Horses: Social Animals

In The Trail Rider, Bob Goddard discusses the social aspects of horses.
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In The Trail Rider, Bob Goddard discusses the social aspects of horses.

At one point in my life, I knew everything. This was the result of an infallible method of knowledge accumulation that combined wild guessing with a disciplined refusal to consider any evidence that conflicted with the guess. I just knew stuff.

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For instance, I knew that horses were essentially survival-driven creatures that couldn?t possibly have anything resembling a social life. So whenever one of my horse-crazed daughters came home with a story of how somebody got bit because someone?s horses were having ?girl problems,? I shook my head and dismissed it as adolescent whimsy. Horses, I was sure, simply don't have these kinds of personality conflicts.

Girl Problems?

I was wrong, of course. After years of observation, I?ve come to accept that horses are indeed social by nature and do indeed express individual preferences.

Just ask any boarding-barn manager, who must constantly shift pasture and turnout arrangements according to the particular personality mix of their charges:

?I can't let Enya in the same pasture with Angel because then Ali won?t let Enya near the water trough and Darcy will kick Ali and chase her away from the round bale until Angel eats, but I have to let Dessie out before Darcy or they?ll all pick on Pete. And don't get me started on those stallions.?

But, girl problems?

While I'm willing to concede that horses are social creatures, that's going too far. I think it highlights the biggest roadblock we have in understanding The Horse: our annoying habit of using human motivations to explain the behavior of another species.

Horses have their own reasons for doing the things they do. I'm sorry, but when Your Friend Flicka licks your face, she's after salt, not offering affection.

Wild Theories

In our effort to understand why our horses do what they do, it may help to observe horses in the wild. Despite all our messing and meddling, the deeply imbedded instincts that shape the social structure of wild horses do the same for their domestic cousins.

Through artificial selection, we enhance this quality, downplay that trait, but in the end, you can't breed the horse out of a horse. Horses in the wild organize themselves into herds. Each herd is actually a kind of mobile harem servicing a single stallion.

However, the notion that the stallion is the actual herd leader is one that only the uneducated ? and presumably the stallion ? hold.

The stallion?s primary role is to serve as a kind of genetic bouncer. He expels colts as they get older and drives away any potential rivals that dare to come near his herd. Only his genes will be replicated here. The real executive authority is exercised by the dominant, or boss, mare. She's the one that decides where the group goes. She decides who drinks first at the watering hole. And she decides which horses occupy the center of the herd, the safest spot.

The standard punishment for rudeness or other infractions is isolation from the herd. It's the boss mare that decides if and when the violators are allowed to return. Her will is enforced by such methods as physical positioning, head butting, and a little kicking. Sound familiar?

The Human Herd

Domestication channels and distorts these natural social predilections, but it can't eliminate them. Humans are like an army of occupation, superimposing our agenda over existing social structures and natural rivalries. And like any other army of occupation that ignores the underlying motivations of the locals, sooner or later, we'll get bit.

We have it backwards. Instead of interpreting equine behavior according to human standards, we should look to animals to help us understand our own. My goodness, are not Facebook, Twitter and texting obvious manifestations of herd bound behavior?

If your 5-year-old throws his cooked carrots at your dinner guests, do you not make him leave the table? And during a father-son basketball game, don't they always keep score? And if the youngster wins, doesn't the conversationlater that evening turn to his career plans?

A colt that knows everything isn?t long for the herd.

Bob Goddard is a freelance writer specializing in equine humor. He lives in Wyoming, Michigan, with his wife, Jenny, and two very naughty dogs, Jessie and Elvis. To contact him, send an e-mail to bgoddard80@comcast.net. Goddard?s latest book is Horse Crazy! A Tongue-in-Cheek Guide for Parents of Horse Addicted Girls. To order, visit www.horsecrazy.net.

From The Trail Rider.