, he’s taken that sophisticated “I know that she knows that I know” step. He has joined our minds together to look, as one, at something. This powerful process is underneath our conscious decision to synchronise – or not – with someone else, to admit them to our “group”.

Next time you’re with your horse, spend a few minutes thinking about times when you might be in synchrony: be it in movement, breath or thought. Then think of ways that could happen more often, because if it does, along with it will come the cooperation, the generosity, the unity. That’s when we move from Huygen’s “odd kind of sympathy” to a new kind of empathy.

Magnetic Fields

Tor – people are interesting!


We all have things we want, places we would like to be, goals we would like to achieve. We also recognise that getting what we want often involves working with other people.  Many of us realise that people are more likely to work with us when they too get something out of it, especially when they enjoy the experience.

A good few years ago, I got my first university job and started trying to find my feet in a large academic environment.  Fortunately, there was a group of similar aged researchers, postgrads and lecturers who would congregate in each other’s offices for morning coffee, and who used to go out together after work from time to time. Joining them seemed a good way to fit in.  I kept bumping into one person in particular, because she and I seemed to have very similar work hours. We would find ourselves waiting for the kettle to boil in the kitchen at about the same time every morning, and we were often part of the larger group heading to the pub after work or going clubbing together at weekends.

Although I am confident when it comes to standing up and delivering a lecture to 400 students, I’m quite shy in small social groups.  I find it difficult to break into conversations and when groups are larger or noisy, I’m often very quiet.  As if to make up for this, my colleague was bubbly, chatty and outgoing.  During our coffee breaks, she chatted a lot and I learned quite a bit about her life, her romances and her family.  There was also a benefit for me – in work social situations if I was with her, I didn’t have to struggle to be heard. I could just smile and nod and fade quietly into the background.  She was sharp and witty and enjoyed banter and slightly malicious gossip about workmates.

Things change, workplaces change and people change.  After I’d settled in, I got to know a different group of people. They’re people who are still my valued friends even though I don’t see all of them very often now. They were colleagues, fellow postgrads, even my students who themselves became postgrads and then staff.  When I met up with them, I realised that I was really enjoying myself.  They were good listeners and we exchanged information about our lives.  Gossip was lighthearted rather than mean, and we did fun, silly things together and laughed a lot.  One of these new friends turned out to share my love of horses. She and I found a local riding stables and we both began riding again after a long break.

At the same time, I found myself more and more in demand with the first person I’d met, but now I was more aware that it felt a bit uncomfortable.  She’d seek me out, but when we chatted there wasn’t much fun or laughing, it was more about her problems and people she disliked.  She wanted me to listen to her but she didn’t want to listen to me in return.  I noticed how negative and spiteful she could be.  She hadn’t changed, but I’d become more aware that I had a social alternative that was more rewarding and more positive.

So I started to avoid her.  At first, it wasn’t done consciously. I just made my coffee earlier, or spent more time in the library.  I changed my in-office hours.  Despite this, one day she caught me in the corridor. I felt cornered and I couldn’t wait to get away.  I realised what I’d been doing; I felt guilty and rather shallow (the confessional power of the blog!). Despite this, I was more determined to avoid her, because I came away from each encounter feeling miserable and a bit drained.

Time’s moved on. We both moved to new jobs and I haven’t seen her for a decade.  Despite the time passing, I know I’d still walk in the other direction if I saw her coming although she never did anything bad to me. She spent time with me, she often bought me small gifts and her presence made my first weeks and months in a new job easier. We never fell out or argued, yet I still have a deep down urge to avoid her.

What on earth does this have to do with horses?  Well, I read last week about someone who had a pony who had become more and more difficult to catch.  They pointed out that they had always been lovely to the pony, they’d never hit it, never neglected it, fed it occasional tasty treats and yet when they walked into the field, the pony would walk (and run) in the other direction as if repelled from them by some kind of magnetic force.

