Monday, August 31, 2015

Follow the Leader

Who's the Herd Leader? It Depends, Researchers Say |

Hint:  It's not you.

It's also not the biggest, baddest horse in the pasture.  Turns out, as this fascinating research uncovered, it's the popular kid.  It's the one with the most friends.  Or not.

In sociology there's a concept regarding leadership in small groups.  A small group generally contains about 7 to 12 members.  According to economist Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Back Bay Books, 2002), the optimum size for a group depends greatly on the context.  A comedy is funnier if between 700 and 800 people are in the audience.  People's social capacity is 147.8.  That's about how many people the neocortex ratio of the human brain suggests an individual can relate to in a genuinely social way.  Close human relationship groups are smaller in number, and when the 150 is breached, the group subdivides.  The average answer in a study to how many people you know whose death would be devastating was 12.  We can easily remember 7 digits or words or colors in order before we have to break larger groupings into groups of 5 or less, hence the pattern of phone numbers.  Brains are quirky bits of stuff.

The size of the neocortex is directly proportional to the size of the social group a species can deal with.

I couldn't find any scholarly studies on the average size of a horse herd in the wild, which could be because they're hard to track and count and there are too many intervening variables in terms of climate and human interference to really consider anything "natural" regarding wild horses.  But we certainly know that in captivity groups larger than 100 tend to break into subgroups very quickly.  At a barn where there were 52 horses turned out in a 50-acre pasture, there were two main groups, one directed by each of two geldings, and a bunch of stragglers that moved between the two groups or remained solitary.  The identity of the leaders was obvious if one watched the herd for a day as one gelding took the morning shift in the loafing shed for his band of mares and was driven out in the afternoon by the other.  The second gelding--who happened to belong to me--was the tougher kid on the block as he was able to get the shed at the hottest part of the day.

No clues in this photo as to who's in charge of this subset.
Only by being a non-participant observer over a long
period can the dynamic be identified.

The friendship piece was also obvious.  Neither of those geldings was aggressive.  Mine was the one who would stand for hours licking a herd mate.  If the horse walked away, Grady would continue to  lick air in a kind of reverie.  Back to the sociology for a moment, leadership is two-fold.  There's an expressive leader (the one who represents the face of the group to the public) and an instrumental leaders (the one who does all the work involved in running the group).  They are chosen by default according to who makes the best choices for the group.  So the aggressive stallion who beats up young studs at will and tends to drive the herd towards open spaces that might leave them vulnerable to predators isn't going to earn many idiosyncrasy points, so he won't be the leader.  The horse, male or female, that always seems to know which way the water is and where the best grass will be found and doesn't cause a lot of trouble will be the one with the following.  So you may find a male as the expressive leader showing the world what the herd is all about in his beauty and mystique, and a female as the instrumental leader, keeping watch for new fields to graze.

You do not figure into much of the herd dynamic.  As I said last post, you don't speak their language.  You don't get what it takes to make them think you're on their side.  You can pen them up, handle them at will, and with luck they won't try to kill you.  That's your payback for kindness and caring about their needs. But unless you have segregated them into individual, private paddocks where they can't form herds (so cold!), you'll see a pattern emerge.

Studying their behavior requires a few changes in perception for many horse owners.  That you're not a horse or "in touch with Spirit of Horse" (*retch*) is key.  That you can't observe while you're interfering is next on the list.  That nothing we do with them is "natural", so you can't begin to judge how they're really feeling is a given.  And finally, that you need to give it time is crucial.  What you see today is not what you will see tomorrow.  As the linked study discovered, the leadership changes in horse groups just as it does in human social settings.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Speaking the language of the wild? Not really.

Horse Behavior What It Means To Be A Prey Animal l Horse Collaborative

We humans, as mid-range predators, have a very difficult time altering our hard-wired view of the Kingdom of Animals of which we are a part.  We believe if we think about it long enough, try hard enough, read enough books and meditate sufficiently, we can not jut see the horse but be the horse.  Our efforts have been comical at times.  At other times they've been downright bizarre.

