Master of my Fate


“The capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is the essence of humanness”, Albert Bandura, 2001.

Have you ever had a splinter in your finger?  A horrible little pinprick, just underneath the skin.  You worry at it, you suck your finger, you try to grasp it between your nails, but nothing shifts it and it seems to affect everything you do.  In the end, there’s nothing for it, you have to get it out using a needle.

Now, that’s where things get interesting.  The splinter under the skin, or the bit of grit in the eye – they’re under your skin, they’re in your eye.  But you are starting to get the feeling that you’re going to have to ask someone else to get them out for you.  You don’t often put the feelings into words, but what’s there to the fore is that nobody else understands how it feels to be in your skin.  You know that when they touch your eye with their finger, they can’t feel it, and they might not stop before hurting you.  You know that it’s going to hurt when they pick the splinter out, and because they can’t feel the pain, they might just poke too hard.

We all live inside our own skins, and have an awareness of our own bodies.  We also have a consciousness that decides what we do, when we do it, how much of it we do, and we know that we act to get the things in life we need and like, and to avoid the things in life we fear and dislike.  We walk around feeling in control.  How fast to walk? As fast as I need to get where I’m going.  How hard to scratch an itch? Hard enough to relieve it, not so hard as to hurt.  How long to stay in the sun? Long enough to enjoy the warmth, not so long that I overheat.  How long to swim? Long enough to enjoy the silkiness of the water on my skin, not so long that I get chilled.

The feeling of control over our destiny is sometimes called “agency”, and it’s often a feeling we only recognize when it’s not there.  There’s actual fear in the splinter removing scenario, because we’ve handed over our “agency” to someone else, and even though we trust them, it’s hard to feel we’re not in control of our body. It’s only a small subset of people that we trust enough to ask for splinter removal help: for horses, it’s only a small subset they trust enough to allow teeth to be used in mutual grooming!

The flip side of this is what happens if we feel we’ve lost control: if we believe our actions are having no effect on the world, we give up.  We stop trying, and we shut down.  Many horses reach this state through our training.  I’m fairly sure that it’s rarely what we intend: most of us want our horses because of who they are and what they do, we don’t want unquestioning machines.  We understand the feeling of loss of control ourselves, but often fail to see when it happens to the horses we train and ride.

This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks, because of a lovely young horse I’m training.  He has no trust or understanding of humans.  I don’t know what’s happened to him: he may have had minimal handling, but by people who think that you can get a horse to accept things simply by doing them to the horse.  Trapping them and putting on a headcollar or a bridle, trapping them and trimming their feet, trapping them and brushing them, injecting them, hosing them, spraying them.  All the things we do to horses as part of our duty of care for them.  Equally, he may have had almost no handling at all, and is now learning about people from a position of suspicion.  When I met him first, he was trapped: he was alone, in a stable, with no other horses around him, in a situation where he was almost helpless and very fearful because he had no idea of what was going to happen next, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and no herd to run or hide with.

Working with him, I realised there was something that horses and humans had in common that I hadn’t yet included in a blog post.  Because as the weeks have gone by, I haven’t done anything to him at all. I have tried very hard, even when he was in the stable, not to do anything to him, but to allow him to choose what to do to me and with me.  If he looked at me, I rewarded him.  If he touched my hand, I rewarded him. Once he was out of the stable (and that took a leap of faith on the part of his owner, who like most horse owners believed that a horse outside had no reason to want to be with people), if he moved towards me, I rewarded him, if he walked with me, I rewarded him.  We’ve moved on now to thinking about headcollars, brushes and – most difficult of all – human hands touching him.  But I have stayed still, and allowed him to act, and rewarded every time he interacts with me.  He touches the headcollar, he puts his head near my arm, he puts his nose in the open noseband. He touches the brush, either with his nose, with the side of his face, with his head dropped so it brushes between his ears. Now he will even place his head so my arm covers his eyes, a huge piece of trust in a horse who needs his vision to stay safe.  Every single one of these things, I allow him “agency”.  I do this because I want him to have confidence and the freedom to explore.  One of the best days so far was the day I left the brush on the ground while getting other things ready, and he picked it up and ran off with it!  He had got the confidence to feel playful while I was nearby!

