Feed on

Horses are highly sociable creatures, almost obsessively so. This is particularly true if we bear in mind that eating is frequently also a social activity and that a great deal of eating occurs in communities of horses. There are some equine ethologists who argue that horses are instinctively sociable for the sole purpose of self-preservation in the face of the constant threat posed by predators, for it is in the herd that they enjoy the best chance of survival. Yet, if we examine the amount of time, energy and effort which horses devote to flight expressed as a percentage of their everyday life when compared to sociability, I wonder whether this is not an example of humans turning reality on its head.

While self-preservation is a natural instinct of most, if not all, relatively advanced living creatures, it is far from being a constant conscious preoccupation. In the wild, for instance, flight may consciously preoccupy horses for as little as a tiny fraction of the time which they devote to social affairs, probably consuming a proportionate part of their energy. As such, it beggars belief to imagine that what consumes so little of the horse’s conscious time, energy and effort should dominate and hence determine their entire way of life. Of course, this in turn begs the question as to why horses are sociable and what their sociability entails.


No competition

Studies of horses in the wild reveal much about their sociable nature and the social structures through which their sociability is channelled. Perhaps the single most obvious factor which differentiates human from horse society is the absence of one of the most powerful barriers to sociability, namely, competition and hence the pursuit of individual advancement at the expense of others. Here I refer to competition between individuals for resources not merely for survival but also in relation to material pursuits, such as those of power, status and wealth.

With so much in the way of natural resources, there is no need for competition!

Priorities differ in a band of horses in the wild. Individual advancement takes the form of improved well-being rather than the accumulation of material excess, and that of the individual depends on that of the group. With limited exceptions, instead of competing with each other, horses express their sociability by helping each other find feed and water, tend to and educate their young, and groom and play with each other. There are no resources or other material interests to compete for with the exception of stallions challenging each other for access to mares and some of the latter attempting to thwart a stallion from mating with another mare. Even then, the expressions of such forms of competition are highly limited in terms of time, energy and effort.


No coercive or bought leadership

As telling as the relative absence of competition in communities of horses, so too is the absence of another barrier to sociability in their social structures which we experience in human society, namely, coercive or bought leadership. Humans either vote for leaders every once in a while, following which they are unable to exercise much, if any, influence over them or they succumb to self-proclaimed leaders who employ a combination of fraud, corruption and/or force to assume control over them. And those leaders, whether elected or not, rely on force or the threat of force (law and its enforcement) not only to maintain control over the humans in their power but also to compel them to surrender vast amounts of personal wealth in the form of taxes to fund the prosperity of those leaders and the projects which they have decided on by threatening them with a denial of liberty or some other form of punitive action if they refuse. While some of that wealth may filter back to the humans from which it is effectively appropriate in the form of improved social facilities, much of it is invested in weapons of mass destruction, propping up ineptly run big business operations and funding tax breaks for seriously well-off private individuals and businesses. Yet even in those human societies where there is a semblance of democratic power sharing, the bulk of human preoccupation during the working week is dictated by a tiny elite who have effectively bought their leadership and exercise their decision-making power autocratically with the aid of managers who rule over their relatively powerless subordinates with the aid of the carrot of as little in the way of a wage or salary that they can get away with paying and the stick of financial insecurity through the denial of such income, thereby reducing the primary purpose of everyday life to the pursuit of things material.

While this is a highly simplistic portrayal of human society, it captures the essence of it in its reliance on coercive or bought leadership. Such forms of leadership – and indeed any type of leadership – are utterly alien to horses in their natural environment. Ultimately, a horse is not led, persuaded, cajoled, coerced or blackmailed into following another of their kind, as humans frequently are. There is no horse that promises another the equivalent of a reward if that other horse yields to the first one’s wishes, and none that threatens them with retribution if they fail to do so. Such methods of control represent the way of the human. The concepts of ‘leadership’ and ‘leaders’ are alien to horses and the model of interaction between horses and humans which is based on them is not only unhelpful but is also potentially harmful to horses in that it is easily misused to abuse horses. This I have dealt with in some detail in the article entitled ‘Horses and the Myth of Leadership’ in my book, When Horses Speak and Humans Listen – see http://www.horsesandhumans.com/mainsite/­whsahl.htm for more information).


