Much debate has recently arisen in regard to the use of Round Pens and the practices or methods that incorporate them. Round pens are labeled as torture devices by some and a place to create a friendly atmosphere for training, by others. The debate is wonderful in the sense that both sides boil down to an attempt at attaining a healthier, safer, and friendlier environment, which in turn leads to a more profitable relationship.
These debates lead to studies which help guide our understanding, and lead us to question practices, methods and even whole thinking habits. In reality all methods can be improved in so much that new light is shed on species specific behaviors’, individual variation and the application of appropriate Learning Theory.
Horses and people have been around each other for donkeys’ years and a wealth of knowledge has been passed on through the years, but many observations have not always been easy to convey. As Konrad Lorenz (1935) put it; ‘Language itself forces us to use terms borrowed from our own experience’, thus objectivity is not as simple as it first seems and many have described their experience in terms familiar with them at the time.
Greater consensus may lie in clearer definitions of terms and concepts generally used in the horse-world, as elsewhere. Efforts in this direction should be embraced and enhanced, so we can ultimately not only talk the same things but use more effective language.
Having said that, and clearly showing that my objectivity is impaired by my own beliefs:
One of the underlying questions in the round penning techniques is welfare! Horses cannot escape aversive stimuli, unavoidably leading to stress and other states such as helplessness. Many times this stress is provoked with the apparent function of establishing who is boss in the dyadic encounter.
See the Long Riders Guild (LRG) webpage for comments on round pen training from known scientists.
Horses move away from agonistic encounters and other appeasement gestures are not known in the behavioural repertoire of horses. It would be biologically unwise to submit to other animals that are being predatory or threatening, and it seems in the end we are waiting for something that does not actually happen.
Many terms such as respect, acceptance or obedience are subjective and confer a higher faculty to horses, as dominance and submission clearly infer the existence of individual recognition. In my opinion the indirect inference of higher faculties and individual recognition in horses is the only vantage point in these types of considerations.
Their sentience and conscience is no longer in question, ours may well be!
Although knowing that we generally use aversives to stimulate responses in horses, this does not necessarily have to be negative, or a harmful experience. However, it may be beneficial to bear in mind the added effect which our agonistic intention may have in the learning/relational process.
We may consider other interesting ways in which horses resolve their encounters. Borrowing from the inference of individual recognition, there are also affiliative behaviors’ to consider in social relationships, be it interspecific or intraspecific. Text books or published studies have focused mainly on agonistic encounters, and how social species organize themselves through dominance hierarchies. Few texts actually mention affiliative behaviours’ such as those creating bonds and ties between individuals. Many social species live in breeding units, or families, and have more behaviours’ that strengthen bonds than those that weaken them, but little attention has been given to this category of behaviour.
Familiarity, friendship, trust or confidence are words currently in use in the horse world, albeit more so in the natural horsemanship world. The same people that use obedience and respect freely are terrified to use the word friendship or confidence, silly isn`t it?
The barrage of critique received by round penning methods may be useful in underlying some of the limitations imposed by different ways of thinking and relating to horses. Heavy critique has also fallen on Equine Sports in general, mainly by Natural horsemanship movements, so I can only hope this is not just some infantile retaliation.
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.
A basic understanding of horse behaviour is needed if we are to provide a safe and healthy domestic environment for our horses, and ourselves. Horses have been domesticated all around the world for many centuries and a wealth of information is readily available on different practices or procedures recommended to obtain intended objectives.
Despite millennia of domestication and the resulting ‘specialization’ of horses for work or leisure through artificial breeding, domestic horses have retained their natural behavioural characteristics shaped by natural selection.
It is no wonder that conflicts arise between most of our maintenance or training schemes and the natural programs for large social non-ruminant grazing herbivores, all too often stabled, isolated, and fed on an inadequate concentrated diet.
Handling or training is frequently projected through coercive and restrictive tactics, usually based on notions of dominance that likely tend to make matters worse with stress or depression as consequential outcomes.
Horses resent demonstrations of authority, by typically moving away from the stressor. Recognizing rank only in disputes over resources such as focal food, water and mates. They normally avoid aversive or unpleasant situations and are extremely wary of predators-their greatest fear is to be trapped by another creature. (McGreevy, 1996)
Joel Berger (1986), in one of the most complete ethological works on feral horses, noted that during his 6 year study ‘Males were often aggressive to other males, but dominance was discernible in less than 5% of all interactions’ and that ‘more than 98% of a stallion’s annual time budget was spent in nonaggressive activities’. Furthermore his studies concluded that ‘Intraband dominance appeared to be of little importance to females.’
Lately there has been much talk about the importance of the application of equine behavioural knowledge in the management and training of horses; however facilities (artificial environments) are still not designed in consonance with the horses’ evolutionary needs, nor do training techniques ensure the general well-being of the horse concerned.
It is common knowledge and scientific fact that in order to ensure not only the welfare of horses but instill conditions for their individual well-being, we would have to allow horses to live as closely as possible to the niches for which they had evolved and help them adapt to the many constraints imposed by domestication.
Equestrian traditions which have their basis in establishing a co-operative relationship with the horse would appear to more closely approximate the social relationships seen in free-ranging equine society. (Goodwin, 1999)
Nowadays we find feral horses in very different habitats all over the world. Horses have adapted to life on islands, deserts, mountains and in plains. Despite these adaptations and to those imposed by domestication, we must continue to consider horses for what they have evolved to be.
Copyright © 2010, Victor Ros, All Rights Reserved