I know he’s not my horse, and I have an agenda: I have to “make” him ready enough for the human world that he will be able to tolerate the things that will be done to him in the future, by people who haven’t stopped to think that there might be a way to achieve what they need in terms of being able to care for him while still involving him in the process.  So, for example, he will need to learn to stand when tied up, because people will want to restrain him so that they can brush his beautiful mane…  And yet, as humans, we understand perfectly with young children that there comes a day when a child refuses to allow you to brush their hair, because they want to do it themselves… they know how it feels to have something done to them, and they want the control themselves.  We can teach children so that they can take control… and we can also teach our horses in such a way that they have more control.  We can teach them to tell us when they’re ready for us to do things, rather than making that decision for them, and the magical thing about this is that if we do it right, it doesn’t make them less likely to participate, it makes them more willing and interested to work with us.

But the point of this blog post is that in order to do that, we have to give up some of our own control, some of our own agency.  We have to step back and acknowledge that another animal – a member of another species – has feelings and opinions about what we want to do to them, just as we do when someone wants to do things to us without our permission.  And we need to invest the extra time – in a world that has us under constant time pressure – to work with them so that they want to be brushed, have their hooves trimmed, have a headcollar put on.  Rather than having a horse who puts up with what’s done to him, because we need it done now, we need to give him control of the timescale so that in the end, he can say he’s happy with the process.

It’s through giving control away that we learn the real way to be the master of our fate, the captain of our soul: we’re not independent, we’re interdependent. Being able to depend on others at the same time as acknowledging that they need to have control over their own lives too, is what makes us complete human beings.


Start as you mean to go on…

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Who’s your ideal boss?  Is it someone who pushes you. or someone whose example you try to follow?  Is it someone who niggles at you until you get your work done, or is it someone who seems to be able to spot every time you progress and who celebrates it?  Are you your ideal boss, or do you rather “devolve” some of the responsibility for getting things done to someone else who sets paths, goals and milestones?

I suppose, like most people, I’m a mixture of all of those – having enough internal motivation to write blog posts during an unusual long hot sunny Scottish summer isn’t something I have, when there’s a chance to be outside having fun with lovely horses!  But now it’s the autumn, and I’m thinking of all the things I saw and learned during the summer and I would like to do a bit more writing.

There’s a few reasons I’m thinking about bosses at the moment. One is that after a long break, it’s difficult to motivate myself to sit at a keyboard and write.  The other is that my favourite ever boss was probably the person who had most effect on how I work with my horse.  Yet – to my knowledge – he has nothing to do with horses at all.

Nearly 15 years ago, I was in the last months of my Ph.D.  Then, as now, a bit of a procrastinator, I had somehow managed to use up all of my funded time and I still had a lot of writing up to do.  I needed some paid work to keep me going but not so much that it would stop me doing the writing.  Out of the blue, a colleague in the department where I’d done my research came to me and said “I’m taking a 6 month sabbatical, and I need someone I trust to teach my undergraduate courses for me.  Would you do it?”.  I said yes, then went home and began to panic.  His courses were Biological Psychology and Neuropsychology. They were final year courses and not directly the subject of my PhD, but he’d said he trusted me, so he must have thought I was capable, right?

The term started, and I began my first ever proper teaching job. It continued to be very scary, but I worked away, discovering lots of new detail about how the brain handled rewards and punishments, how animals learned and what kinds of emotions were associated with the learning. Having got my head around it, I did my best to pass it on to my students, making it as fun and interesting as I could. My rat cartoons went down well!  Every so often, I’d be sitting in my office wondering if I was doing OK and my colleague would appear out of the blue with a cup of coffee and a doughnut, commenting on how well I’d done something.  I never knew how he knew what I’d done, but somehow he kept feelers out and spotted all the good things to highlight.  He never mentioned a single bad thing even though I know I made the usual number of beginner mistakes.  Because of this, when things didn’t go as planned I was never afraid to go to him and ask for advice. And his advice was always good.

