As horses are often seen as anxious, unpredictable animals, there is a fear to let them express themselves, convinced that this might be dangerous and that they will hurt themselves, or human involved, in unknown situations. They learn to live a life inwhich they wait for human commands, forgetting that they have their own true intention and unique interests. But the human focus on controlling their behavior, actually makes them anxious and unpredictable animals. Which is a strange vicious circle.
The same reasoning often leads to denying them their social behavior. In our society horses live often in social isolation, where they can’t express themselves through social behavior. But even when they live with other horses, the groups are usually not permanent, not familiar or familiar-like. With a lot of changing dynamics in these groups, their interaction is often focused on reactive and defensive behavior. It is seen as ‘normal’ competitive behavior. However, in family or family-like groups, these behaviors actually happen only in rare cases, not in a random daily routine. Social behaviors in horse families are subtle, small gestures and often not much visible behaviors that have an important cohesive function for a herd, as well as for a balanced individual development of each member of that herd.
Another very important group of spontaneous behaviors is investigative/explorative behavior, fundamental for the correct development of cognitive functions. People often use methods and tools that deprive the horse of the opportunity to explore his context, other horses, and human as well. Horses are asked to pay attention to us, but in that moment they are actually distracted from the situation the horse self was focussed on.
The reduction of the spontaneous behavior happens already during the initial training of young horses. In these moments the horses live a strong reduction of their natural spontaneous behaviors to improve instead behavioral expressions, which are functional anthropocentric desires. Operant conditioning applied during these moments (both negative or positive reinforcement) drastically reduces spontaneous behaviors and with that reduce equine welfare. The reactive behaviors that are trained instead are too often mistaken for freedom of expression in the human interaction, as most people are not aware of mental chains. The horse displays macro behaviors that please us from an anthropocentric point of view, but at the same time show micro signals of internal conflict.
It is fundamental learn how to give the horse the possibility to explore his own world and express spontaneous behavior. Learn how to develop a coexistence without training, based on an understanding of the socio-cognitive abilities of horses. Learn to be curious and open towards the expression of another, is fundamental for sound social-emotional experiences in a society where the focus is more on performance than on relationships.
Both human and horse should have the freedom to understand their internal motivation and mental reasoning, to process their own information, rather than being conditioned to respond to anthropocentric expectations. As liberation is a state of mind, also for horses.
Our contribution to the 4th EU Conference for Critical Animal Studies – Human&Nonhuman Animals: Liberation, History and Critical Animal Studies Category: The meaning of ‘liberation’, 6 – 7 October 2015, Lisbon
In the photo of José De Giorgio, the expression of a semi-feral Esperia stallion in Italy, 2011.