In the Shadow of Horse

In the Shadow of Horse
In the Shadow of Horse

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Equine Behavior, a primer


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, the horse who became Equus caballus. There is archeological evidence that man formed a close relationship with horses by 5500 years ago in Botai, Khazakstan where the horsefolk kept and milked horses, probably rode them, this after millenia of hunting horses for food. Both trained and wild horses co-existed in this realm south of Russia and west of China. Trained horses soon spread throughout the world, civilization of man the result. By the early 20th century the predecessor to man's newest animal partner, the tarpan, had gone extinct. No truly wild horses remain, excepting perhaps the Przewalski, which has a different number of chromosomes than the horse, and is not thought to be horse's progenitor. To the best of our knowledge, all horses today are descended from tamed and selectively bred horses. The progenitor of the horse, the tarpan Equus ferus, went missing from our planet in 1918. One gauge of domestication is the extinction of the progenitor, and mankind has managed that. The horse of today is with us to stay, it seems, and can live with humans, or without them.
Today horsefolk remain enticed by horses and we find ourselves still attempting to appreciate how this human/horse relationship came to be, and where the relationship is headed, much as mankind has since the first girl grabbed a mane and swung on a horse to become a partner with the flighty, powerful (but trainable and tamable) grazer of the plains.
Equine Behaviour differs from the other horse pursuits as equine behavior is taught from the horse's perspective while the other disciplines are taught from the human perspective. Equine veterinary behaviourists understand that appreciation and sensitivity to all of our horses' evolved preferences results in optimum health and soundness, and therefore optimum performance. Behavior is a result of evolutionary development and selective breeding (nature). The genetics are shaped by the social environment, nutrition, neonatal and juvenile development and training (nurture). Equine behaviour is heavily influenced by socialization. Subsequently, behaviour is affected by the intensity and type of stabling and husbandry. Horses need to grow up to be horses as taught by horses to eventually lead behaviourally healthy lives. When grown, horses must be allowed to be horses with other horses to enhance willing partnerships with horsefolk. When stabled, natural must be re-created for the horse as we shall see.
Horses are a quiet species. They prefer calm, and learn most efficiently in tranquil, familiar settings. In emulating the horse, our interactions here will be communicatively soft and calm so as not to unnecessarily upset or excite our herd. Now if there is something valid to be concerned about, say a certain enlightenment, or concern about a welfare issue, or perhaps a training or stabling method that does not align with the horse's perspective, then we appropriately share our views with the others. 
We all know what we want from our horses, however here we shall explore the science of what our horses want and need from us, the science of equine behaviour. To succeed in our endeavors with horses (whatever 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 horses, we must know them, the diligent social grazers of the plains they are. 
Rather than dissimilar to us, horses are much like us. In this class we will focus on humankind's social and communicative similarities to horses. As with people, strong interdependence develops between individuals, intense social pair and herd bonds. Horses need other horses, and when they are dependent on people, they need a lot of time spent with those horsefolk and their other horses. 
An interdependence also exists between health and locomotion. Horses evolved to be near-constant walkers and grazers. Horse health remains dependent on locomotion and grazing, or facsimiles thereof. If horses are not allowed to exercise freely, or socialize with other familiar horses, nibbling and chewing as they evolved to do, they develop strategies to maintain the motion and oral security they feel they need to survive. 
A primary premise of equine behavioural health is this: In natural settings, horses walk and graze together two thirds of the time. They take a step and graze, another step or two, 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. 
Away we graze, moving through our coursework as a herd of horses might graze open range, connectedly, in communication with one another, learning, forever learning. 
Your guide,

 Dr Sid 


Dr Gustafson is an equine veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, and novelist. Applied veterinary behavior enhances optimum health, performance, soundness, contentment, and longevity in animal athletes. Natural approaches to development, training, nutrition, and conditioning sustain equine health and enhance performance. Behavioral and nutritional enrichment strategies enhance the lives of stabled horses. Training and husbandry from the horse's perspective result in content, cooperative horses. DrSid provides equine behavior consultations to help recreate the needs and preferences of horses in training and competition.
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