Horses – more than a herd animal
An introduction to the world of the horse
All horses are not the same. Although any casual observer can see clear and marked differences between individual representatives of the species with the melodic sounding scientific name Equus ferus caballus, most books on horses and riders speak with one voice about 'the horse'. However, there is as much a typical horse as there is a typical human. There are clear differences to be found, both behaviourally and physically, between Arabs and Exmoor ponies, Belgian Draught horses and Mongolian horses, or between Hanoverians and Quarter Horses. In addition, representatives from within individual breeds can also differ greatly in their behaviour and characteristics. It is precisely this individuality that characterises horses and which provides so many of the challenges that we find when dealing with them. No one horse is exactly like any other, so we are faced continuously with new surprises when involved with them. In what follows, I will cover where our leisure partners of today come from and highlight some of their evolutionary qualities, so that we are prepared for our later discussion of some of their characteristic features.
Where does the horse come from and where is it going?
In the course of the millions of years that form its developmental history, the horse has learned to adapt to different living conditions and circumstances. In the course of its evolution, and as a result of certain inherited traits being passed down from generation to generation, the species we now know as the horse underwent significant anatomical and physical changes. What started as an antelope-like forest-dwelling animal became a plains-living animal that could gallop – the horse. Distinguishing characteristics of an individual are coded in the form of genes, which are copied and passed on to the following generations. Many species don't exist in just a single form, but have a number of different variations. The hereditary differences among individuals, in other words the genetic variability, are created by these different forms and the recombination or reordering of their genes.
Even in the case of the ancestors of our domesticated horses, there has always been a wide variety of subspecies or types that have adapted to the climatic and ecological conditions of different regions around the world. Today, in order to trace the ancestry of horses and their domestication, researchers make use of the genetic information contained within the so-called mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed on exclusively from mother to daughter. Normally the order of the genes changes in every generation owing to the merging of the female and male elements at conception; however, when considering mtDNA, you are dealing with a recognisable component of the genes that remains consistent over many generations, and through which it is possible to follow the maternal line and the degree of relationship between different species of equines. The origins of the maternal line of the modern domesticated horse, and thus the ancestress of all of the various different types of horse, can be traced back between 320,000 and 630,000 years. Using mitochondrial DNA, the domestication of the horse by humankind can be traced back to the period between 9400 and 2000 BC. For a long period, researchers hypothesised that the horse of today originated from a single ancestor, a theory that is now strongly doubted. They imagined that the domestication of the horse was a single and relatively simple process, which caused the domesticated horse we ride today to be created from the interbreeding and natural selection of only a few individuals, which were then spread around the world by humankind. Modern research now assumes that the domestication of the horse took place in a number of different locations around the world, and at varying times. Each group of people took the horses that were living in their region at that time and in effect created their own 'ancestral' horse through breeding. This theory is supported by the fact that, when examining the current range of horses that exist today, we can find 17 different types with varying maternal lines.
The origins of today's breeds
The different subspecies mentioned above are the ancestors of today's domesticated horses and thus the foundation for the modern breeds of today. Their initial development occurred without the influence of humankind, and was a result only of exposure to the environment in which they lived in different parts of the world. They therefore developed great differences not only in their physical characteristics but also in their behaviour. Probably the oldest domesticated type of horse, with a maternal line that stretches back 47,000 to 166,000 years, originated on the steppes of Asia and was characterised by a short-backed, slight body, a short head with wide nostrils and a tendency to move fast in its dry, warm habitat. These horses formed very close family groups and found it easier than the other types of horses to become used to humans.
