Sep 232010
 

Am I the only person to be concerned about the increasing trend to control and overcome natural equine behaviour? Now before all the training people leap on me, yes, I do know that all our interactions with horses have an effect on their behaviour, and that all training is designed to do just that. I’m not talking about that, though. What concerns me is the idea that normal horse behaviours are problems, for which you need a solution that – very handily – someone can sell you. I’m not sure whether the demand has come from horse owners and riders, from manufacturers trying to sell products, or simply from the modern desire for a quick and easy fix (such as using herbicides instead of weeding the garden).

In the 6000 years since horses became domesticated animals we have done much to bend their wild natures to our own ends. But it seems that it’s only in the last few years in the developed countries of the world, as the idea of the horse as working partner has faded from living memory, that we have been trying to suppress their natures altogether. Rather than accepting that horses are nervous, flighty and sometimes argumentative creatures with strong social and sexual drives, we have decided that it’s acceptable, even necessary, to treat those natural instincts as problems or conditions that need to be cured or controlled. Hence the whips, spurs, tight nosebands, severe bits, training aids and food supplements.

A recent study by Hockenhull and Creighton (2010) found that in a survey of over 1000 non-professional horse owners in the UK, 79% used one or more artificial aid such as a martingale, or noseband other than a simple cavesson, and 85% routinely fed dietary supplements. Astonishingly, almost one in three owners – 27% – gave their horses four or more dietary supplements along with their feed.

There seems to be a widespread perception (Hockenhull & Creighton 2010; McBane 2010) that the apparent increase in horses behaving inappropriately, and the proliferation of ways to modify their behaviour that do not rely on the skills of the rider, is because many more horses these days are owned by novices who use artificial aids and dietary supplements to help with problems that they lack the skills or knowledge to solve. However, this survey showed quite clearly that the riders using the largest number of artificial aids, and giving the most dietary supplements, were those who described themselves as committed amateurs, rather than leisure riders, and who rated their level of skill as ‘high’. These products, it seems, are used most by the very riders who ought to have the skills and knowledge not to need them.

Many years ago, the sports writer Simon Barnes wrote a monthly column for the UK magazine Horse & Rider. One sentence that he wrote has stayed in my mind ever since: “The whip is an admission of failure.” He meant that by carrying a whip, he was, in effect, saying “my own body and legs and hands and personality are not

good enough to motivate this horse to go forward willingly.” The trouble is that we have an equestrian culture – and this recent study confirms it – in which fierce bits, and crank nosebands, and training gadgets that resemble bondage outfits, and whips, and, more than anything else, spurs, are seen as the badges of honour of the skilled riders, the serious, proper riders, as opposed to the ‘happy hackers’. How would it be if everything changed, so that using an artificial aid proclaimed to the world, “I’m not a good enough rider to fix this problem without this gadget.”? What would it take to make that happen?

This isn’t a perfect world; all horse-rider relationships are works in progress; and none of us are quite as good as we’d like to be, but I do think horses in general would have a better time if we could change our culture to one of using as little equipment as necessary, rather than as much as possible, and if more people were in the habit of questioning what they do and the kit they use. For example: Does my horse really need this? Would something else, like some extra riding lessons, or less hard feed for the horse, be another way to solve the problem? Am I just using this equipment because I’ve always used it, or everyone else uses it, or the professional riders I admire use it?

I always feel sceptical about the merits of the various feed supplements designed to modify horse behaviour and suspect that they work largely by convincing the rider that the horse will be calmer, or less bolshy, or whatever, while taking the supplement, and so she rides with more confidence or tact, and so the horse behaves better. The causes of inappropriate behaviour are likely to lie in the realm of inappropriate feeding, housing, exercising, training or care, and it seems improbable that small scoops of this or that herb, or vitamin mix, or other magic powder can have much effect if some major aspect of the horse’s life is wrong. Indeed, the labelling on the packaging of many supplements gives the impression that nothing is guaranteed: phrases such as ‘believed to be beneficial for X’, or ‘may help horses suffering from X’, or ‘traditionally used for treating X’, or ‘to support the function of X’ enable the manufacturer to suggest that their product will help with something while not making any direct claims that would get them into trouble with Trading Standards.

When you use herbs, what you are giving your horse is an unknown dose of an unknown number of active ingredients, of unknown strength and in many cases unknown effect, with unknown side-effects and interactions with other supplements and prescribed medicines and, in products from less-reputable companies, unknown contaminants including heavy metals and prescription drugs. Skeptvet (2010) gives a comprehensive and alarming list of publications on the subject. However, whether riders are inadvertently poisoning their horses with these products or not, the fact remains that the majority of riders seem to think it’s OK to use drugs to modify their horse’s behaviour – because that’s what these products essentially are. Is that really an acceptable way to treat these animals that we say we love?

I do suspect that a lot of behavioural or temperament problems in horses could be solved not by adding substances to their concentrate feed but by giving them less of it, and by giving them more exercise and a more varied and exciting life.

The underlying problem seems to be that many people find the natural behaviour of horses difficult to deal with, or frightening, or in some way undesirable, and this is possibly because it’s so different from our own behaviour. About ten years ago, Equine Behaviour Forum member Emma Creighton conducted a scientific study into the aspects of horse and pony temperament that are important to riders and handlers. Her findings were that most of the respondents preferred horses who were in the mid-range of emotional reactivity, were highly sociable and responsive to humans, and were extrovert and open to new experiences. These preferences were independent of rider age, years of experience or level of skill. What came as a surprise was that the horse temperament described as ideal by most people was more a description of the average dog than the average horse. Emma suggested that since we have shared more years of our history with dogs than with horses, we perhaps relate better towards, and have an inbuilt predisposition towards, animals that behave like dogs. Is this why we try so hard to stop horses behaving like horses?

