Why we love horses: The 40,000 year story of people and their steeds

Equus caballus has served us for millennia on the land, the battlefield and in the sporting arena, so it’s no wonder our passion for our trusty steeds remains unbridled, says John Lewis-Stempel.

Long ago, when northern Europe refrigerated in the Ice Age, a primitive human took a piece of mammoth ivory and commenced carving. The so-called ‘Vogelherd horse’, named for the German cave in which it was discovered, is an exquisite artefact. The 2in figurine captures perfectly, in the arch of the neck, the muscular power of the stallion; the slightly cocked head gives the animal the requisite air of contemplation.

Our fascination — and our connection — with horses is old and unbridled; the Vogelherd horse was sculpted 40,000 years ago, when we hunted equines for the camp barbecue. Since those misty Paleolithic days, we have ridden horses (archaeologists suggest equus was domesticated in Kazakhstan, 5,500 years ago), milked them, loaded them as pack animals, used them for haulage, as war machines, for sport and for companionship.

Oddly, Man’s second-best friend has rarely been considered worthy of ethological investigation, unlike, say, chimps and dolphins.

In the past decade, science has begun to make good the omission — with results surprising even to those of us who never think of a horse as ‘it’, only ‘he’ or ‘she’, cannot understand why ‘horse’ is not bottled as the finest eau de cologne, believe we will meet our past horses in Heaven (if there are no horses, it’s not Heaven, QED) and have experienced steeds as diverse as laid-back Neddy at riding school and prima donna Kleo coming home late along the lane from a hack. A literal nightmare.

Perhaps, however, Kleo, on those dark winter evenings long past, was bucking at more than disruption to her meal schedule? Perhaps there is more inside the domestic horse, Equus caballus, than gut feelings and reactions to external stimuli, as Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov had the world believe?

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The bit now between our teeth, let us begin with the ‘society’ of horses. Horses are unusual among hoofed mammals, which typically roam in large herds. Wild horses, in contrast, live year-round in small bands of three to 20-odd individuals.

Inside the horse band, relations are sometimes founded on family ties, but, only as often, they are based on preference. Friendship, in other words. Horse amities can be altered, ended and they can survive the decades until death do them part. (Equine society? A soap opera on four legs.)

Successful human-horse relationships, as the horse whisperers will tell you, thrive on companionship, where the human interpolates himself/herself as a horse. The closest bond I have ever had with equids, with a life half made up of them, was a Midsummer Eve when two ponies, plus a miniature Shetland and a donkey, pulled me by my sleeve to play circular chase with them. A real-life carousel.

The conventional view of the horse band is that it consists of a dominant stallion, with subordinate adult males and females, plus offspring. Research by Jason Ransom of Colorado State University has unsaddled this male-centric ‘wisdom’.

Far from being dominated, mares initiate the band’s activities; indeed, mares are the anchor of the band. The horse world? It’s a mare’s world.

Left to their own devices, mares will fend off unwanted suitors and even co-operate against sexual harassment. (#MeToo? In wild-horse society, it’s a resonant #NeighWay.)

Mares have distinct stallion preferences; in one herd of free-roaming horses, the Garrano of rugged northern Portugal, researchers observed a pair of friend-mares leaving their band each year to mate with a neighbouring stud they preferred to the stallion in their home herd.

The pawky intelligence of these Garrano mares will be familiar to every horse owner. Zeb, my gelding, is affectionately, if resignedly, nicknamed ‘Harry Houdini’, due to his escapology antics. Yet every horse is a darker horse than we suppose; the latest studies on equine cognition suggest that Champion the Wonder Horse was the class plodder.

Two horse portrait close up in herd.

In 2016, the journal Applied Animal Behaviour reported that Norwegian researchers had trained 22 horses to understand symbols painted on white wooden boards and that said steeds used the symbols — by touching them with their muzzles — to indicate whether they wished their blankets to be put on or taken off.

(A fist-pumping result for those of us who ‘um’ and ‘ah’ in the paddock, one eye swivelled at the sky, the other deliberating dobbin’s artificial coat, the price of which suggests Savile Row tailoring.)

Meanwhile, researchers in Japan have used 42in, LCD touch-screen computer monitors to test pony ability to discriminate sizes and shapes. For the sake of comparison, humans and chimpanzees also participated in the experiment, with the ponies performing in the same league as the chimps and the humans.

A special significance of the Japanese work is that the testing was done in a human-free environment — the equines were not being directed to the correct answers by cues from the researchers.

In fact, horses are highly accomplished readers of the human body. The ability of Equus caballus to interpret our gestures explains the famous phenomenon of ‘Clever Hans’, the Orlov Trotter horse in 1890s Berlin that appeared to be able to do maths, tapping out the answers with his hooves.

In reality, Hans was responding to visual signals from his human handler, Wilhelm von Osten. But still intelligent Hans, eh?

Exactly how precisely attuned horses are to humans after our millennia together is proven by studies from our own University of Sussex in Brighton.

A project there in 2016 demonstrated that horses can distinguish between smiling and frowning human faces and that they dislike the latter. From the same Sussex research stable came empirical proof that horses can tell the difference between dominant and submissive postures in humans and that they would rather approach a person in a submissive posture (slouchy, relaxed knees) than one taking a dominant stance (ramrod upright, arms and legs apart, chest expanded), even if the latter was a known provider of tasty treats.

There is a venerable joke where a horse walks into a bar and the bartender asks: ‘Why the long face?’ Actually, it’s tempting to explain the elongated visage of the horse as Nature’s need to provide sufficient sur- face area for its guffaws, grimaces, 007-type wry smiles and down-at-lip sadness.

Yes, horses themselves have facial expressions, numerous of them akin to ours. When a horse regards a person, it is a look in the mirror (particularly if the human, like your author, has an equally lengthy fizzog).

Animal scientists have now generally dismounted their Pavlovian high horse and accept that mammals, as well as possessing cognitive intelligence, experience primary emotions — fear, rage, surprise, joy and the like.

Now, behaviourist controversy eddies around whether mammals are capable of secondary emotions, such as embarrassment and jealousy, as well. Secondary emotions are more complicated and require ‘theory of mind’, meaning self-awareness and the awareness that others possess a differing mental state.

No rosettes for guessing what the evidence regarding all the lovely horses is galloping towards. At Kobe University in Japan, academics have conducted a series of experiments whereby restrained horses watch a carrot being placed in a bucket, sometimes with their caretaker attendant, sometimes not.

When the caretaker is ‘blind’ to the depositing of the carrot in the bucket, the equines will employ visual and tactile signals — looking towards, nudging — to enable him to retrieve the prize. They signal less when they know the caretaker has seen the carrot being put in the bucket. In other words, they are responding to what they believe to be the caretaker’s state of mind. Ignorance. Or knowledge.

So, why did Kleo always go tossy-headed and bucky on late walks home? It could have been hunger. Then again, it could have been envy that another horse was petted and patted, or annoyance on being separated from her bosom-buddy, or even frustration on being kept apart from that handsome stud.

Perhaps, she cleverly understood that if she ‘acted up’, she would get home quicker. Of course, Kleo might simply have had a sense of fun. And liked to horse around.

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