Our salvation is that the other animals are in the same bind.  That's right.  Your horse (or dog, or cat, or emu) can't anymore put himself into your reality than you can transplant into his.

Yet we try.  We all try.

What we need to understand above all else is that this ceaseless effort to understand each other isn't something spooky or ethereal.  We are all riders on this rock, and we unconsciously do our best to live together in a mutually beneficial way.  For us in the mid-range, that means we have to be sensitive to the fear we create in prey-only animals like horses at the same time we are trying to avoid becoming dinner for the higher-level predators like bears, lions, and car salesmen.

One would think this would put us in a perfect spot to work wonders in bridging the gap.  But we have one thing playing constantly against us, and that's our intellect.  We think too much.  We talk too much.  We plan too much, and we don't like to fail.  We've moved so far beyond instinctive behaviors that we've made it difficult to take that step back.

Here's something for you to read before your brain explodes.

NOVA on biophilia hypothesis

Yes, I lied. That actually pushed you right to the edge.  Sorry, but it had to be done.

In our peculiar situation, our bodies are still adapted to "life on the Savannah" as noted by E.O. Wilson, while our brains have moved on to New Frontiers of Weirdness. That's what makes our efforts at understanding other animals so hilarious.  We actually have the tools needed to live the story we're writing, but our brains can't quite handle the disconnect.  We try to behave like the animals we want to befriend in order to make them feel safe, but we adopt a cartoonish view of what that means.  Pulling one's hair back in a ponytail and skipping around the pasture isn't going to make the herd of horses lingering there feel safe.  It's going to make them call for help.  We hear the call and think, "Yes!  He's saying hello to me as a fellow herdmate!"

...because we're that limited.

All the while that we are trying to take charge of this situation, we ignore the fact that the horses (and what have you) are doing the same.  They are watching us for signs of aggression or submission that they can understand and act upon.  As the first linked article points out, we take them from their natural habitat and put them in what, in our minds, is a safe environment.  But objectively it's anything but.  We pen them up so they can't escape from us or from other predators.  We feed them what they would not come across naturally if they'd been left to their own devices.  We prevent them from doing what horses (and what have you) do instinctively.  Then we talk about how bonded we are with them.


If you aren't in daily contact with animals, you might not have the full picture.  If you are, I'm sure you've had the following experience:
Yep, all-natural horsekeeping
is my go-to plan!

You buy a horse.

You bring it home and stick it in the unfamiliar space you've set aside, possibly surrounded by other unfamiliar horses that are not part of his herd.

You spend an hour standing by the fence watching your new acquisition with amazement and pure adoration.  He spends an hour watching you out of the corner of his eye, hoping you're not going to beat or eat him.

Days go by, and you start to wonder if he'll ever just approach you in the paddock without your having to carry a bucket of grain or a pocket full of cookies.

One day he seems very accepting, and the next he wants nothing to do with you.

You feel discouraged and chalk it all up to his "quirky" personality.

All this time you have also noted how he's interacting over the fence with his new "family".  Eventually you put them together in one space and are discouraged when Pooky beats up the new guy.  You whine loudly, "Why can't we all just get along?!"

More time passes--sometimes months or even years--and a new social structure emerges.  Everyone is happy, or so it appears until you buy yet another something that you can't resist throwing into the mix.

Chaos follows, and you are, once again, discouraged.

You can see where the problems are in this scenario, can't you?  If a human were put through this same re-homing situation with predatory caretakers who don't speak the same language and are unfamiliar with his history, we'd expect PTSD to be the upshot.  Well, it is.  There hasn't been a researcher willing to call it that, but PTSD in horses--poor adjustment, we call it--is a thing.  Actually, there are a few brave souls willing to deal with equine PTSD, but they've stuck to situations when the horse has been severely abused.