There’s a force at work in humans and other animals that’s almost like magnetism.  With some individuals, we are pulled towards them, we’re attracted to them.  With others, we’re pinged away like trying to bring two similarly charged magnets together.  Have you ever done the school experiment where you used a magnet to magnetise a paperclip?  To begin with, there’s nothing magnetic about the paperclip, but once magnetised, it starts to attract other paperclips…  The things (and people, and horses) we are attracted to can pass that charge on to other things.  The things we do with people we like are things we come to enjoy in their own right: I enjoy snowboarding mainly because how I feel about the friends who were with me when I was learning, but even when they’re not there any more, I still love the sport. The magnetic charge is the emotion that’s automatically triggered by people, events and situations.

Back to horses again.  The human trying to catch the pony had built up a magnetic charge that meant the pony took evasive action whenever he saw them coming.  Maybe the human was the original source of the problem, or maybe the problem was with something else (stable, riders, tack, previous owners) but had become associated with that particular human: the process can go both ways.  Whichever it was, it probably wasn’t something that was going to be overcome by the human offering random small presents any more than that helped with overcoming how I felt about my work colleague. You can change a negative emotional response, but you need repeated positive associations during a period when you make sure no negative associations are triggered. This process is called counter conditioning, and I’ll write more about it in a future post.

As well as negative associations, ponies and horses form positive associations with us. Where they find something attractive (a tasty feed), they can also start to find the things associated with the tasty feed pleasant and attractive in their own right. So ponies come to have pleasant associations with, for example, stables, people who feed them and even the sounds of familiar cars.  Like the magnetised paperclips, these things hold their positive emotional charge even when the original magnet isn’t around: if your pony runs over when they see you even when you don’t have feed, it’s because they really are pleased to see you. 

The lovely horse in the photo at the top of this post is Tor.  Tor lives out on a Spanish mountain with a small band of mares and has pretty much no contact with humans for 11 months of the year.  Despite this, when his owner and I appeared he came straight over.  He was happy for me to ride him bareback and in a headcollar for several miles up a steep rocky mountainside to help round up another group of horses and bring them to his owner’s farm.  Tor finds people pleasant and interesting. Even though he’d never met me, the strong positive association he had with his owner rubbed off on me, and he was happy to spend time with me even when she wasn’t there. In turn, I made sure I did my best to keep biting flies off him, to scratch his itchy bits and to leave him grazing in a nice pasture.

This “magnetism” isn’t magic. It’s a part of the science of learning called Classical Conditioning.  Many people know this because they’ve heard of Ivan Pavlov, and his dogs who would start drooling when they heard a bell that signalled the arrival of food. It’s what causes us to experience positive or negative emotions in specific situations, even when we can’t remember what originally triggered the feeling. Classical conditioning is something we can harness when training our horses.  A horse who feels positive about you wants to be with you because of how that makes them feel. There’s a reserve of tolerance and acceptance, and a strong “positive charge” can help when dealing with situations they don’t like.

Classical conditioning can be a powerful took, although we never have complete control over it. We’re part of a world that’s full of overlapping “magnetic fields” that we can’t see. At different times of the year with our horses we’re in competition with the attraction of green grass or playful buddies, or with the repellent effect of swarms of flies or muddy gateways. Because of this, we can’t take it for granted.

We need to make sure we keep checking that our magnetic charge will attract our horses, and that we’re topping it up regularly. Just like with the magnetised paperclip, if we do nothing the charge will diminish over time.

When you next stand at the gate of your field, think for a moment about the magnetic forces that are at work.  How strongly is your horse or pony attracted to you? Are there times when they can’t seem to come or when they have to leave? What have you done recently that’s strengthened or weakened your pull? Are you relying on a charge you built up but that’s now leaking away?

There’s a last word on human relationships too. If you feel uncomfortable, unhappy or vaguely ill at ease with someone and what they say and do, there’s probably a very good reason for it. An encounter with a true friend will leave both of you feeling recharged, so seek them out, treasure them, and may the force be with you, your good friends and your horses!

p.s. don’t use this example to illustrate your physics homework – I’m a psychologist, not a physics teacher 😉

Tic Toc Body Clocks

Calm and unruffled on the surface…

I love reading – if I’m not with the horses, I can usually be found with my nose tucked into a book, although sadly I do have to work from time to time to pay for my horse and book collecting habits! Apart from books featuring horses, I also enjoy reading historical fiction: much more interesting than school history, and you can learn just as much as from a dry history lesson.

