Just in time…


Time for a snooze…

Have you ever been on a long haul flight? My longest trip was from Scotland to New Zealand (and back!). A plane from Glasgow to London, then London to Singapore, and finally Singapore to Auckland. It’s an hour from Glasgow to London. It’s a bit boring, but if you have a good book, you can manage not to notice the time passing. You get a chance to wander around Heathrow airport and stretch your legs, before you get loaded into the plane to Singapore, they close the doors and the plane takes to the air. Suddenly, you have the awful realisation that you are stuck in this metal box in the sky for the next 13 hours.

We don’t normally notice 13 hours passing – we get up in the morning, get dressed, have breakfast, visit and maybe ride our horses, have showers, baths, lunches, dinners, commutes, work, housework, meet friends, talk to people, move around, see things, do things… Half seven in the morning to half eight in the evening we are quite occupied and time mostly passes without our being aware of it. Sometimes, we get a bit impatient, because something takes longer than it should: I will tap my feet impatiently and check my watch a lot if my regular train is delayed for 5 minutes. If the internet at work is a bit slow, I will whinge a bit while I wait for pages to load.

We have ways to deal with this. What we suddenly realise we don’t have, once we’re trapped inside a plane on the way to Singapore, is ways to deal with being stuck in the same place, with the same people, mostly in the same seat for 13 hours. None of the usual things are there to tell us the time is passing. The first few hours aren’t too bad – we do our “on a plane” routine – read a book, have something to drink, do a few Sudoku. Then we enter a sort of limbo. We’re tired of our book. We’re annoyed by the people in the row behind. The airline food is uninteresting. You can’t see anything out the window. It’s starting to be rather horrible: and there’s still 10 hours to go.

My research area, back 10 years ago when I was doing research, was about how the information that gets to our brain from our eyes helps us be accurate and coordinated when we move around. It was inspired by a group of psychologists who included a Swedish gentleman called Gunnar Johannsen. Gunnar was responsible for what I think is the nicest opening sentences of any PhD thesis:

Outside stands a weeping birch with its scanty foliage; its pliant branches moving rapidly backwards and forwards in the strong wind; each branch keeping its own peculiar rhythm. This is an example of unceasing motion, unceasing change. Motion is perhaps the most essential form of continual change that our perception gives us.”

Gunnar was interested in movement. Both the movement of things around us, as well as our own movement in the world, allow us to work out where we are, how fast we’re moving and how long things take. He said “there is no perception of time, only events”. He believed that we understand time passing through our constant awareness of things happening in the world around us. We know how many steps from bedroom to bathroom, we know we can get up, shower, brush our teeth, dry our hair, get dressed, eat breakfast and still be in time for the train. We use predictable events in the world to know how time passes. On a long haul flight, we are disconnected from these things, so the time we don’t notice passing at home seems to last forever.

Horses are creatures of motion. They spend most of their lives walking, nibbling, chewing, walking, nibbling, chewing. They create their own little clock that helps them measure time, and that clock depends to a huge extent on movement. Brain research into the perception of time shows that the parts of the brain that help us judge how soon something will happen are controlled by the parts of the brain that control movement. Horses’ brains are smaller than humans, but there’s a specific part of the brain, called the cerebellum, that’s larger in horses than in humans. Movement is one of its roles, but it also seems to be very important in judging time: these two things are closely linked.

Imagine then, a horse who spends 12 hours a day in a 12 x 12 foot box – yet only needs two or three hours sleep out of 24 hours. Compare her to another horse, who spends his life outside in a herd. The first horse sees nothing but the walls, and occasional but unpredictable passers by. Like us on the aircraft, food is provided. Like us on the aircraft, it does little to relieve the frustration of being stuck, not being able to walk, nibble, chew, walk, nibble, chew while observing the environment we’re passing through. There’s very little way for a stabled horse to judge the passing of time. Nevertheless there are big noticeable events that predict the end of being trapped! When we hear the announcement “ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts as we are about to commence our descent into Singapore Changi Airport” we feel elated and relieved our ordeal is over (until we get on the 12 hour flight to Auckland next morning). Similarly, the horse hears the first car of the day arrive – and may greet it with a loud whinny. And like us getting on the plane to New Zealand, they’ll do the whole thing again next day (but also the day after, and the day after). It’s even worse for horses who are stabled all the time – winter time turnout rules, or competition horses.

