Are horses our partners or our tools?

28.12.2020
Horses and humans have been bonding for over 5,000 years. And yet, we know surprisingly little about equine emotions.

According to legend, Alexander the Great, who lived in the 4th century, built a stable of gold for Bucephalus, his beloved steed. The stallion transported his master on his back throughout Alexander's most famous conquests on two different continents.

Gold serves as a token of appreciation for humans, but what did Bucephalus think about it? Most likely, instead of gold and glitter, he would have appreciated the chance to rub flanks with a regular plough horse.

Horses have remained practically unchanged from antiquity. The shared journey of humans and horses has continued for millennia. We have learnt a lot about each other.

Or have we? Wild horses are known to live in herds, spending most of the day grazing close to one another. For prey animals, being left alone in the wild is dangerous.

In Finland, most adult horses live in stables where they are kept separate from each other. The more expensive the horse, the more certain it is to miss out on the touch of another horse, even outdoors. If horses are kept together, they are at a higher risk of getting hurt. They can also damage the rugs put on their backs more easily.

When a horse begins to express mental or physical symptoms, people often seek to help it by increasing the horse's exercising activities or modifying the composition of its feed. Often, we fail to pay attention to the horse's social relationships. It might also just be hungry, as it does not have a say on when and what it gets to eat.

From machines to individuals?

In contemporary Finland, the number of workhorses is low, as agricultural machines and cars have replaced horses in the fields and roads. Between 1965 and 1970, the Finnish horse population decreased from 184,000 to 91,000 – in other words, the number of horses dropped by over a half in only five years. However, since the 1980s the number of horses has grown, thanks to the increasing popularity of horseback riding and equestrian sports. According to the horse register maintained by the Finnish trotting and breeding association Hippos, there are currently approximately 74,000 horses in Finland. Of the EU countries, Romania, Germany and the United Kingdom have the highest number of horses. In each of these countries, there are more than 400,000 horses.

"The horse is somewhere between a pet, a commercial animal and a production animal. It is all of those, but not entirely any one of them in particular," says Sonja Koski, a docent in biological anthropology at the University of Helsinki.

Koski has previously researched simians but has lately expanded her field to horses. She is interested in human-horse interaction, especially from the perspective of compassion and equality.

"I want to find out whether horses, either as individuals or as a species, have traits that have been affected by their long shared history with humans," Koski says.

"What do humans mean to horses, and how do they wish to coexist with us?"

A deep connection

The horse is a fascinating study subject from a range of perspectives. One of them has to do with the emotions it evokes in humans.

"For many people, activities done together with a horse are the highlight of their day. They describe feelings of deep connection when cuddling their horse, believing that the horse senses their emotional state," Koski says.

However, most horses live according to rules set entirely by humans. In many competitive sports, horses are required to present powerful physical performance and to tackle tasks that are untypical for the species.

"This is an extremely interesting contradiction: although people say that horses are very important to them, they can also emotionally distance themselves from these animals."

Koski is amazed at how recently equine pain research has developed. The issue began receiving scientific attention only in the 2010s. Overall, pain experienced by animals has become a topic of scientific study relatively recently.

Unexplored relations

According to Koski, research on equine social behaviour has been astonishingly thin on the ground as well.

"As a simian researcher, I perceive the social relationships of a species to constitute the essence of all behavioural research. In the case of horses, prior research was hard to come by."

Koski emphasises the importance of sociability in equine behaviour. Within the herd, individual horses maintain meaningful relationships with one another. They do not spend an equal amount of time with every member of the herd.

"Horses are aware of their personal relationships, but they are also able to interpret the relationships between other horses. This is cognitively advanced."

However, researchers may still debate how to describe equine behaviour, what the horse is as a species outside the orbit of humanity, and what its herd structure and social relationships are like. Most often, horses are perceived from the viewpoint of medicine or sporting achievements.

Through human eyes

Koski points out that show jumpers are not mainly interested in whether horses have friends.

"People see horses predominantly through themselves and as a tool. They are interested in how horses can jump over obstacles or how their reactivity influences their performance."

As a comparison, Koski offers the fact that while the valuable and valued horse remains a partial mystery to humans, even less is known about the cognition of production animals.

Through her efforts, she hopes to be able to increase people's understanding of how the living conditions or training of horses affect their wellbeing. Research on animal wellbeing can benefit humans too, as it can curtail behaviour that could endanger both horses and human beings.

Free-range living

A broad spectrum of equestrians and their animals have participated in Sonja Koski's research. Some of the adult horses are animals kept for competitive or hobbyist purposes, living in traditional stable environments, while others live in free-range stables.

A free-range stable provides horses with the opportunity to live in small herds.

"Horses get to be horses a little more. At least to a degree, they get to decide on the company they keep and whether to stay indoors or go outside."

In addition to adult horses, Koski's research involves young horses between one and three years of age.

"The attitude of adult horses towards humans is entirely dependent on their history. This is why we are also studying younger horses that are not yet burdened by experience."

Telling gestures

Koski observes horses and their interaction with humans as a behavioural scientist. In interpreting horses, she is supported by several students and assistants familiar with the species.

"I am interested in the emotional state of horses and how they engage in cooperation. Are they, for instance, tense or motivated when a human mounts them?"

Alongside observing horses, Koski interviews their owners about how they feel about cooperating with their horse, and what meanings they associate with their hobby. The thoughts of the participating horses can only be deciphered on the basis of their behaviour and gestures.

As a newcomer to equine research, Koski wonders if she will identify familiar aspects of human-animal interaction in this study, or whether something entirely new will emerge. At least horses, our long-time companions, are now examined from a slightly different point of view.

Trotting away from pain

Veterinarian Kati Tuomola, who is pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Helsinki, took a look inside the mouths of 261 trotters in a study she conducted last year. In examinations carried out after trotting heats, 219 horses were found to have acute oral damage in the area of the bit.

The damage was serious in 20% of the horses. In nearly half of the horses examined, the injuries were classified as moderate: bruising, grazes, and cuts. Since the horses were not examined before the races, the study did not take a stand on whether the mouth injuries resulted from the race or whether they had developed earlier.

"Many of the trainers were surprised by the oral injuries," Tuomola says.

The bit is an everyday tool with a long history. Composed of mainly smooth metal parts of different shapes, the bit rests on the tongue in the large space between the horse’s teeth, which is called the bars. The bit’s effect is based on a learned sign, or the pressure of the rein and its release, which makes the horse turn and slow down on command.

In trotting races, the track veterinarian only carries out an oral examination if blood is visible in the corners of a horse’s mouth. This applied to only one-fifth of the horses Tuomola examined, even though the mouth injuries of 50 of the horses could be considered serious.

"Injuries that don't bleed can nevertheless cause pain in the mouth."

A horse in pain strives to avoid its cause. It may keep opening its mouth, bite the bit with its teeth, stick its tongue out or shake its head. As an animal prone to flight, horses may also try to run away from pain – in other words, they may run faster, which is not a drawback in trotting races.

Recognising pain in animals can be challenging, and the gestures associated with it can be confused with other behavioural or characteristic traits. A horse can be described as wilful, and equipment can be added to its gear that prevents it from hanging its tongue out or throwing its head.

Tuomola studied trotters, but bits can cause pain and damage just as well to riding horses.

"Next, I will focus on eventing horses."

The article has been published in Finnish in the 10/2020 issue of the Yliopisto magazine.