Agency and Choice

How can your horse saying ‘no’ to you be taken as a positive thing?

A few days ago I invited my horses to do some training, approaching them with their head collars and my treat bag, and they both turned away and continued munching on their hay instead of engaging with me. It was a very clear ‘not today thanks, I’m not in the mood’. The weather was heavy and humid and I felt a little out of sorts myself so I could kind of understand why they weren’t feeling it and didn’t push them to interact. The next day I asked them again, in the same way, and both of them chose to leave their hay and come and join me in some training, giving me reassurance that the previous day had not had more significance for our relationship and that the majority of the time they were content to say ‘yes’. I therefore took what happened as a fantastic expression of my horse’s confidence to say no and their ability to exercise agency.

Obviously if the vet or farrier had been waiting, I might not have been able to allow them the choice whether to come in or not and, by the very nature of domestication, humans must arguably exert a level of control over our animals in our duty of care. However, preparation for such moments can increase an animal’s notion of agency and, when there are non-essential activities or interactions, listening to their ‘no’ enables us to build up that bank of trust that allows for moments of essential withdrawal from time to time.

Choice, agency and consent are currently hot topics within equestrianism with a drive to equip horses with the tools to say yes or no. If we are to provide our animals with more positive life experiences, this includes providing them with agency. This means allowing them to engage in voluntary, self-generated and goal-oriented behaviours, enabling them to experience the reward of positive affective engagement (Mellor, 2016). This is outlined in the Five Domains model of animal welfare, with agency exercised in ways such as having a varied and engaging environment, free movement, foraging, bonding, playing and resting (Mellor, 2017). Placing constraints or limitations on the environment, ability to rest or interact socially can lead to our animal’s experiencing negative affective states, feeling isolated, threatened or under-stimulated.

If these states are prolonged and an animal realises that they have no control and their actions or attempts to say no are futile, they can reach a psychological state of depression known as learned helplessness (Hall, 2008). This then impairs spatial learning, cognitive performance and memory (Song, 2006), all of which could reduce the efficacy of training, result in utterly miserable animals and even make life harder for humans. So, despite the equestrian industry releasing ever more barbaric devices aimed at a perceived need for ‘control’, constantly joking about ‘opinionated mares’, and seeming unspeakably wary of allowing horses the opportunity to actually think for themselves, there are clearly vast ramifications for preventing our horses from doing exactly that.

Various studies have shown horses’ ability to communicate their preferences, including their capacity to differentiate between symbols to specify whether they want a rug on or not (Mejdell et al, 2016). We know that they will choose to stay out in a paddock with other horses over being in a paddock alone or being exercised (Lee et al, 2011), they will choose food rewards over human interactions, regardless of their relationship with that human (Kieson et al, 2020) and they prefer a choice of different forages over one single type even if such diversity requires increased movement (Goodwin et al, 2007). We know that we also have the ability to communicate with them to potentially impact this decision-making, with horses capable of reading very subtle human cues to determine our intentions, expectations and level of attention (Sankey et al, 2011) and choosing to approach a human displaying submissive body language over a dominant body posture (Smith et al, 2017).

So why aren’t we showing our horses the respect that they deserve and not only asking them more questions but also listening to their answers? In order for us to understand what they’re telling us and reach consensual interactions we need to learn their subtle behavioural signals (Draiisma, 2018) to enable them to whisper rather than shout. This, in turn, will help us to improve their mental and physical health, achieve a better relationship with them and train more successfully. By taking control of our own learning, we can liberate our horses to be agents of their own happier and more positive lives.

Picture Credit: Nica Draws Nature

References:

Draiisma, R. (2018). Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses: Recognition and Application. CRC Press.

Goodwin, D., Davidson, H. P. B. and Harris, P. (2007). Responses of horses offered a choice between stables containing single or multiple forages. Veterinary Record, 160: 548-551.

Hall, C., Goodwin, D., Heleski, C., Randle, H. and Waran, N. (2008). Is there evidence of Learned Helplessness in Horses? Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 11 (3), 249-266, https://doi.org/10.1080/10888700802101130

Kieson, E., Felix, C., Webb, S., Abramson, C.I. (2020). The effects of a choice test between food rewards and human interaction in a herd of domestic horses of varying breeds and experiences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 231, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2020.105075

Lee, J., Floyd, T., Erb, H. and Houpt, K. (2011). Preference and demand for exercise in stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 130 (3-4), 91-100, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2011.01.001

Mejdell, C.M., Buvik, T., Jørgensen, G.H.M. and Bøe, K.E. (2016). Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 184, 66-73, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.07.014

Mellor, D.J. (2017). Operational Details of the Five Domains Model and Its Key Applications to the Assessment and Management of Animal Welfare. Animals, 7(8): 60, https://doi:10.3390/ani7080060

Mellor, D. J. (2016). Updating Animal Welfare Thinking: Moving beyond the “Five Freedoms” towards “A Life Worth Living”. Animals, 6, 21; https://doi:10.3390/ani6030021

Sankey C, Henry S, André N, Richard-Yris M-A, Hausberger M (2011) Do Horses Have a Concept of Person? PLoS ONE 6(3): e18331. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0018331

Smith, A. V., Wilson, C., McComb, K. and Proops, L. (2017). Domestic horses (Equus caballus) prefer to approach humans displaying a submissive body posture rather than a dominant body posture. Animal Cognition, 21:307–312, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-017-1140-4

Song, L., Che, W., Min-wei, W., Murakami, Y. and Matsumoto, K. (2006). Impairment of the spatial learning and memory induced by learned helplessness and chronic mild stress. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 83 (2), 186-193, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbb.2006.01.004

Published by Kate Fletcher

I have an MSc in Equine Behaviour, Performance & Training and over 10 year's experience working on the front line of animal welfare operations, helping people help animals. I currently work for an international equine welfare charity and am committed to promoting compassionate training and positive human-animal relationships using least invasive, minimally aversive methods and through encouraging human behaviour change.

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