On one of my groaning bookshelves at home, there’s a sub-genre of historical fiction that can broadly be summarised as “Girl or young woman finds herself in a convent. She is unhappy about this, but eventually manages to escape. Before or just after the escape, she meets the young man of her dreams. They live happily ever after, content in having informed me about 15th century Italian social customs or the dissolution of the monasteries in 16th century England!”

Clever authors make sure that as we read these stories, we are immediately able to empathise with the heroine’s situation, and we can recognize how strange and artificial it is to completely segregate a young woman from a normal mixed society. It’s usually also quite clear that this process of segregation has little effect on abolishing or even suppressing her desire to find that young man of her dreams, since she’s devoting a lot of time either thinking about him or working out how to escape her convent so that she can meet him.

Hopefully by now you’ll also have at the back of your minds a beautiful green field surrounded by high hedges, with sun shining and birds singing, and a group of beautiful mares grazing with an outward semblance of peace and contentment. But where are the males? Not a stallion, or even a gelding, to be seen! Do you know any mares who live in a convent? Are they going about their routine daily activities looking serene and relaxed – despite being a surging, roiling mass of sex hormones just under the surface?

Last week I wrote about the difference between sex roles and sexual behaviour: you might not see any active sexual behaviour from your gelding, but he will still take on the male roles in a group of horses. A mare, because she’s a mature female horse, will show both female horse sex roles and female sexual behaviours. We tend to think of females (of most species!) as passive recipients of sexual interest from males, but different sex hormones in females are responsible for both active and passive sexual behaviours. “Passive” sexual behaviours in female horses basically involve not running away from or kicking a stallion in the chest when he wants to mount her. The more subtle behaviours we often don’t notice are “active” sexual behaviours that mares show (and that stallions notice!).

To spot these, we have to think about clocks. All animals have a special set of interconnected “clocks” in their brains. These clocks help them to know what time of the day it is as well as what time of the year it is. In females, they also control whether they’re interested in a male or not (the oestrous cycle). The clocks that tell the mare that it’s spring are closely connected to the clocks that tell her “start looking for a mate!”, and they do this by releasing hormones in reponse to increasing day lengths.

We don’t really register these behaviours, any more than we do when looking at the lovely serene picture of the nuns at prayer – because they don’t appear at first glance to be sexual behaviours. But we do notice that mares start to behave in a different way when the days start to get longer. They can be distracted, more impatient, their moods can be unpredictable. While these changes happen in a natural gradual sense in feral horses, there are also some key differences with our domestically managed mares. First of all, once a feral mare is sexually mature, her brain controls a cycle that’s about 12 months long, not 21 days as we assume. That’s because adult mares aren’t intended by nature to have repeated seasons all summer: their brain aims for them to have one fertile season, followed by 11 months of pregnancy and birth followed by a fertile season. So her mood will naturally be less variable.

When a stallion isn’t around, the mare will continue to be fertile for a few days in a 21 day cycle all spring and summer. When a cycle is repeated frequently, with lots of other things happening at the same time (new horses, various life stresses, changes of feed, changes of housing), there’s more chances of it being affected by outside factors. These factors can disrupt hormone levels and affect both fertility and behaviour.

That’s why domestically managed mares can become “mareish” – they can have problems simply because they have repeated cycles when nature (and their own body) wants them to have one or two fertile seasons followed by pregnancy and birth. The more seasons they have without a pregnancy (and in fact, without access to any male horses), the more chance there is that they will have seasons that we consider problematic.

Just like the reluctant fictional nuns, a group of mares without any male horses around still need someone to take on the male sex roles (in horses, these include acting as the sentry, dealing with threats and newcomers and sometimes moving the whole group away from something. Humans understand that while taking on a role that isn’t natural for you is possible, it isn’t always comfortable and can cause you to feel unsettled or stressed. It’s the same for mares. In mixed herds where mares and geldings live together, a gelding or one of the mares will take the male sex roles (guarding and herding) in the absence of a stallion. What geldings (and mares) normally can’t do is show male sexual behaviour, in terms of courting and covering in-season mares. There are situations where mares can show male sexual behaviour but this isn’t normal (unless you’re a jenny donkey, when surprisingly enough, it is!).

