It all adds up…

DSC00093 (1)
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 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!

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.



By any chance, is there something else you should be doing just now? I only ask because I should be writing a report on the meeting I had earlier, but instead, I’m writing my blog, because it’s far more interesting!

Another question: did you go for a run today? Did you walk anywhere? How fast did you go? Yes, I’m all about the difficult questions in this week’s blog! This week, I’d like to talk about laziness, because by coincidence, I’ve been in three discussions about it in the last few days. The most recent was this morning’s meeting, where I talked to a very interesting man about motivating a workforce. Although he’s now leading a large international engineering company, one of the first leadership jobs he had was with a well known ladies’ underwear manufacturer. It had recently been acquired by a new owner, and he’d been brought in to see how he could improve the performance of the lazy workforce. Apparently, they did everything with minimal effort, and the new owner was in despair. How was it possible that so many lazy people could be collected in one place?

There’s the first thing – they immediately assumed that laziness was a fixed part of these people’s personality. The man I interviewed decided to try a few new things, and hoped that by introducing a new way of working, he could improve both the quality and quantity of knickers produced (there may also have been bras and pantygirdles involved, I didn’t enquire too closely!). He chose a group of 10 of the women identified as the least productive, and brought them together to talk to them. He started off by asking them to say a bit about themselves, and he was astonished when each woman in the group described the creative and productive life they had outside of the factory. There were talented amateur artists, people taking part time degrees, musicians who travelled all over the country for gigs, mothers managing large families and a sportswoman on a national team. He realised he had to question his mental idea of these women as lazy, because what the management described as laziness was something that only happened when they came to work. He’d uncovered a massive lack of motivation and stimulation in their work lives. He allowed this group to choose their own hours, their own targets, their own working partners, and allowed them input into the manufacturing processes and new designs. A short time later, he was called to head office in Italy to explain discrepancies in his production figures: they refused to believe that the “lazy” women were now their most productive group.

Have you ever heard a horse described as lazy? Usually, lazy is used when a horse doesn’t move fast enough when we’re riding, or change gaits promptly enough when we ask. Sometimes, they just drag their hooves and look sleepy. Sometimes, they’re actually asleep when we go to collect them to ride, and we have to expend lots of effort persuading them to their feet, and dragging them in to be groomed and tacked up. Sometimes they trip and stumble, and their vets and farriers say it’s because they’re too lazy to pick up their feet. Sometimes, they’re lazy in the arena, but joggy when riding out, sometimes they crawl along like snails when out but are fine in a school.

Now here’s a cool psychology topics my students love: it’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error. The name is a bit of a mouthful, but the idea itself is simple, and once you’ve heard it, you find yourself applying it to lots of things in life. Let’s suppose you are a student, sharing a flat with a few other students. You come in one afternoon, and one of your flat mates is slumped in front of the TV, but you notice they’ve cooked themselves a meal and left mess and dirty saucepans and dishes all over the kitchen. “Lazy lump”, you think to yourself. A few days later, you have had the day from hell, lectures and labs back to back from 8.30am til after 5pm, and you worked all the previous night finishing off an assignment. You come in, make the easiest possible dinner, and immediately sit down to eat it in front of the TV. And your flat mate comes in and sighs…

The Fundamental Attribution Error says that when we see another person doing something (especially something of which we disapprove), we tend to say they’re doing that because of their personality. When we do the same thing ourselves, we say it’s because of the situation we’re in. There’s definitely an element of this going on when we call our horse lazy!

I asked earlier if you’d been for a run today? and if so, how fast you ran? I run as exercise, but I am first to admit it can be a bit of a chore. I use lots of little tricks to keep myself running on days when it’s raining, or cold, or I’m a bit tired. When we pull our horse out of their field or stable, tack up and head off, we’re doing something we want to do, but are they? In reality, they may be a bit like the women in the knicker factory: they’re quite happy bimbling around their field, and they don’t show any signs of slacking in terms of grazing, socialising, snoozing, grooming themselves. They just suddenly become rather sluggish when we ask them to do something we want.

Ethologists – who study animal behaviour – measure what an animal does during a typical day. They call this a time budget. The time budget reflects the effort an animal needs to put into getting enough food to have energy to get through the day, plus doing all the other things that are essential to life: walking to the water, grooming to remove parasites, relieve itchiness and maintain their skin and coat. Exploring: finding new and better sources of different kinds of forage and minerals. Interacting with other horses, in order to maintain social links. Finally, they spend time resting, either asleep or “loafing”: standing in little social groups swishing flies off or sniffing each other. You might be surprised to hear that there’s a very delicate balance between taking in energy by eating vs the energy we expend in getting the food. So to make sure this balance is achieved, we (and horses) factor in some “doing nothing” time, when we expend minimal energy. Resting is part of the time and energy budget (humans tend to do things like read blogs and watch TV). Some things horses don’t do much of at all is trotting, cantering, jumping things and galloping. Especially in circles…

What we ask of them are sustained periods of trotting, cantering, jumping things and galloping. Plus going backwards and sideways, and around in circles. They put all that effort into structuring their day so they have the right balance of energy vs resting and socialising time, and we come along and ask them to expend lots of energy, plus we ask them to do a whole range of things they wouldn’t choose to do for as long, as well as things they would generally avoid doing completely. Do they sound a little like the women in the underwear factory? If they don’t drag their feet because they have lazy dispositions (and we know they mostly don’t as they spend up to 18 hours a day walking around, rather more than we do!), there must be another reason. It could be we haven’t given them any reason to act differently, or it could be that something is preventing them from acting differently. The days I’m most likely to skip my regular run are the days after I’ve done a very long run and my muscles are sore: I will look quite normal to you if you see me walking around, but if I start to run, I am sure I will get an ears back grumpy expression!

The managing director of the underwear factory gave his workers a reason to be more productive. He gave them things they valued, that made coming to work something they enjoyed. He could have tried motivating them by penalising them, but he was wise enough to know that this approach results in either avoidance or evasion: they would either leave, to be replaced by someone else who started off well but gradually became “lazy”, or they would find creative ways around his penalties – because all animals, including humans, suddenly become much less lazy when they’re motivated to find a way to avoid a penalty or a punishment. Many people who say their horse is lazy will also say they can motivate them really well by carrying a whip – but that they have to carry it all the time to make sure the horse continues to work, plus they find it’s getting less and less effective and now they’ve had to start using spurs…

Start by working out what your horse wants and values: the list is already there in their time budget. They want food. They want companions. They want security so that they can rest and feel refreshed. They often want to explore. When they’re working for us, they want breaks – as they get fitter, the breaks can be further apart. They want to be motivated not by threats, but by rewards. They want us to recognize that they’re horses: their time budgets and priorities might be different from ours. In fact, they want pretty much exactly what we want when we take on a new job, they want to have a reason to come to work. I’ll just go off and write my report now…


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