Humans tend to have a stereotypic understanding of how horses behave, which is likely caused by the incredible amount of cultural baggage accumulated through millennia of relating to them. When I speak of human stereotypies in respect horses, I refer to those unquestioned practices that are detrimental to their maintenance and handling.
Horsemen from all walks of life, disciplines and dispositions, seem to favor (still) the idea of establishing rank between themselves and the horses with which they interact. Countless, unwanted behaviors are apparently solved as soon as the horse knows who is boss. Fair-enough, for those easily convinced by supercharged preaching. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the different approaches to horsemanship, as most have helped someone or their horse, or even both, to a better relationship, and that is a good thing.
However, it is a shame that such good trainers don’t take the time to understand what it is they are actually talking about, but instead blurt out gospel to the unweary. I am not about to argue, whether “Alphas” actually exist or not, as circumstances and environments vary greatly enough to produce the so called alpha position in groups, sometimes clearly seen in a domestic (restricted) setting. Alpha animals are usually despots (dictators), and I am certain that most, but not all, involved in horses don’t actually intend gaining this label.
When is fact separated from fiction, and whose responsibility is it to ensure that the information one provides to others, is at least realistic, or even just contrasted to the body of knowledge accumulated over the years?
Few biologists, ethologists, or behavioral ecologists have actually studied horses in free living conditions, whatever that may mean. One of the reasons behind this lack of interest is likely due to horses having gone extinct in the habitats in which they have evolved, coupled with the difficulty of working in the field. Few populations of this ultimate prey animal are actually predated on, and this on its own poses many questions in need of answers, especially in regard to social dynamics, and how predators influence group cohesion.
Horses are social for many reasons, but the main justification of sociality is that the benefits of being social outweigh those of being solitary. Cooperation in horses has been largely overlooked, and focus has been placed on a byproduct of cooperating groups: intragroup aggression and dominance hierarchies.
Following any definition that may be outlined, it is clear that to attain such a position in any given group a series of environmental variables, including interactions with conspecifics, would have to hold true. For instance, competition over resources, in which the alpha or “top dog” has exclusive rights over all others in a group, is limited by environmental constraints. Horses, in free living conditions are not known to compete over grass which grows everywhere; it would be a waste of time and energy. In fact in one of the most comprehensive studies on horses at the Granite Range by Berger and coworkers (1986) had this to say about the importance of dominance hierarchies:
“Classically it has been thought that through aggressiveness individuals may achieve high rank and access to limited food resources (reviewed by Wittenberger, 1981). This did not seem to be the case among Granite Range females.”
“(…) even in early spring when food was most limited and new vegetative growth had not yet begun, few feeding displacements occurred.”
“If dominance confers reproductive benefits upon female horses, some effects of dominance should be discernible. Over the study period NO CLEAR CORRELATES BETWEEN REPRODUCTIVE SUCCESS AND DOMINANCE EMERGED” (Berger, 1986: emphasis mine)
“(…) more than 98% of a stallion’s annual time budget was spent in nonaggressive activities.”
Berger (1986), who was responsible for this 5 year study of horses in the Granite Range, speaks clearly enough for those who even bother to read his book; Wild Horses of the Great Basin: Social Competition and Population Size, in this age of cut and paste. (I recommend his book to all!)
In a less “naturalistic” setting, such in paddocks or corrals, we do however see horses attempting, sometimes incessantly, to control focal resources such as feed buckets, piles of hay, water troughs, salt licks and so on.
“Under natural conditions, it is rare to see overt aggression or a single individual controlling a limited resource. Surely under natural conditions, horses rarely have the equivalent of an alpha individual within a band or an alpha band within a herd. Rather there is usually a more complex, less linear order, with division of leadership and defense roles played by a number of individuals and sometimes alliances that swing into action depending on the situation.” (Sue McDonnell, 2003 – The Equid Ethogram pp. 21-22)
I agree wholeheartedly with the above statement from Dr. McDonnell and findings of Berger (1986), further up. I also agree that under free-living conditions the beauty of social order, or disorder for that matter, reeks with variable life strategies which are usually limited by a domestic setting.