Mares soon learn that while a gelding in their group looks and smells very like a stallion, he doesn’t respond to their active sexual behaviour the way a stallion would. Once they’ve tried a few times, they tend to leave him alone, although every spring when their seasons restart, they may ask again, just in case anything’s changed! Since active mare sexual behaviour involves searching for a stallion rather than waiting and hoping, they will check out every new gelding they meet. Adding a new gelding to a herd may well bring a mare into season unexpectedly. Mares kept in single sex herds may also try to escape rather more frequently than those kept in mixed herds, and many an unexpected foal has resulted from mares actively seeking out stallions, rather than from escaped stallions finding mares. The drive of sex hormones is a strong one that will often override the mare’s desire to stay with her group and her field full of grass.

Something worth bearing in mind is that stress hormones affect both the internal clocks in our bodies as well as the hormones that control sexual behaviour. Stress for a mare can be anything from the way she’s housed, the work she does as well as new companions and changes in management. Don’t forget that a mare’s hormones respond to a gradual increase in day length, but that we often stable mares inside in artificial lighting conditions throughout the winter and then turn them out once spring comes, so instead of a gradual change, they experience a sudden change in hours of light, housing, feed and companions. No wonder their first seasons of the year can be noticeable!

What then is the key to a contented mare? First and foremost, it’s likely to be a mare living in a small family group with a familiar stallion. If she can’t, because of our management, have this arrangement the next best thing is to try to ensure that she can live in a settled mixed group, so that male horses can take on the male group roles. Ideally, the mare needs familiar company: if she’s in a place where new mares and geldings arrive and leave fairly frequently, she will be more unsettled, and this will have a negative effect on her regular seasons during spring and summer.

Mares who are difficult to handle when in season can often be much easier if managed in a more natural way. For example, removing them from busy livery yards and allowing them time to settle with a smaller mixed group can often have a remarkable effect on their behaviour.

The picture at the top of this post is Shannon, a beautiful mare I used to share. When I first met her, she was living on her own and it took me a while to realise that the rides she preferred were the ones that took us to visit her previous gelding companion. After I’d been sharing her for a while, her owner moved her to a mixed group, and she became more settled. Even so, every spring she liked the rides that took us to the top of big hills, where she’d stand scenting the breeze and scanning the horizon. I’m not sure what the stallion of her dreams looked like, but I’m pretty sure she was actively looking for him. I haven’t seen her in a while, but I like to think she’s thrown off her black and white habit and escaped the convent!

Let’s talk about sex, baby!

Still together after all these years… I think she knows he’s not quite all there (in a physical rather than an intellectual sense!), but she seem very attached to him anyway.

Well, it seems to be starting to be spring time around here. There are lambs leaping around in the field outside my window, a lot of very noisy starlings are using my hay to build nests in my barn, and I am sure I saw a bee fly past yesterday… So I thought I’d write about the birds and the bees.

It’s another example of an area where we can learn about horse behaviour by looking at human behaviour, but possibly not in the way you might think! One of my former university colleagues, now retired, was a lovely man who studied Developmental Psychology. He was married to another psychologist, and their first child, a boy, was born as the late 70s turned into the early 80s, a time when right-on psychologists spent a lot of time thinking about gender equality and world peace. He and his wife decided that they didn’t want to impose any expectations about gender or any stereotypes on their little boy, so they went out and bought lots of beautiful educational toys – but no Action Man and no guns. Their little boy played happily with the lovely toys until one day, they found him and a visiting friend playing a very warlike game that involved shooting each other and dying dramatically – using guns they had built out of Lego.

We are all born with our bodies and our brains already set to male or female. As children, one of the things we learn very early on is to distinguish between male and female, and most parents have good stories to tell about the awkward questions they’ve had to answer about the differences between boys and girls. These awkward questions often extend to other species too, and parents need to be prepared with good answers if they take trips to the countryside in spring!

Even long before puberty, boys and girls act differently. Boys tend to like rough and tumble play, girls tend to like involved games that have a lot of talking and social interaction. Boys like taking things apart, girls like making things. I am first to acknowledge that it isn’t always cut and dried and that there are huge variations between things that different girls like and things that different boys like, but as a general rule, it is clear that boys and girls behave differently and that we can see this from soon after birth.

