What Would Horses Choose? (Third in a series of 3 articles for Horsemanship Magazine)

It's easy to complain about horses' behaviour. They do things that have the effect of hurting us, inconveniencing us, embarrassing us. Sometimes we acknowledge that it's not what they actually intend to do, or, at least, that they are responding to a situation rather than provoking it. Sometimes we even go as far as recognising that a horse's behaviour was our fault all along. But what does this mean? If it is "all our fault" then how can we change what we do so as to avoid causing our horses to behave in ways we don't want?

What would horses choose? This seems a good place to start, rather than stagnating in a cycle of semantic online discussion about buzz-words such as "natural", "leadership" or "harmony". Of course, some horses may choose to become un-domesticated but, for now, let's start from the premise that horses are domesticated; then, even allowing for the fact that we are not horses and can therefore never really know how they feel, we can make some educated guesses based on our knowledge of behaviour.

Hierarchy of Needs Fig. 1 - Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" for humans. How can we adapt this to horses?

Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" was developed to aid understanding of human motivation but can be adapted to give us an idea of the priorities horses might have. Unsurprisingly physiological needs form the foundation for everything horses do. If they are in pain then their motivation for anything else we might want to do with them is minimal. But for some horses - maybe most - being pain-free requires a good look at management strategies. Long-term stabling compromises movement and diet, predisposing horses towards painful conditions such as arthritis, colic and stomach ulcers. Frustration caused by lack of movement also increases likelihood of rebound behaviours such as excessive galloping when turned out, increasing chances of painful injury. As for putting saddles on their backs, riding or relying on painful training techniques (including anything that involves the horse meeting the end of a rope whilst wearing a rope halter)... The potential for failing to meet even the most fundamental of equine needs is worryingly high.

Fig. 2 - Sometimes the signs of stress in a horse are obvious. But not always... Horse Looking in Pain/Distress

But if we assume for now that we have managed to keep our horses pain-free, the next need we should consider is whether our horses feel safe. Domestic horses may have had no experience of being chased by predators but their evolution still requires them to behave as though it is still a possibility. Many stables are dark, noisy, lacking in privacy, lacking in opportunities for social contact when desired, too small... If they don't feel safe to lie down then they will become sleep-deprived, a form of torture. If we use training techniques invoking the flight response - yet preventing the actual flight - then their stress levels will continue to increase. And this applies even if they appear to be working well and complying with our wishes; horses are incredibly good at working out what they need to do in order to avoid the aversive techniques.

Closely linked to staying safe is a horse's need to be social. Not just any horses randomly interchanged, but a herd he feels comfortable with. We need to provide suitable age groups, gender mix (or not) and horses that have been well-socialised. Yes we can train horses to hack by themselves but we need to recognise that it is a big ask. Separation anxiety tends to be considered a "behavioural problem" but, to a certain extent, the need for companions epitomises what a horse actually is.

For now we can keep this consideration of needs fairly simple - these physiological and ethological needs provide a foundation for everything else we do with horses; they are what allow our horses to be their real selves. If we work to provide as close to an ethological environment as we can, then we allow for horses' needs to move around, live in social groups and graze for a large proportion of the day. We can't all ensure 24/7 turnout but we can work towards this and think more about group housing options as a compromise. We can provide enrichment and compensate for where our provision is slightly lacking. And above all, we need to consider each horse individually and accept that just because some horses on a yard can tolerate the management regime, others might not be able to cope.

But we also need to question ourselves and our own awareness, behaviour and motivation. Providing an ethology-based set-up isn't enough if we use techniques that cause the horse distress. Can we train ourselves to notice the signs a horse gives us that things are not ok? The tension around the face, the focus of the ears, the triangulated eyes, the flared nostrils and heavy breathing, the head carriage, the change in gait as the horse hesitates... These signs can be tiny, yet can escalate into bigger behaviours if we continue to persevere with our insensitive requests. The Equine Behaviour and Training Association (EBTA*) has a series of videos highlighting these tiny and early indicators of fear and would urge every horse owner to become familiar with them.

Once we have become attuned to the signs that our horse is, or is not, ok, we can aim to keep him ok by using a process called shaping for any new and/or potentially frightening experience to which we wish to expose him. Shaping enables us to break down any task into tiny incremental steps and build up systematically - from a level at which the horse is currently happy, to the level with which we ultimately wish him to be able to cope. We need to apply this shaping process and awareness to ourselves as well. A rider who feels afraid to hack her horse should feel free to acknowledge those feelings and not feel pressured into "just doing it" because everyone else does. The horse needs her behaviour and emotions to be consistent with each other, not faking the behaviour and suppressing the emotions. Unpredictability in the human will create anxiety in the horse.

Horse Choosing to Investigate Fig. 3 - Allowing a horse to explore scary objects in her own time builds confidence and encourages exploration

At this point I know what some of you are thinking - "I tried to teach [insert a particular behaviour] slowly and it made my horse worry even more. So we went back to doing it quickly and he got over his fear when he realised he wasn't going to die". I've heard so many people argue this way and can understand the perspective. But here's the difference...

If we use, for example, a horse who is afraid to load we could use a special halter/technique that can get the horse in the lorry relatively quickly. This is a process called flooding, which may achieve the desired behaviour but can cause serious psychological damage along the way. The horse doesn't so much learn he hasn't died, as learn that he has no choice but to give in. Instead we could slow the process down and let the horse stand at the bottom of the ramp, maybe standing with one foot on the ramp, then gradually add the second foot and build up that way. We may be considerate and move partitions or open other doors to increase the space and light. This is better than flooding but still not proper shaping. The frightening object, the lorry, is still present right from the start and so the horse will still be worrying about it, even during the process of even approaching the bottom of the ramp.

True shaping starts much, much smaller than this. We would start by looking at whether the horse is even happy to be led away from his companions or into his stable or a different horse's stable. Can he walk through narrow gaps? Can he go through archways? Can he walk over novel surfaces? How about a novel surface in the doorway to a stable? There is so much preparation to be done before the horse even sees the lorry. Since the lorry is not present for any of these preparatory exercises, there is no reason for the horse to worry about it. By the time the horse has been gradually exposed to these various tasks, most of the desensitisation has already taken place. Ideally there will have been lots of rewards (food or scratches) used as well so as to make positive associations with the tasks as well, a process known as counter-conditioning. Finally the lorry can be reintroduced and the horse is in a much more appropriate mindset for success.

To be free of pain, allowed to behave like horses and not frightened when we ask them to do things. The lives of countless domesticated horses could be improved if we could only meet these three criteria. And these are perhaps just the foundations of what a horse would choose. We can go even further, utilising positive reinforcement, promoting autonomy and prioritising tasks that the horse actually enjoys. We can explore Maslow's ideas of esteem and self-actualisation with horses and what they mean. The horse industry is not yet ready for this. But maybe, just maybe, your horse is...


*EBTA http://www.ebta.co.uk/lof.html
Maslow, A.H. (1970) Motivation and Personality, 2nd edn, New York, Harper and Row

Copyright Catherine Bell 2015