Hawks and Doves


Is competing just for the sake of competing a unique human characteristic?  As a species, we love competition.  Sometimes the prize is something tangible and we can see its importance to our survival as an individual: watching brothers and sisters using sophisticated “dirty tricks” to win the largest portion of dessert can be very entertaining to watch.  On the other hand, there are times when winning doesn’t guarantee our own survival, but it may contribute towards the survival of our genes.  Human courtship is a clear example of this kind of competition, and we can spend hours people watching in nightclubs, spotting who’s wearing the most eyecatching outfit or doing the most outrageous dance!  Much of the time, though, our competitions don’t obviously feature prizes that help us survive either as individuals or as a species.  Rosettes and trophies that we win in a range of equestrian competitions are examples of these: they are very important to us, and some may go to extreme lengths to earn them, but the reasons we compete in this way are complex and even after tens of thousands of years of human speculation, we still don’t have a complete understanding why we’re driven to act this way.

When we’re asked to explain the human desire to compete, we often refer to other species.  We can see quite clearly that many species compete fiercely, and so it makes sense to us that we should have this drive too.  We see lionesses bringing down prey and then being driven off their prize by hungry lions.  We see stags engaging in spectacular fights over access to does.  In hot countries, water sources are often the scene for competition over access to fresh, clean water both between members of the same species as well as between different species.  In domesticated animals like our own horses, we can see subtle competition between animals over access to friends. In humans, we can watch something very similar in school playgrounds!

Humans are unusual in the animal kingdom, though.  We enlist other species in our own competitions, and winning is subject to them behaving in very specific ways.  Over millennia, our keen hunter’s eye has allowed us to spot behaviour characteristic of many species that we can use to satisfy our own competitive urges – so we’ve watched horses in their natural state and seen them showing off to rivals, running from predators and migrating over many miles to find food and water.

Quick to spot the sporting potential in situations, we devise human entertainments that involve our horse running faster than other horses, our horse jumping higher than other horses, our horse having greater stamina than other horses, or our horse being able to perform better display behaviours than other horses.  We set about training them to perform these behaviours on command, but not content with that, we start to attribute the emotions we would feel in that situation to the horse.  We say “he loves to race”, “she loves to jump”, “he wants to show off”… Yet freed from our motivation and our constraints, the horse somehow fails to perform these actions of their own accord.  Rather boringly, they just walk off to their companions and start grazing, ignoring the arena, the jumps and the carefully manicured gallops.

Do our horses understand competition?  Do they feel satisfaction when they win a rosette, or win a race? Do they feel less satisfaction if they come third, or fail to complete the course?

For humans, winning is about that occasional feeling of elation that comes with the knowledge that we have reached a certain standard. We look out like hawks for the signs that we have won – the applause of a crowd, the score on a dressage test, the photo that shows our horse was first past the post.  For our horses, the feedback is more likely to be relief and release.  They know that we slacken off slightly after each jump, and completely at the end of a round.  They know that at a certain point, the jockey stops driving them. The pressure on the poll, mouth and sides of a dressage horse is increased to ask for a behaviour then slackened fractionally when they perform as told, and they are allowed to resume a relaxed posture at the end of a test. Horses in human competitions are working to regain freedom, not to achieve supremacy. They learn quickly that there are things they can do to get to the release point faster.  If we let them, they will speed up towards jumps, because they know the release is on the other side.  They will speed up past other horses in the race, because their jockey will drive less when they are in front.

We have chosen to compete using a species whose primary aim is to cooperate. They were domesticated in the first place because of their cooperative nature, and they allow us to sublimate our urge to win because, instead of competing with us, they follow our direction.  Horses love to run, but there is no reward for being in front.  In running from predators, horses bunch together because a lone horse is an easier target.  A horse will jump an obstacle they can’t go around when they’re making an escape or to get to something they want – but leave a horse in a ring with 10 jumps, and even the most motivated won’t jump more than one.  Horses will elevate their paces and move like dancers for very brief periods when showing off to rivals, but they don’t sustain the postures for more than a few seconds at a time, and they certainly don’t do it when there’s no rival or potential mate there – otherwise, how would they know their showing off has been successful?

The posts in this blog use aspects of anthropomorphism to highlight similarities between horse and human behaviour, with the aim of showing a different way to think about why horses behave the way they do.  I wouldn’t dream of saying that horses aren’t competitive, but I would argue that they are very unlikely to understand the competitions we construct around them.  What they’re doing with us is co-operating, not competing. As a species, affiliative interactions are the glue that keep them together, and keeping together is what keeps them safe and provides the opportunity to reproduce.

There’s a name for a relationship between two different species where both benefit – it’s called mutualism.  There’s also a name for a relationship between two species where one benefits and the other doesn’t – it’s called parasitism. A funny example of mutualism exists inside the horse: horses need bacteria to help digest the food they eat.  The bacteria need the forage that the horse eats but can’t process on its own…  Both organisms benefit.

When we compete with our horses, we benefit.  We choose to compete because there is a personal reward.  We don’t always win, but there is always the chance that we might.  But is the horse-human relationship mutualism, or is it parasitism?  From the horse’s point of view, there is a clear cost to cooperating with us.  In many cases they lose the chance to reproduce, they miss out on social interactions with companions they choose themselves and they lose the ability to choose where to live and what to eat.  Our rationale – if we offer one – tends to be that our competition horses live a life of pampered luxury.  We make sure they don’t have to walk more than two steps across their deep bedded stable to get access to the highest quality feed, we remove them from the risk of injury during rough play or sexual rivalry, we shelter them from inclement weather… In fact, we consistently remove almost every single aspect of our horses’ lives where they might, in natural situations, compete with other horses!

Can we have it both ways? It’s hard to believe our own explanation that a horse loves to compete, when we’re so careful to make sure that they never experience any competition in their lives in case it affects their health or causes injury!  If we accept that horses have no understanding of our goals in competing, that doesn’t mean that the natural cooperation they offer us can’t be rewarded and rewarding.  There are many things we can do to make the relationship mutualism and not parasitism… and I’d be very interested to hear people’s ideas on what these might be!





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!