Equine Behavior: The Fence Runner

By: Dr. Sarah Reagan
Instructor & Advisory Board Member at The American Council of Animal Naturopathy

I saw this post over a year ago – in a question and answer type format – from a well-known equine trainer residing and working in Europe. I will leave names out as I have no desire to disparage anyone personally; my intent in this article is to point out a very small part of the enormous amount of misconceptions regarding equine behavior and the resulting completely inappropriate “fixes” that many people manage to come up with. This is just one of many examples across a variety of behavioral “issues”. It has been my observation that numerous horse owners at all levels of experience tend to look to so-called professionals for these “corrections” to their horse’s behavior. Unfortunately far too many even go so far as to idolize their chosen professional horse “guru”, becoming blinded to the animal that is actually standing in front of them. Before you say “I’m not one of those people”, please look carefully in the mirror. I almost once was years ago and I know how easily it can happen, especially when you are either or both, at your wit’s end or a newcomer to the world of horses (which in actuality, many experienced individuals are truly ‘newcomers’ from the horse’s perspective).

The issue presented was this (paraphrased unless indicated as a direct quote): 
Owner had gotten a new horse (a mare) three to four months prior to writing to ask for help from the trainer. It was stated that she was “having real problems” when turning the horse out during the day. [Please note it is not specifically stated from where the mare was turned out but given horse keeping practices in this particular European country, as well as indications later in her post, it is quite likely the mare was stalled at least at night, and perhaps some during the day.] The owner went on to say that the mare did not seem to settle down during her time outside and spent the entire time walking and/or galloping up and down the fence line; she perceived the mare to be “unhappy” not to mention the gully along the fence line that had become two feet deep in parts [which could be a danger to the horse]. The owner indicated they had tried the mare “in beside another horse which made no difference”. It is assumed, although not specifically indicated, that this means there was a fence between the two horses.

The trainer’s reply was the requisite acknowledgement of this being a “difficult situation” and causing both the owner and the mare “a great deal of stress”. He went on to state that the mare’s behavior served a purpose and that she was not “just” acting “crazy”, stating that the behavioral display of fence running was a coping mechanism for stress. He went on to say that the fence was what was preventing her from “completing a normal behavioral pattern”, which in this case amounted to her not being able to leave the field and go someplace where she felt more comfortable, according to the trainer. He then falls into the typical conditioning paradigm suggesting that the owner going to the mare when the mare is fence running did nothing but reinforce that behavior. He further stated that this was a complicated behavioral problem with many potential causes. It was suggested that the owner become a “behavioral detective” investigating all aspects of the mare’s environment: how does she behave when stabled, what was her behavior prior to her current home and did she display this same behavior there, what is her current diet, is she experiencing any pain [referring only to somatic, not emotional pain], does she have any current medical conditions. One of the particularly interesting questions the trainer suggests is where would the mare go if left to her own devices? Once these questions (and a few others) are answered, the trainer indicates he would recommend placing the mare where she appeared to feel comfortable, even if that meant keeping her stabled. He further suggests that he would then recommend behavioral shaping (i.e. operant conditioning) and desensitization plans, the goal of which (not specifically stated in so many words) would be to suppress the reactive behavioral display of fence running. He does also suggest investigating the use of homeopathy, herbals, and/or flower essences as temporary palliative measures.

I have followed the work of this trainer off and on for several years, out of curiosity and a desire to understand the prevailing behaviorism view if nothing else. He advertises himself as a trainer who uses the “practical application of the science of behavior”. That basically translates into not using physically aggressive methods more than “necessary” and relying heavily on behavioral conditioning (shaping; stimulus/response); he is only one of many that fall into this or similar category, collectively characterized by the so-called term of “natural horsemanship” (aka, NH), or even “beyond natural horsemanship”, as some like to refer to it for a marketing twist. Yet not only do the two sides of equine training (traditional vs “natural”) each argue their side is best, we can also find within various NH camps argument of which specific behavioral modification application obtains the best results. And therein lies the issue nothing is being done to recognize the primary underlying issue as viewed from the horse’s way of seeing, and every approach seeks to “fit” the horse into a human lifestyle so that the horse presents no overt issues during any type of equestrian activity (including the training session itself). Curiously, this false dichotomy with the horse world is not unlike many other false dichotomies involving the natural world  including that of “integrative medicine” .

