So far in this series I have talked a lot about the instinctual behaviors of wild horses/herds. But instinct is only part of what makes a horse “a horse” or a herd “a herd”. By nature, horses are keen observers, effective problem-solvers and highly intuitive judges of character. They are also smart learners. So, while I have presented the basics of wild horse herd structure (which is largely instinctual), if you were to go out and actually observe a variety of wild horse herds (especially those living in different regions, climates and topographies) you would find that each herd has its own unique culture. This culture is a combination of instinct and learned behaviors:
Instinct: A way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is not learned; a natural desire or tendency that makes you want to act in a particular way.
Learned Behavior: A behavior that has been motivated or conditioned from direct observation or experience.
There has been a lot of debate in scientific communities about which horse behaviors are instinctual and which ones are learned. Rather than get caught up in the intricacies of this debate, let’s consider behaviors that consistently appear and are similar in all horses/herds (wild or domestic) to be instinctual. Examples include:
- Prey animal behavior (strong flight response)
- Desire to live in herds and to establish a clear rank or “pecking order”
- Key leadership roles within the herd (stallion role, lead mare role, etc.)
- Social bonding/nurturing and strong friendships
- Reproductive rituals (stallions fighting, mares breeding only when in season, pregnant mares going to the outskirts of the herd to give birth in privacy)
Meanwhile, some examples of what learned behavior in wild horse herds might look like are:
- Preference for the safest watering holes or a herd modifying behavior based on the safest time of day to eat/drink/travel
- Preferred travel routes that are less hard on hooves and legs
- Individual or group battle and play strategies
- Subtleties of herd language and communication
- Social etiquette in a specific herd
There are also examples (even in the wild) where learned behavior actually seems to trump or over-ride largely instinctual behavior. For example, in some wild horse and zebra herds that live on wide-open tundra, it has been documented that the animals will organize themselves into many small family units (usually one stallion and 2-3 mares plus offspring) that all operate within a larger community herd. In these examples, the stallions often share a common physical territory and even work cooperatively to fight off predators. One can only assume that this unique organization is a combination of their natural instincts and learned behaviors working together to increase their chances of long-term survival.
From my personal experience living with and/or observing a wide variety of domestic horse herds, I have come to the conclusion that significant dysfunction sets in whenever horses are prevented from living according to their natural instincts for herd composition/organization OR whenever they are prevented from following their instinct as prey animals to escape from perceived danger.
In captivity, horses are forced to rely very heavily on their ability to develop sophisticated learned behaviors (especially those that please their human caretakers) and, sadly, many of their instinctual behaviors get punished.
When you really think about how far removed most domestic horses are from natural herd life (we often make them live in stalls/barns or small fenced paddocks, separated physically and emotionally from their herd mates, in unnatural groups that suit our needs, with stallions often forced to live in complete isolation except for controlled contact for breeding, and with little natural forage or exercise [wild horses typically roam 30+ miles in a day!] other than that provided by humans on our terms)… you begin to appreciate just how adaptable they are!
But forcing horses to live in opposition to their natural instincts takes its toll on them, both physically and mentally. It also makes it much more difficult for humans to observe natural horse/herd behaviors or learn the powerful lessons I outlined in my previous posts.
I’m about to begin a new series that will provide specific examples from within my own herd that demonstrate some of the ways that artificial/dysfunctional equine communities create dysfunctional individuals. But today’s discussion also begs another question:
What does it say about humans that what we’ve come to value most about horses is their ability to live a life that is often in complete opposition to their natural instincts?
Most of us who love horses were initially drawn to them because of the beauty, power, grace, sociability and intelligence they demonstrate in the wild. But, unfortunately, the only outlets most humans have to actually interact with (or even directly observe) horses today are those dictated by traditional human “purposes” for horses. And for the most part, those purposes do one of two things: feed our egos or feed our pockets.
So, instead of setting ourselves up to learn the powerful lessons horses could teach us about living in functional communities, we do our best to teach them what it feels like to live in dysfunctional ones.