Here’s an interesting thought. Place humans in conditions of sensory deprivation (this can simply be conditions of very low stimulation such as just sitting in a room with no external noise and low unchanging light levels) for any length of time and there will be a variety of rebound effects when they get out. They report increased anxiety, sensory illusions or hallucinations. One of the most frequently reported after effects of periods of even quite mild sensory deprivation is a temporary increase in the sensitivity of our vision, hearing, taste, and sense of smell and touch. Yet we leave our horses in stables for many hours, then take them out and expect them to be calm and obedient.

Horses need to eat on the move, interact with other horses, walk around and interact with the world while moving not just because they need exercise, or they need grazing. They need it in order to have an understanding of their place in the world, of time passing: they need it in order to be horses. Not many of us would willingly take a 12 hour plane flight every single day (no matter how good the airline food), yet we are happy to spend 12 hours working, walking, playing and eating – interacting with the world – without even thinking about the same length of time passing. Our horses would like the same option, we need to be more creative in working out ways of offering it to them.


Pleased to meet you.

At the moment, I am meeting a lot of new people as a result of my work.  I’m going along to their offices, introducing myself, and then asking them lots of questions about their business.  It’s very interesting to learn all about the clever and innovative things that businesses around me are doing.  All the meetings start in the same way: I make eye contact with the person I’m there to meet, and I walk towards them, stretching out my right hand.  I am usually smiling, and they smile in response and stretch out their right hand to me, and we shake hands. I know they’d not like it if I offered them a hand covered in a woolly glove, so despite it being rather cold at the moment, I take my glove off before offering my hand.

The handshake isn’t the only greeting ritual – in different parts of the world, people bow, or kiss each other, or even touch noses together.

All of these rituals are our way of saying “I would like to know you better, and so I will trust you by offering something important to me – my hand. At the same time, I don’t know you yet, so I’m making sure you stay a safe distance away from me – at arm’s length.”

Psychologists, anthropologists and ethologists love these greeting rituals.  They offer such an insight into what a person or an animal thinks is important.  Firstly, they really want to meet new people.  We are all drawn to meet and find out more about someone new – we’re social animals, and new people can mean new opportunities, new information, even the chance of meeting a potential mate.  At the same time, we know we have to stay safe.  The handshake is thought to be a way of demonstrating that your hand is empty, that you’re not carrying a weapon, and that’s why we offer the right hand, the hand that around three quarters of the human race favour for using weapons (like swords… and pens!).

Other animals have greeting rituals too.  Horses also like meeting new horses – they find it both scary and exciting, and like us, they’re drawn towards new horses.  Like us, they don’t like to get too close, and they don’t like new horses getting too close to them, so they offer their greeting at “neck length” by stretching out their nose towards the other horse.  Like us, they’re also showing trust (horses often nip each other’s noses in play and can occasionally draw blood with over enthusiastic nips, so offering a nose is a demonstration of trust).

It takes a while before we become comfortable enough with a new acquaintance to allow them to touch any other part of us apart from that offered hand.  Imagine how you would feel if, after shaking hands, your new business acquaintance stepped boldly forward and started rubbing you between the eyes!  A horse would be equally affronted if another horse did this, and would likely respond with a squeal and by shooting out a foreleg, to show the appropriate distance that they wanted to be maintained.


Jackson and I maintain a polite distance, while still showing our interest in each other. We’re long standing friends now, and he will politely allow me to touch his face, and will occasionally suggest a mutual grooming session.

Yet every day, humans march right up to horses, into their personal space, and start rubbing their faces.  We seem oblivious to the polite messages from the horse – the way they move their head away from us, the increase in blinks, the tightness in their mouth and lower jaw.  They will also often point their ears backwards (not flat back, just away from your hand). Even very sensitive and experienced horse people can’t seem to help themselves, even to the extent of sometimes saying that you should reward your horse with “a nice forehead rub”.  I’m guessing that’s nice for us, the one doing the rubbing, since the horse usually looks just as uncomfortable as we would if a new acquaintance did this to us.

Let’s think about touch between humans.  How soon in a new friendship would you feel comfortable if your friend touched your back?  That’s not too bad, is it?  Even the first time you met, if the person seemed nice and you liked them, you’d be happy with that. The shoulder is another fairly neutral spot, and your upper arm would probably be fine too.  How long before you’re happy to be touched on the leg?  The answer here will, of course, depend on your culture, your sex and your personality (it’s the same in horses – mares tend to have slightly different “OK to touch here” zones than male horses).  How about the front of your body? How about your face?

