HONOURABLE MENTION

Why Do Horses Listen To People?

This is a research project on examining why horses obey people even though they are a lot bigger and stronger than people.
Abigail Evans
Grade 7

Problem

My question is why do horses listen to humans. I was wondering why such big animals like horses obey humans by being ridden and handled because I know they might rather stay in the fields and eat, and I also know that they would easliy be able to do that because they are much bigger and stronger.

Hypothesis:

My hypothesis is that horses listen to people because horses know that people have different ways and equipment that will make them listen to people, for example horses listen when you have treats, ropes and whips/crops.

 

Method

I am doing a non-experimental/research project. I will get my infromation from a literature search (internet, books and journals.)  I am also getting my information from professionals who know about the subject. This will include interviewing a horse trainer who has been working with horses for over 30 years.  I will also ask the opinions of stable hands who train horses, and veterinarians.

The keywords I used for my initial  internent search included: obey, horse, listen, and human horse interactions.  As my search progressed the words taming and domestication kept coming up.  So I used these search terms as well. 

To find horse trainers I will ask the riding coach and stable hands at a nearby riding school where I taken lessons.  I will ask friends and family for the names and contact information of local veterinarians that they know.  I also will contact a vet who is my friend's mother, and a vet who is a neighbour.  I will ask my questions by email, text message, or have a conversation in person. 

I will summarize the literature search in the 'Research' section below, and put the expert feedback in the 'Data' section.  In the conclusion section I will discuss the literature and the expert feedback to answer the question in my hypothesis.  

Research

Domestication:

Domestication is when one type of animal trusts and lives with a different type of animal.  In the case of horses they live with and trust humans. (Science Daily 2009)
 
Domestication is when humans control the reproduction of a breed over many many generations in order to increase the desirable traits or characteristics or the breed (Wikipedia Domestication, accessed March 7, 2021; Sadedin 2016 in Forbes 2016, accessed March 7, 2021).

There six critical ingredients that allow for domestication:

  • Flexible eater/ hardy:  Able to eat a range of foods and go at times with little water or food, even eat garbage if necessary.
  • Reach maturity quickly:  They are less useful if they take too long to grow enough to be put to work or used for food.
  • Willing to breed in captivity:  some species like antelope don’t like to breed in captivity, so humans can’t keep them and control their breeding over generations.
  • Tame/ docile: An example is Zebras.  They could be as useful as horses but they are more aggressive so not domesticated very often. 
  • Low flight and fight instinct
  • Prefer strong leaders:  species that like to have a leader and accept humans as their leaders (Wikipedia Domestication, accessed March 7, 2021; Sadedin 2016 in Forbes 2016, accessed March 7, 2021)

Dogs and sheep were among the first animals to be domesticated.  There are only a few species that have been domesticated because most don’t have the 6 critical ingredients (see above).

Most common domesticated animals: Dogs, cats, fowl, pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, water buffalo, yak, pig, reindeer, llama, alpaca, horse, donkey, camel (Wikipedia Domestication, accessed March 7, 2021; Sadedin 2016 in Forbes 2016, accessed March 7, 2021). 

Tameness:

  • Tamness comes from genetics it depends on how the animal is handled and how it's parents were handled.
  • Compared to their wild undomesticated ancestors house pets and domesticated animals share tameness as a trait. (Jeanna Bryner 2009)
  • Tameness is one of the 6 critical ingredients for a species to be domesticated.

Genetics:

Genetics comes from the animals parents and their parents.
  • Tamer animals have different genes than less tame ones (Jeanna Bryner 2009).  Researchers had two sets of rates.  One set were friendly and didn’t bite the researchers the other set did bite and scratch them.  Then they bred tame and aggressive rats together so they had a mix of genes from both parents.  If the baby rats had matching genes in one area of the genome, but different tameness behaviour, the researchers knew that the genetic area on the genome was not responsible for the behaviour and vice versa ((Jeanna Bryner 2009).

 

Horses are herd animals so when you take a horse away from its herd it will look for a new leader. The horse will often make you it's new leader and it will listen to you.  Horses are known as animals of prey so even though they have less flight-or-fright instinct than some species and can therefore be domesticated,  they stil  have a very well developed fight-or-flight response.  They will often flee but sometimes when they feel threatened or their foal is being threatened then they fight.  Humans have bred horses for thousands of years, some of them are bred to be docile whereas others are bred for their speed and agility. Humans can use horses' instincts to their advantage.  For example since they are herd animals and will make you their new leader. Humans also train horses to obey their orders. (Kiddopedia)

Horses are an animal of habit and learn by repetition. So if they see their parents doing somthing they will copy, just like humans who learn from their parents. If a horse is well socialized they tend to be very comfortable around people. Another thing that comes from horses genetics is obedience, their own personality, their intelligence, training, and lots of other environmental situations (Hausberger et al 2007). 

