Snakes are so last year.A rescued wild horse in Lantry, South Dakota. Photograph by Melissa Farlow, National Geographic
But do horse people share traits with real horses?
Sue McDonnell, founding head of the Havemeyer Equine Behavior Lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, gave us some insight into these beautiful and beloved animals. You might really be a horse if…
You’re a team player.
Horses are highly social, McDonnell says, having evolved on the open plains to rely on principles like safety in numbers and detecting the alarm signals of other species.
You’re bright and perceptive.
Horses sense your mood: “They understand the emotional state of the beings around them, including humans,” she said.
For instance, a horse being ridden can learn a lot from “simple cues in our posture, tone of voice, breathing, and heart rate if we’re touching them.”
She also pointed out research in which riders were told to anticipate a problem along a course. The rider’s heart rate would rise, and the horse’s would then rise too—even when the problem never happened.
We’ll scratch your back, you’ll “scratch” ours.
Horses groom each other with their teeth, so if a horse nips you when you’re grooming it, it may be trying to reciprocate. When they mutually groom they get pretty nippy, McDonnell said, grabbing onto hairs and skin, so “you can understand why it’s not a great idea” to encourage them.
Sometimes, though, a horse might have discomfort while being groomed, like during dry times of the year when static electricity in synthetic brushes might be annoying, possibly causing them to nip as if to say, “Don’t do that!” McDonnell says. If you watch how they groom and know their behavior, you can tell whether they’re just saying no or are trying to spruce you up.
You hold everything in—and that’s not good.
As a result, “they get colicky and painful,” McDonnell said. “They only have one exit for things going wrong in their gastrointestinal system, so it can be pretty painful until it gets there.” We might associate colic with crying babies, but in horses colic is a term for abdominal pain, which can be quite severe or even life-threatening.
You share responsibilities.
Horses live in harems consisting of a stallion, multiple females, and their offspring. Leadership in different areas, McDonnell said, is shared, with the stallion protecting the herd while different mares might lead in other activities, with one mare leading when it’s time to rest and maybe another leading the horses to water (quite literally).
In the horse world, she said, “it takes a village.”
McDonnell sometimes acts as an expert witness in personal injury cases involving horses, and she often hears that horses are unpredictable and dangerous.
To the contrary, “they’re actually very predictable,” she said. “It’s just a matter of how much training you have to know what drives their behavior.”
For instance, to the untrained eye, a horse kicking when it’s feeding time may be perceived as being impatient. But a horse expert may suspect that the kicking horse has a gastric ulcer, so when it anticipates eating, it expects to feels pain and is reacting to that.
“It looks like it’s having a tantrum, but in fact it’s in terrible pain.”
So what looks unpredictable is very predictable, if you know how to look for it.
Call it horse sense.