No rigid hierarchies

Contemporary equine ethology has convincingly debunked the myth of rigid hierarchies with top-down authoritarian social structures in communities of horses in the wild. Horses seek to be part of their tightly knit social structures of small bands comprising a larger herd not merely to maximise their chances of survival but predominantly – based on the relative amount of time devoted to it – to indulge their desire for the well-being that social contact and shared endeavours afford them. Yes, the stallion of a harem band does employ force or the threat of it to keep the band together especially at times of perceived danger but he does not lead its members.

Rather, it is usually any of the more senior mares in the band who head off to water or other resources and who are followed by the rest of the band, with the stallion taking up position in the rear to protect the weaker, slower horses and round up stragglers. And although the desire to live together in a band may be instinctive in the case of horses in the wild, they do exercise choice in deciding on the band of which they wish to constitute part or in the case of mares the stallion with whom they wish to live and mate. (You may read more about this in the article entitled ‘Horses and the Art of Followership’ in my book, When Horses Speak and Humans Listen – see http://www.horsesandhumans.com/mainsite/­whsahl.htm for more information.)

We have already noted the extent to which horses accompany each other in flight. They do this so closely that they cohere into and act as a single organism. Once the perceived threat disappears, the herd comes to rest and then disintegrates, as the horses seek out those socially closest to them and return to their respective bands. This is also an ideal opportunity for any horse inclined to do so, to join another band. In one instance a study revealed that up to thirty per cent of mares actually desert their band to seek a stallion of their choice, although not necessarily only at a time such as this.


Enlightened leader?

In the absence of coercive or bought leadership, are we to assume though that a community of horses has no leaders. What if they were to have some other form of leadership? If you were to ask a fairly enlightened human to provide you with the definition of a ‘leader’, it would differ radically from our everyday experience of ‘leaders’ and, as such, you may be presented with something of this nature: a leader is someone who is capable of exhibiting empathy, who is empowering, who sets an example, who is charismatic, and who inspires, motivates, encourages, and ultimately liberates. Let us assume for a moment that you actually manage to become someone who fits this description. Would this make you a leader? And if it does, would you not have followers? After all, you can only be a leader by definition if someone follows you, surely?

If you are someone who is capable of exhibiting empathy, who is empowering, who sets an example, who is charismatic, and who inspires, motivates, encourages, and ultimately liberates, would these qualities make you a leader of horses?

But what if no one knows that you are this kind of person? What if no one has heard about you, that you are capable of being all of these things? You would not have any followers, would you? Which means you would not be a leader by definition even if you do have all of these qualities, surely? And is this not in turn another way of saying that, even if you possess all of these qualities, which would make you probably the most enlightened leader the world has ever seen, would you not ultimately depend on someone first learning about you and then, based on acknowledge, choosing to follow you before you can become such a leader?

So, if having these qualities would not necessarily make you a leader, what would they make you? A friend perhaps? And your horse, would they choose to follow you if they experienced all of these qualities in you? The chances are that your horse would not choose to follow you, even if you possessed all of the qualities that would make you the most enlightened leader the world has ever seen. Why not? To answer this question we need to examine why horses choose to follow and/or be with others of their own species.


Why horses choose to be with another

Essentially, there are four main reasons why one horse will choose to follow and/or be with another. Perhaps the most compelling of these is friendship but not as an enlightened human might care to define it. Truly, it is far more basic. It is feeling. It is bonding through the gut. Unfortunately, our awareness of friendship amongst horses is largely based on our observations of domestic rather than wild or feral horses. Ethological studies have largely focused on agonistic (conflict-related) behaviour amongst wild horses rather than affiliative (companionship-related) conduct, with the result that this subject matter has not received as much attention in the wild as it has in captivity.