The maternal lines of the northern draught breeds (sometimes inaccurately referred to as cold-blooded horses) can be traced back 29,000 to 100,000 years. With their thickset and chunky bodies and powerful jaws adapted to chewing hardier grasses, they were perfectly suited to cold climates. This was a horse that went everywhere at a steady walk and formed loose groups. The maternal line of the more roman-nosed warmblood type, which is 6000 to 21,000 years old, was well suited to the vast, cold steppes of the northern hemisphere. They had a relatively long back and long limbs that were ideally suited for long journeys. They probably lived a solitary life, with herd life virtually unknown, with the exception of groups of older mares who lived with other female family members. It can be assumed from this that these horses would have tended towards showing more aggressive behaviour and would have had a well developed sense of personal space.
The social life of the maternal line of the first ponies, 2000 to 8000 years old, probably took place in large herds, which fell into individual subgroups but joined together when danger threatened. With their medium size and their thick coats they were especially well suited to the mild, damp climate of the British Isles and Scandinavia.
In addition to these four basic types, there were other varieties of early horse from which our ancestors developed what would become today's breeds. But, as can be seen, the beginnings of our domestic horses were, in terms of their social behaviour and environment, very different. There were horses that developed in very close family groups and others that lived a rather more solitary existence. As a result of this, the reality is that it is illogical to assume that there is a single and uniform herd and hierarchical structure that applies to the full range of horses that exist today. From domesticated horses with a variety of origins, humankind has bred and developed the current breeds over many centuries. Some of today's breeds are still very close in type to their ancestors, others are a result of crossing several types, uniting some of their characteristics, both physical and behavioural.
The horse as an individual
Besides the differences in behaviour among the various types of horse, there are also well developed unique characteristic qualities that appear within individual breeds. Sometimes these differences among representatives of the same breed can be even greater than those among different breeds. Owing to its genetic make-up and its own experiences, each horse is a unique individual with a distinctive character and its own special personality. Accordingly, some characteristics may be developed to a greater or lesser degree in some horses compared with others.
We all have an idea about what shapes our personality or our character. We understand that this includes our moods, as well as all those frequently repeated individual behavioural patterns that become remembered as our characteristics. Just as we can recognise someone by their physical appearance, we also have a picture or idea of their typical behaviour and moods, in other words the characteristics that make them the individual they are. One person can have a cheerful nature; another may be more of a lone wolf. In the case of yet another person we may appreciate that their character is more complex and can't be labelled so easily. The same is true for our horses: we observe typical patterns of behaviour again and again, and can, for example, tell what mood they are in by their body language. We give our horses names and recognise their personalities. A true understanding of the differences among them assumes, however, a certain background knowledge and empathy. We need to take an introverted horse and its characteristics just as seriously as those of an extrovert and consider all the differing types of personality that exist.
Animal of flight, of the steppes and of the herd: an incomplete model
Using the labels 'herd', 'steppe' or 'flight' to describe the horse does it an injustice. As we have already seen, thanks to the variety of origins that our horses are derived from and the resultant breeds that emerged, there are wide differences in their social and stress behaviour and how they express this. Herd behaviour exists; however not every horse at every stage of its life is a herd animal. A horse may display flight behaviour, but a horse can just as appropriately be described as an 'animal of flight' as a person can be called a 'family man', to the exclusion of all else.
A typical herd of ponies will form a much tighter group than a herd of warmbloods. Both are herds, but with different rules and habits. Both groups are, in their own way, typical of horses and have to be viewed equally, side by side.
Similarly, just because of its genetic origins you can't label every horse as an animal of the steppes. The ancestor of our ponies, for example, didn't have long enough legs for crossing the steppes of Asia. It was much more suited to the environment featuring woods and plenty of rain, from which it originated. Very different types of horses also emerged on the steppes, because of the different natural conditions seen in the ecosystems that made up either the 'arid steppes' – very dry and hot areas – or the 'Tundra steppes' – the vast cold northern plains.
This means that you can't describe a 'typical' horse as a herd animal, just as you can't give one definition or draw one picture of what a 'steppe' horse looks like. As a result of their distinctive origins, the way different horses live, what they eat and their behavioural characteristics will all vary greatly.
