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.

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