Part 2

The Establishment of the Foundation Group.

The first members of the research foundation group at White Horse Farm were a Thoroughbred mare and daughter. The two had been virtually feral for some years before their arrival and were badly in need of worming as a result. It was not an auspicious start – the filly suffered a serious colic soon after the worm drench was administered. Despite veterinary care and round the clock attention she succumbed on the fourth day, the first horse ever to die in my care. Their purchase was the opening move in an attempt to create an analogue of the natural equine family and, in one short, sharp lesson, an introduction was given to that most basic of natural imperatives; death. The mare became withdrawn and depressed at the loss of her daughter and it was only the arrival of the Arabian group stallion that brought her out of this downward spiral. When she came into oestrus the pair joined in a ten day fiesta of courtship and mating, in which both partners were equals in enthusiasm. Just as the filly’s colic had illustrated the sadness of death and horses’ potential for the grief of mourning so had the joyful courtship illustrated their exuberant celebration of life.

The remaining foundation mares were chosen with far greater circumspection, as with the first pair they were all bought with registration papers and were, in the majority of cases, Thoroughbreds. Clearly progeny would have to be sold and should therefore be well-bred from good steeple chase, eventing and show-jumping bloodlines. The Sire of the Arabian stallion was at that time the New Zealand Endurance racing champion and is still to this day the record holder. Three mares were purchased in-foal to eminent event horse sire Aberlou so that there might be at least one colt, unrelated to the Arabian stallion, which could be kept on as the future harem stallion of the 2nd generation group.  This was to be comprised of foundation group progeny born and raised within an equine culture. Two purebred Arabian mares were also included, one of Polish ancestry, the other Dutch.

Initial attempts to run the mares as a group produced higher levels of aggression than were acceptable in terms of welfare, particularly with foals on the way. Some objective method had to be found of analysing which individuals might need to be removed to a separate sub-group where they could be given an opportunity to become better socialised and used to life in a herd under a lower and less stressful level of population density. What became very clear was that a significant percentage of the mares were socially dysfunctional, and it seemed most likely that this was as a result of the way in which they had been raised and managed. Care had been taken not to introduce mares to the stallion while they were in oestrus; surely there was enough potential for fear and stress in learning to live with a stallion in an every-day social context for the first time in any of the mares’ experience without the extra pressure of raging hormones! A method was developed by which a graphic representation of observed social interactions – the complex of relationships within the group – could be produced, and with its use group integration levels were enhanced by strategic removals for ‘social therapy’.

This level of social dysfunction opened up a whole new range of questions:  what was causing this to happen? Were modern horses so genetically distinct from those of 6000 years ago that the behaviors that produce co-operative social living had been lost, perhaps as a result of selective breeding?

There are a number of theories on this subject, variously suggesting that selective breeding has caused definite change, that it has caused some minor changes only, or that there has been no change at all. If we were to decide that selective breeding is responsible for drastic changes to innate behavior, effectively separating the modern horse from its ancestors, then it might also be reasonable to wonder if the modern horse has retained the behavioural strategies that would make it able to function as a member of a ’natural’ group at all. Comparison of the descriptions of temperament and character between the oldest writings on equines, beginning with Xenophon’s Art of Horsemanship in the 4th century B.C., and the modern hot blood, whether Arabian, Barb or Thoroughbred, reveals but little difference, if indeed there is any. Equally the stoic, and less reactive, nature of the cold-bloods could reasonably be viewed as a product of the harder climate in which they developed rather than owing anything to selective breeding for quietness. Of course the difficulty with such comparisons is that they lack objectivity, so we have to draft evolutionary science in to test the probability that this view is correct. Prof Richard Dawkins sums things up very nicely on the opening page of his 1995 book River out of Eden . “ Al l organisms that have ever lived - every animal and plant, all bacteria and all fungi, every creeping thing, and all readers of this book - can look back at their ancestors and make the following proud claim: Not a single one of our ancestors died in infancy.” Dawkins goes on to make the point that organisms inherit all their genes from successful ancestors, rather than unsuccessful contemporaries. So if we view the modern horse from this perspective we can reasonably suggest that the genes that order their construction have all been inherited from ancestors – therefore those ancestors had those same genes, whether for colour or bone structure – or behavior!

So, if it wasn’t the genes that were different, what was it that was producing this apparent dysfunction? The trail now leads to that other replicator of behavior - the meme. Just as genes are grouped together to form genotype, so memes are grouped to form culture. If there had been no radical change in genes then the source of this social dysfunction, however new or odd-sounding a notion it might be, must surely be memetic rather than genetic!  The logical conclusion arising from this rather unorthodox train of thought was that the environment in which the majority of horses were being raised caused cultural deprivation – leading in turn to horses whose use and well-being was restricted and complicated by lack of psychological development.

However authentic the family group that was being created might be in terms of numbers and composition, the greatest challenge was clearly to facilitate the development of an equine culture. And it was at that stage that any idea that what was being created was an analogue began to recede. The culture that would develop on this particular piece of land, with all the myriad detail of contour, aspect, fencing, soil and herbage type, climate, flora and fauna, would reflect the environment in which it developed, and, in a sense, unique.  Even so, the horses were not free to behave in just any fashion; the fundamental scaffolding of genetically hard-wired behavior patterns would form the framework on which environment, including management, would hang the façade of culture.

In the early nineties a number of equine behaviorists were suggesting that the mother-daughter unit formed the basis of equine society, and, including that first inauspicious purchase, four mother-daughter pairs were brought into the foundation group. The stallion appeared to get along reasonably well with all of them, yet, when these pairs came into oestrus they tended to form little coalitions whose intent seemed to be to frustrate any attempt to mate with them. Over the first several years of the project these pairs consistently produced far fewer foals than the average for unrelated mares. If mother-daughter units were indeed the foundation of equine society then this behavior was very difficult to understand – the more likely hypothesis seemed to be that adult mother-daughter pairs within the same harem group were not at all a naturally occurring feature. Additionally there was no way in which the stallion might ‘know’ that these were mother-daughter, so the impetus for this behavior had to originate in the mares. The fact that each of the three surviving pairs behaved in the same way suggested that this was a common innate response and, in turn, this suggested that there was a definite evolutionarily selected social strategy in play. This was the first firm indicator that Equus Caballus had inherited a biologically embedded taboo against inbreeding – exogamy. Al though the idea was not one that was common to the orthodoxy of equine behavior it was broadly accepted to be an innate feature of primates and the society of social animals such as the Meerkat or Prairie Dog – so there was no great reason why evolution should not have selected for this same behavior in equines. And if this were true, might it not be the case with however many other behavioural strategies? In fact might it not be the case that the horse is far, far, closer to both other mammals – and ourselves – than we have been either taught or encouraged to believe? How much more difficult might it be to enslave if the subject of that very slavery is in truth a close cousin?

In the next article we shall look further into the details of exogamy and what they might mean for our ideas on horse breeding, also at the roles played by the hierarchy of equine society: harem stallion, high status mare, lead mare, pathfinder and the variations that occur as group size increases. And, at the devastating blow the herd was to suffer as a climax to the first full breeding season.

© Andy Beck – W.H.E.E.P. 2003

Part 3