Touch is an interesting thing.  It has a very strong effect on our emotions.  Some recent research has shown that observing a friendly handshake activates part of the “reward system” in our brain.  We are tuned to find friendly greetings rewarding, it’s so important to our survival as a species.  Sometimes we respond more positively to a gentle touch on the shoulder than we do to a handshake.  Men touched (on a neutral part of the body: shoulder or upper arm) by a woman they’ve just met are more likely to feel confident about taking a risk than men who’ve just met the same woman but not been touched by her. A friendly touch has a strong emotional impact.

But there are clear rules about how well you have to know someone before you can touch them: handholding is a great example.  It’s usually only someone with whom you feel very comfortable, with whom you’ve had lots of very positive experiences, that you’ll allow to take your hand and hold on to it.  We tend to feel very uncomfortable when we meet one of those people who step right into your space, take your hand and then shake it for a long time without letting it go!  We experience a lot of conflict, wanting to snatch it back but bound by a strong social convention that says we need to allow it.

How well do you need to know your horse before you can expect that they will offer you a hoof for cleaning, and allow you to hold on to it?  We have an expectation that our horses will allow this, and it doesn’t occur to us that sometimes, in some situations and in some horses, this probably feels just as worrying as the over-familiar handshaker.

Trust needs to be built – both between ourselves and our fellow humans as well as between us and our horses.  Trust is built up of a lot of repeated, pleasant, predictable and unthreatening interactions: it rarely happens on day one.  Your relationship with your horse is just like a new relationship with a person. The difference is that we can force touch on a horse by restraining them, where social conventions would be outraged if we did that to a fellow human.  As an experiment, try offering the same respect to a horse you’ve just met as you would to a new human friend, and you may find that you move to a position of trust with them much faster. No matter how velvety and inviting their nose might appear, offer them your hand to sniff instead. Stay out of their space until they seem happy to have you in it, and build up touch gradually based on respect of how they feel, rather than just hoping they get used it because they don’t have the option of a “thanks, but no thanks”. If you watch their body language, they will make it quite clear when they’re not comfortable being touched, and when they’d actually appreciate some help with their itchy face! Getting to know a new horse this way means that like your new human friend, your horse will soon be pleased to meet you.

Family are allowed privileges : father and two sons- feral Pottoka ponies in Spain – have a nice interaction. Left hand son is grooming his dad’s shoulder, and right hand son is “snapping” – a gesture foals use to adult horses.

The big freeze.

What are you like in an emergency? Are you all business, able to make an instant plan of action? Or are you the kind of person who runs for safety at the first sign of a crisis? These are examples of the fight or flight response, already well known to most of us.

There’s another less well known response to emergency situations, yet many of us will have experienced it. It’s the freeze. A sudden inability to act, or even think straight. The awareness of impending doom, and the sudden feeling that there’s nothing we can do about it. Time seems to slow, and we can feel that we’re watching what’s happening to us without actually being in our own body.  It’s the kind of thing that happens in traffic accidents, dog attacks, and surprisingly often to soldiers in combat situations.

Sometimes, we’re not even aware of it. We just find that we’ve been holding our breath, or that we haven’t been blinking, and that we’ve been so fixated on what’s happening (or about to happen) that we’ve had tunnel vision. Psychologists know that it’s quite easy to get people to act like this in a laboratory. Give them a simple task: “when you see an X on the screen to the right of the central picture, press the space bar”, and, at the same time, show them a series of pictures. Fluffy kittens and ponies with long flowing manes have no effect on people’s ability to respond to the cue. But flash up a picture of Hannibal Lecter, or an angry, drooling dog with bared teeth, and our ability to spot the cue letter disappears.

Many animals share with us a common response to a threat. The difference between horses and people is simply what each species thinks of as threatening. Our shared response goes like this: your eyes or your ears detect danger (e.g. a 10 ton truck hurtling towards you, or the sound of an explosion), and nerves start to pass the information to your brain. The message gets to the non-thinking, reflex part of your brain long before the thinking part knows you’ve seen or heard anything, and you react with a “startle”, where  your body automatically moves your head and neck backwards away from the danger. This takes about a 100th of a second! Then you “orient” to the thing you’ve detected – you turn quickly to face it and stare at it until you’ve worked out what it is. Sometimes, if it’s a bit far away, you move closer, to see better… and then you either say “hey, no problem”, or you make a fight, flight or freeze response. If you can run, you run. If you can’t run, you think about fighting… and if you feel in some way trapped, you freeze in the hopes that the danger will pass you by.