It seems in my mind that many observers extrapolate their knowledge and experience from a domestic setting, to a “wilder” one in free ranging or feral conditions, and this is in my opinion never expressed better than by Stephen Budiansky (1977):
“Horses have been enveloped in human dreams, myths, ambitions, and sentiment for so long that the story we have come to think of as theirs is often but a distorted reflection of our own desires, and then not always our most noble desires.”
“The myths that man has attached to the horse, and the motives we impute to it, continue to form a set of unconscious and often unexamined assumptions about equine nature”
Enough of the alpha horse for a while, let us look at another perplexing matter for some, including myself, which can be found in what is frequently termed submission in horses. Continuing in our creation of “just so” stories that would make Rudyard Kipling proud, we stumble upon another term which is often used but never explained.
As there is allegedly expected to be a “top dog” in all horse groups, at least for those that wish it to be so, there must then also be the opposite: the “underdog”, the runt of the litter or submissive individual.
A host of horsemen sell methods in which they teach one to gain the position a dominant horse would have within its family band. Gestures, eye contact, waving plastic bags, body position all used to communicate our intentions of being “Alpha” in our herd of two. Most of these procedures rely on something that usually does not materialize, as hard as we may try, and this lies in waiting for a submissive gesture from the horse.
A quick look through scientific literature on horse behavior, leaves one perplexed as to what these gestures actually are, or even if they exist at all….oh but they must. However as Sue McDonnell points out, in the scientific academia discussions on this topic reveal that “(…) submission in an open plain species such as the horse means withdrawal or escape.” (McDonnell, 1993).
Instead of expecting withdrawal from aggressive or threatening encounters, a host of gestures and head postures are meant to call our attention to the readiness of the horse in accepting our self-proclaimed leadership, alpha or superman status. Head lowering, lip smacking and a host of other gestures have been portrayed as indicative of submission, but are they really?
We have two considerations in respect to submission worthy of contemplation, one of which is submissive retreat (McDonnell, 1993), also known as facing away (Feist, 1971) or fleeing (Houpt & Wolski, 1982). This so called submissive retreat is catalogued in the Equid Ethogram as: “(…) movement that maintains or increases an individual’s distance from an approaching or following herd mate.”( McDonnell, 1993)
A quick look at the description of this behavior as depicted in the Ethogram, a wonderful work by the way, points out a specific position in which the retreating horse has its head held low, with ears turned back, in any gait but typically in trot.
Quite different to what some horsemen expect, horse facing you lowering head or moving jaws as if saying: I give in, I want to negotiate or even: Hello there Mr. Alpha. Dogs bow and tumble on their back, so then horses must do something similar….people cower in fear and show reverence to deities and authority, but is this what we expect from horses?
On the other hand we have what is supposed to be “THE” horse submissive posture that most of us have actually seen, in the way of an immature horse opening and closing its jaw with head lowered and extended, with bending in the knees or not….usually to mature horse. Most of us call this submission, but again, is it really?
The German Zoologist, Zeeb (1959), called this behavior Unterlegenheitsgebarde, while we nowadays call it snapping, champing, tooth clapping or jawing. Because this behavior was normally exhibited by young foals to mature horses, especially the stallion, we were quick to label it as submissive. It was actually Boyd, who first questioned this as being actual submission, as it did not inhibit aggression by others, and that defeats the function of a submissive behavior. Although it is reported that this behavior may have an appeasement value to that who engages in it, which is to say that the behavior calms the alleged submissive individual, little is yet known on what is going on.
Further studies, this time from Crowell Davis and colleagues (1985), suggested that snapping as described by Tyler (1972), may actually be a “displacement activity developed from nursing” (Crowell et al, 1985).
Much is still to be learned about the human-horse dyad, and what I myself have written may have to be revised in accordance with the progress of understanding, but let us not keep fueling “JUST SO STORIES” as these will only cause detrimental false beliefs, and we have enough of those in the horse world.
Just for thought, the submissive posture of a trained horse is equated to LEARNED HELPLESSNESS!
“Learned Helplessness/Submissive Posture
Standing quietly with head lowered, unresponsive to normal social and environmental stimuli, and moving away only on release command or directive of the handler. Consideed basic training in certain Western show and working disciplines.
Comments: Achieved using flooding and desensitization during inmobilization” (From the Equid Ethogram, Page 314, by Sue McDonnell)