Part 5

 The Equine Family

For many years animal groups or societies were portrayed as dominance oriented. Simply put, the suggestion was that the strongest, perhaps largest or most aggressive animal in a group rules by tyranny of force over the weaker members. The idea supposes that this ‘pecking order’ continues on down through the members so that each has a place in the hierarchy of the group, and is subservient to all those of higher ranking. The durability of these ideas has a number of roots, amongst which the most beguiling is that such simple dominance structures do exist in some species, and also in some gender-specific sub-groups of others. There is no question that bachelor groups of male horses operate on the dominance principle, in which the strongest, but not necessarily largest, male rules by right of force rather than of characteristics of leadership – but does this mean that the equine family or harem group has a similar structure? 

To answer yes would not only deny the complexity of social interaction but also the findings of modern behavioural science. Computer modelling studies released in 2003 by Roper and Conradt from the University of Sussex , UK , opened up to scrutiny and discussion the possibility of democracy within the animal world. While some scientists commented that the model was limited in scope and that the findings did not allow the real degree of complexity present in real-world cases, there was common agreement that it posed a serious challenge to the popular perception that the natural world operates on the basis of dominance and violence.

For many people the idea of democracy within the animal kingdom has a surreal quality – visions of voting and counts of each poll – and the intuition that this type of system would surely require cognitive powers much greater than most species possess. Yet the social organisation typical in insect colonies should tell us that huge cognitive powers are not required.

In the last article we challenged many of the myths surrounding the stallion, and what we can do to re-establish the continuity of our narrative is to state that the harem stallion, so often depicted as monarch and despot, has a far lesser degree of control over the life of the family group to which he is affiliated than popular myth would suggest. Far from being the overall ruler, his will does not dominate, and mares can, and do, disobey.  There must have been a number of scientists of animal behavior who had intuitively dismissed the idea of one animal dominating the movement of a group way before the results of the computer model study were released – if for no other reason than it simply cannot work! There is a clear parallel to human society here, and one with which many of us who have been, or are, in the workforce are probably familiar to some degree. Companies that are run in a dictatorial style in which no-one is allowed to use their own initiative but must first seek the approval of an over-manager have been proven to be inefficient. Inability to delegate is seen as a major flaw in management skills. Of course major decisions should be made at the higher management levels, but questions of minor day to day operations are best left to those who actually carry out these tasks. Quite apart from any other consideration, if the management are too busy dictating the smallest operational detail how can they be free to set strategy in the face of danger or to protect the company’s workers from external threat? Managers too must have time to eat, rest and take some recreation if they are to make good decisions.

So if we start to think of the equine family group like a small company with one sole product we won’t be far from the mark. And the product? Simply the perpetuation of the group. For the evolutionary scientist this last statement would not be good enough, and we could get into arguments over what precise piece or accumulation of biological material it is that seeks to replicate itself – whether it is the gene, or groups of genes, or the genotype, or the individual animal. Perhaps what is going to work best for us in this instance is to decide that for the purposes of understanding equine family behavior let’s say that the group provides a vehicle through which the replication of the genes contained within its member animals can be expressed – and leave it at that!

The analogy to a small company can be continued: just as a badly run company will most likely be uncompetitive and go out of business so too will the badly run equine family suffer ‘evolutionary bankruptcy’. The fossil record bears witness to the number of failed “Equines Ltd” over the 600,000 year history of development. What remains is, by definition, the product of those families that successfully adapted to the challenges of the evolutionary ‘marketplace’. Clearly, physical characteristics were of great importance in this ongoing success, and the ability to withstand the rigours of diverse environments, yet without patterns of behavior that ‘program’ the use of these physical accoutrements the essential ‘business’ efficiency could not be assured. The ability to escape at great speed is, for example, only beneficial if used at the right time, and the judgement as to when that right time may be is critical. To run too early before a threat is analysed is wasteful of energy and disruptive of feeding, rest and procreation, and a scourge for the weak and the young; to wait overlong until the threat is confirmed, but also unavoidable, is simply fatal.

Logic should tell us that where a species has developed the family lifestyle, behavior has developed in such a way that it supports the wellbeing and survival of that species to the greatest possible degree. So, if we were considering raising an animal from a ‘family’ species, it follows that the best structure within which to do so is, logically, the family structure innate to that species.

So why is it that, most often, we don’t? After all, you may be able to take the horse out of the family – but you can’t take the family out of the horse! Those behaviors that have developed over the millennia are still present, either as functional components of the horse’s psychology or, and this is perhaps the crux of the issue, as needs that, frustrated of normal expression, become negative with respect to both horse and owner. And the follow-on question posed by this conclusion is ‘how are we to judge?’