Most people know that hormones have an important role in sex, and they can name at least one or two sex hormones. Testosterone usually the first one mentioned, but oestrogen and progesterone are also fairly familiar ones. There are other hormones that have a very important role in sex, but they’re ones that people don’t tend to think of as sex hormones. These include oxytocin, vasopressin and prolactin. The important thing to know about (all) sex hormones is that they aren’t just involved in sex – they’re involved first of all in organising our brains so that they’re either male or female, and then, after puberty, into making our male and female brains activate sexual behaviour. Most of them have other important functions in the body that have nothing to do with sex.

So how does this relate to horses? Well, lots of us own geldings. Many of us think of them as being sexless: mares are female, and stallions are male, but geldings occupy a sort of no-man’s land! We can be surprised (and sometimes displeased) if our gelding does anything to demonstrate their maleness or sexuality.

Like humans, horses are identifiably male or female at birth. Besides the external sex organs, a colt foal is born with a brain that has already been “masculinised” by the effects of male sex hormones before and just after birth. So they are born – like human boys – programmed to do all kinds of boy behaviours. Rough and tumble play is one example: fillies prefer games that involve play chasing, especially when they can match their friends stride for stride. Colts like nipping each other, rearing and wrestling. Colts are hardwired to learn about stallion behaviours: they quickly learn how to chase and herd, and they also practice male sex behaviours like play mounting other horses. They’re like pre-adolescent human boys. They understand that colts and fillies are different, and that mares and stallions are different. What they don’t know is why that might be important to them. They’re not sexual beings, but they have clear gender identities. These male behaviours are the result of having a “male brain”.

At puberty, the brain triggers the release of sex hormones that cause the body (and the brain itself) to mature. This happens very obviously in humans. It happens in horses too: the sex hormones cause the development of secondary sex characteristics: e.g. colts suddenly developing a deeper note to their whinnies. Sex hormones also direct energy into building muscle and bulk rather than height: e.g. stallions develop crested necks and compact muscular bodies. The hormones also cause primary sexual characteristics to develop: in male horses, the penis and testes take on an adult shape and size.

Young horses gelded before horsey puberty remain like pre-adolescent boys. They have “boy soprano” whinnies, they grow tall and gangly rather than compact and muscly, they remain more playful and they also remain fairly oblivious to the scent and behaviour of a mare in season. It doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in mares. They know – just like pre- adolescent boys – that mares are an important part of the social group, and they know and understand their own role in a group of horses. So they are more likely to be the watchmen, they are more likely to want to head off newcomers, and they are more likely to try to herd and collect the group. Lots of geldings, mine included, are notorious bottom biters and rug rippers. They drive other horses from behind as a stallion does. They’re also more likely to engage in play with young colts and fillies (mares are usually too busy for this!). If they’re gelded before horsey puberty, even administering testosterone won’t make them respond to in-season mares, because their brains and bodies have never matured enough.

However… and it’s a big however! Like pre-adolescent boys, they’re still quite interested in their own bodies. And this is where the hormones I mentioned earlier have a role. Many of us have heard of oxytocin. It’s often called “the cuddle hormone” in the popular press, because it seems to be associated with hugs. What’s less well known is that it plays a key role in most male mammals in getting and maintaining an erection, and its release also triggers other hormones that make us feel good. So obviously, it’s involved in sex! But it’s also released when mothers hold and bond with their new baby, and when we hug or get a nice massage. In fact, it’s there in any situation where we connect in a social, pleasurable but non sexual way with others. The important thing to know is that oxytocin is not manufactured or released by the testes. It’s made in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. So even geldings continue to have the ability to get and maintain erections, regardless of whether they have testosterone circulating in their bodies. It’s just that it’s not triggered by the scent or behaviour of mares: it’s triggered by pleasant social interactions and relaxing situations.