As the term went on, and I taught courses about how rats learned to like places where they received rewards, my slow brain started to make a connection.  This man knew exactly what he was doing. By the end of the term, I knew, he knew, he knew I knew… etc.  But I didn’t feel in the least bit manipulated.  I felt great – confident, happy, energetic – somehow I even managed to finish writing up my PhD!

A year or so later, I felt I deserved a reward for the years of research, study and writing, and I spent more money than I had buying myself a lovely young horse.  There was no doubt in my mind that there was only one way to train him – I wanted him to enjoy everything he learned, I wanted him to want to learn more, and I wanted him to be able to have a two way relationship with his trainer where he felt able to say “I’m not sure” or even “no, I can’t” without worrying about the consequences.

This is how I discovered training using reward, and how I began learning how to apply the area of behavioural science that forms the basis of “clicker training”.

At the end of this month, there’s the second ever Equine Clicker Conference happening in Northallerton in Yorkshire. The amazing trainers I read about when I first started working this way with my horse are going to be there, and I get to go and see them work and hear them talk about their methods, their discoveries and, of course, their horses.  What I’ve found about these people is that they can give people the same lovely warm glow I felt when doing that teaching job 15 years ago: they don’t push their amazing knowledge, wealth of experience or shining talent in your face: they make YOU feel like the clever, accomplished one. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a beginner, more experienced, or experienced enough to know you’re still an absolute beginner – they are the “perfect boss” who can bring out the best in you.

The conference is the weekend of the 21st and 22nd September, and I will be making lots of notes, learning lots of new things – and then blogging about them on here.

One final thought this week.  Teaching Physiological Psychology and Neuropsychology may sound dry – but many of the things I taught then form the basis of how I work with my horse now.  I like to think, when I arrive at the field in the morning that my horse gets the same feeling I did when my old boss arrived with the coffee and doughnuts.  This morning, for the first time, my horse jumped a four jump grid completely at liberty, in the middle of his field, surrounded by his friends (one of whom kept trying to demolish the 4th jump).  At the end, I jumped up and down and shouted “YAY”, and my horse said “huhuhuhuhuhuh”.  He got a big pile of treats on the grass to eat, and I sat on the grass beside him wondering whether horses can laugh or whether it’s very anthropomorphic to even think about that? Then I remembered one of the most interesting pieces of research to have emerged in neuroscience over the last few decades, and now I’m looking forward to the Clicker Conference even more.  Neuroscience isn’t all about rats lost in mazes: cheer up your day by watching Jaak Panksepp who set out to discover whether rats laughed…

If there’s anything you’d like me to ask at the conference, or anybody on the clicker conference agenda you’d like to know more about, ask here and I’ll make sure to include answers for you in my next blog post. If you’re going to be at the conference, please come up and say hello to me! I’m a proper shy academic type but am always delighted when someone introduces themselves!

Home Sweet Home

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!

The Jigsaw Puzzle

IMG_20151213_091020603A few years ago, I decided to learn to snowboard. This was a painful process. There seemed to be multiple skills to learn. There was the balancing on a flat board that had a tendency to slide, there was the weight shifts that made the board move in the direction you wanted (and sometimes very fast in directions you didn’t) and there was even complex skills like attaching the board to your feet and then standing up. I began by getting some lessons on a dry ski slope and spent lots of time catching an edge and flipping forward onto my face, or backwards onto my (already very bruised) left bum cheek. I kept going, grittily determined to crack this annoying puzzle.

It was a little bit like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle, but one where you hadn’t been given the picture to aim for, just a bag of tiny pieces and no instructions. The end goal of the task is fairly clear, but to start with, you have to work out a strategy using skills and knowledge you already have. You also have to gain some new skills: working out which bits won’t ever fit together with other bits; deciding what to do with those confusing pieces that have a tab on each of the four sides; trying to find the corners and the edges. All the while, you still don’t have a mental picture of what the end result will be like, although you might have seen other completed jigsaws.

