Hawks and Doves

Rosette

Is competing just for the sake of competing a unique human characteristic?  As a species, we love competition.  Sometimes the prize is something tangible and we can see its importance to our survival as an individual: watching brothers and sisters using sophisticated “dirty tricks” to win the largest portion of dessert can be very entertaining to watch.  On the other hand, there are times when winning doesn’t guarantee our own survival, but it may contribute towards the survival of our genes.  Human courtship is a clear example of this kind of competition, and we can spend hours people watching in nightclubs, spotting who’s wearing the most eyecatching outfit or doing the most outrageous dance!  Much of the time, though, our competitions don’t obviously feature prizes that help us survive either as individuals or as a species.  Rosettes and trophies that we win in a range of equestrian competitions are examples of these: they are very important to us, and some may go to extreme lengths to earn them, but the reasons we compete in this way are complex and even after tens of thousands of years of human speculation, we still don’t have a complete understanding why we’re driven to act this way.

When we’re asked to explain the human desire to compete, we often refer to other species.  We can see quite clearly that many species compete fiercely, and so it makes sense to us that we should have this drive too.  We see lionesses bringing down prey and then being driven off their prize by hungry lions.  We see stags engaging in spectacular fights over access to does.  In hot countries, water sources are often the scene for competition over access to fresh, clean water both between members of the same species as well as between different species.  In domesticated animals like our own horses, we can see subtle competition between animals over access to friends. In humans, we can watch something very similar in school playgrounds!

Humans are unusual in the animal kingdom, though.  We enlist other species in our own competitions, and winning is subject to them behaving in very specific ways.  Over millennia, our keen hunter’s eye has allowed us to spot behaviour characteristic of many species that we can use to satisfy our own competitive urges – so we’ve watched horses in their natural state and seen them showing off to rivals, running from predators and migrating over many miles to find food and water.

Quick to spot the sporting potential in situations, we devise human entertainments that involve our horse running faster than other horses, our horse jumping higher than other horses, our horse having greater stamina than other horses, or our horse being able to perform better display behaviours than other horses.  We set about training them to perform these behaviours on command, but not content with that, we start to attribute the emotions we would feel in that situation to the horse.  We say “he loves to race”, “she loves to jump”, “he wants to show off”… Yet freed from our motivation and our constraints, the horse somehow fails to perform these actions of their own accord.  Rather boringly, they just walk off to their companions and start grazing, ignoring the arena, the jumps and the carefully manicured gallops.

Do our horses understand competition?  Do they feel satisfaction when they win a rosette, or win a race? Do they feel less satisfaction if they come third, or fail to complete the course?

For humans, winning is about that occasional feeling of elation that comes with the knowledge that we have reached a certain standard. We look out like hawks for the signs that we have won – the applause of a crowd, the score on a dressage test, the photo that shows our horse was first past the post.  For our horses, the feedback is more likely to be relief and release.  They know that we slacken off slightly after each jump, and completely at the end of a round.  They know that at a certain point, the jockey stops driving them. The pressure on the poll, mouth and sides of a dressage horse is increased to ask for a behaviour then slackened fractionally when they perform as told, and they are allowed to resume a relaxed posture at the end of a test. Horses in human competitions are working to regain freedom, not to achieve supremacy. They learn quickly that there are things they can do to get to the release point faster.  If we let them, they will speed up towards jumps, because they know the release is on the other side.  They will speed up past other horses in the race, because their jockey will drive less when they are in front.

We have chosen to compete using a species whose primary aim is to cooperate. They were domesticated in the first place because of their cooperative nature, and they allow us to sublimate our urge to win because, instead of competing with us, they follow our direction.  Horses love to run, but there is no reward for being in front.  In running from predators, horses bunch together because a lone horse is an easier target.  A horse will jump an obstacle they can’t go around when they’re making an escape or to get to something they want – but leave a horse in a ring with 10 jumps, and even the most motivated won’t jump more than one.  Horses will elevate their paces and move like dancers for very brief periods when showing off to rivals, but they don’t sustain the postures for more than a few seconds at a time, and they certainly don’t do it when there’s no rival or potential mate there – otherwise, how would they know their showing off has been successful?

The posts in this blog use aspects of anthropomorphism to highlight similarities between horse and human behaviour, with the aim of showing a different way to think about why horses behave the way they do.  I wouldn’t dream of saying that horses aren’t competitive, but I would argue that they are very unlikely to understand the competitions we construct around them.  What they’re doing with us is co-operating, not competing. As a species, affiliative interactions are the glue that keep them together, and keeping together is what keeps them safe and provides the opportunity to reproduce.

There’s a name for a relationship between two different species where both benefit – it’s called mutualism.  There’s also a name for a relationship between two species where one benefits and the other doesn’t – it’s called parasitism. A funny example of mutualism exists inside the horse: horses need bacteria to help digest the food they eat.  The bacteria need the forage that the horse eats but can’t process on its own…  Both organisms benefit.

When we compete with our horses, we benefit.  We choose to compete because there is a personal reward.  We don’t always win, but there is always the chance that we might.  But is the horse-human relationship mutualism, or is it parasitism?  From the horse’s point of view, there is a clear cost to cooperating with us.  In many cases they lose the chance to reproduce, they miss out on social interactions with companions they choose themselves and they lose the ability to choose where to live and what to eat.  Our rationale – if we offer one – tends to be that our competition horses live a life of pampered luxury.  We make sure they don’t have to walk more than two steps across their deep bedded stable to get access to the highest quality feed, we remove them from the risk of injury during rough play or sexual rivalry, we shelter them from inclement weather… In fact, we consistently remove almost every single aspect of our horses’ lives where they might, in natural situations, compete with other horses!

Can we have it both ways? It’s hard to believe our own explanation that a horse loves to compete, when we’re so careful to make sure that they never experience any competition in their lives in case it affects their health or causes injury!  If we accept that horses have no understanding of our goals in competing, that doesn’t mean that the natural cooperation they offer us can’t be rewarded and rewarding.  There are many things we can do to make the relationship mutualism and not parasitism… and I’d be very interested to hear people’s ideas on what these might be!

 

Home Sweet Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all adds up…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wintersmorning2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Superstitious Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tor – people are interesting![/caption]

 

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 😉

Let’s talk about sex, baby!

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I think Jackson’s mare friend 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.

Lazybones

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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…

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

Space: the final frontier?

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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.

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Just in time…

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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.