Data

Expert Opinions:

In addition to my literature search I asked horse training experts their opinions about what motivates horses.  Here is the data I collected:

Expert #1:  Chris Franssen--Head Coach  and Owner Twin Pines Equestrian: 

Data collected through conversation with Chris Franssen on March 12th, 2021 4pm. 

Chris said that she thinks horses just want companionship with people. 

Expert #2:  Kendall Ziegler-- Horse Trainer and Stable Hand Twin Pines Equestrian:  

Email sent to Kendall Ziegler March 12th, 2021.  Hi Kendall This is Abbie from the barn (Mickey's person).  I am doing a science fair project about why horses obey people instead just eating grass or resting in the sun.   And so, I wanted to ask some horse experts what they think.  I wanted to ask you what you think since you know a lot about horses.  I also asked Chris and I asked Nicola.

Thank you very much

Sincerely Abbie

Email response received from Kendall Ziegler on March 13, 2021:   Hi Abbie! That is such a great question and what a fantastic idea for your science fair project! I truly think that horses were always meant to have a job in the world to help people and that’s why they were put here on earth. In the early years horses were used as a means of transportation, to help assist with farming (as humans didn’t have machinery at the time), and they were used in many other ways on the farm as a means for income for families. As years went on and we didn’t need horses for these types of jobs anymore because of the invention of cars, tractors, etc; horses now needed a new job. That’s when we began to use them for sport. Horses are used for racing, rodeo, jumping, dressage, vaulting, therapeutic riding, and the list goes on. To be honest with you Abbie, I think horses get bored eating grass and resting in the sun all day. They are meant to work and have a purpose and I think that they enjoy having a connection with humans and pleasing us. This is why we develop such a strong bond with some of our equine partners, they are great healers and have so much to offer us, this being because I believe that horses have a soul and emotions just like we do. I truly think it would be somewhat of a waste to not allow them to have a job or serve a purpose at some point in their life!

I hope this helps, please let me know if you have any more questions or would like me to explain further!

See you at the barn, Kendall
 

Expert #3:  Dr. Amelia Falk: Veterinarian, horse owner, and family friend Calgary Alberta: 

Text message sent to Dr. Amelia Falk on March 12, 2021:   Hi. This is Abbie, Lucy's old friend from 2312 Uxbridge Drive. I am doing a science fair project about why horses obey people instead of just eating grass or resting in the sun or doing something they would want to do. I wanted to ask some animal experts what they think. If you have time please tell me what you think motivates horses to do what people ask them to do. Thank you very much,  Abigail Evans.  

Email response received from Dr. Amelia Falk on March 13, 2021:  Hi Abbie! Good to hear from you. This project sounds really interesting.We have two horses out at our property north of Calgary. One of them, Indy, is very food motivated. He will always come to us because he gets crunchies every time. So he's trained to come for the treats but in general he just expects food from humans. Food would be his prime motivation. The other horse, Rowdy, is a lot more wary. She does come for crunchies, but if she's in a mood not to be caught then she will run from us, especially if she sees we have a halter. Lucy's dad thinks Rowdy is perhaps motivated by security and having an authority figure to tell her what to do. She seems to respond to confident more experienced riders. We suspect that gives her some direction if she's feeling lost or uncertain. A lot of dogs are this way too. Both horses also seem quite content when we praise them, so they are likely a bit motivated by knowing they are pleasing us. I hope that helps and let me know if you have any other questions. Please say hi to your mom for me! Amelia.

 

Expert #4: Dr. Ryan: Veterinarian, Cochrane Animal:

Hi, My name is Abbie Evans and I am 12 years old.  I am doing a science fair project.  Our vet is Dr. Ryan, but I am wondering if Dr. Ryan or any vet would be able to answer a question for me for my science fair project.    I am doing a science fair project about why horses obey people instead of just eating grass or resting in the sun.   And so, I wanted to ask some horse experts like you what they think.  I would really appreciate if you would tell me what you think about why horses listen to/obey people instead of doing something else that they might enjoy more.