Rather than attempt to create a list of pros and cons, perhaps the best approach will be to take a close look at just what equine family behavior is and how it appears to operate, suspending judgement until we have a clearer picture. But that will still only give us one side of the picture and, to get the complete view, we need to examine common management practices to see in what way they support expression of innate behaviors and establish which innate behaviors are repressed.  Then we must analyse the results of any such repression in terms of the impact on us as users of the horse, and on the wellbeing of the horse itself and, having done so, it is then up to each person to make an educated decision about the ethics of the situation, in the certain knowledge that animal welfare activism is a growing force in today’s political arena.

To do this each of the next several articles in the series will come in two parts, the first from a natural perspective, the second from the perspective of traditional management. In this issue we’ll be looking at those two basic elements; social contact and freedom of movement, for these are at the very heart of what it means to be a horse.  

Social Contact, Freedom of Movement and Traditional Management.

The confinement of horses is far away from being a new idea; in 2003, the earliest known military stables were discovered within the 3,300 year old ruins of the ancient Egyptian city of Piramesse . The buildings were in six rows covering over 17,000 square meters, and are said to have housed at least 460 horses used for pulling the chariots of the army of Ramses II. The very size of these stables suggests that the management of confined horses had, even then, been around for some length of time.  The biggest question about the confinement of the horse in stalls or stables is why the practice ever started. Certainly it was not an essential element in the ownership of horses, since surviving nomadic horse cultures continue successfully to keep horses in herds on the open plain even today.

Stabling is generally presented as if it is in some way supposed to be for the good of the horse, providing shelter from the elements and so forth, but it is much more likely that the driving force behind this development was the convenience of the owner – after all, how many horses have a good enough relationship with their owners or riders that they will come when called? – and  security from theft. For, in a time when horses were essential to survival and the protection of the state, what greater threat could there be than that a raiding party of one’s enemies might succeed in driving off not only those horses kept ready for protection but also the breeding herds essential for maintenance of such a vitally important resource?

Since most horses would have been domesticated from those types found in the local region, or perhaps those that might be traded or captured in war from not too distant neighbours, their adaptation to survival under the prevailing climate suggests that man-made shelter from the elements would not be required. What better way of control could there be of an animal whose very nature is movement, than to restrict its freedom to suit the owner? In the next issue we’ll be taking a look at the impact of this rigid control, in terms of both psychological and physical health, and suggesting how accommodation for horses can be designed so that the least ‘user-friendly’ aspects are mitigated.

Social Contact, Freedom of Movement and Nature.

Imagine a non-stop outdoor cocktail party at which the guests are all from one extended family. The large group breaks into small mutual interest groups, united by common factors as young children or pregnancies. Younger members go apart a little way to form little groups with their peers or best close friends, only to return to the familiar security of their mother. Mothers watch over their own as well as other’s visiting offspring, whose own mothers in turn get to spend some time with their adult friends.  The older siblings ‘baby-sit’ their younger brothers or sisters leaving their parents free to concentrate on the buffet or on spending time with the family leadership. Host and hostess circulate with consummate social grace, continually reaffirming and reinforcing the social ties that bind the group into one cohesive unit. Turns are taken by all those sufficiently mature to keep a watch about the perimeter of the group, so that shelter might be taken from the rain, or movement directed toward a particularly attractive section of the buffet, or warning given of the approach of uninvited and potentially unwelcome guests. The more junior ranking females in the group spend a greater time in carrying out the chore of keeping watch, for which service they are then welcomed back into the center of the party, while others take their places on duty.

This, then, is the equine family group: a flowing, and most often harmonious, social progress over the landscape. Neither driven nor controlled by any one member, it is a group in which even the lowest status members may lead the direction in which the grazing cycle moves, secure in the knowledge that other members are facing outwards, watching each and every compass point from which danger might approach, and maintaining a constantly revolving rearguard duty. There is no need for the hierarchy of the group to expend energy controlling movement, an onerous duty that would take much of their time, and leadership is only given where necessary. Even so, those members that are at the greatest risk, such as heavily pregnant mares or the young, are shielded by those that are better able to carry out rapid manoeuvres and, should danger threaten, the whole group is able to react quickly, forming a line of escape set by the highest status female, and with the stallion falling back to keep stragglers from being left behind and to offer challenge should it be warranted.

Whether grazing, resting, sleeping prone on the ground, playing or courting, each individual can be certain that others are standing guard ready to give the alarm; a well-oiled and supremely adaptable mutual preservation society in which the safety of each member is best assured.  

Only when a group member is so obviously ill or injured that death is a certainty are the social bonds uniting them broken, or, when an older stallion is displaced by the rigorous physical challenge of a younger, more powerful, rival. Such displaced stallions are then left to wander alone, injured and bereft of the society which offered both responsibility and safety – soon to tire and finally succumb to attack or illness.

© Andy Beck – W.H.E.E.P. 2004

 Part 6

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