Part 3

The Environment makes its mark.

In the last article we started to consider social strategies for the prevention of inbreeding among groups of horses. But two years were to pass in the project before it became clear that more thought would have to be given to that theme. While it was possible to manipulate the social dynamics of the group so that welfare was enhanced, there was an environmental dynamic that defied either manipulation or prediction. Having accepted that the farm environment would be fundamental to the creation of a unique equine culture it might have been logical to take the idea a stage further and accept that there would also be a biological ‘settling in’ period, during which any mismatch between the group - either collectively or as individuals – and the environment, might well have fatal consequences. This is far from being a new concept, and there are many farmers who have introduced adult animals, whether horses or other domestic livestock, to a piece of land in a new area only to suffer very high losses from disease or natural dangers during the first year, until the group have time to ‘learn’ their environment and to adapt. In the last article we saw that memes are replicators of behavior that may operate in such a way that the survival potential of a group or the individuals within it is enhanced. Yet the foundation group had neither individual nor collective culture – many having come from quite unnatural and bland environments, such as small flat paddocks with monoculture modern ryegrass pastures, and without challenging topography or natural obstacles such as creeks, thin-roofed underground-streams, areas of marsh or small forested areas – all of which were characteristics of their new range. New types of vegetation might also prove dangerous.

With the benefit of hindsight it was predictable that, with the number of new inhabitants, in fact having built a whole new community, it was merely a question of time before a mistake would be made. That mistake came when one of the mares strayed into a marshy area at the top of their range during the night, from which she was unable to escape, and died before she could be rescued in the morning. The loss put everyone on notice to the dangers of the landscape, both horses and handler. Beautiful and peaceful it might be, but there was a natural treachery underlying that tranquillity.

The first full season of foaling took place in the second year of establishment. The forty acre (roughly 16 hectares) paddock that had been formed by the removal of several fences was quickened with the arrival of the first foals of 1993 in early October, and a total of five to add to the yearlings of year one before midsummer and the arrival of Christmas.

The New Year brought disaster. A mystery illness claimed the lives of three foals within seventy-two hours of each other. The three died only a short distance apart, so that poisoning might be suspected, each one showing no signs of illness as little as eight hours before death. Despite autopsies being carried out and numerous tissue samples being sent for laboratory analysis, the cause of the deaths was never identified. It was a devastating event but was to also produce behavior that defied any orthodox logic of accepted equine behavior. The dams of the dead foals, the stallion and all mares that did not have a foal at foot, formed a circle around the dead foals at a distance of some four to five meters, and there they stayed. For three consecutive days and nights the group watched over the bodies, leaving only to drink, after which they returned to take up their vigil once again. At no time were they witnessed taking time off to graze. I had never previously experienced the death of a foal and my observation visits to the group were frequent and prolonged, watching for any symptom, however small, that might signal that another was becoming ill. At the end of three days, the group dispersed and went back about their normal activities.

Viewed in terms of behavior designed to maximize survival this was very strange as, in the wild, the smell of rapidly decomposing bodies might well have attracted scavenging predators that might easily threaten the survival of the remaining foals, or the illness, if it were contagious, might have spread to the others in the group. A search through all available literature failed to supply any answer. Nowhere could there be found any mention of horses behaving in this manner, but other species had been observed to exhibit bereavement behavior - elephants, dolphins and some primates. The elephants were the most similar in behavior, the whole group participating in the mourning activity and, according to some reports, for the same length of time.

There was also an analogy to some human cultures in which the mourning period was very similar. Might the behavior mean that horses may, even if only in some instances, have a mourning ‘ceremony’? Or did it simply mean that, in many species, ourselves included, it takes about three days for individuals to come to terms with such a loss? And had other horse owners witnessed anything of the kind? Questioning other breeders as to whether they had had mares that, having lost a foal, behaved in a similar manner revealed that in most cases breeders take a dead foal away and bury it almost immediately after death. Two did confirm having seen such behavior, and also reported that when the mare finally did go on about her business she seemed to have come to terms with her loss and was no longer visibly depressed. Vets will most often advise that a dead foal is removed and buried and, from the point of view of preventing a possible spread of infection, they would be right. However, if there is a need to mourn for a period of time, then it may well be kinder to leave the dead to lie until no further interest is shown, before burial - and it may, perhaps, be not only kinder but psychologically healthier for the bereaved mare. There is the added risk in quickly taking a dead foal away that the dam may associate its loss with the person seen to remove it.