Skill learning for humans and horses can be a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle with no picture, yet both species manage very well to acquire new skills.

Imagine trying to teach a horse to step sideways when ridden. You want them to understand that although up until now, you’ve always asked them to move forward in a straight line, you now want them to cross their legs over and move forwards and sideways at the same time. You want them to understand not to do it when you don’t ask, and you want them to understand what the signal is for when you want them to start. Besides the new movement skill, they also have to work out your cues. Just as with the jigsaw puzzle, the horse has no mental picture of the end point that you’re trying to reach, they just have lots of little pieces you’ve given them. To the horse, there’s probably no obvious connection between any of these pieces!

In a (human or horse) training session, we try to practice the component skills of what we’re trying to learn. We build new skills onto a foundation of existing skills by combining the parts in a different way, or by adding a variation on an existing skill.

We try training our horses during schooling sessions to both refine and improve existing skills and to add new ones. Sometimes, these sessions can end up frustrating for both horse and human, as we try again and again, sometimes coming very close to what we want to achieve, and then finding we’ve moved even further away from the completed jigsaw. This tantalising process leads to us trying over and over to get just a tiny bit better.

There’s lots of research on learning new things that can help us with this process, and some of it is not at all what you’d expect.

The first thing to think about is that new skills involve two things: acquiring the clever knack of doing the new thing, as well as being physically fit enough to do it. We tend to plug away at both of these at the same time, thinking that they’re inextricably linked and that if we practice enough, we and the horse will be able to do it. But that’s not actually how the brain and body work together to learn new skills. You can get fit and supple enough to begin doing the new skill without ever actually doing it. Unfortunately, the repeated and not quite successful attempts actually make the learning process less efficient and more offputting to the trainee.

This is because there’s a key part of the jigsaw that’s missing. Our brains have two important things to do: they need to remember all the information about the experience of trying to do the new thing that we gain during our practice session (and these include the times we almost managed, the times we were way off and the occasional times when, by accident, we did it exactly right). One part of our brain is expert at storing all these: it’s like the cache on your computer, a temporary store for recent events that you might need to think about later. Each day, this gets all filled up with what you’re doing. If you tried to permanently store all the information you take in each day, your brain’s hard drive would end up full! The magic part is the second part of the brain… It’s the part that has stored all your skills and memories of how to learn – but while useful stuff is stored there, it needs to be uploaded again to be used.

So, picture the situation. You’ve made lots of progress today learning your new skill, and the memory trace is in the temporary cache. If it gets added in a meaningful way to the stuff already stored, you will make an amazing improvement in the skill. But your brain is busy with daily life and you can’t manage to integrate the two. So your brain waits until there’s enough processing power available to integrate the two things. This process happens while we sleep, and is most likely one of the really important reasons why we do sleep. Horses’ brains are exactly the same (in fact, we could propose that every animal that sleeps most likely uses this “memory consolidation” process to learn new things).

So that’s why you often see big improvements between training sessions that are separated by a rest period when the animal sleeps. It certainly worked for my snowboarding – I would almost always start the new lesson – a week after the previous one – looking much more competent than I had at the end of the last lesson. With horses, we sometimes laugh and say “wow, I think she’s been thinking about this since yesterday”. And that’s partly true, although it may not be during the hours of consciousness! What’s happened is that the new information has been matched with the older, stored information and pieces have fallen into place that make the jigsaw start to make sense. This jump between training sessions is called “latent” learning: it’s learning that’s hidden away until there’s a reason for it to be revealed. It can be hidden from one day to the next, or it can remain hidden for a long time until there’s a good reason to use it.

Training sessions are hard brain work. The research shows that a brain during the training process is using lots of energy, and that lots of different parts of the brain are working hard. In contrast, once the overnight storage and processing has taken place, we (and our horses) both look much more skilled while using much smaller brain effort to achieve a better result. Our brains are set up to be as efficient as possible, and to use as little processing power as possible when doing something. This allows us room to learn even more new things.

