Do horses have a play ‘circuit’ too?

I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up to an email to one you may have read titled “Bracketology and why horse training has nothing to with basketball”.

To give you a summary, in that email I compared the knockout process in the annual college basketball tournament known as March Madness with supposed hierarchies in wild horse herds.

More relevant though, I explained how equine science is debunking the whole notion of pecking order in herds.

I was prompted to write the follow-up as I received a lovely email from a lady called Myra with reference to the original email.

She wrote, “Re Hierarchy, Yes, I’m hearing this more and more, Teddie, since a recent study observed horses in the wild, a herd of Camargue horses.

“Domestic horses do form their own levels of order. I’ve observed this with herds I worked and started, Brumbies from, outback Australia (as feral as they get here in Oz) my horse dealer / boss bought and trucked home, from the auction back in the late 60s early 70s, We did not paddock them all the time but I would let them loose on the common in the morning, and round them up and bring them home in the evening.

“Even though they had been grazing all day, the hay (put out before I got them in) had to be in multiple separate piles away from kicking distance to one another. I found older horses (both sexes) rather than the young colts, were more likely to be the ones pulling the strings.

Unfortunately, We can’t keep our horses in a totally natural wild environment. We are their guardians and aggressive or assertive behavior does exist on different levels and we have to work with it.”

Myra makes a very good point about domestic horses in that we cannot compare the situation we keep our horses in to that of horses who are able to roam free.

I’m sure we’ve all seen one horse move another off a pile of hay or some other food and when you think about it, it makes sense. In a domestic environment there is often a ‘shortage’ of food which then might trigger more assertive behaviour.

But this got me thinking about why I’ve sometimes seen this occur in a pasture where food is effectively unlimited. Why would a horse in this situation display such behavior?

One reason might be to reassert dominance and remind another horse of that fact should they find themselves in a situation of scarcity.

However, I was listening to a podcast and heard about the work of Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist, psychologist, and psychobiologist.

He carried out social experiments with rats and discovered that, like us, they have a play ‘circuit’ in their brains.

On further reading I found this piece he’d written: “Play may allow young animals to be effectively assimilated into the structures of their society. This requires knowing who they can bully, and who can bully them. One must also identify individuals with whom one can develop cooperative relationships, and those whom one should avoid.”

Panksepp points out that “the most vigorous play occurs in the context of preexisting social bonds.”

In contrast, he says that if “one animal becomes a ‘bully’ and aspires to end up on top all the time, playful activity gradually diminishes and the less successful animal begins to ignore the winner.”

In other words, while a larger rat may win play bouts 70% of the time, he will allow a smaller rat to win some of the time so that playtime continues.

This is definitely something I’m going to keep an eye out for in the future, especially as horses are social creatures too. Have you witnessed something like this?

In general though, it’s fair to say that while horses may compete for resources when they are scarce, they generally show no motivation for wanting to dominate others just for the heck of it.

Moving on to Myra’s other observation about older horses being the ones more likely to be calling the shots, I also came across the work of Daniel M. Higgins, Ph.d..

Professor Higgins says that social hierarchies are usually based on competence, which is broadly determined by intelligence and conscientiousness.

Again, this makes perfect sense that the brightest and most industrious will tend to become the leaders of an organisation, equine or otherwise. Which is why it is often the older members who tend to become leaders due to their accumulated wisdom.

I really like seeing how these ideas and the discoveries of equine science are becoming more mainstream now. As a result, more and more people are realizing that we don’t need to use domination as a way of controlling horses and this can only be a good thing.

Perhaps the coming decade will see these ideas become the accepted wisdom. Let’s hope so.

As always, my advice is to really watch what your horses are doing because you won’t really see these little nuances unless you do.

And when they occur, you’ll say to yourself, “Huh? But if that is true, then why is this…?”

And that’s when things get really exciting as you realize you’re getting a peek into the horse’s world from their perspective.

It’s so much fun for me to keep learning and growing and helping horses in any way I can. What about you?

Do you have observations you can share with us all? If so, please write them in the Comments below. Thanks!


Leave a Comment:

Add Your Reply