In a Crystal Ball


Which would make you happier? The chance to change something in your past, or the chance to change something in your future?

Humans tend to believe that we are unique in the way we think about the past and the future.  We think a lot about things that happened to us in the past, and we’ll often talk about them at length!  It seems likely that animals from other species have “flash back” type memories of things that have happened to them, triggered off by similar situations or by associations with things around them, but we don’t think they sit around chatting about old times the way we do.

The ability we have to reflect on things that have happened to us in the past seems linked to our ability to think about what might happen in the future.  We can talk about future plans in a way that’s just as detailed as when we’re describing stories from our past.  Because we know horses are unlikely to have these kinds of reflective memories of the past, we assume they don’t think about the future in this way either.  You’ll often hear people say that horses “live in the present”, and that the past and the future are not important to them.  A well known vet was quoted in a recent British Horse Society member’s magazine, saying “…we shouldn’t worry about the horse, the horse doesn’t worry about tomorrow, it only worries about today and it doesn’t matter to the horse whether they are alive one minute and dead the next – that is a natural event for a preyed upon animal.”

This blog is about predicting the future.  While horses and humans  do not “think” in exactly the same way, there are still similarities in how we think.  One is our absolute hatred of things not being as they should be.  All animals have built in pattern detectors, allowing us to learn “what happens next”.  We love the security of knowing what’s about to happen, and as humans, we even create elaborate ways of entertaining ourselves based on our ability (or lack of ability) to predict the future.  We play poker, for example, and chess, dice, buy lottery tickets… It gives us a buzz if we guess and get it right.

Like us, horses want to know what’s going to happen.  It’s a survival mechanism, for them and for us.  Taking a very large and noticeable example, we know that when it gets dark, after a set number of hours it will become light again.  We can base our behaviour on the fact that this happens very reliably, so as humans we know “when it gets dark, it’s safer not to be out in the countryside with no lights”.  We’ve also learned that if we stand at a bus stop, eventually a bus will come along, if we turn on a tap, water will come out…  You’re reading this, but I bet you already have a good idea of what you’re going to do next!

Horses also have this desire. In domestically managed situations, they learn to watch all the things that predict good and bad outcomes for them.  They learn which car we drive, and that the sound of it arriving predicts food.  They learn very complex associations – for example, they can learn that if a particular person comes to the field carrying a headcollar, their companion will be taken away and they’ll be left alone.  They learn that the clothes we only wear on a show day means they’ll be asked to load in a trailer.  As they learn all these things, they start to act to control their own possible futures.  If they don’t want to be left alone, they’ll herd their companion away from the person who comes with the headcollar.  If they don’t want to load, they’ll move as far from the person wearing show clothes as possible.  If we try to take them from a stable full of hay to a field with sparse winter grass, they’ll be much harder to lead out.  If we try to take them from a summer field full of rich grass to a stable with dry hay, they’ll work out a way to avoid the trip. The actions they choose show that they understand what’s going to happen, and that they believe they have some level of control over it.

The reason I’m finding this interesting at the moment is my own horse is moving home.  He’s been in the same place with the same friends for some years now.  From tomorrow, he’ll be living with horses he’s never met before, although it is a field where he’s lived before.  From his point of view, many of the certainties in his life will be wiped out overnight.

When this happens to us, we behave in lots of slightly alarming ways.  In times of  war or natural disasters, humans take lots of drastic actions to give themselves back the illusion of control.  Many people become less altruistic and more selfish, hoarding and panic buying. Where they may have been independent, they become very supportive of authority: if you can’t control your own environment, it helps to think that someone, somewhere is in control of it.    Tolerance for difference is reduced: people who don’t act close to the norm are perceived as unpredictable and so may pose a danger to the limited control you’re only just managing to maintain over your own world.

In situations where they can no longer predict the future, horses act just like people: they try to regain control.  Because they can’t predict how a horse they have never met before will behave, they are wary and defensive. This helps them to avoid being injured and makes sure they still have access to space and food.  Because companionship is so important to horses, in a new place with new companions they may try to ensure they’re not split up. In their familiar home, they know what horses come and go, how long they’re away and that they will have company.

Back in the 1970s, a psychologist called Richard Schultz carried out a very influential piece of research as part of his PhD.  He looked at the effects of predictability and control on the physical and psychological health of older people in residential care.  There are some interesting parallels between the life these older people lived, and the lives led by our horses.  In their day to day lives, the people in the care home spent a lot of time in their rooms.  They didn’t get many visitors, and there were set visiting times.  The staff may well have been kind, but they were there to do a job.  The residents didn’t get to make decisions about what time they would eat, what they would eat, what time they would sleep. Even decisions about the temperature of the rooms and their décor were made by someone else. They didn’t even get to choose who shared their environment  – someone else decided who stayed in which rooms.  Does it sound a little familiar for anybody with a horse on livery?

The researcher knew that people in these situations tend to experience more mental and physical health problems than you would expect given their age and fitness. He was interested in whether giving the people control over some aspects of their life would change their wellbeing.  He arranged for the people in the homes to receive visitors – but only some people were able to decide when the visitors came.  Others were told when they were going to have a visit, and a third group weren’t told anything. A final, comparison group didn’t have any visitors.  The people in the study who did best both physically and psychologically were those who knew when their visitors would arrive, either because they’d arranged it themselves or because they’d been told.  Those who did worst were those who had surprise visitors, or no visitors.  It seems we need to know what’s going to happen more than we need to be able to control it. This is probably because if we know what’s likely to happen, we actually believe we do have control, even if sometimes it’s only an illusion of control.

In our care, management and training of horses, we often forget that they too might have a need for predictability.  Yet we can see that they care about the future and take actions to control what’s going to happen to them.  They may not have long term plans in the way that we do, but just like us, knowing what’s going to happen next matters greatly to them.  Also like us, the ability to feel in control of events means they’re healthier horses – and the more individual situations they can control, the better. Can your horse control their own temperature, or do you choose their rug? Can your horse choose from a variety of forage, or do they just get “a haynet”?  Do they have any say in who their neighbour is, what their bedding is?  How many times does your horse get to exercise choice during their day to day life as a livery horse?

In our every day handling of our horses, we bump up against difficult situations linked to this all the time.  We say “horses need a strict routine”, where in fact we have taken so much of the control out of their lives that if we vary even slightly from “what always happens”, we upset them to the extent of causing colic, anxiety and stereotypical behaviour.  For the horse, this is akin to an older human being institutionalised.

When we train them, we drill behaviours. A lot of schooling can consist of repetitive chains of movements, yet if our horse shows us that they know what comes next, we punish that as “anticipating”: a horse should remain completely passive, awaiting our next command, since we believe the future is unimportant to them.

We need to understand that our horses are no different from humans in these ways.  If you have no idea “what’s going to happen next”, you will feel anxious and afraid and the world will seem chaotic.  If you have only a vague idea of “what’s going to happen next”, you will try to use familiar behaviours to make things happen the way you prefer: these may be classed as “bad behaviour” or even worse as “dominance” by your human handler. On the other hand, if new experiences are introduced in a gradual fashion, you’ll be able to deal them, because you’ll still be able to deduce “what happens next”, based on situations that have been quite similar and non-threatening.  For a horse who’s in a new situation, having a handler there who’s been calm, consistent and predictable is security in itself: they know that if you’re there, “what happens next” is nothing to fear.

I would love to hear ways people give their horses control over their own lives, as well as ways people help their horses deal with change.  Perhaps we can feed back to the vet who believes that “it doesn’t matter to the horse whether they are alive one minute and dead the next”, and help to change – for the better – the way we manage our horses.