Thursday, August 29, 2013

WaNeLo, Horsey Style

For the unititiated, "WaNeLo" is an internet social networking site centered on shopping mavens.  The acronym stands for "Want, Need, Love".  It's a place where one can look at other shoppers' finds and add finds of one's own.  Horses need not apply.

The inspiration for this week's blog is an article in the September 2013 issue of Equus.  Unfortunately, the link won't be available for a month (Equus is like that), so you'll have to trust me to summarize accurately.  The title, "What Do Horses Want?" was an absolute must read for me.  If there's anything more important to my horse life than keeping my horses happy, it's keeping my SO, Cliff, equally happy so he'll keep the equipment happy, and we'll all live in harmony.  No one has yet done a study on non-horsey Significant Others, so I may have to launch my own, but for now, the horses are in the spotlight.

Pokey always voted for a personal masseuse.
Here she's being attended by Laurie Swartz, Equissage Person.

The article summarizes the results of some rather well-designed behavioral studies done on horses recently at Cornell University.  They do that stuff there, you know, along with pumping out an inordinate number of Nobel Prize winners and the like.  Their results are generally trustworthy.

The magazine cover blurb for the article is a titillating "The answers may surprise you."  They did.  Not all of them, of course.  It came as no surprise that given his druthers, a horse will not run. I was once asked by a WSJ reporter to explain whether or not jockeyless racing was an option.  My response, given my vast years of race experience (*ahem!* ...none) and decades of being around horses (too many) was no.  Categorically, horses will not run without some really intense incentive.  I know that.  Most horse owners and barn owners know that.  Until now, however, there hasn't been empirical proof.  Now there is.  The horse would prefer not to even trot, and left on his own, he will spend less than 1 percent of his time moving faster than a walk.  That's not much, even in horse hours.

But some of the other findings were more intriguing.  

  • Of course it's a given that horses want soft bedding to lie in.  What they want is a lot of soft bedding, and they prefer straw overall.  They will stand pretty much anywhere, but they like a fluffy bed for lying down.
  • They love company, preferably other horses.  Not that a goat or what have you won't suffice in a pinch, but they don't like being alone and prefer to be with equine companions.  You are not an equine companion no matter how often you trot around the pasture trying to get a halter on your horse.  
  • They like the lights off.  Given a choice (the test subjects had a switch they were trained to use to turn the lights on and off), they opted for dark for all but a couple of hours a day even when confined to their stalls for two weeks.  But, given their distaste for human comforts like artificial lighting, it was surprising that they opted to turn on the heat lamps for hours daily.  
  • They like to be in their stalls.  Now this one is about as counterintuitive as it gets.  But trained to use a Y-shaped passage that let to the pasture on one side and back to their stalls on the other, the vast majority of the time, they opted for their stalls.  Likewise, given the option of unlatching their doors (pre-trained to touch a metal plate x number of times to release the latch) or staying locked in, they showed the most interest in exiting if there was a food reward outside.  Second-best was a horse companion.  Solitary turnout....not so much.
  • The Big Question of neck flexion brought a not-unexpected answer.  They like to flex their necks as much as they choose.  And they don't choose Rollkur or anything close to it.  Only one test horse voluntarily flexed to a major degree.  
I'm sure the research will be ongoing as there are still more questions than answers about horses.  What bands to they prefer for their listening pleasure?  Carrots or apples?  English or Western?  Female rider or male?  The list is endless.

Of course you can devise your own test.  The basic problem is to eliminate human influence (you can't be holding your horse's lead rope or poking him with a stick to get the result you want), and also to make the test situation horse-friendly.  We tend to anthropomorphize to such a great degree that we're not doing very well at setting up reliable, replicable test situations.  Horses don't do essay questions well, and they're not going to be happy with a oral exam.  It has to be non-verbal, and there have to be only the options that would exist in the horse's real world.  He has to be free to choose, and the choice has to make sense on a horse level.  

So get out there and bed those stalls, turn off those lights, and let resting horses lie.  Could be the start of a whole new relationship.

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