Have you ever noticed your gelding dropping his penis (and even getting an erection) during physiotherapy or other bodywork, or while you groom him? The combination of touch and a social element is what causes this normal behaviour. The penis has lots of small cells that are activated by oxytocin, and in fact the hormone can be used to help treat sexual dysfunction in humans. Young geldings will often drop when snoozing together in groups, but also during social play and when grooming each other. In human males, increased oxytocin levels are associated with social bonding, the development of trust and (although it’s difficult to measure) increased empathy – the hormone seems to help us find ways to live together harmoniously in groups. In addition, oxytocin is what allows geldings to masturbate. If you haven’t seen your gelding do this, he’s probably just a bit shy! It often happens when a horse wakes up after a snooze, especially on lazy sunny days, and again, it’s perfectly normal. We’ve made sure geldings aren’t interested in mares by removing the drive to court and mount a mare that comes from testosterone, but that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in feeling good! The exception to this is late gelded horses – if a horse is gelded after “puberty”, all he’s lacking is testosterone. He can respond to, court and serve a mare if we give him a shot of testosterone (and even after gelding, testosterone is still produced by the adrenal glands). These kinds of geldings often do cover mares, especially during the springtime, but because they have no testes, they have no sperm that can result in foals.

So the main message of this week’s blog is that there’s behaviour associated with what sex you are, and then there’s sexual behaviour. A gelding is male, and will behave like a male horse. Depending on when he was gelded, he will show either no interest or little interest in a mare when she’s in season, but the lack of testosterone doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have other sex hormones and other types of sexual behaviour. So lets take an openminded approach to gelding sexuality… and if you’re interested in hearing about mares, mareishness and hormones, click the “follow blog” button at the top of the page, because I am going to discuss it next week.


Lazing on a sunny afternoon…

By any chance, is there something else you should be doing just now? I only ask because I should be writing a report on the meeting I had earlier, but instead, I’m writing my blog, because it’s far more interesting!

Another question: did you go for a run today? Did you walk anywhere? How fast did you go? Yes, I’m all about the difficult questions in this week’s blog! This week, I’d like to talk about laziness, because by coincidence, I’ve been in three discussions about it in the last few days. The most recent was this morning’s meeting, where I talked to a very interesting man about motivating a workforce. Although he’s now leading a large international engineering company, one of the first leadership jobs he had was with a well known ladies’ underwear manufacturer. It had recently been acquired by a new owner, and he’d been brought in to see how he could improve the performance of the lazy workforce. Apparently, they did everything with minimal effort, and the new owner was in despair. How was it possible that so many lazy people could be collected in one place?

There’s the first thing – they immediately assumed that laziness was a fixed part of these people’s personality. The man I interviewed decided to try a few new things, and hoped that by introducing a new way of working, he could improve both the quality and quantity of knickers produced (there may also have been bras and pantygirdles involved, I didn’t enquire too closely!). He chose a group of 10 of the women identified as the least productive, and brought them together to talk to them. He started off by asking them to say a bit about themselves, and he was astonished when each woman in the group described the creative and productive life they had outside of the factory. There were talented amateur artists, people taking part time degrees, musicians who travelled all over the country for gigs, mothers managing large families and a sportswoman on a national team. He realised he had to question his mental idea of these women as lazy, because what the management described as laziness was something that only happened when they came to work. He’d uncovered a massive lack of motivation and stimulation in their work lives. He allowed this group to choose their own hours, their own targets, their own working partners, and allowed them input into the manufacturing processes and new designs. A short time later, he was called to head office in Italy to explain discrepancies in his production figures: they refused to believe that the “lazy” women were now their most productive group.

Have you ever heard a horse described as lazy? Usually, lazy is used when a horse doesn’t move fast enough when we’re riding, or change gaits promptly enough when we ask. Sometimes, they just drag their hooves and look sleepy. Sometimes, they’re actually asleep when we go to collect them to ride, and we have to expend lots of effort persuading them to their feet, and dragging them in to be groomed and tacked up. Sometimes they trip and stumble, and their vets and farriers say it’s because they’re too lazy to pick up their feet. Sometimes, they’re lazy in the arena, but joggy when riding out, sometimes they crawl along like snails when out but are fine in a school.

Now here’s a cool psychology topics my students love: it’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error. The name is a bit of a mouthful, but the idea itself is simple, and once you’ve heard it, you find yourself applying it to lots of things in life. Let’s suppose you are a student, sharing a flat with a few other students. You come in one afternoon, and one of your flat mates is slumped in front of the TV, but you notice they’ve cooked themselves a meal and left mess and dirty saucepans and dishes all over the kitchen. “Lazy lump”, you think to yourself. A few days later, you have had the day from hell, lectures and labs back to back from 8.30am til after 5pm, and you worked all the previous night finishing off an assignment. You come in, make the easiest possible dinner, and immediately sit down to eat it in front of the TV. And your flat mate comes in and sighs…

The Fundamental Attribution Error says that when we see another person doing something (especially something of which we disapprove), we tend to say they’re doing that because of their personality. When we do the same thing ourselves, we say it’s because of the situation we’re in. There’s definitely an element of this going on when we call our horse lazy!