A now famous piece of film of Orcas (killer whales) in a marine park apparently 'conspiring' to crush a human handler is associated with the story of the belligerent individual having lost a calf at its previous marina. The dead calf was removed at once and the distressed mother left to circle in anguish when, in the wild, observers have witnessed cetaceans carrying dead calves for several days. In true T.V. fashion, the suggestion was made that the attack might have been 'planned' in 'revenge' for the ‘stealing’ of the calf, a suggestion that is impossible either to prove or disprove. We do not, however, know everything about animal behavior and it may be much wiser to keep an open mind until such hypotheses can be firmly refuted, or proven. If there is a risk of causing unnecessary depression, or damaging the relationship we have with a mare, or group of horses, would it not be far better to err on the side of caution and empathy?

The circumstances of the three deaths in the herd left unanswered and, quite possibly unanswerable, questions about equine behavior, but what remained was an indelible memory of the atmosphere of mutual grief and support for the three mares, as deeply touching, in its way, as any human funeral. Such gentle civilized creatures, such palpable and dignified grief. The event served to banish any temptation to make glib assumptions about equine society forever, and, in its place left a deep sense of having been humbled, chastened, and greatly privileged to have been allowed to share in their grieving process.

Time moved on, and those mares that had lost foals quickly came in oestrus and foaled again the following year, and now there were two year old colts and fillies in the group. It was totally predictable that the stallion would start to harass the two year old colts, and a slow but steady level of intolerance built over the weeks of spring and early summer until good welfare dictated that they be removed. The mares made no attempt to prevent this from being done, in fact the whole group became more peaceful and relaxed as a result. What was less predictable was that the harem stallion would react quite badly to daughters when they came into season.  Then, instead of the gradual rise in intolerance observed with his colts, he showed a rapid and angry determination to drive them from the group. In the wild no doubt these fillies would be driven out on to the periphery of the group, from where they might be easily run off and captured by either the harem stallion of another band, or the highest status member of a bachelor group. Observations by researchers of feral horses have shown that the harem stallion will make no attempt to prevent this happening, and so does not serve his own daughters.

But, as with many facets of behavior, there are specific conditions under which this will change, and daughters will not be driven out – instead, they will be served and protected. There is a minimum size of group below which long term viability in a survival sense would become questionable in the wild, perhaps three or four mares plus stallion. When group numbers fall below this threshold the risk presented by inbreeding becomes secondary to the primary need to ensure the viability of the group, and the stallion will serve a daughter rather than driving her out. Of course, for the stallion, the biological investment is very much smaller than for the mare, so once group size reaches a critical level he has very little to lose should the resulting foal be unsound. In fact his real investment will only come if the foal is viable, survives the critical early period after birth and comes under his continuing protection. It is perhaps partly this population-triggered variable in equine social strategies to prevent inbreeding that has caused breeders to keep stallions apart from mares and offspring rather than managing breeding within family groups.

In the next article we shall focus on the bachelor group and its colt and stallion members, its co-operative social basis and function in the wild, and the opportunities it presents for the modern and ethical management and training of stallions. Under traditional equine industry methods many stallions are destined for lives of miserable solitary confinement and resulting progressive psychological illness. Of these a good number will become dangerous, causing serious or potentially fatal injuries to handlers. Another effect of this is the myth that stallions are naturally inclined to be unruly and unmanageable animals requiring some special ability in their handlers – leading to castration in the hope that this will modify difficult behavior. Yet, as research has shown, castration is not as predictable in its result as many might believe.  If by the implementation of alternative strategies that rely on manipulation of the social character of the horse rather than isolation and surgical intrusion we can produce happier, more socially balanced, male horses, do we not owe it both to ourselves and the equines in our care to explore the insights gained from equine ethology?

© Andy Beck – W.H.E.E.P. 2003

 Part 4