Appreciating Equine Behaviour
Sid Gustafson DVM
Friends, forage, and locomotion. These are the requirements for healthy horses.
Horses began their journey through time 60 million years ago. Three million years ago the footsteps of man were fossilized next to the hoofprints of horses, suggesting that humans have been contemplating horses for some time. But it was not until perhaps ten thousand years ago that man began the dance of domestication with horse. There is archeological evidence that man had formed a close relationship with horses by 5500 years ago in Botai, where the horsefolk kept and milked horses, and probably rode them. Horses provided these early horsefolk with nearly everything they needed. It is interesting to note that large domestic dogs lived with these early horsefolk as well, but no other domestic animals. To understand the domestication process is to appreciate equine behaviour. Horses apparently became domesticated because they found a niche with man long ago on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Both trained and wild horses existed in this realm south of Russia and west of China. A population of horses more amenable to captivity and taming than their wild counterparts likely provided the stock for the first horse societies. Rather than plucking wild horses out of the wild and taming them, it is thought that over tens of thousands of years a relationship developed in a shared niche.
By the early 20th century the closest living relative to man's Equus caballus, the Tarpan, had gone extinct. No truly wild horses remain. All of today’s caballine horses are descended from an original and probably separate population of horses that were amenable to be tamed and selectively bred. It must have taken tens of thousands of years to fully domesticate the horse, to attain control of breeding. Breeding likely consisted of selection for docility and amenability to captivity, and later milking, riding, driving, and stabling.
No longer does man depend on horse for survival as he once did. Although still bred for trainability, many horses are today bred for specific performance goals. These days, horses provide man with entertainment, recreation, sport, esteem, performance, and pleasure, and, as ever, but in fewer and fewer reaches, utility. Other than stockmen, few others rely on horses for to sustain a pastoral livelihood.
Horsefolk remain enticed by horses. The science of equine behaviour attempts to appreciate just who horses are, and from the horse perspective. We continue to find ourselves attempting to appreciate how this human/horse relationship came to be so as to facilitate a smooth trouble free relationship with our horses. To understand where our relationship with the horses is headed, we attempt to see where the relationship has been. We live with horses and we continue to learn from them, as all horsefolk have through time. We study the evolution and domestication of the horse to better help us appreciate the horses we have in our hands today. Evolution and domestication provide the basis for the understanding of equine behaviour. Man has attempted to refine his relationship with the horse ever since the first kid grabbed a mane and swung atop a horse. To become a partner with the flighty, powerful (but trainable and tamable) grazer of the plains remains the horsefolk goal.
Appreciation and sensitivity to all of our caballine horses' evolved preferences results in optimum health and soundness, and therefore optimum performance. A horse cannot be coerced to win the Kentucky Derby. The people must work with the horse, and from the horse’s view. If we understand equine behaviour, we understand what makes horses do our bidding, and do it well. To this day, horses seek to appease their domesticators. Horses are willing learners. This learning behavior is a result of evolutionary development of a complex social lifestyle. More recently, selective breeding has influenced equine behaviour. The nature of the horse is enhanced by the horse’s social development. Appropriate socialization with other horses in herd pasture setting best prepares horses to be subsequently trained by horsefolk. Pastured horses train up and learn more efficiently than stabled horses. The appropriate, efficient, and considerate training of horses is highly dependent on their previous socialization by the dam and other horses, as well as their current husbandry situation. Trainability is heavily influenced by the intensity and type of stabling and husbandry, not to mention the type of training. In the latest revolution of horsemanship, the area of appropriate socialization and stabling has not received the attention it deserves.
Horses are a quiet species. They prefer calm, and learn most efficiently in tranquil, familiar settings. Horses must know and be comfortable and secure in their environment to be able to learn as horsefolk hope them to learn. Horsefolk all know what we want from our horses, however in this paper I shall present the science of what our horses want and need from us, the science of equine behaviour. Equine behaviour is not only the basis of training and trainability, but also the very basis of equine health. To succeed in our endeavors with horses (whatever the our equine goals or pursuits), our horses are best served to receive what they preferentially need and want behaviourally, nutritionally, socially, physically, environmentally, visually, and metabolically. In order to properly care for horses and successfully teach and train horses, horsefolk must know horses. They must know who the gregarious grazers of the plains are. They must know how to properly socialize horses through their growth phase to ensure that their horses grow up to be horses. Horses raised out of the herd context are vulnerable to behavioural insecurities later in life. Most behavioural wastage is due to improper socialization and husbandry.
