Mood and Emotion

I believe that all animals have moods. Sy Montgomery writes “hormones and neurotransmitters, the chemicals associated with human desire, fear, love, joy, and sadness, are highly conserved across taxa… This means that whether you’re a person or a monkey, a bird or a turtle, an octopus or a clam, the physiological changes that accompany our deepest-felt emotions (moods) appear to be the same. Even a brainless scallop’s little heart beats faster when the mollusk is approached by a predator, just like yours or mine would do were we to be accosted by a mugger.”

Band and Herd

Wild animals that live in groups — herds, flocks, schools — form friendships. They derive benefit from being together. They don’t relish separation from their extended family.

A band is a family group of one adult stallion, one to three mares, and their foals. A herd can consist of multiple bands, and the connections between bands are weaker than within them, so a herd may show “fission-fusion” as it splits off a band or adds a band. In this book, the distinction does not matter, and I typically use “herd” to refer to a group of horses.

Horses are weird. Horses are unique among ungulates (large hoofed mammals such as rhinos, cattle, pigs, giraffes, camels, deer, and hippopotamus) and even most mammals in building and maintaining long-term bonds. Mares, stallions, and geldings all bond this way, choose to live together, and remain together until separated by fate. Horses have a sophisticated parental care system in which moms, dads, siblings, the peer group and others may play a role in raising foals of both sexes. A band of horses is a matriarchy, with one mare at the top and most of her daughters, regardless of age, and any sons that are below the age of 2. In the wild, feral bands of horses may have one or two stallions with the group, who play a role in defending territory, driving off other stallions, and fathering some darling foals. Herds form from bands, and alliances in the herd transcend family. In both herd and band, all cooperate in various responsibilities, such as predator defense.


A common premise in natural horsemanship is that “horses need leadership.” This notion draws from the imagination, where we wonder what we would do if left on the plains with strangers. With humans, we imagine, someone would choose to become the leader, and would cheerfully make decisions for us. Governments would form, and we would submit.

Trainers seem to believe that horses are looking for leadership, that the way to have a good relation with a horse is to be that leader. “Leader” in this context is undefined, but could mean “boss” or “bully”.

Dominance and Hierarchy

I have argued that a herd of horses is much like a school of fish or flock of birds, leaderless and choosing a course of action via collective decision making. I have argued that “respect” as is normally meant by humans, does not exist in the horse, and that humans often use it as a euphemism for “fear”. I do not dispute the existence of “dominance” in a herd of horses, but I have questions about what it is and whether the concept is useful. Thirty years ago, researchers were far from a consensus on how to define and measure dominance, and little has changed since then. Anything gets harder to talk about when we can’t agree on what it is.

Dealing with Danger

The herd or band provides the horses in it with many benefits.

Each horse is superbly endowed to detect a predator at a distance. But when two horses are on the alert for predators, their chances at early detection improve even further.
If the herd chooses to flee, then when it is running, a predator in pursuit wastes valuable time trying to select a victim and trying to track it as the horses run away.
If the herd chooses to fight to protect foals, a foal has many defenders, and has a much better chance of survival than if he is defended by only one mare.

Learned Helplessness

Some horses who struggle with the task of avoiding unavoidable discomfort learn to give up and become mindlessly compliant, apathetic, dull and listless. Yank hard on the bit, and they won’t turn and bite you. They’ll just suffer. Kick them hard, and they won’t buck. They’ll just suffer. A horse who believes it has no control over painful stuff may give up trying to avoid the pain. It willingly does whatever nonsense their rider asks of them. It seems to tolerate everything without excitement. This condition is called learned helplessness. We have created a lesson horse. I have met many dull horses who seem to have no life left in them. I do not like those who made him this way. I do not want such a horse. Seeing them breaks my heart.

Learned helplessness was discovered in 1967 when researchers immobilized a dog and exposed it to electric shocks that could neither be avoided nor escaped. Twenty-four hours later, the dog was placed in a situation in which electric shock could be terminated by a simple response. The dog did not make this response; instead, it just sat passively. Dogs in a control group, who had not experienced uncontrollable shock or who experienced shocks which they could control, reacted vigorously to the shock and learned to turn it off.