I asked earlier if you’d been for a run today? and if so, how fast you ran? I run as exercise, but I am first to admit it can be a bit of a chore. I use lots of little tricks to keep myself running on days when it’s raining, or cold, or I’m a bit tired. When we pull our horse out of their field or stable, tack up and head off, we’re doing something we want to do, but are they? In reality, they may be a bit like the women in the knicker factory: they’re quite happy bimbling around their field, and they don’t show any signs of slacking in terms of grazing, socialising, snoozing, grooming themselves. They just suddenly become rather sluggish when we ask them to do something we want.

Ethologists – who study animal behaviour – measure what an animal does during a typical day. They call this a time budget. The time budget reflects the effort an animal needs to put into getting enough food to have energy to get through the day, plus doing all the other things that are essential to life: walking to the water, grooming to remove parasites, relieve itchiness and maintain their skin and coat. Exploring: finding new and better sources of different kinds of forage and minerals. Interacting with other horses, in order to maintain social links. Finally, they spend time resting, either asleep or “loafing”: standing in little social groups swishing flies off or sniffing each other. You might be surprised to hear that there’s a very delicate balance between taking in energy by eating vs the energy we expend in getting the food. So to make sure this balance is achieved, we (and horses) factor in some “doing nothing” time, when we expend minimal energy. Resting is part of the time and energy budget (humans tend to do things like read blogs and watch TV). Some things horses don’t do much of at all is trotting, cantering, jumping things and galloping. Especially in circles…

What we ask of them are sustained periods of trotting, cantering, jumping things and galloping. Plus going backwards and sideways, and around in circles. They put all that effort into structuring their day so they have the right balance of energy vs resting and socialising time, and we come along and ask them to expend lots of energy, plus we ask them to do a whole range of things they wouldn’t choose to do for as long, as well as things they would generally avoid doing completely. Do they sound a little like the women in the underwear factory? If they don’t drag their feet because they have lazy dispositions (and we know they mostly don’t as they spend up to 18 hours a day walking around, rather more than we do!), there must be another reason. It could be we haven’t given them any reason to act differently, or it could be that something is preventing them from acting differently. The days I’m most likely to skip my regular run are the days after I’ve done a very long run and my muscles are sore: I will look quite normal to you if you see me walking around, but if I start to run, I am sure I will get an ears back grumpy expression!

The managing director of the underwear factory gave his workers a reason to be more productive. He gave them things they valued, that made coming to work something they enjoyed. He could have tried motivating them by penalising them, but he was wise enough to know that this approach results in either avoidance or evasion: they would either leave, to be replaced by someone else who started off well but gradually became “lazy”, or they would find creative ways around his penalties – because all animals, including humans, suddenly become much less lazy when they’re motivated to find a way to avoid a penalty or a punishment. Many people who say their horse is lazy will also say they can motivate them really well by carrying a whip – but that they have to carry it all the time to make sure the horse continues to work, plus they find it’s getting less and less effective and now they’ve had to start using spurs…

Start by working out what your horse wants and values: the list is already there in their time budget. They want food. They want companions. They want security so that they can rest and feel refreshed. They often want to explore. When they’re working for us, they want breaks – as they get fitter, the breaks can be further apart. They want to be motivated not by threats, but by rewards. They want us to recognize that they’re horses: their time budgets and priorities might be different from ours. In fact, they want pretty much exactly what we want when we take on a new job, they want to have a reason to come to work. I’ll just go off and write my report now…

Lazy? Or just being helpful – I can groom parts I can’t otherwise reach when 17hh Jackson is lying sunbathing!

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.

Fair Play


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.

Jackson and I have learned a few of the rules of interspecies play.

Jackson and I have learned a few of the rules of interspecies play.

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!

Snow makes everybody want to play (some chase and charge between adult mare and gelding).