Rather than dissimilar to us, horses are much like us. In this talk, I will focus on humankind's social and communicative similarities to horses. As with people, strong social bonds develop between individual horses and groups of horses. This herd nature results in intense social pair and herd bonds. Horses need other horses. Horses require other horses for security, comfort, and behavioural health. Horses need friends throughout their entire life, first their mother, and then their herd. Today’s domestic horse needs horse friends and human friends, although horses do retain the wherewithal to survive just fine without horsefolk. Horses need friends so preciously and constantly, that horses allow horsefolk to substitute as friends. This is because man shares a sociality with domestic horses. We speak their gesture language, and horses speak ours. We share a language of movement.
Domestic horse is no longer man’s prey, and has not been for thousands of years. Horse has been brought into the circle of humanity, along with a dozen or so other domesticates. Horse and man have co-evolved together for thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. Each knows the other, well.
The importance of constant locomotion is paramount to appreciating equine behaviour and learning. Locomotion. Horses need movement. In addition to friendship, they require near-constant movement. Interdependence exists between horse health and locomotion. Horses evolved to be near-constant walkers and grazers. The last place a horse evolved to be is alone in a stall. Despite domestication and selective breeding for docility and captivity, horse health remains dependent on locomotion. Locomotion is inherent to grazing. Locomotion is inherent to digestion, to respiration, to metabolism. If horses are not allowed to move about freely and socialize with other familiar horses grazing and chewing as they evolved to do, they become troubled. Horses deprived of locomotion and constant forage ingestion develop strategies to maintain the motion and oral security they feel they need to survive.
The primary premise of equine behavioural health is this: In natural settings, horses walk and graze together with other horses two thirds of the time. They take a step and graze, then another step or two grazing and moving along, always observing their surroundings, grazing while in touch with other members of the herd unless playing, dozing or sleeping under the watch of others. Horses that are not afforded the opportunity to graze and walk much of the time take up with behaviours to replicate essential locomotion. When stabled, some of the horse's long-evolved survival behaviours become unwanted and unwelcome.
Horses require friends, forage, and locomotion to stay healthy and productive. In Alberta, these requirements are easy to fulfill, as this is the geography and environs that the most recent predecessors of Equus caballus evolved. Stabling is what deprives horses of friends, forage, and locomotion. Although convenient for horsefolk, stabling is inconvenient for horses. Horses are best served to have their needs re-created in the stable. Once our horses behavioural needs are understood, appreciated, and fulfilled the learning and training can begin.
Domestication of the horse by (with) man seems to have been facilitated not only by a shared geography, but also by a shared sociality that uses mutual communication and teaching principles, thus allowing the training and shaping of horse behaviors by man. Trainability! Training up horses to our desires is what fascinates horsefolk. So how can this be that man can slip in as horse’s friend? Horses utilize kinetic empathy to facilitate communication. They communicate information to each other (and to horsefolk) via gestures, behavioural patterns, pressures, conditioned reactions, and movements.
Due to convergent evolution, this quiet gesture language can be applied by horsefolk to have horses do their bidding. When spoken correctly, horses understand what people want them to learn, and they learn willingly, provided they were allowed to be taught to learn by their dams. Horses understand the language of horsemanship, and it is a language taught to them by horses, and used to communicate with both horses and people. Horses are not only born to communicate and learn, it is in their nature to appease others, to please them. With these characteristics, the population of horse that took to following pastoral man around became the ideal domesticate. Horsefolk can express kinetic empathy that horses consistently respond to if the movements are correctly taught to the horse and consistently applied by the horseperson.
Please appreciate that just how the horse's mental processes are similar to the human cognitive processes is not clear, and may never be. Horses think about what is important to them. They learn what they need to survive. They adapt to horsefolk and the restrictive environments horsefolk impose upon them.