Have you ever seen a horse freeze? It’s very noticeable! You may be leading them when they startle (a spook), then fix their eyes and ears on something in the distance.   Horses  have much better long distance vision than we do, especially movement. Their head goes up, their neck becomes rigid, their mouth and nostrils tense and they’re as difficult to distract from it as the human volunteer helping out with the Psych 101 lab experiment with the picture of Hannibal Lecter leering at them! Like us, they’ve frozen in the face of a potential threat.

Here, Jackson and his friend have seen something moving. They’ve both oriented towards it, and Jackson is showing the head and neck up, ears and eyes fixated posture. His friend is peering at it, and might be about to take a step or two towards it to get a closer look (she’s quite brave).

They’re like us in another way in danger situations. In a natural, group setting, horses spot danger and react to it by startling, then orienting to it, and then by approaching to investigate and then running, or by simply wheeling en masse and galloping full pelt in the opposite direction. Their preference is for flight. We can change that preference by adding a headcollar and lead rope. We train young horses that pulling away from a lead rope results in pressure on their head, and that the only way to release this pressure is to submit to the direction of the rope. This training makes them easier for us to control, but at the same time, they learn that they’re restrained which means that instead of running off we get a horse who freezes.

Despite the fact that we (inadvertently) trained it, we get really frustrated by this! We have a human concept of what fear looks like, and it involves a horse leaping around, snorting, with rolling eyes, covered in sweat and trying to flee. A horse who’s stuck, rooted to the ground, tuning you out completely while staring at something in the distance that you can’t see is very very annoying! There’s nothing worse than being ignored, is there? So we tug and we pull and we wiggle lead ropes, we tickle and flick with schooling whips, we shout and hiss and generally get very annoyed, but the horse is still stuck as firmly as if their hooves have stuck in quick set cement. With every tug and flick, we increase the threat level from the horse’s point of view, sticking them in a loop of “detect threat, freeze, scan for danger, feel pain and discomfort, can’t escape… detect threat, freeze, scan…”. At the same time, their learned response to the lead rope and headcollar has ruled out flight, making the freeze last even longer.

There’s another similarity between horses and humans. Member of both species who are already a bit stressed are more likely to get stuck in this state (called hypervigilance). If you already have a high level of stress going on from something else, be it from work, housing or social stress, a freeze response is more likely to happen. In humans, this has been linked to the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In horses, we just say they’re extra spooky, reactive, balky, stubborn or scared of their own shadow. They’re the horse who repeatedly spooks at the corner of the indoor arena and then naps. Or the horse who freezes half way across the yard from their stable and can’t be moved, the horse who stands at the bottom of the trailer ramp for 40 minutes without moving. In more extreme cases, the horse will even lie down, and may be difficult to get up again. You also see a kind of freeze in horses who are being trained to lie down by having one leg tied up: the trainers often say “they stayed down for 20 minutes after we took the ropes off, so they must have been relaxed about the process”. In fact, what’s happened is a specific sort of freeze a bit like when humans faint as a result of a shock.

There’s a way of dealing with freezing in humans. Let’s see if it might work with horses too. When humans freeze in response to danger, it’s often in situations where they feel there’s nothing else they can do. Freezing is a passive coping mechanism: “just endure it, it will end eventually”. But this coping method isn’t good for our mental or physical health: it leads to ulcers, lowers our immunity, and can lead to mental health problems. It’s better to help the person to find an active way of coping: doing something, rather than nothing, might just resolve the situation, but even the belief that we’re trying helps us to feel more in control of what’s happening to us.

Horses can also choose the passive coping approach.  But there are things we can to help.  On idea would be to teach them a well learned, automatic set of “things to do in an emergency”. Something they know really well, a set of movements that have pleasant associations but that are so well learned, they’re an automatic response to our cue. Then, when we think a freeze situation is about to happen, we cue them: touching or following a target, where that’s been associated strongly with reward, is one idea, but finding things that your individual horse likes to do would be a good place to start. Let’s all be prepared with warm ideas to thaw the big freeze!

Things that go bump in the night.