Flight is not automatically the only behaviour that a horse might show as a reaction to fear. There are horses that freeze at the first sign of danger and others that react by attacking the source of danger. To label a heavy horse, typical of its breed, as the classical animal of flight when faced with danger doesn't live up to the reality.
A simplified model of behaviour described by the concept of the horse as one of three types –herd, steppes or flight – is nowhere near being a close representation of reality. This model cannot begin to detail all the different facets of equine behaviour, and so remains a gross over-simplification. Un-fortunately though, simplified models all too often become the new 'truth' and develop into the basis for groundbreaking new theories in horse training. Be very cautious when this happens. If the basic assumptions of certain training methods rely on outdated scientific theories, then the views formed of a horse's nature arising from them should not be relied upon. Many horse trainers, for example, talk of recreating a horse's 'natural flight instinct', in other words making the horse run away, by using a whip to drive the horse away. When they do this, however, they are overlooking the fact that not every type of horse follows this pattern of behaviour and may, instead of running away, react to their fear by freezing on the spot. A trainer is not doing justice to the complex nature of an individual horse by the simple equation of 'chasing = flight'.
One horse is not the same as another
If you were to open the pages of a horse magazine and read any of the popular articles about horses, you would quickly notice that they always deal with the stereotypical horse. The horse always lives in a herd, the horse is an animal of flight, the horse lives in a structure similar to a harem, the horse is mature by the age of seven and so on. At best it might be mentioned that there is of course a great deal of variation, but there is not enough emphasis on the marked differences.
Why then is only one type of horse described? Simplification is almost inevitable, because we humans need it in order to get to grips with our increasingly complex world. In addition, it is of course sensible to view our horses' behaviour in a simplified way initially, so that we can add increasingly complicated facts to our understanding of their behaviour.
Sometimes, though, simplification can be dangerous, for example when we can't do justice to a horse's true nature or, at worst, when clever trainers make straightforward assumptions from this over-simplification and want to make a name for themselves at the horse's expense.
When someone wants to make robust and accurate statements about a horse's nature and behaviour they have to be very careful with their observations. They should always collect their data objectively, and the data should be able to be verified statistically. This issue is at the root of the debate around 'equine studies'. Most of the data stemming from so-called horse gurus originate from their own personal, and thus subjective, experiences. Many of these observations do not bear up to scientific scrutiny and can really only be seen as anecdotal rather than scientific in nature. Of course, many a Californian horse trainer has had a lot of practical experience with horses in their life. However, it is unlikely that they will have saved their data in any scientifically recognisable form.
It is also important to understand that a statistical value can never predict the future behaviour of an individual animal. A study will always produce certain generalised descriptive characteristics. A researcher wants to reach conclusions about a species in an evolutionary context and not in terms of the individual grazing in its field. In science, theories, not truths, are developed; in other words explanatory models are developed and these last for as long as it takes for a better explanation to be found. Many horse trainers pick out certain aspects or use terminology from the field of behavioural science and construct their own training methods targeted at whatever is currently 'in'. In contrast to the scientific world, however, these methods then become 'truths' written in stone that are purported to be able to predict our horses' future behaviour.CHAPTER 2
A patchwork family
The classical herd structure and its variations
A horse in the wild usually will live as part of a herd, because a herd offers certain advantages. Many eyes see better than two, so together they can defend themselves against enemies. A herd member can fall back on the experiences of other herd members when faced with different situations. A herd is a collection of animals that know one another, form a collective group and to the outside world form a unit that can act as one. But here we come to the first hitch: not every collection of horses is necessarily a herd! Large groups of horses put out together will often divide up into various subgroups that coexist in the same field but will only join up together at signs of danger. A herd is identified by the existence of a social group structure and the fact that the members of the group know each other individually. Since horses can't personally learn to know an unlimited number of other horses, a large group of more than 20 animals will always form into subgroups. In this chapter I would like to introduce the findings from current behavioural science research studies and explain their significance to the way we group together horses in our care.