So there are a few clear tips we can incorporate in our training of new skills. Whether we’re trying to learn to sit to a bouncy trot, or whether our horse is trying to learn to step sideways at the same time as going forwards, it’s much better to focus on the new skill for only a short period of time during a longer training session. That’s because filling the brain with lots of not quite successful attempts makes the overnight process of weeding out the good attempts more difficult, and it’s also because endlessly repeating something without quite getting it right isn’t much fun. The other thing is that we can work on fitness and flexibility separately from the new skill, so we can prepare the body to be able to do the new skill once our brain has sorted out the knack involved. And the final thing is that the new (but hidden or latent) skills tend to be revealed when there’s a good reason for them to appear: the horse is more likely to try using them if they can see a benefit for themselves in the process. I suppose that must be the reason my most successful snowboard runs were the ones that ended up on a sunny terrace with a giant hot chocolate, extra marshmallows, and no bruises!

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 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!

Magnetic Fields



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 😉

Tic Toc Body Clocks


Relative size is no barrier to love!

I love reading – if I’m not with the horses, I can usually be found with my nose tucked into a book, although sadly I do have to work from time to time to pay for my horse and book collecting habits! Apart from books featuring horses, I also enjoy reading historical fiction: much more interesting than school history, and you can learn just as much as from a dry history lesson.

On one of my groaning bookshelves at home, there’s a sub-genre of historical fiction that can broadly be summarised as “Girl or young woman finds herself in a convent. She is unhappy about this, but eventually manages to escape. Before or just after the escape, she meets the young man of her dreams. They live happily ever after, content in having informed me about 15th century Italian social customs or the dissolution of the monasteries in 16th century England!”

Clever authors make sure that as we read these stories, we are immediately able to empathise with the heroine’s situation, and we can recognize how strange and artificial it is to completely segregate a young woman from a normal mixed society. It’s usually also quite clear that this process of segregation has little effect on abolishing or even suppressing her desire to find that young man of her dreams, since she’s devoting a lot of time either thinking about him or working out how to escape her convent so that she can meet him.

Hopefully by now you’ll also have at the back of your minds a beautiful green field surrounded by high hedges, with sun shining and birds singing, and a group of beautiful mares grazing with an outward semblance of peace and contentment. But where are the males? Not a stallion, or even a gelding, to be seen! Do you know any mares who live in a convent? Are they going about their routine daily activities looking serene and relaxed – despite being a surging, roiling mass of sex hormones just under the surface?

Last week I wrote about the difference between sex roles and sexual behaviour: you might not see any active sexual behaviour from your gelding, but he will still take on the male roles in a group of horses. A mare, because she’s a mature female horse, will show both female horse sex roles and female sexual behaviours. We tend to think of females (of most species!) as passive recipients of sexual interest from males, but different sex hormones in females are responsible for both active and passive sexual behaviours. “Passive” sexual behaviours in female horses basically involve not running away from or kicking a stallion in the chest when he wants to mount her. The more subtle behaviours we often don’t notice are “active” sexual behaviours that mares show (and that stallions notice!).

To spot these, we have to think about clocks. All animals have a special set of interconnected “clocks” in their brains. These clocks help them to know what time of the day it is as well as what time of the year it is. In females, they also control whether they’re interested in a male or not (the oestrous cycle). The clocks that tell the mare that it’s spring are closely connected to the clocks that tell her “start looking for a mate!”, and they do this by releasing hormones in reponse to increasing day lengths.

We don’t really register these behaviours, any more than we do when looking at the lovely serene picture of the nuns at prayer – because they don’t appear at first glance to be sexual behaviours. But we do notice that mares start to behave in a different way when the days start to get longer. They can be distracted, more impatient, their moods can be unpredictable. While these changes happen in a natural gradual sense in feral horses, there are also some key differences with our domestically managed mares. First of all, once a feral mare is sexually mature, her brain controls a cycle that’s about 12 months long, not 21 days as we assume. That’s because adult mares aren’t intended by nature to have repeated seasons all summer: their brain aims for them to have one fertile season, followed by 11 months of pregnancy and birth followed by a fertile season. So her mood will naturally be less variable.