11207374_10205034175709149_7174559625076330048_nI love going to the cinema, and I usually go about once a week with a close friend. She and I have explored all kinds of films, from fantasy to art house, via the occasional action adventure and including the occasional horror movie. She knows I’m not a great fan of horror movies, so when Saw V is on, she goes with someone else. We have seen a few scary movies together – I can distinctly remember having a few watch between the fingers moments during The Descent, and The Others has left me a bit wary of things that go bump in the night (as well as of small children singing nursery rhymes…).

I occasionally buy a DVD to watch at home, and last year I bought a copy of The Orphanage. I told my friend – and she immediately said “don’t watch it on your own!”: it seems she knows me well. But it’s interesting that, in saying that, she also highlighted something that we share with our horses.

Take three situations involving scary movies. First, there’s me and my friend having a nice evening at the cinema together. We watch the movie and then head home, walking from the cinema through town to the station. The next situation is me, sitting at home, watching The Orphanage on my own – and the last situation is myself and my friend watching the scary movie at the cinema together, then splitting up and walking to our respective stations on our own.

Three different situations, and three different levels of the fight or flight hormone, adrenaline (also called epinephrine). In the first situation, she and I watch the film, and we are both a bit scared in a pleasant way – humans, and our horses, quite enjoy being “thrilled” in a situation where we feel secure. Humans choose to watch scary movies, and horses will sometimes approach, run off, approach and run off with their friends when they see something new and interesting in their familiar field. Both species quite like a little excitement – psychologists call this increasing our “level of arousal”, and when we control the situation, we find it quite stimulating.

When my friend and I leave the cinema, we’re both still feeling a bit spooked, in a fun way. We walk through the quiet dark streets together, chatting about the good and bad parts of the film: we might be a little more vigilant than usual, but we’re feeling good.

There’s a slightly different situation when I watch the scary movie at home on my own. I’m in my familiar environment, but my partner isn’t there… Humans, like horses, are gregarious and social. We don’t have herds, but we have evolved to like having others of our species around, and this makes us feel more secure: the burden of making sure we stay safe is shared. The scary movie raises my adrenaline, and although I know my home is safe, once the film is over and I’m getting ready for bed the funny creaky noises that my house always makes seem louder. In fact, they seem oddly like someone (or something!) walking quietly around the upper part of the house. It takes me a while to get to sleep, and my hearing seems much better than usual – I can hear the owl hooting outside, and the tap dripping in the bathroom.

Finally, the situation where my friend and I go our separate ways after the movie, and walk through the dark streets of town on our own. We’re not in our familiar home, and we’re not with a friend. Our adrenaline levels are up because of the movie, and suddenly, we develop eyes in the back of our heads. We look carefully down dark laneways for movement, we jump when we bump into someone coming the other way around a corner – and all the time, we’re prepared to break into a run if the thing that made that wheely bin rattle turns out to be a mugger, not a cat foraging! Things that are boringly normal in daylight and in company take on a air of threat – and we walk a lot faster than usual.

People often comment on how silly their horse is, spooking at a robin sitting in a hedge when out hacking – don’t they see robins all the time in their field? And cows, surely they live next door to cows? Wheely bins! Umbrellas! We can spend ages “desensitising” our horses to these things in an arena, only to find them spooking and trembling at the same things while out. Similarly, horses often walk reluctantly outwards, but then jog anxiously home – and horses hop happily into their trailer on the way out to the show, but won’t go near it when it’s time to load to come home.

Like us, horses find situations where they are outside of their normal environment, and situations where they are away from other horses, arousing and stimulating. Like us, they often quite enjoy a little mild stimulation, but again like us, it pushes them towards the threshold that separates “diverting and entertaining” from “worried and a bit scared”. Things that would be harmless in the “diverting and entertaining” state can take on threatening properties once you flip into the “worried and a bit scared” state. And when you push adrenaline levels up into the “worried and a bit scared” state, it takes quite a while (hours, not minutes) after the scary situation is resolved before they return to their normal levels. This means that after a scare, we (and our horsey pals) stay a bit more reactive than usual for quite a while, and so more likely to flip back into the “worried and a bit scared” state than we normally are, even in non-scary situations.

Densensitisation is often held out as the answer and we’re told to do lots with our horses: but although I am perfectly well desensitised to wheely bins normally (I spend what seems like an inordinate amount of time wheeling them in and out of my driveway), when it’s dark and I’ve just left my friend (and I’m still thinking about that creepy child singing in the movie) I’m quite likely to jump out of my skin if I pass a wheely bin in the street that seems to move of its own accord.

