The Horse & Human Relationship
Clever Hans was an Orlov Trotter who could do arithmetic, tell time, read, spell and understand German. In public appearances in the early 1900’s, Hans the horse would answer questions asked by his owner, Wilhelm von Osten, by tapping his hoof.
It was a time when Darwin’s theories were coming to light and an era of great interest in animal behaviour. Hans’ incredible performances attracted great interest. According to Wikipedia, in 1904, philosopher and psychologist Carl Stumpf formed a panel of 13 people, known as the Hans Commission, consisting of a veterinarian, a circus manager, a Cavalry officer, a number of school teachers, and the director of the Berlin zoological gardens. They concluded that no tricks were involved in Hans’s performance.
What they did discover was that the horse was detecting subtle cues from the people around him, such as posture and facial expressions. The people were unaware that they were giving cues at all. It’s called the ‘Clever Hans effect’, which is still acknowledged in psychological research.
For those of us who work with horses, Hans showed us that our horses are living in different perceptual worlds, picking up on cues both positive and negative, many we don’t even know we’re giving.
Animal behaviour professor Martine Hausberger from University de Rennes, France was a guest lecturer at the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare Lecture Series at the University of Guelph recently. She has been working with horse behaviour for 20 years, investigating better ways of leaving our horses with positive memories of work and routine procedures.
It is her belief that increasing the number of positive interactions with our horse over time will improve the quality of our relationship and the safety of handlers.
What is a good relationship between a horse and handler? Does human presence cause stress? If you stand still, what does he do? If you walk closer, will he let you near? When you put on his halter, how does he react? The reaction of the horse is an indicator of trust.
The environmental influence on our horses’ behaviour starts with the dam, which is the first social model for the foal. Hausberger described handling the foal with either ‘direct’ or ‘indirect’ contact. Indirect approaches for the first five days after birth, such as a motionless person or gently handling the mare, built trust and familiarity with the foal. The mare needs to be positive for the proper effect, but Hausberger could still detect differences a year later: those foals that had been handled indirectly were more likely to approach observers one year later when compared to foals that had been handled directly - handling the foal itself - which she thought may be seen by the horse as invasive.
The time between weanling and one year of age is the most important time for contact, says Hausberger, who studied yearlings at 21 farms. Are they better with more handling? There were large differences between farms, but Hausberger warns against the extremes: handlers need to balance between ‘over-invasive’ and ‘not at all’.
Do horses like to be groomed? Again, they may not see it the same way as we do. While we think we are bonding, Hausberger points out that a horse that scratches on a tree doesn’t fall in love with that tree.
When it comes to horses at work, Hausberger has noted large differences in the behaviour of horses at riding schools. She was concerned with the high cull rate of riding school horses due to aggressive behaviour. Of 656 horses tested, 44 percent threatened the experimenter at least once. “It’s a bit worrying,” said Hausberger, but why was it happening?
Aggression may reflect altered welfare – is the horse bad-tempered or suffering? Does the horse have a bad back? He may be more aggressive. “This talks to us,” said Hausberger, although we may not always interpret the signals correctly.
Again there were large differences between facilities. The daily relationship of the horse with a familiar person had an impact on the relationship of the horse with unknown people. Were the horses happy? Indifferent? Unfriendly? All horses with the same caretaker reacted the same way.
Hausberger also studied the riding position of beginner riders and the position of the horses’ neck and head during lessons. In one school, an instructor repeatedly told riders that they were “too close”, resulting in riders trying to control the horse more, poor posture, horses with their ears back, showing more aggression and displaying more health problems. Another instructor concentrated on proper riding technique, resulting in more positive horses with less vertebral problems.
Sometimes a horse’s memory can be obviously shaped, but sometimes it’s a just subtle cue – a voice or a routine - that can trigger a positive or negative reaction. Understanding our horses’ point of view can make both our lives easier.
©2013 K. Dallimore. All Rights Reserved.