Here's a little study on what happens when Novelty Stress (meaning introduction to new stimuli) is in place:

Novelty Stress in performance horses

And here's one dealing with how different handling styles impact on the horse-human relationship as stressors:

A preliminary study of the effects of handling type on horsesemotional reactivity and the human–horse relationship

Bottom line:  You can't be a horse.  You can't pretend to be one, and your horse doesn't see you as one.  He doesn't view you as a herd mate.  He views you more likely as a barely-controlled predator who, for some reason, has chosen benign behaviors that can often be pleasant.  Put all that in your training log and see what comes out the other side.  Could be you'll start to understand how incredible it is that our horses let us anywhere near them, let alone on them and in close proximity to their fragile bodies.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Evidence and Propaganda

The Trouble With "Evidence" - Across the Fence

No, "evidence-based" is not something new under the sun, though it would certainly seem to be the way the term is being bandied about now.  Everyone seems to have an evidence-based whatnot they'd like you to buy into.  The horse world is always ripe for cultism.  The horse life is as close to organized religion as you can get and still pay taxes on your farm.  We just love belonging to a group and get all puffed up when we think we've found the Latest And Best.

"Evidence-based" could be replaced by "statistically significant results", but that's not sexy.  Math, after all..!  "Research-based" means the same thing as well, but it sounds too science-y.

It's all about trying something and seeing the results.  Then it's about trying it again and again and again and comparing the results with the first trial.  If the results are the same or nearly identical, then chances are that maths would prove the numbers to be statistically significant.  They matter.

The linked article points out very nicely that yes, statistics can be forced to tell lies.  It's not hard to do, and in the horse world it happens constantly.  The biggest fudge factor is in the n--the number of test subjects--and the r--the number of times the test was repeated.  If n = "tons", "bunches", "every horse in my herd", "lots and lots" or something similar, you needn't read any farther to know that it's not a legitimate report of results of a study done using classic Scientific Method.

Anybody remember high school chemistry enough to recall what Scientific Method is?  Here's a nifty pictorial representation I found on Pinterest:

Image result for scientific method worksheet 
The method that applies to pretty much anything you'd like to prove starts with a question:  "How can I keep my horse from sniffing his girlfriend's butt?"

From the question is derived a hypothesis:  "Smearing lemon balm on a male horse's nose will prevent him from sniffing the mares."

Then come the trials and the measurable results.  The diagonal arrows that grow out from "I am wrong" and "I am right" are the important part.  Those are the trials that either succeed or fail in replicating (not just approximating) the desired result that would prove your hypothesis.

Obviously, this is a really bad example because it would be impossible to track the gelding's sniffing 24/7, so no viable numbers would result.  That's when we get the "lots" or "tons" answer.  "Yep, tons of times he walked right past a mare without stopping to sniff, so the evidence says...."

Nope.  Nope, nope, nope.  No evidence here.

I've mentioned before how easy it is to get people to buy into unproven "facts" by using propaganda like testimonials from famous somebodies.  Four out of five dentists recommend Crest toothpaste.  Have you ever asked for a report on that study?  How was the question worded?  How many dentists were queried?  Were they paid?  Were they actual dentists?  No one knows and no one cares.  Propaganda rules!

We just witnessed the craziness perpetrated by an "expert testimony" regarding vaccines as a root cause of autism in children.  We've been watching Natural Horsemanship run its course when plain old Horsemanship stopped being alluring.  In those cases and a multitude of others, there's no replicable evidence to prove the original hypothesis.

As stated in the article above, real research--with "tons" of test subjects involved and a real set of verifiable numbers resulting--is expensive and time-consuming.  We horse people often get all testy about the racing industry part of our world, but without them and their Big Dollars, there would be no research into many of the ills that befall our equine partners, so we need to not do that anymore.  We need to fund research and we need to demand results, not just catch-phrases, before we buy into something new and different.