Does that mean it’s not worth while desensitising? Not at all – but it’s worth adding something to your desensitising: don’t just make the things you work with “neutral”: make your horse think they represent good things. Let’s say they’re very familiar with wheely bins, and they’re aware that touching a wheely bin with their nose gains a reward. This means they will find wheely bins less worrying, even in a situation that might otherwise be worrying. I’ll just finish off by admitting that there is a down side to this approach. Riding out on bin day, when your horse asks to touch every bin you pass, can be a slow process (especially when you have an over achiever, who feels that not only should he touch the bin with his nose, but that flipping it open and checking the inside for tasty banana skins is always worthwhile). On the plus side, though, we can walk past the recycling lorry as bins full of bottles are tipped in to it with no more than a “I saw that in a film once and nothing bad happened” air of bravado 🙂


Absence – makes the heart grow fonder?

In my first job after school, I worked for a very clever, but very precise man. His desk, unlike mine, was a model of pristine organisation with everything in its place. The stapler was just a little to the left of the silver pen holder, the blotter (yes it was that long ago!) was lined up squarely with the centre of the desk, the silver letter opener was to the right. And we noticed that he would meticulously realign everything any time he used or moved things.

I am slightly ashamed to admit that we used to sometimes nip in when he was out and move the pen holder about two inches to the left, or shift the blotter slightly so that it didn’t line up with the edge of the desk. We’d watch through the glass divider when he came back in, and we could see that he knew immediately that something was not right – we could see the irritation as he realigned not just the thing that was out of place, but everything else on the desk.

If you didn’t know him, though, you’d just see a cross and unsettled man (who, by the way was generally a nice and easy going person) sitting at a perfectly clean and organised desk.

We have a very precise sort of memory for the world around us – in humans, this memory tends to use mostly (but not exclusively) visual information. We need to know where things are in order to find our way to different places, we use landmarks to navigate. And we get a bit cross and unsettled if things that should be in a certain place have somehow got themselves out of place.

Despite this, we often fail to understand when our horses respond to similar situations. Many people report their horses being spooky or unsettled “for no good reason” – and when we can’t find a reason that makes sense to us, we say they’re just being silly.

But horses, like us, are very sensitive to changes in their world. There is a way, though, that they differ from us, and that’s in terms of the importance and relevance of this information to a horse. From an early age, humans are, quite literally, movers and shakers. We’re like the mole and the beaver – if something about our surroundings doesn’t appeal to us, we change it. We are active agents of change in our environment – like my old boss, we can just pick things up and put them back into the place where we’d like them, and if something in our environment suddenly goes missing, we have the ability to reason: we know that people can lift, shove, push, bury and otherwise sculpt the environment.

A horse doesn’t have that kind of understanding of the world. Horses sculpt their world in a much slower and more organic way. They nibble long grass down to form lawns, their hooves slowly wear preferred pathways that get them from rolling spots to grazing spots to drinking spots, by going around obstacles. They don’t pick things up and carry them to a new place (or, at least, they don’t often do that – my horse has stolen my car keys a few times…). They use a special form of memory – sometimes called eidetic memory or a memory “picture” made up of information from their senses – to form a map of their world. They don’t understand sudden changes the way we do, because as a species, they don’t cause sudden changes.

If a fallen tree, a large rock, a hedge is there on Monday, but completely absent when you pass that way on Tuesday, many times we humans don’t notice its absence. It’s not relevant to us, and even if we do notice, we just rationalise that another human must have moved it.

To a horse, though, it’s a whole different story. Change or movement of landmarks implies danger – why did they move? Landslip? Flood? Predator movement? Is it safe to go that way now? The ground may be unstable, the trees may be more liable to fall, escape from predators is more difficult when your familiar escape route no longer looks familiar.


When a horse is suddenly spooky or unsettled “for no good reason”, we need to think of the times when we’re also unsettled, and think of how we look to an outsider looking in. A year or two ago, I went to the station to get my usual train, which leaves from the usual platform at the usual time. The train was sitting there waiting… but it was the wrong train! It wasn’t the normal model of train. A whole platform full of regular commuters was acting like a herd of spooked horses. You could see the whites of their rolling eyes, and almost hear the alarmed snorting. Normally confident individuals were standing beside the train, refusing to get on. They were all watching other commuters, and when someone was brave enough to get on, they followed, but everybody stood just inside the door, ready to run at the first sign that this strange train was going to take them to an unknown and terrifying destination. Nobody was able to sit down, nobody was able to read their newspaper.

