Part 7

Part 7


The last part of our look at domestication is perhaps the most important in any domesticated animal – the question of tameness. Perhaps we should start by borrowing a definition of just what we mean from E.O. Price – 2002.

“Tameness is a measure of the extent to which an individual is reluctant to avoid or motivated to approach humans.”

Of course this is not the only definition that could be used. Definitions of behavioral concepts such as this are as flexible as the concepts they describe, even so, it is far better to have some kind of guideline rather than none at all. The very fact that this so important element of domestication is as fluid as this serves to remind us once again that during the thousands of years that have spun by our relationship with the horse has provided little in the way of enlightenment.

Having defined tameness we now have to look at some way of measuring it. Perhaps the most common method is the use of ‘flight-distance’; the minimum distance at which the animal is prepared to remain in the company of a person. Having stated that this is the most common method in use we need to explore just what it measures, and just how much good information it provides us with. For example does it tell us anything about the temperament of the animal in question? Well, yes it does – but not very much! We could reduce it to saying that a horse that is prepared to remain still on approach has been taught to do so in some way and does not, apparently, possess either a savage temperament such that it attacks, or a fearful temperament such that it runs away. Even then there are ways of procuring the last of those two by conditioning. So if this ‘tameness’ actually tells us so little is it really what we are looking for – or might tameability be better? Surely if we could measure tameability it would tell us how amenable the horse would be to interaction with people? The question would then be; how might we measure tameability so that we could select for it in our breeding? Only recently has this become the subject of an increasing number of studies, my contribution to which has been to create the term ‘horsonality’, a concept that has undergone further development and temperament studies by Kathalijne Visser (Horsonality – a study on the personality of the horse – 2002) and is now in use by ID –Lelystad.

These studies are attempting to produce methods of measuring temperament and, by analysis, to determine the extent to which this is determined by genetics and by environmental management. If they succeed might it be possible in the future to buy a horse whose temperament has been measured and plotted on another of our continuums? In theory yes, but there are a number of problems with this idea that we might discuss.

Let’s take the race-horse as an example for the sake of argument, although we could just as well look at horses that have been bred specifically with other disciplines in mind. Reasonable temperament is important in the breeding of race horses for without it the process of handling and training become much more difficult, costly and, potentially, dangerous. Yet if we want a horse that will leap from the starting gate in the shortest time possible then a high degree of reactivity is also required. But without speed and some varying degree of ability to maintain it over a fixed distance, whether on the flat, over hurdles or jumps, ease of handling and reactivity will not produce a winner. On the other hand too much reactivity may well produce one of those horses that are said to have ‘run their race in the starting enclosure’ such is the nervous energy they expend in the minutes prior to racing. Nor can we separate the horse from the money! Race horse owners need their horses to win, as do the trainers. If the horse wins much will be forgiven in terms of ease of handling and, on retirement, a stallion or mare that has made a great deal of money for owners and trainers will be used for breeding. The number of racing stud stallions that have been noted, or even notorious, for aggressive bad manners is significant, yet stud fees for them are often very high. And of course it has also to be determined whether such behavior has a genetic base or is due to management. A number of such stallions have been retired to small open operations where they are left to run with a couple of broodmares after either their fertility or libido fall below what is judged as a commercially viable level. In some cases the change in temperament and behavior is nothing short of stunning – literally from devil to saint! As with so many things in life a compromise has to be struck, and in horses intended for each different discipline this compromise will be different. So isn’t this just what our years of selective breeding have done? Haven’t we arrived at our modern breeds by intuitively picking those horses that have given the best service in any particular field from which to breed the next generation? Why then is more required? Simply because even when such breeding has been carried out for hundreds of years with a controlled stud book to ensure ‘purity’ of bloodline, as is the case with the Thoroughbred, a large number of those horses bred do not do well in the discipline. Breeds noted for placid disposition still produce flighty horses, albeit fewer perhaps than breeds noted for say speed or agility. At best the standardisation of ‘breeds’ is a generalized affair, and just because horses look the same does not mean that they will be temperamentally alike. True there is good evidence to support the tendency of temperament likeness in progeny of one particular stallion or another, but such is the variability that there is no absolute certainty. There is also evidence in support of the general rule that serotonin levels are associated with degrees of tameability – simply put, the higher the more tameable. This in turn causes us to have to look at brain chemistry in general, whether it is impacted by the mental state of the dam prior to foaling, or by her hormone levels, or by the feed and water either she or her foal are given – in fact by any factor of the environment in which the foal is born. While we may not know all the answers to these questions with specific regard to the horse we certainly do know the environment, both pre and post parturition, has a huge impact on the behavior of children. Serotonin was specifically mentioned a little earlier, and we are probably all aware that drugs which impact on serotonin levels in the human being, such as Prozac, are in wide use to control such things as depression and anger. Should we start looking at the use of such drugs as a common method of modifying the behavior of our horses also? If the end product is a happier, better adjusted horse why would this be ethically wrong? And there is absolutely no question that mood modifiers are in use in veterinary care of horses and other domestic or companion animals.

What is also very clear is that the environment in which an animal is kept has a quantum effect on that animal such that two genetically identical animals kept under completely different management regimes will express behaviors that differ in much the same degree as do those environments. Nor is this knowledge new, a great deal of work carried out during the first half of the last century laid open the bones of behavior just as the post-mortem studies of the preceding centuries laid open the bones of the skeleton.

So if this knowledge has been available to society – and, of course, also to horse breeders and owners – for so long why is it that the arts of domestication have not become modernised in light of it? Yet here we are in a new century still doing those same things as were done so many years ago, in many cases simply because they were done that way by those from who we learnt. And through the repetition of these customary methods of management – and of the attitudes which accompany them – here we stand on the brink of planetary ruin, our climate changing, a mass extinction of species occurring, and an incredible number of our companion species, including the horse, suffering psychological trauma and behavioral degeneration.

For all we know of domestication, and for all the long years we have been practising it we have arguably yet to rise to the challenge of becoming ethical guardians of both those species in our care, and in the wild. What was a challenge through which we might prove our humanity and empathy for all life has now become an imperative, dependent on which is our very survival. For those of us who are drawn, for whatever subliminal reason, to a relationship with the horse, the way in which we keep and treat these most wonderful creatures, whether in slavery or in respect, will often be the most profound statement that we make about who and what we really are.

© Andy Beck – W.H.E.E.P. 2004