Care must be taken not to give horses either too much or too little credit for their thinking and reasoning capabilities. The consequences of incorrect assumptions can result in exceeding the horse's adaptability, which results in health and behaviour issues.
Horses have emotions and feelings that may or may not be comparable to man's. Insight and intelligence cannot be scientifically measured just yet, it seems. Horses do have the mental capacity and behavioural flexibility to successfully survive and function both within and beyond man's realm. Horses can survive in close proximity to man, as well as completely without him. This requires complex, adaptable, flexible, and efficient intelligence and behaviour.
The traditional training of horses utilizes negative reinforcement. Pressure is applied, and then released when the horse gives the correct response. So then, pressure followed by release to the desired response is negative reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement is adding something, such as food or a rubbing reward. Positive punishment is adding punishment, a kick, jerk, or whack.
Once again, negative reinforcement is pressure and release, a certain pressure is applied, and when the horse offers a move in the direction of what is requested, the pressure is released. Negative reinforcement is how most horses are trained, and the negative does not imply anything negative, only that the pressure is applied and then removed when the correct response by the horse is answered. Positive reinforcement can be layered upon negative reinforcement. After the horse responds to the cue and pressure is released, a positive reward can be added, a verbal acknowledgement or a rub, or a food treat. Both negative and positive reinforcement are forms of operant conditioning, sometimes called instrumental conditioning. Operant conditioning is how horses are initially trained, and operantly taught responses can be modified by classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is conditioning by association. The rein cue to stop can eventually be replaced by a seat cue, for example. The rein and seat cue are given together for a time, and then the rein cue is dropped and no longer needed.
The dam teaches the foal how to be a horse using all these training and teaching techniques, and as do humans when they train horses in later life.
Shared sociality. Kinetic empathy.
Horses are horses. Folk are folk. Horses are domesticated. Horses and humans live together, and have for some time. The two species share many aspects of living, including communication and learning.
For behavioral and organic health horses require friends, forage, and locomotion...and lots of each mixed together, it seems. Play, sleep, constant nipping and chewing, water, salt, and more roughage and forage, especially in the form of grasslands and appropriate pasture. They like the open view, so as to be ever vigilant and constantly knowing of their surroundings.
When any of the three (friends, forage, locomotion) are lacking, health and welfare issues develop.
Kinetic, horses are kinetic. If not allowed movement they devise the movement they require for normal function of all of their systems and physiologic functioning.
Locomotion is integral to behavioural and hoof health. Horses need to move on a near constant basis, yes they do. Breathing, digestion, musculoskeletal function, and hoof health depend on movement.
Rhythm and balance, effective training requires accurate application of the rhythm and balance of locomotion. Timing is what engenders respect. Getting the feel of a horse's movement is necessary to properly apply and release cues, not to mention the refinement and shaping of requested locomotions.
We seek timing, balance, and feel with horses to establish connection, communication, and confidence. Confidence is consistency.
But even this does not help unless our horses have adequate if not constant friends, roughage, and locomotion. To understand how horses stay healthy, we need to understand how horses heal. Restorative healing of physical and behavioural problems in Equus caballus is accomplished in the same fashion that appropriate socialization is accomplished, in the herd, grazing setting.
Restoration strategies that recreate the horse's social grazing preferences facilitate and potentiate horse healing. Appropriate healing of many equine maladies is encouraged when the veterinarian provides appropriate initial treatment and subsequently carefully facilitates a scenario to provide the horse with abundant forage, friendship, and locomotion.
Grazing pasture in an open setting with other horses, when appropriately orchestrated, has the potential to provide the most profound and often the most cost-effective healing of musculoskeletal infirmities and injuries. For conditions allowed to progress to lameness, time is required, often months. When musculoskeletal conditions are detected early, before lameness ensues, short-term rest and restorative strategies encourage solid healing (days to weeks). Both long and short term healing are enhanced when the horse is content with the forage, friendship, and locomotion resources. Avoid unnecessary restrictions to locomotion whenever feasible.