The friend

Nevertheless, observations of horses in the wild reveal that close friendships may occur between stallions and between stallions and mares but not usually between mares. Essentially, as I experience it with horses and my best friend and partner, friendship is an energetical and emotional confluence between two life forces, which can become more important to the creatures involved than even food. Indeed, they will even risk safety and security to be with each other or to pine. So too with horses.

Gulliver and Farinelli, friends for 22 years!

Gulliver and Farinelli, friends for 22 years!

Then there is that special form of friendship which also involves a sexual relationship. An example may help here and our mares, Pip and Anaïs, have provided one together with Pingo, a gelding who was castrated late and still behaves like a stallion right down to recruiting his own harem band within a herd of a little under forty horses within twenty-four hours, the only time I have ever seen anything like this occur amongst domesticated horses. Although Pip and Anaïs have been close friends for years now, when Pip was in season, she constantly left her female companion to go in search of her male lover. While the relationship between Pip and Pingo was largely of a sexual nature, they displayed a great deal of tenderness and caring in the way they interacted with each other. Amongst other forms of endearment, they brushed their muzzles against various parts of each other’s body, spend time standing close together even to the point of touching, resting the underside of their heads on each other’s necks and gently rubbing up and down each other’s mane.

The guardian

Where such close friendship is not involved, safety and security represent the next compelling reason why one horse will choose to follow and/or be with another. This is why mares and juvenile horses usually acquiesce in a stallion’s desire to round them up and take them elsewhere. In this sense the stallion plays the role of a guardian. The need for safety and security are also the reason why horses will readily abandon the immediate bonds of their band to coalesce with other members of their herd in flight. This need will override horses’ desire to be socially active with other members of their band but only in circumstances where they perceive it as such.

The provider

The third reason why a horse will readily follow or be with another has everything to do with their immediate physical requirements. Horses need feed and water and it is not their stallion who will lead them to it. Usually, it is any one of a number of more senior mares in the band who will do so. They are horses who have earned the trust and confidence of the rest of the members of the band. They have shown that they are capable of finding food and water for the band. In this sense they play the role of provider. Any kind of movement which such a trusted horse makes in a direction which makes sense to other senior members of the band is likely to result in them choosing to follow that horse with the foals, adolescents and the stallion taking up the rear.

The partner

Finally, there is partnership. The horses that comprise a band treat each other as social partners. This is particularly true in the case of the mares within that band and may explain why there is little evidence available of mares forming close friendships with each other. When they are not eating or sleeping, horses channel the bulk of their time, energy and effort into social activities within their respective bands. More often than not, they revert to their bands once the herd breaks up after flight and similarly choose to remain with them.


Followership and choice

Essentially, horses are followers and they follow on the basis of choice. There is a temptation to view following and followership as passive activities. However, because choice plays such a crucial role in determining whether a horse will follow another of this species or not and because such choice is so fully in line with horses’ active commitment towards sustaining and preserving the communal nature of their social structure, we need to view following and followership as what they really are, namely, active undertakings with a hidden power which would equate to the subversive in human society.

(Taken from the third draft of the book, Being Humans for Horses. Click here for more information.)


The pronounced, almost obsessively social nature of horses raises important questions in relation to our understanding of them and what is required of us humans if we would like them to be and interact with us. This is particularly true when viewed in terms of the time, effort and energy which horses devote to being sociable. Perhaps the most important of these questions is this: Is the horse not first and foremost a sociable being rather than a prey animal and a creature of flight? Secondly, if this is the case, would the horse not be open to being and interacting with a human who has the qualities which draws the horse to a guardian, provider, partner and friend? And thirdly, if the horse is open to this, how could we ensure that we have those qualities?





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