Thank you very much

Sincerely Abbie Evans (Mickey's owner 50175 Township Road 282)

Email response received from Dr. Ryan:/Shelby Bennett, RVT: Hello Abbie, My name is Shelby, and I am one of the mixed animal Technicians at the Cochrane Animal Clinic and work closely with Dr. Ryan. After speaking with the vets, including Dr. Ryan, I have come up with some information for you regarding horses obeying people. The domestic horse is a lot different than a wild horse. The obeying behavior, or respect, comes from trust the horse has for people that happens during the training process of horses. A little background on horses, they are a prey animal meaning they are created to be scared of predator type animals, humans being a potential predator. Horses have more of a flight, or scared, response towards humans by nature. That being said, once horses were domesticated and were trained to respect and trust people, they leaned more towards humans for companionship as if they were one of their own. Now fast forwarding to modern day domestic horses, trainers take a lot of time and effort to gain the trust of horses and teach them that humans are kind and want to help them. Horses would rather "obey" and stick close to humans due to their need for companionship, friendship and knowing that humans are safe to be around. In personal experiences, my horses always get treats, scratches, hugs and/or get brushed when they are near me. This is all something positive for them and it a reward for my horses being near me. They learn that every time they are close to me, they enjoy the treat or being brushed. This keeps them happy and wanting to be around me rather than being off elsewhere on their own. If every time my horses came near me, I pushed them away or scared them or made the experience negative - they wouldn't want to spend time with me and would rather go off and eat grass or play with their friends. In conclusion horses like to be around people for companionship, positive reinforcement and to be cared for. Trainers or horse owners have created the domestic horse to be happy and comfortable around people rather than fear them. Think of it like a friend of yours; if you and your friend have fun together, you are going to WANT to hang out with that friend again. The same goes for people and horses. The theory around this behavior is positive reinforcement. For more information you can look up positive reinforcement conditioning training on the internet. I hope this help and let me know if you require any further information. Thanks and good luck with your science fair project! Shelby Bennett, RVT

Expert 5:  Veterinarian, Burwash, Cochrane Alberta 

Hi, My name is Abbie Evans and I am 12 years old.  I am doing a science fair project about horse and I am wondering if a vet or intern vet would have a minute to answer a quick question for me for my project.  Our horses are clients of yours, and my horses are Dottie and Mickey.   I am doing my project about why horses obey people instead of just eating grass or resting in the sun.   And so, I wanted to ask some horse experts what they think.  I would really appreciate if one of your vets or interns would tell me what they think about why horses listen to/obey people instead of doing something else.

Thank you very much

Sincerely Abbie Evans (Dottie and Mickey's owner 50175 Township Road 282)

Email response received from Burwash veterinarian: Hi Abbie, My name is Dr. Ellis and I am an intern veterinarian at Burwash Equine. Your question about equine behaviour was passed along to me - why do horses listen to people instead of doing what they want?The basis of all learning (or training) in both humans and animals is what we call "classical conditioning." Classical conditioning happens when an animal begins to associate something positive (or negative) with an un-associated event. 

For example: Some horses get excited to see their person when they come out to the paddock with their halter. The reason they are excited is because they have learned to associate coming into the barn to get their grain with the sight of their person coming out with a halter. If they did not have these previous experiences, then they likely would not react to seeing someone with a halter. On the other hand, if a horse was brought into the barn only to be given a nasty-tasting medication, they will start to associate the halter with something they don't like.

We use the principles of classic conditioning when handling and training horses from the time they are foals. Consistent positive reinforcement for cooperative behaviour allows horses to learn that people aren't so bad and that they can be associated with good things. In time, this tends to build a level of trust between horses and people that remains. So, if a horse is introduced to handling, riding, loading a trailer, etc in a positive manner, they often have a positive attitude towards these activities and are amenable to doing what you ask.

I hope this answers your question - if you have any more, do not hesitate to send me an email.

Warm regards,

Dr. Leah Ellis, BSc, DVM

Intern Veterinarian, UCVM-DVTH affiliated

Burwash Equine Services

Expert #6: Nicola Dedekind Horse Trainer and Stable Hand Twin Pines Equestrian:  

Hi Nicola This is Abbie from the barn (Mickey's person).  I am doing a science fair project about why horses obey people instead just eating grass or resting in the sun.   And so, I wanted to ask some horse experts what they think.  I wanted to ask you what you think since you know a lot about horses.  I also asked Chris and I am asking Kendall. Thank you very much

Sincerely Abbie 

Email response received from Nicola Dedekind on March 18th 2021. 