The earlier inflammation is detected, the shorter the time period is required to heal. Healing in a social-grazing setting is a long-evolved trait of the horse. Horses acclimated to herd and pasture settings during their development respond best to restorative healing.
Horsefolk need to take special care not to exceed the horse's adaptability regarding stabling and healing.
Horses require a sense of comfort and security for physical and mental restoration (and maintenance). An adequate social grazing environment, or appropriate facsimile thereof, often provides the most comfort to the most horses. Horses provided with adequate socialization throughout their upbringing are most responsive to these strategies. For horses, comfort and security come from friendship, forage, and, most-critically, a near-constant casual locomotion. Young horses and newborns learn to be horses from the dam and herd, and foals are best served to develop with horses in an appropriate grazing environment, as well. Horses learn to socialize, communicate, graze, locomote, run at speed in close company, play, smell, balance, move, and compete from their mother along with the herd members.
Corral or stall rest is often counterproductive to healing, as it deprives horses of all three healing essentials. Horses heal efficiently in a social grazing setting, not one of isolation and deprivation. To a horse, restoration, from the word rest, ideally implies grazing open country in a herd setting with abundant environmental resources; appropriate grasslands to graze and walk, salt, and appropriately placed clean water. The properly managed social grazing setting with the open view is the environment in which horses evolved to thrive and heal.
Healthy physical and mental development are best actualized in a social grazing environment. Neonates rely on their dam for critical early learning processes, including sensual development, locomotion, and early mobility. The development of agility, coordination and athleticism in early life is critical to subsequent mental health and soundness. Abundant social contact, grooming, sleep, play, athletic development, and social bonding occur during early herd life. Horses rely on constant contact and frequent interactions with other horses for healthy mental and physical development.
Opportunities for the abundant expression of normal equine behavior and motion promote healing.
Unfortunately, healing opportunities of this sort are not available everywhere, especially in the more urban equestrian settings. Space and grazing limitations restrict healing opportunities. In these scenarios, the horse's preferences have to recreated with carefully designed and implemented enrichment strategies that provide some fashion of near constant forage ingestion that allow oral and physical and movement and motion. Stabling scenarios often restrict social expression and sensual contact. Horses are sensitive to these deprivations, which result in stress, which complicates and delays healing.
Locomotion is essential for both horse health and healing.
Husbandry, healing, and rehabilitation nearly always benefit from appropriately managed and free choice locomotion strategies that are constantly tailored to the horse's healing process. Locomotion is required not only for normal healing, but for normal digestion, respiration, hoof health, circulation, and all other physiologic functions of the horse. Stall rest is at the expense of many systems, especially the hoof and metabolic systems. Digestion and respiration are compromised by confinement and restriction of movement. Metabolic, digestive, circulatory, hoof health, musculoskeletal, and nervous, systems, as well as the all other systems and functions of the horse, are dependent upon adequate and appropriate locomotion for normal functioning and/or healing.
For horses that are hospitalized, paddocked, stabled, and corralled; active implementation and re-creation of the social pasture setting is necessary to maintain health and promote healing. The absence of abundant forage, friends, and locomotion are detrimental to a stabled or hospitalized horse's health, if not welfare. Medical conditions are apt to deteriorate in the face of the deprivations created by stabling and hospitalization.
Stalled horses not only heal poorly, they learn and train poorly. Locomotion, social, and forage deprivations create problems for horses. In addition to appropriate medical treatment, veterinarians and stable managers must creatively provide horses with abundant socialization, forage, and locomotion to maintain health and facilitate healing.
Horses also heal horsefolk, and those horsefolk that implement these healing strategies often experience a sense of healing themselves, it seems. The human/horse bond runs deep. Domestication of the horse is a co-evolving evolutionary process. The human perspective is being shaped by the horse's perspective these days. Appreciation of the science of equine behavior and equitation is a welcome change for the horse after centuries of considerable subjugation.
Dr Gustafson is an equine veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, and novelist. DrSid provides equine behavior consultations to help recreate the needs and preferences of horses in training and competition to promote willing partnerships and winning combinations.