Horses are a highly social species and, as in many social species, mares are the ones that provide more of the nurturing aspect relative to the stallion (this is not to say stallions do not possess nurturing behavioral aspects). And so we may find that mares tend to be more reactive in displaying their dislikes of being placed in a dysfunctional situation than a gelding perhaps would be. While males certainly do so as well, mares form especially close attachments and it can become very difficult on them to be moved from one home to another; this is something that many people do not seem to recognize. It is my position that we should not try to mold and shape (i.e. condition) the horse’s behavior to what we want it to be, but instead to try to understand it from the horse’s perspective and then provide the appropriate environment that would sustain and nurture a healthy behavioral response based upon the horse’s cognizant relationship with all aspects of that environment.
The two primary issues I see with this situation as described above is that the horse is stalled at least part of the day and she is not allowed time with conspecifics.

Many times when a new horse is brought into an existing group, the owner/manager is wary of the potential for aggression between the new member and the existing ones. Even though I heartily disagree with horses changing hands like they are nothing more than a paper commodity (which unfortunately that is all they are for many people), it does happen and occasionally there are legitimate reasons for doing so within a domestic situation. It would be hoped that the existing group already enjoyed as appropriate of a lifestyle as domesticity can allow, and it would certainly be appropriate to physically but not visually separate the newcomer from the existing group for an initial short period of time. However, this separation should be at pasture or at least with freedom to enter and leave a barn or shed at will. How long this separation time should be will likely be dependent upon the newcomer’s previous environment and experiences there. Keeping the newcomer in a stall for even part of the day will serve only to exacerbate any amount of stress she is already experiencing from being moved to a new home. Certainly some interventions with homeopathics, essential oils, and/or flower essences would help ease the transition; this is not something I look upon as palliative but can actually help in removing fears and other debilitating emotions; however, please understand that an appropriate environment is of utmost and first concern (and that includes a species appropriate diet). Under this scenario, depending upon the gender makeup of the existing group and assuming no abnormal resource pressures, physically moving a new mare into it would likely generate only a short display of physical aggression with little if any bodily harm; and this would be a completely normal reaction within these circumstances.

Unfortunately this kind of scenario seldom exists. Most horse owners and managers hold onto the existing false paradigms of dominance and hierarchy within equine groups, and thus will segregate group members based upon not just incorrect behavioristic assumptions but will allow convenience to dictate make-up of group members, especially in boarding situations. Dominance and hierarchical behaviors are resource based behaviors and manifest themselves only when it comes to horses kept in a situation in which the numbers are too great for the space allowed; these kinds of behaviors do not exist in the wild (except in situations of overcrowding and range mismanagement) and the “alpha mare” concept is a completely false one. Behavioral “problems” such as that describe above, and including other stereotypes, will continue so long as we view horses as objects of use and as “dumb” animals that respond to dominance and conditioning. It is not in the least a popular position to state that no horse (or any animal) should be used as a device toward human centric gain but that is exactly what I am advocating. Until we are able to completely view the horse as a cognizant, sentient being instead of a means to an end, these kinds of aberrant behaviors will perpetuate. Many people profess to “love” their horse, yet they do not hesitate to replace that animal when s/he no longer fits the human’s needs, or to treat the horse inappropriately for the species’ needs. All animals are part of our human universe they are simply “other nations”, to borrow from a favorite quote of mine by Henry Beston.

The current overriding philosophical view of how an animal interacts with his environment is one in which the animal and the environment are two separate organisms. They are not; that cannot be stressed enough. For many years some researchers have held the concept that humans and animals are biologically integrated with their environment; the nervous system is not a separate system per se, but exists as such only when bound up by its environment. Indeed, humans and animals themselves are biologically integrated if we view life forms from with a science of holism. This is a fundamental basis of the overarching concept of the parts-within-a-unity that I adhere to and teach, and is not a new concept, just a very little recognized one. It is a conceptual “systems view” of life forms that also considers that species’ morphology.

____________________________________________________

1.Integrative medicine theoretically integrates conventional/western medicine with natural/eastern medicine; this is a false concept based upon a lack of understanding what true disease is.
2.Dysfunctional is defined here as a biological term simply meaning that an equine ‘herd’ can only be defined as one that is biologically correct within nature – made up of a stallion, a certain number of mares, and the resulting foals living in a species appropriate environment (meaning, not a restricted one). Almost all domestic horse groups can be defined as biologically dysfunctional. This is not to be construed as necessarily an impenetrable barrier but as a place from which to begin to understand the true nature of the horse. This is also not intended to say that a gelding cannot suffer as much emotionally as a mare can when moved from one home to another; and perhaps it is that mares may be moved around more than stallions or even geldings.
3.Järvilehto, T., 1998. The theory of the organism-environment system: I. Description of the theory. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 33 (4), 321–334.
4.This phrase, “systems view” (of life) borrows from the title of the book by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Cambridge University Press, 2014.