When a stallion isn’t around, the mare will continue to be fertile for a few days in a 21 day cycle all spring and summer. When a cycle is repeated frequently, with lots of other things happening at the same time (new horses, various life stresses, changes of feed, changes of housing), there’s more chances of it being affected by outside factors. These factors can disrupt hormone levels and affect both fertility and behaviour.

That’s why domestically managed mares can become “mareish” – they can have problems simply because they have repeated cycles when nature (and their own body) wants them to have one or two fertile seasons followed by pregnancy and birth. The more seasons they have without a pregnancy (and in fact, without access to any male horses), the more chance there is that they will have seasons that we consider problematic.

Just like the reluctant fictional nuns, a group of mares without any male horses around still need someone to take on the male sex roles (in horses, these include acting as the sentry, dealing with threats and newcomers and sometimes moving the whole group away from something. Humans understand that while taking on a role that isn’t natural for you is possible, it isn’t always comfortable and can cause you to feel unsettled or stressed. It’s the same for mares. In mixed herds where mares and geldings live together, a gelding or one of the mares will take the male sex roles (guarding and herding) in the absence of a stallion. What geldings (and mares) normally can’t do is show male sexual behaviour, in terms of courting and covering in-season mares. There are situations where mares can show male sexual behaviour but this isn’t normal (unless you’re a jenny donkey, when surprisingly enough, it is!).

Mares soon learn that while a gelding in their group looks and smells very like a stallion, he doesn’t respond to their active sexual behaviour the way a stallion would. Once they’ve tried a few times, they tend to leave him alone, although every spring when their seasons restart, they may ask again, just in case anything’s changed! Since active mare sexual behaviour involves searching for a stallion rather than waiting and hoping, they will check out every new gelding they meet. Adding a new gelding to a herd may well bring a mare into season unexpectedly. Mares kept in single sex herds may also try to escape rather more frequently than those kept in mixed herds, and many an unexpected foal has resulted from mares actively seeking out stallions, rather than from escaped stallions finding mares. The drive of sex hormones is a strong one that will often override the mare’s desire to stay with her group and her field full of grass.

Something worth bearing in mind is that stress hormones affect both the internal clocks in our bodies as well as the hormones that control sexual behaviour. Stress for a mare can be anything from the way she’s housed, the work she does as well as new companions and changes in management. Don’t forget that a mare’s hormones respond to a gradual increase in day length, but that we often stable mares inside in artificial lighting conditions throughout the winter and then turn them out once spring comes, so instead of a gradual change, they experience a sudden change in hours of light, housing, feed and companions. No wonder their first seasons of the year can be noticeable!

What then is the key to a contented mare? First and foremost, it’s likely to be a mare living in a small family group with a familiar stallion. If she can’t, because of our management, have this arrangement the next best thing is to try to ensure that she can live in a settled mixed group, so that male horses can take on the male group roles. Ideally, the mare needs familiar company: if she’s in a place where new mares and geldings arrive and leave fairly frequently, she will be more unsettled, and this will have a negative effect on her regular seasons during spring and summer.

Mares who are difficult to handle when in season can often be much easier if managed in a more natural way. For example, removing them from busy livery yards and allowing them time to settle with a smaller mixed group can often have a remarkable effect on their behaviour.
Tic Toc Body Clock
The picture just above is Shannon, a beautiful mare I used to share. When I first met her, she was living on her own and it took me a while to realise that the rides she preferred were the ones that took us to visit her previous gelding companion. After I’d been sharing her for a while, her owner moved her to a mixed group, and she became more settled. Even so, every spring she liked the rides that took us to the top of big hills, where she’d stand scenting the breeze and scanning the horizon. I’m not sure what the stallion of her dreams looked like, but I’m pretty sure she was actively looking for him. I haven’t seen her in a while, but I like to think she’s thrown off her black and white habit and escaped the convent!

Let’s talk about sex, baby!


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.