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Horses That Apologize

Posted by vwkoch, 26 January 2009 · 226 views

Horse Handling Thoughts
Animal behaviorists have noted the existence in social animals of a phenomenon they call reconciliation. Just as in humans, reconciliation in animals is represented by post-conflict behavior that restores a tolerant social relationship. It has been studied the most in primates, but since horses are social animals, they can be expected to have reconciliation behaviors as well. In fact, I have identified behaviors in my horses that seem to be reconciliatory, and I find that fact very interesting because the behaviors were NOT part of the normal horse behavioral spectrum. In other words, my horses identified TRAINED behaviors as being suitable for trying to reconcile with a human (which is what I find to be so fascinating).

The behaviors could also be interpreted as submissive behaviors, meant to end a conflict, but I believe they better fit the definition of reconciliatory behaviors, since there was no active aggression taking place when the behaviors occurred. The horses might have perceived a threat to exist, but the existence of such tension is part of the definition of reconciliation, as well. (I would also find the use of trained behaviors to show submission to a human to be a fascinating study, but I truly believe these behaviors were reconciliatory.) I will give two examples, involving two different horses, of what I think of as horses that apologized.

My current pet horse had only one previous owner, who said she had difficulty catching her even in a 12x12 pen. I myself had no trouble catching the horse (who comes when she’s called) except for one particular circumstance. If she didn’t allow herself to be “caught” on the first try, she then avoided all subsequent attempts to catch her. Apparently, her first owner would punish her when she did catch her, so my horse learned to avoid being caught when she thought she was in trouble. There were ways around this problem, so I didn’t take the time to correct it, but it was very annoying when it occurred. My horse wasn’t happy with the circumstances, either, because she knew she was misbehaving, without really wanting to do so. Then, one day, she solved the problem all by herself.

This horse spent her first three years in that 12x12 pen, and she is very clumsy. Among other things, she had no idea of where her rear end was. In an attempt to help with that problem, I had her do a lot of backing up --- backing over poles, into her stall, into the trailer, etc. Apparently, she decided that the way to make me happy was to back up, because one day, when she was being difficult to catch, backing up was how she solved our problem.

On that particular day, I had “chased” her from one end of the arena to the other, where I had approached to the edge of her usual flight distance (about three feet from her rear end) and was standing there trying to entice her to turn around and come to me. (Her usual response was simply to continue standing there until I got frustrated and took another step, at which point she’d run off again.) She seemed to want to come, but she just didn’t have the courage to do so. Suddenly, she found the solution to the problem and, instead of turning around to come to me, she backed up until her head was even with me and I could put on her halter. In my opinion, this behavior was conciliatory. We were in a “post-conflict” situation --- I was just standing there, after having “chased” her across the arena --- and she deliberately chose backing up (behavior I reliably rewarded) as a means of reducing the tension and restoring “social tolerance.” Her behavior, in essence, was saying “I’m sorry I ran away. Can we be friends again?” The solution worked beautifully, and she’s since used it in other applicable situations.

The second example involves my first pet horse, which I bought when I was a teenager. I taught her a lot of tricks, among which was “kissing” (nuzzling my ear). One day, she did something that annoyed me and caused me to yell at her. Immediately after I stopped yelling, she reached out and spontaneously “kissed” me. I believe that behavior was another example of reconciliation. After I quit yelling (i.e., “post-conflict”), she chose a behavior I encouraged as a way to reduce tension and restore tolerance. It worked quite well for her (how can you stay mad at a horse that just kissed you?!), and she repeated it often after that first occasion. While it could be argued that the repeat occurrences were learned behavior (i.e., perhaps she simply learned that kissing avoids further punishment), at least the first occurrence seems to me to be clearly conciliatory. It also raises some interesting (unanswerable) questions as to why she chose “kissing” instead of some other trick. Did she think that contact was important? Did she understand the emotional valence of “kissing”? We’ll never know, but I think she was using “kissing” to say “I’m sorry I made you mad. I’d like to be friends again.”

As I noted previously, these behaviors could also be interpreted as submissive behaviors, meant to end a conflict, but since there was no active aggression taking place when the behaviors occurred, I believe they better fit the definition of reconciliatory behaviors. Either way, I find it particularly interesting that these behaviors were interspecific (horse to human) and they were deliberately chosen. The horses were not performing INSTINCTIVE behaviors designed to promote social harmony but were actively CHOOSING behaviors for the purpose of lessening social tensions with another species. I doubt that such behavior is unique to my own horses, but I wonder how many other people have noticed it. How many other people have horses that apologize?

I also have a mare who greets me with a nuzzle (kiss). She is the only one of my 4 horses that does this. She also is jealous of attention paid to other horses.
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