This section was first developed with the idea of debunking some of the myths, fables and lore leading to misconceptions that humans have amassed in their encounters with other animals throughout the centuries.
In doing some further research on the social behaviour of horses, I started to come across some very “interesting” points of view. These I will list below.
Many of these misconceptions may have clear deleterious effects on the well-being or welfare of horses, and this is an attempt to debunk some of them for the sake of the horses.
Some of these misconceptions on the internet, spread like a virus, mutate and keep on going.
Lets see some of them:
The art of over-simplifying an over-simplification!
Many times I have come across articles that stress the importance of showing the horse who is boss, because it is believed that there are three types of horses in a herd, the boss horse, the not boss horse, and all the rest in between. These horses in the herd apparently rank pretty linearly from the boss horses down to the not boss horses.
A statement like that above is definitely the Horse Social Behaviour 1.01 Course on the art of oversimplifying the patterns of relationships in group living horses, but nonetheless….
How we emphasize structure and compartmentalise the behaviour of equines in their natural habitat is a purely human affair and has no bearing on the lives of feral horses. However, in a domestic setting, preconceived structures and the terminology we use has grave implications in how we act, and this in turn may unconsciously, adversely affect the horses in our custody.
Of course there are more or less assertive horses, whether in a natural setting or in that of a domestic one, be it in an intra-species or interspecies relationship with humans. The patterns one may observe from these interactions, and more importantly the description of these patterns vary greatly, even to the point of contradiction in some cases.
Falling back always on the idea that boss horses have this need to enforce their Alpha status, incessantly reminding everyone, including their humans, who the “top dog” or dominant individual in that particular relationship is, is well, dare I say, quite anthropomorphic, warlike and status conscious.
As most interested in animal behaviour may already know, dominance is understood mainly as a competition for resources. Mates, food, and suchlike are resources, and as far as I know, we do not compete with the horses over them. So what is really going on?
Well, we will never really know, if we always fall back on the simplistic application of a continuum of dominance-submission relationships throughout the animal kingdom. This simplistic and deterministic approach, in my opinion is scientific laziness, although it may be a good starting point for investigations and may have served in their time, it tells us very little of the natural lives of animals, their motivations, their adaptations and suchlike.
Clearly, at the level of the genes, the “Selfish gene”, that which is dominant and not recessive or deleterious will prevail in replication. But in genetic vehicles, like ourselves and horses, a whole new list of strategies must certainly come into play hence the necessity of studying costs, benefits and payoffs in Game theory to understand behaviours and especially encounters between animals.
Horse behaviour generalised from observations of one population of feral horses!
It would be safe to state that, although Equus caballus clearly have innate patterns of behaviour, the feral horses being studied today have many adaptive consequences imposed by occupying new niches in geographical locations for which they have not evolved.
Horses evolved to ultimately live in groups in large open spaces, like plains and savannahs, but have adapted fairly well to life in places so marginal as the desert of Namib, or the coasts of Assateague and Chiconteague. Clearly the behaviours observed from these feral horses have many points in common, thus the commonality of the species, but again surely their behaviour must also differ in consonance with the constraints inevitably imposed by the their relatively new environments.
A clear example of this, is that many feral horses no longer suffer selective pressures from predatory animals like larger canines or felines. This lack of predation, even if only to the slightest degree, must necessarily affect group cohesion, but not only in horses as it must be so for many other prey species as well.
A comparative approach between feral horse populations is hence called for, if any macro-determination of the behaviour of Equus caballus is to be sought. This means not that the observations on feral horses up to date have been futile, but it does mean that to have a fuller picture of equine behaviour, one should consider a “broader spectrum”, one which would invariably include particular adaptations to particular environments.
This would entail the consideration of a range of behaviours similar or differing across the species depending on the selective pressures of their environments. The existence of scarce resources or that of over-abundance will surely vary their life strategies. It would surely be naive to consider that a well fed animal would behave (goes about his/her business) in the same manner as one that is famined.