The horse's genetic potential is usually well-documented and identified. It is appropriate socialization that develops the equine athlete. Foals raised in stalls and stables seldom develop the wherewithal to become consistent reliable winners, as it is the herd that develops the foal's inherited abilities to perform. Much of this development occurs during the first hours and days of life. This development and bonding phase with the mare should be nurtured. The mare and herd are the most qualified individuals to teach the newborn foal to become a developmentally healthy horse. Interference by humans is inappropriate during this critical imprint phase wherein the precocious foal learns to be a horse in short order, so as to be able to run and flee within hours of birth.
Horses require abundant friends, forage, and locomotion to maintain behavioural and physical health. Horse health is dependent on body and jaw movement. Digestion, respiration, metabolism, and musculoskeletal and hoof health are all dependent on abundant daily exercise, walking, foraging, and socializing.
The causes of cribbing, weaving, and other stereotypies are clear. They are not learned behaviors but survival anomalies allowing the horse to continue functioning when resources are deprived. Deprivations of friends, forage, and locomotion are the causes of stereotypies. An abundance of daily friends, forage, and locomotion is the prevention and treatment of stereotypies. Horses are born to socialize, communicate, move, and chew on a near constant basis. The nature of the horse is to move and graze with others day and night. For behavioural health, these preferences need to be re-created in the stable.
Stabled horses require 24/7 forage, and miles and miles of daily walking, as well as abundant socialization to re-create a natural existence. When these needs are not provided in adequate measure unwelcome behaviors develop.
In the training or operant conditioning of domestic animals, horses and dogs, reinforcement is the primary method of successful training, be it positive or negative. While often utilized, punishment is seldom necessary and is often counterproductive in the long term, as it devalues the relationship between man and animal form the animal's perspective. As the class continues, we will see that group survival trumps individual survival in many social species. It is survival of the fittest group rather than the fittest individual that often drives natural selection in social species.
Most domestic species are social species, sharing a variety of social survival constructs with humans, group survival foremost among those shared characteristics. Group survival entails communication and cooperation. It is not the toughest, meanest individual that survives in a group, but the most effectively communicative, cooperative, and appeasing individual, it seems. This concept has diminished the 'dominance theory' of training which often uses punishment. With dogs and horses, more and more people these days seek willing partnerships rather than indentured servitude of their dog and horse, and indeed, it is the willing partnerships with animals that create the most desirable relationships between man and dog, and man and horse. For training of dogs and horses to be most effective, the training has to be a pleasurable situation for the horse and dog, and the science of learning and animal behaviour has helped humans make great positive strides in the development of mutually beneficial relationships with these domestic species.
There were 300-400 potential domesticates, but only a dozen or so animals shared enough learning, group survival, communication, and social constructs with humans to actually become successful domesticates that allowed a successful merger with humans. In a sense, domestic species have merged with humans to accomplish a shared group survival construct. In the teaching of domestication science, I use the metaphor 'sugars' to describe these shared characteristics. Some of the domestication sugars include shared methods of learning, shared communication modalities, shared group survival constructs, shared appeasement of others. Dominance has little to do with any of these domestication sugars. Humans and domestic animals best respond to reinforcement in the development of mutual relationships. Reinforcement, be it positive or negative, increases or strengthens natural behavior. While the punishment often associated with dominance decreases or weakens the natural tendencies or behaviors of the animal. Allowance and encouragement of natural behaviors creates the strongest bonds between humans and domestic animals, you know.
All physiologic, behavioural, and metabolic functions of the horse are dependent on abundant daily walking. In natural settings, ingestion is paired with walking, and takes place 70% of the time. Horses requires miles of daily walking to maintain homeostasis. Digestion, respiration, metabolism, musculoskeletal function, and behaviour are all dependent upon abundant daily locomotion. Locomotion is the most overlooked and deprived maintenance behaviour of stabled horses.
Dr Gustafson is an equine veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, and novelist.