“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.