There is one thing that all of our husbandry can’t change: horses love each other, just as elephants love each other and deer love each other. Horses can’t get enough of each other. They would be close together in a herd every minute of the day, given a choice. I was especially struck by this in driving across Wyoming, where a pasture can often be 100 acres or more. Survey such a pasture, and find who lives there: a half dozen or so horses. And where are they? Jammed together in one place or another, so close that one tail can swat the flies on a friend’s body. Horses never live alone in the wild, and should never be forced to live alone in captivity.
Early research focused on the following reaction of precocial birds, something that is now called “filial imprinting”. Filial imprinting is useful in fostering a mother-offspring bond, and makes perfect sense. Even if a bird could learn to follow a man in boots or follow a toy train, in nearly every case the big moving thing nearby is mom, and learning to follow her is a key to survival. We can be comfortable believing that such a feat did not originate with birds, but that young dinosaurs of many species might have also followed their moms.
Filial imprinting seems to have been found in every species of bird that has been studied. We are all familiar with pictures of ducklings following a human or a dog that they have imprinted on. Whether filial imprinting occurs in other species is an open question. While there is a huge amount of early learning in mammals, it is not clear that any of this learning should be called “imprinting.” While the general public is comfortable with the word “imprinting” when talking about young mammals such as foals, scientists don’t use the term. Scientists don’t use the term “imprinting” when discussing mammals because mammals don’t imprint the way birds do. I don’t think it is appropriate to talk about imprinting in horses, but I’ll need to account for the positive effects of early exposure, so keep reading.