Unless you are using cloned pigeons or cloned rodents in controlled laboratory conditions, the study of animal behavior is an inexact science. Each animal we interact with is a unique entity derived from its genetic make-up and the environment’s effect on those genes since the meeting of the egg and sperm.
And of course, the nature of the egg and sperm depends on the past genetic and environmental influences on the parents, and so on – back in time.
Ongoing research shows that environment has more influence on genetic expression than previously recognized. When we are with our horse, we are part of his/her environment.
What he eats, drinks, breathes, his access to movement and mental stimulation (or lack of same) all underpin the nature of the horse standing beside us. Does the horse live among a group of horses? Did he grow up in a mixed-age herd?
Is the horse getting enough sleep? Can he fully relax often enough? Can he freely choose a comfortable temperature – shade, sun, out of the wind, protection from strong rain or bitter cold?
Does he have the space to move at any gait whenever he feels the need? Is he able to eat and rest in the natural horse rhythm? Horse don’t do ‘square meals’ and 8-9 hours of continuous sleep. They observe/eat/rest, observe/eat/rest in a continuous rhythm over 24 hours.
And of course, what he feels directly relates to his behavior of the moment. Alert or relaxed? Vigilant and fearful can lead to panic. Perceived threat is just as real as actual threat.
Does he feel hungry, thirsty, too hot, too cold, or need to urinate or defecate? Is he in physical pain? Is he feeling separation distress, social isolation, loneliness?
Is he feeling frustration at containment and restraint, which can turn into rage and desperate actions seeking escape, often leading to injury? Is maternal care thwarted due to early weaning? Is the mare in season and coping with mating urges? Is the stallion in proximity to mares in season?
Have we carefully, safely, taught all about tying up and other restraints such as staying in small spaces? Is there an outlet for the play drive?
When We Turn Up with Food Treats
The ‘environment’ is not only ‘out there’. We are part of the horse’s environment. Both the handler and the horse have an external environment and an internal environment. Horses can sense a handler’s confidence or fear, anxiety or calmness, in a nanosecond. Before we interact with our horse, we need to become aware of our emotional state. If we are not feeling calm and accepting of what the horse is able to offer us today, we are best to sit quietly and bring these up before we inflict ourselves on the horse.
Horses are innate experts at reading body language. That skill developed over the millennia as an adaptation for herd life. Group life means that all the group members need the same resources. During some seasons, scarcity leads to competition between group members.
Humans have the same awareness of the significance of body language once we put aside the ‘noise’ of our talking. We have ‘gut responses’ to people which are based on their body language and the aura which surrounds them.
Horses know the difference between assertion and aggression. They understand approach and retreat. They understand warnings and capitulation. If we have a horse, it becomes our job to learn the details of horse body language and the specific nuances of the body language of the horse(s) we handle.
All living creatures tend to repeat whatever they find rewarding. The reward might be physical comfort, company or no company, a restful situation, drink, food. This is because a rewarding situation activates a fundamental ‘seeking circuit’ in the brain – the bit that works in the subconscious to keep us alive. But we the learn to consciously seek out that reward again.
Horses, being designed to eat steadily over 24 hours, find food highly rewarding unless something in the horse’s external or internal environment is critically out of balance.
We can use food rewards with a horse without a CLICK or MARKER sound of our choice, but the click marker signal is a safety feature for the handler. It also, later on, allows us to build chains of individual behaviors with a CLICK at the end of the chain. I’ll reflect a bit more on that in another blog.
The following two videos look at some basics to consider when we delve into equine clicker training.