Hi Abbie! So sorry I forgot to reply so I hope i’m not too late. 
I think this is a great idea for a science fair project! 
I would say that horses are animals that for a long time have had bonds with people. It’s what they were bred for. Wether it’s for work purposes (such as ranchers to move cattle, or pulling carts back before there were motor vehicles) or pleasure purposes (like riding for fun, competing, trail riding, etc). 
When a horse has a job they benefit both mentally and physically from it and then they don’t get bored! If a horse is treated well and has a good bond with their person, odds are that they’ll want to please them. 
I hope this helps!
Nicola 

 

Conclusion

In my literature search I found out that there are many reasons that horses listen to people.  These include that species have to have some key features in order to be domesticated and interact with humans in the first place.  The key features are :

  •  Flexible eater/ hardy:  Able to eat a variety and able to go sometimes with less water or food and even eat garbage if they have to.

  •  Reach maturity quickly:  They are less useful if they take too long to grow enough to be put to work or used for food.

  •  Willing to breed in captivity:  some species like antelope don’t like to breed in captivity, so humans can’t keep them and control their breeding over generations.

  •  Tame/ docile: An example is Zebras.  They could be as useful as horses but they are more aggressive so not domesticated very often. 

  • Low flight and fight instinct

  •  Prefer strong leaders:  species that like to have a leader and accept humans as their leaders (Wikipedia Domestication, accessed March 7, 2021)

The most important domestication factors for listening to people are probably tameness and being docile. 

When I asked horse trainers and veterinarians why they think horses are motivated to do what people ask them they had a lot of different answers.  Some said that horses obey because they want a companion.  Another thought horses enjoy having a job.  Some said that horses were chosen for breeding because of their traits of enjoying the work people ask them to do and horses get bored when they don't have something to do, so they prefer to do what people ask them to do. 

The veterinarians mostly said that horses want to be with people and do what they ask because of classical conditioning and positive reinforcement.  This is basically that horses learn that people give them things (tasty treats or nice pats for example) when they do what the people want.

But this all still leaves me wondering what exactly it is that makes some animals want to be compnaions, or have a job, or makes them more affected by classical conditioning compared to other species.  The true answer probably is that we will never really know, but there are visible differences in the genes of motivated versus unmotivated species.  For example the rats that have different genetics if they were friendly versus the viscious rats that  attacked humans in my literature research (Jeanna Bryner, 2009).

 

Some limitations of my project are that only a small number of expert s were asked for their opinions.  Three were from the same stable so they might have similar ideas.  The vets were also from the same part of southern Alberta.   

Citations

My sources are:

Date Feb 27 2021

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_behavior

Date Feb 27 2021

https://www.quora.com/Why-are-horses-so-obedient

Date Feb 28 2021

https://www.equisearch.com/HorseJournal/learned-helplessnessthe-dark-side-21st-century-horse-training-11315#:~:text=They're%20motivated%20by%20three,much%20stronger%20than%20we%20are.

Date Feb 28 2021 (Kiddopedia)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlXESnDpbHA

Date March 4 2021

https://www.quora.com/What-makes-domestic-animals-like-the-horse-and-cow-obey-human-orders#:~:text=Because%20the%20horse%20is%20essentially,it%20finds%20comfortable%20(normal).

date March 13 2021 (banner picture)

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5043953/Horses-read-human-body-language.html

date March 16 2021 (Jeanna Bryner 2009)

https://www.livescience.com/3660-genetic-difference-wild-tame-animals.html

date March 16 2021 (sciencedaily 2009)

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090608131152.htm

date March 16 2021 (wikipedia domesticatoin 2021)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domestication

date March 16 2021 (pop mech 2019)

https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/animals/a26454611/animals-cant-domesticate/

date March 16 2021 (Quora 2016)

forbes.com/sites/quora/2016/10/24/why-can-some-animals-be-domesticated-but-not-others/?sh=263043115df4

date march 16 2021

date March 16 2021

https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/horse/domesticating-horses/what-is-domestication

date March 16 2021 (Natalie Wolchover 2012)

https://www.livescience.com/33870-domesticated-animals-criteria.html#:~:text=Creatures%20that%20are%20territorial%20when,so%20they%20never%20achieved%20domestication.

date March 16 2021 (tame animal wikipedia 2021)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tame_animal

date March 16 2021

A review of the human-horse relationship (Hausberger et al. 2007)

date March 18, 2021 (Project picture)

https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/690035974125920860/

Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge my mom for helping me by talking through my work with me. I would also like to acknowledge Chris Franssen, Kendall Ziegler, Dr. Leah Ellis, Nicola Dedekind, Shelby Bennett, and Dr. Amelia Falk for answering my emails and questions.