Yet the noticeboard beside the train quite clearly stated where it was going, so someone who didn’t normally get that train would have been baffled by the herd of people “just acting silly”! There was a sense of palpable panic as the train doors closed, trapping us all inside! Nobody settled until the driver announced the destination over the intercom, and even then there was a residual feeling of anxiety for the entire trip.

What should we do when our horses respond to “invisible spook monsters”? Firstly, we need not to act like superior beings: the same thing can happen to us, and we’d not appreciate being dismissed for what we felt were justifiable fears. It is easy to put ourselves in the position of one of the commuters on the wrong train – how would you feel if, regardless of your concerns, your friend took you by the sleeve and started dragging you towards the train? That’s unlikely to deal with your concerns, and it’s also likely to cause you to resist! In these kinds of situations, we need to direct our horse’s attention to the routine and the familiar, we need to reassure rather than increase adrenalin by correcting or rushing them, and we need to listen to them and allow them to tell us that something’s different, something to them seems wrong. If we do that, maybe one day our horse’s ability to detect changes will help keep us and them out of a situation that we can’t see: rather than assuming we’re right and they’re wrong, we should remember that one plus one can sometimes equal more than two. We’re better together!

The chocolate dentist…

I’m not saying my dentist is made of chocolate – that just wouldn’t be practical, would it? But I do wonder as I sit there, my mouth wedged open, blinded by a very bright light, and deafened by drills, whether I’d have a different view of the dentist’s surgery if it was a tastefully appointed chocolatier? Especially if I only encountered the drills every 5th or 6th visit!

Last week, I was thinking about how we learn positive associations with places – and those associations are about how we feel when we’re there as well as how we feel when we think about the place. So many of the actions we take are ones we don’t think about but which are driven by our feelings and associations: my steps are drawn magnetically towards the cosy café in last week’s post, but I’m also repelled from the dentist’s surgery.

The way we feel about places is built up from our experience. Most places, we feel pretty neutral about: I don’t linger in the station on the way to work, but I don’t avoid it either. Our brains store up information about each experience we have with a place, and over time we form mental maps of good and bad places to be. We’re like the ball in a pinball machine – drawn to some places, but pinged away from others! And when our brain forms those mental maps, it prepares itself to learn new things. Not only that, but our brains are biased – once we have even a slight negative association with a place, it’s negatives we seem to see when we’re next there.

Places can feel really good, and they can feel terrifying – but they can also feel just slightly wrong. It’s those places I’m thinking about today. Usually, we don’t remember any specific event. There’s the cosy café, and then there’s the one across the road I don’t visit much. It’s draughty! Nothing too bad, just that a few times I’ve been there, I’ve felt a bit cold.

Have you ever noticed your horse speed up or slow down on a hack at specific places? Are there places you ride past, and you suddenly notice your horse has been tense, but has now relaxed… they might sigh, or just slow down. They might have been a bit spookier, but now their head drops and they look around in an interested, rather than riveted way?

Like us, horses have associations with places, and these places evoke the same emotion every time. With horses – and with us – there’s also something called “preparedness”. Each species has things they learn much more quickly – the things that it’s really useful for them to know to survive. These things mean that some places, by their very nature, are set up to be scary! I run a few times a week along a track I also ride along… and there’s a place my horse doesn’t like. The track is narrow, and goes between high, wooded banks. It’s darker, and there’s a bend in the track so you can’t see the way out until you’re more than half way in. Horses are “prepared” to dislike places where a predator could lie in wait and jump on their backs. Have you ever seen a horse at liberty run through a narrow gap or through a tunnel? They often speed up just as they exit, and then buck: of course! They are making sure that anything that’s jumped on their back is dislodged immediately. Their eyes also adapt more slowly than ours to changes in ambient light levels – so emerging from a shady “tunnel” of trees to bright sunshine means they’re more likely to assume a predator they can’t see is waiting!


We’re prepared to dislike places too: we experience claustrophobia (a dislike of very small spaces), and we also often run when we’re just escaping confinement: think of small children going into the playground at break time!

