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!

 

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It all adds up…

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!