An evolution as some of the richest flesh on the planet makes you not only quick off the mark at any sign of threat but also quick to suspect that any unusual phenomenon might be part of a predator’s plan to trap and eat you. Natural selection operates on innate, genetically determined behaviour like defence strategies just as it does on body form. While we enjoy the horse’s physical adaptations for flight, the behaviour itself is not so welcome. Nobody likes being carried off willy-nilly at the drop of a hat.
Our reaction to problems and threats is typically wholly different from that of horses, whose grand idea is to avoid them. In general we try not to run away but to confront problems and gain the upper hand over them. We are so extraordinarily conflictive that we provoke confrontations in order
to win them, or involve ourselves in imaginary conflicts for control. This is incomprehensible to the horse. We fight the horse’s flight reaction with pressure, painful devices and exercises designed to teach him that we are in control.
Curtailing a horse’s freedom to act, make decisions, choose his own company and food, play and move in the ways he finds comfortable is so much a part of horsemanship that we do not even notice it. We fear their freedom. Is there no ethologically sound way we can avoid being carried off without limiting the horse’s freedom to choose his own actions or oppressing him with constant control? Repeated, careful habituation to startling objects helps, though since habituation is place dependent the horse may still startle when in strange places. But studies I made on defence and flight in Venezuelan feral horses gave me a new slant on the problem that can be used to create a security based relationship with a horse. These horses live in the llanos, the great flood-plain of the Orinoco, where puma and jaguar abound. The land mostly is absolutely flat, treeless savannah but in some places there are clumps of trees. These offer shade from the sun but also cover for puma, so the horses never go there.
Like other feral horses, they live in natal bands of mares and youngsters with a stallion or two as consort. These move and act together for security in cooperative alliances against the common threat to their foals. Although they have no fixed leader or authority figure, the members of a band do tend to rely on the stallion’s vigilance to spot and assess danger: in a harsh climate the mare’s time is occupied by eating enough to raise strong foals.
Possible and real puma are spotted almost daily and I analysed over a hundred examples of the steps of flight behaviour. Sometimes there seem to be none: quite suddenly, all visible horses are stampeding, drawing together into a packed bunch as they go. Massed flight is a popular defence tactic among social prey animals without refuges, for it confuses the predator’s eye and all may escape.
The slower-evolving flights show more clearly what steps are involved. First, the signal for alarm is an abrupt rise of the head, bringing the nose level with the withers, combined with obvious body tension. If it was not the stallion who spotted the threat, he then stepped forward, staring, while the mares, glancing in the same direction, hurried to bunch together behind him, callingtheir foals to join them. If he then decided to whirl round and run, so did they. If he relaxed, so did they. In other words, the horse’s initial reaction to alarm is not, as we so often think, to flee, but to bunch together ready for flight. A horse that has strayed far from her herd and becomes startled similarly does not run away but back to the band, even if that actually brings her closer to whatever has scared her. Once with them, she calms down if they remain calm.
If bunching provides security, flight becomes unnecesary
Domestic groups that lack a stallion bunch together in the same way when startled. Their decision to flee is affected by the most nervous member. If no one starts running they all calm down, but once one flees, so do they all. Bunching precedes flight and if it provides sufficient security, there is no need for fight.
We can parallel these steps when leading out a youngster, a valuable part of early training in that it allows us to show him that we are unafraid and that he may rely on our judgement. When he stops, head high and obviously poised for flight, our best move is to step forward, stare fixedly in the same direction and then relax conspicuously. So will he. Yanking at the lead rope or ignoring his important communication isolates him in his fear. If he finds the security and knowledgeable calm in us that he finds in his natal band, he does not need to run away.
A startled horse may press or dive towards us. Some regard this as lack of respect for our space and scold him, but we do not have the same bodies as horses. Were we as big and long as they, he would stop at a certain distance when we filled most of his visual field, which we can never do. Putting a firm hand on his neck reminds him not to knock us off our feet while we stop, examine the ‘danger’, relax conspicuously and praise him for choosing us rather than flight.
Round pen techniques can also incorporate rather than suppress the horse’s natural behaviour. Essentially we allow the horse to discover that we represent the same security as do his herd mates and that if he bunches with us he has no need for flight. Released with a rope tied round his neck and draped around his body, he is free to choose between fleeing or staying with us. Once he has tried both he is convinced that staying is better. Obviously, we must first have shown him that he is always safe in our hands: chasing him or repeatedly prodding him to show our inescapable control does not teach him we are pleasant, safe company.
What is striking about these simple techniques is how quickly and effectively horses learn to check their own flight reaction when they know that referring to us obviates its necessity. When startled out on a country ride, they simply stop and wait for our decision as to the gravity of the situation; many crane their heads round to look at us for advice. Suddenly the problem is not the horse’s reaction but ours. It takes us far longer to learn to control that instinctive tension and grab at the reins that tells him that we think flight is necessary.