You can run your own study and see how it goes for you so you'll really understand the downfalls of the current approach to marketing horse-cult items.  Here's a form you can print out an use to record the results:  Scientific Method worksheet  Start with the problem you want to solve, move on to a theory about how to solve it, then have at it.  Do the work; run the numbers.  Report back when you're finished.  Use as many horses as you can find, and note immediately that they mostly belong to your friends or all live at the same farm or work with the same trainer.  Recognize that that automatically makes your sample unacceptable because it's no more random than asking your family at Thanksgiving whether they like your new haircut.  If you can predict the results before you do the trials, you can throw out the whole mess as being nothing worth wasting time on.

You might also want to notice that you can't undo the experiment. You can't roll it back to before you put that lemon balm on his nose and see what would have happened if you hadn't.  That's because a living creature has an infinite number of variables going into his daily existence, and living just one day longer creates even more.  You can't undo that. The best you can hope for is something that works exactly the same way on your horse every time.  There's your evidence-based whatever.  Put a label on it and you can sell it at the next Expo.

Bottom line:  Don't confuse evidence with conjecture or wishful thinking or even random accident.  If it's real, someone can prove it.  Look for the proof before you buy into the evidence.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Conformation isn't everything

The Conformationally Challenged Athlete |

My horses and I share a problem.  We're conformationally challenged athletes.

It's always fun to read the glossy horse mags and see the Big Name Trainers break down the conformation of a bunch of horses based on their photos.  It's fun because my guesses rarely match the pro's rankings.  It's also fun because the best horses we've owned--the ones who not only gave us their all but did well in competition--would never have made the cut.

I would never have made the cut.

I'm short, without the long-legged girlishness that's required to 1) look good in those nasty breeches, and 2) wrap my legs around a wide horse without requiring a follow-up hip replacement.  I'm also old.  Old women have our own set of issues, what with arthritis and multiple head injuries.  Did I mention multiple head injuries?  Right.

Fancy didn't care that her legs were
a little odd...and neither did the
My horses have conformational flaws that defy description.  The worst of all was my daughter's best horse, the one that won everything almost every time he competed.  The one who, at every annual checkup, got the same review from the vet.  "With those knees and those withers and those hocks, I'm amazed he can stand up, let alone walk."

Grady, proving them wrong for 26 years.

Then there was the mare that toed in in the front and out in the back and twisted her back legs as she moved, requiring shoes all around to keep her feet from wearing off.  But she did her best at all times, and the judges seemed to love her despite her faults.

And we've got Downhill Dolly who, at 23, is still floating over the ground like a big, dark cloud.  She's got arthritis in her neck that impinges on her left shoulder, and she's had it for decades.  That didn't stop her from doing this for 8 years:

I could go on, but you've got the picture, I'm sure.  My point is this:  Don't count anyone out.  It's not over till the fat horse whinnies.  It ain't over till it's over.  We short, old, chunky riders can be amazing, and so can our conformationally-challenged horses.  We do it because what doesn't show on the outside is heart.  Heart and determination and a clear understanding of our limits will never get us Olympic gold, but we can have a damned good time playing at it.

Professionals have a very good point (I have to say that because I'm a certified Equine Appraiser, so one of their club).  They assess horses (and riders, and teams) based on the optimal parameters for success at the highest levels.  "If all else were perfect, this horse has the body to do the job, and this rider has the talent to do it with him."  That's what they're saying.

But go to any top-level horse show and count the entrants.  Their might be 50 overall.  At the lower levels there might be that many in a single class.  Now think about how many horses and riders there are out there in the world at large.  Right.  A "world class" pair not only had the best conformation, but the best financial backing, the best emotional support, and the deepest desire to make competitive riding their endgame.  American Pharoah aside (because he truly is one in a million), no horse can truly be the best in the world.  It can only be the best in that small corner in which its owners and handlers and riders navigate.

For the rest of us, there's the fun of it all, and meeting the challenges is just another learning experience along the road.

I rest my case.