I think there’s a similarity between how my horse feels about trailers and how I feel about dentists. Nothing awful has ever happened to either of us in these places, but we’ve built up a negative history from small annoyances and discomforts – and we were already prepared not to like small dark boxes or situations where we lie our backs with our mouths open. Horses whose early experiences of trailers are as places where a trail of tasty carrots lead to a delicious bucket tend to be the ones with the least problems later – and I am sure I would visit the dentist more often if my early experiences had been at a ratio of five chocolate purchases to one scale and polish! We can become more sensitive to how our horses feel about different places by putting ourselves in their place – and we can make sure that their early experiences with places we will want to visit a lot in the future are positive ones, and not “trips to the dentist”.

The cosy café…

474311_3470095466193_312434397_oEvery morning on the way to work, I have a cup of coffee.  Since coffee on its own is lonely, I make sure it has some cake to keep it company. And since drinking a cup of coffee (and eating some cake) is something I do sitting down in a café, I bring an interesting book along, and read it for 15 minutes.  Then I continue on my journey from station to office, my slight caffeine addiction dealt with for the day.

What does this have to do with horses?  It’s the cosy café syndrome.  It has a strong draw – it’s rather difficult for me to walk past, and it’s associated, in my mind, with something enjoyable.  It’s something that happens at a specific time of day, and if it doesn’t happen, I miss it.  It’s a bit like bringing a horse in to a stable where, every day at the same time, a bucket and a hay net waits for them.

Are there any parallels between their behaviour and mine?  The first thing that springs to mind is how I would feel about my cosy café if it suddenly stopped serving coffee and cake.  How much of what I feel about the café is linked to what I get there?  We form associations in our mind between places and what happens at those places. Psychologists love experiments where clever rats find their way around mazes: in some early research with rats, the researchers noticed that the rats spent a lot of time hanging about a place in a maze where they’d got food before.  They kept coming back to that place, even when there wasn’t food there any more.  We find it very easy to add a mental map of places where good things happen to our map of the world, and we even have a specific part of the brain that it excellent at registering this kind of information.  It’s called the hippocampus – the Latin name for the seahorse – because of its shape.

So I might well still have a very positive feeling about the café for a while, even if it stopped serving food, although my visits might begin to be a little less frequent – and I might find an alternative location where even better coffee and cake could be found.  Or I might form a new pattern of behaviour – learning that I no longer get what I am looking for using my old mental map will start me off exploring, to find an alternative.

Horses do this too.  At the moment, my horse waits for me every morning at the top of the field. He’s pretty punctual – if I’m very early, he might not be there.  If I’m a bit late, he’ll be there but asleep!  Every morning, my visit predicts the arrival of a tasty bucket of feed.  This week, there’s been snow, and my little car doesn’t make it to the top of the hill, so I’ve been parking at a different gate.  In the distance, I can see the horses at the top of hill, expecting the horsey equivalent of coffee and cake.  But that cafe’s closed! It’s only taken two days for them to realise that the food now appears at the bottom of the hill – they were waiting for me this morning, having learned a new good association with a new place.  Food is a really good way that both we and our horses learn – and learn fast – about where’s a good place.  So stables are good – and horses will continue to follow us into stables even after all the food has been removed, because they have a good feeling about the place.  Horses who’ve been fed on trailers (provided trailers have no previous bad associations)  learn that trailers are good places to be. Horses know which fields have the best grass (and they’ll try to take us there…). And they know when the cafe’s closed – have you ever seen a horse drag their human from field to stable, or from stable to field?  Winter grass does not compare to the instant hit of best espresso (aka ad lib haylage and a bucket of feed).  And last year’s haylage does not compare to the green spring grass being served in the field up the road – our horses change their behaviour according to where they’ve found the best feed.  Other things make horses learn about places too: today I saw a picture of a horse at a “cleaning station” – a feral Criollo horse in Venezuela who will travel to the spot where helpful birds are waiting to pick small parasites from the horse’s coat.

We can use this information to understand why our horses are keen to be in specific places, and why they sometimes change their minds.  We can also use it to help them learn to like a new place, and finally we can learn ourselves that sometimes, we may need to think ahead to make sure the draw of the cosy café does not lead to detours to fields and neighbours’ stables en route to where we intended to go!

Next week, I’m going to the dentist.  Expect an update on horses and dental surgeries… but in the meantime, here’s a pleasant association being formed:306125_10150946850109155_1645933822_n