The Castaway


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Superstitious Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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