By Alison Averis

Alison Averis is the Editor of Equine Behaviour, the Journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum. 

If you find these questions interesting, you would probably enjoy being a member of the Equine Behaviour Forum and joining in the correspondence in our quarterly magazine. See www.gla.ac.uk/external/ebf/ for more information.

References

Creighton, E (2003). Equine temperament and welfare. Equine Behaviour 59, 13-16.

Hockenhull, J & Creighton, E (2010). Can we blame the widespread use of artificial training aids and dietary supplements in the UK leisure horse population on novice owners? In Proceedings of the 6th International Equitation Science Conference, p40. www.equitationscience.com

McBane, S (2010). Conflict behaviours – causes, effects and remedies. Equi-Ads, September 2010, p40. www.equiads.net

Skeptvet (2010). Risks of herbs and supplements finally getting some attention.  www.skeptvet.com/blog/2010/02/344/

Sep 142010
 

Abstracts

Attributing attention: the use of human-given cues by domestic horses (Equus caballus)

Leanne Proops and Karen McComb

Recent research has shown that domestic dogs are particularly good at determining the focus of human attention, often outperforming chimpanzees and hand-reared wolves. It has been suggested that the close evolutionary relationship between humans and dogs has led to the development of this ability; however, very few other domestic species have been studied. We tested the ability of 36 domestic horses to discriminate between an attentive and inattentive person in determining whom to approach for food. The cues provided were body orientation, head orientation or whether the experimenters’ eyes were open or closed. A fourth, mixed condition was included where the attentive person stood with their body facing away from the subjects but their head turned towards the subject while the inattentive person stood with their body facing the subject but their head turned away. Horses chose the attentive person significantly more often using the body cue, head cue, and eye cue but not the mixed cue. This result suggests that domestic horses are highly sensitive to human attentional cues, including gaze. The possible role of evolutionary and environmental factors in the development of this ability is discussed.

Link – http://www.springerlink.com/content/v277039731080470/

Post-conflict friendly reunion in a permanent group of horses (Equus caballus)

Alessandro Cozzi, Claudio Sighieri, Angelo Gazzano, Christine J. Nicol and Paolo Baragli

Gregarious animals living in permanent social groups experience intra-group competition. Conflicts over resources can escalate into costly aggression and, in some conditions, non-dispersive forms of conflict resolution may be favoured. Post-conflict friendly reunions, hence reconciliation, have been described in a variety of species. The aim of this study was to explore, for the first time, the occurrence of reconciliation in a group of domestic horses (Equus caballus) and learn more about strategies used to maintain group cohesion. The behaviour of seven horses living as permanent group in an enclosure for at least 2 years was observed by video for 108h from June to August 2007. We used a Post-Conflict/Matched Control method to assess the existence of reconciliation and third-party affiliation. Behaviours recorded Post-Conflict, or during Matched Control periods, were classified as affiliative based on previous descriptions of visual communication patterns in horses. The proportion of attracted pairs over total post-conflict situations was significantly greater than the proportion of dispersed pairs, both during dyadic interactions (p<0.001) and during triadic interactions (p=0.002). The results of the present study show that both dyadic reconciliation and third-party post-conflict affiliative interactions form important social mechanisms for managing post-conflict situations in horses.

Link – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T2J-50M1RT9-1&_user=10&_coverDate=10%2F31%2F2010&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_origin=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1459832741&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=2e607ef1b0e15c2771e7ecc1d183f723&searchtype=a

Websites

The Horse (http://www.thehorse.com/)

The Horse website is free to join and has many articles on both equine health and horse behaviour written by professional in equestrian industry.

This is a particularly interesting article on ‘licking and chewing’ behaviour in horses which explores a possible biological explanation for this little understood behaviour. – http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=6346

Useful and Informative Forums

Equi-click (http://equi-click.proboards.com/index.cgi)

Whether you are a positive reinforcement pro or are thinking of trying clicker training for the first time, equi-click is a friendly community of well informed and supportive individuals. There are members from many backgrounds who contribute a wide range of scientific knowledge and practical know how. The forum requires you to register before you can view the content but it is well worth joining.

Thinking Horsemanship Forum (http://www.network54.com/Forum/235380/)

‘The Thinking Horsemanship Forum is for anyone (beginner, professional or somewhere in-between) who would like to understand more about the behaviour of horses (and other animals) and how they learn. We prefer to study the published science into learning and behaviour and its practical application to training than to follow any commercial methodology. In particular we aim to use positive reinforcement (sometimes although not always via clicker training) and increased motivation in order to train our horses, rather than the traditional methods of increasing pressure.

We welcome discussion on all topics within the areas of learning and behaviour and encourage lively debate over the various methods of equine training. But it should be made clear that no personal attacks or criticism will be tolerated and such posts will be edited or removed. We would also like to make it clear that we are not qualified experts offering advice and are not affiliated to any such experts or commercial organization. We are purely interested individuals who would like to learn more for the benefit of our horses.’

Joining The Equine Independent on Facebook

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By Emma Lethbridge