Briefly, for the benefits to both pure and applied ethology. We´ll take the applied first, since it profoundly affects the welfare of millions of horses. All “wild” horses nowadays - mustangs, brumbies, cimarrons and the numerous populations in islands, mountains and deserts all over the world - are descendants of domestic horses that escaped and survived thanks to the guidance of their inherited behaviour and their capacity to learn. They are feral, not truly wild (with the possible exception of the pottoka).
Caballos asilvestrados en el páramo del volcán Cotopaxi, Ecuador, a 4.200m. Un semental demuestra su afecto a una yegua
Since our domestic horses share the same genetic inheritance, studying feral horses shows us how they would choose to live were it not for the restrictions imposed by our unnatural management. Domestic horses cannot complete many of the behaviours urged by their innate programmes, although they cannot switch off the desire to do them.
Some horses adapt reasonably well, but others show abnormal behaviour symptomatic of stress. This stress has hidden consequences – low fertility and resistance to disease, impaired digestion and circulation, colics, ulcers, emotional imbalance and slow learning – that mean suffering and even death.
When I found the Venezuela herd, I saw a unique opportunity to share what I´d had the privilege of seeing with course students. When I saw the profound impact that experience had on them, I started the Pottoka Project in order to bring those opportunities to Europe. More information HERE
In the field of pure ethology, we still have a lot to learn about horses. In the years I´ve known the pottokas, I´ve been repeatedly surprised and excited to discover new connections and patterns in their behaviour, often stimulated by a student´s remark or interest. Together we explore a new understanding of horse behaviour.
Pottokas en la nieve en Piornal. Foto: Javier Solis
The horse evolved as a prey animal, a condition reflected in its genes. We all know they run away very efficiently from anything they think dangerous, which worries their riders. We know, too, that learning changes their perception of what is life-threatening. But despite the growing literature on equine ethology, no-one ever studied exactly what they do when faced by the threats to their survival that they faced during their evolution: predators. The Venezuela cimarrons gave me the chance, since they live among jaguar and puma.
The ramifications and implications of what I discovered fill the whole of my new book, Horses in Company (Crowood, 2017), but I´ll try to summarize some important points here:
* 2.1. Although predators may be an ever-present danger, a horse can´t be permanently on the alert for them. Feral horses always live in groups, where look-out duty can be shared. The stallion is the most vigilant, since his energy requirements are lower than a breeding mare´s.
In domestic horses, isolation is highly stressful, a potent factor in stable vices.
* 2.2. They avoid places they associate with danger: in Venezuela, trees.
Domestic horses try to avoid going back to places they associate with fear or any negative experience..
* 2.3. Spotting a possible danger, a horse raises his head quickly, with his back tense and his steps short and high. The height of a horse´s head shows us how alert he is: sleeping, dozing, watchful, alarmed.
In a ridden horse the alarm posture is called inverted
Picture: Carmen Manzano
* 2.4. The alarm signal alerts the others, who bunch together behind the stallion.
A stallion has detected a posible danger. Reacting to his alarm posture, his family group behind him. Photo: Javier Solis
Any horse is highly sensitive to signs of alarm or tensión in others, even us.
* 2.5 If the stallion decides to turn and flee, the others do too, so they run in a compact block, a tactic that confuses the predator´s eye. Many prey animals, like fish, pigeons, deer or sheep do the same. Studies have shown that each animal follows three rules:
Synchronise direction, speed and emotional state with the others
Don´t collide: respect others’ individual space.
A group of animals that all follow the same rules behaves as a unit moving together, no matter how many there are in the group. Special directors or leaders aren´t necessary. This type of behaviour is called self-organizing or emergent.
- Google “Boids” and enjoy the videos in YouTube that show the group movements of sardines and starlings, or the animations produced with this algorithm (the three rules). Stampeding horses behave the same.
- See also our videos of feral horses running together in Patagonia, undecided as to whether to flee from us or investigate us. You can see there´s no special leader: they just follow the fastest runner, who changes. The more frightened they are, the more they bunch together, always leaving a space between each other to avoid collisions.
Horses’ first reaction to alarm is to bunch with others in the band that they choose to live in for safety.
If the stallion, whose job is to evaluate the problem, decides it isn´t really threatening, he relaxes and the others do so too.
These are key points in our initial training.
These unwanted, life-threatening alarms can happen at any moment. To keep themselves prepared, horses follow the same three rules during peaceful maintenance activities too, although in a more relaxed way:
. They stick together in bands. There are two types: natal or family bands, with a stallion or two, a handful of mares and their offspring; and bachelor bands of young males that haven´t yet teaned up with mares.
. Within a band they synchronize their activities: they eat, drink, rest and march together, and roll one after another. Sometimes a horse has good reasons not to synchronize with the others and starts doing something else; often others copy him/her until the whole band has changed activity. Synchrony keeps a band together.
The ability to move together in synchrony is so vital the youngsters practise it in play.
There are no fixed leaders, as recent studies have shown, although there is temporary leadership in the sense that horses tend to synchronize with others, be they horses or people, who move in a determined, convinced manner.
There are no alphas, dominants or figures of authority either. It´s a self-organizing society whose members follow the three survival rules.
The exaggerated aggression seen in domestic horses that regularly compete for piles or buckets of food (“focal food”) is not natural. Although them most aggressive is often called “dominant” s/he has no authority over the others.
They don´t invade each other´s individual space without being invited. It´s a rule that youngsters learn from their elders, who get annoyed with them when they forget. Adults, too, have reasons to be angry with others who bother them: for instance, a mare who´s not in season gets annoyed by a stallion trying to court her. This irritation is expressed as aggression, which drives the other away, scared.
When all are scared, running away from a predator, they keep out of each other´s individual space, so they don´t collide.
In relaxed situations, as during rest or between good friends, they often share individual spaces.
Domestic horses that have been raised alone with their mothers, or alone since weaning, haven´t learned this rule and tend to invade another’s space. They aren´t trying to dominate the other, they´re simply ignorant – our fault for raising them inadequately.