Thursday, 18 December 2008

Horses NEED Scientists.

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins marvellous work, shows why horses need scientists. The Selfish Gene says nothing about horses and everything about animal behaviour and therefore, since we are animals, our behaviour.

(If you aren't an animal, and some Supreme Being specifically created you to be different from animals and to Lord it over them, I wonder why He used so many animal spare parts, ie 96% Chimpanzee DNA. Is He too lazy or just not omnipotent enough.)

As Dawkins endlessly points out, we are not helpless puppets of our genetic make up, any more than horses are. But unless we understand the relationship between our behaviour and our survival, we cannot understand our behaviour, or our horses.
Identifying the limiting factors in behaviour, increases our freedom. If I assume I can do anything I like, and jump from the top of a cliff, my subsequent choices, unless I am a bird, are limited to zero. A bird can jump off cliffs, I can't.

Am I imprisoned by my genes as I stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower. I have a choice that is not open to birds other than Ostriches and Kiwis. I can commit suicide. (Do flightless birds acquire a fear of heights? An easy test of the popularity of my writing will be the number of research scientists shoving large flightless birds towards the edge of high buildings while monitoring their stress levels.)

Death is always an alternative, failure to breed, in survival terms, (as understood by geneticists), is more lethal. A male spider is eaten by his mate, but he is eaten while copulating, a survival mechanism. Being eaten as part of courtship is not a survival mechanism. Endless behaviour patterns affect survival in less dramatic ways, and with less obvious outcomes.

Survival is a statistical science and statistics range from near certainty, me jumping off the Eiffel Tower, to my ancestor deciding whether to continue stalking a particular horse. He has invested 2 hours time and energy already, and if he stops, that will be a total waste, but there might be an easier, lame animal back at the water hole. In survival terms the individual making the better decision, more often will probably have more progeny, (ie eventually, me,) and so on. If the behaviour pattern to cut your losses, is genetically linked, it will outperform its rivals, if cutting your losses proves to be the correct strategy. And the definition of correct is that animals with that behaviour pattern will survive and pass on this tendency to cut their losses.

When I, the distant progeny of the "cut your losses" hunter, work with a pony which is being awkward, my inherited instinct is saying, "forget it, there is an easier animal just down the road", but this ignores the factor of the environment, the world in which we live and operate. I am being paid to work with this pony. My customer won't pay if I stroll off to work with an easier animal, so my present day survival assessment overrides the inherited tendency to cut my losses, because I know that I am being paid by the hour.

An alternative scenario where the pony takes one look at me and attacks, I will cut my losses like a shot. I may be being paid but I am not being paid that well. The final scenario includes the Robert Redford effect. Robert Redford certainly had a major effect on Natural Horsemanship, with his role in the Horse Whisperer. If you look good in tight jeans, cowboy hat and boots, can walk into a pen with a dangerous horse and get out alive; your chances of ending up in bed with the co-star are considerably enhanced. And this is definitely a survival behaviour as understood by geneticists. They just don't get the chance to try it out as often as they would like.

I hoped the Selfish Gene would explain the horse, instead it explains my motivations, and the motivations of all horse people. To understand how we affect the horse, we must understand our motivations, how they make us behave, how our behaviour affects and is perceived by the horse, and what survival programs the horse is running which dictate how it responds................. It is tempting to give up, but look at football. The classic description of footballer kicking a ball as perceived by a scientist.

"The drag force, FD, on a ball increases with the square of the velocity, v, assuming that the density, r, of the ball and its cross-sectional area, A, remain unchanged: FD = CDrAv2/2. It appears, however, that the "drag coefficient", CD, also depends on the velocity of the ball. For example, if we plot the drag coefficient against Reynold's number - a non-dimensional parameter equal to rv D /µ, where D is the diameter of the ball and µ is the kinematic viscosity of the air - we find that the drag coefficient drops suddenly when the airflow at the surface of the ball changes from being smooth and laminar to being turbulent.”

How many footballers understand that paragraph? Do you? I stuck it in and I think I have some vague inkling of what it is about. But a scientist can understand it, and explain, in the simple, ball, boot, football pitch world, how it works, either to each player, or more likely to a coach who persuades the players to practice kicking the ball with sideways action to impart spin.

Horsemanship needs Scientists. There are footballers who can perform magic with a ball, without understanding the process, there are people who can perform similar magic with horses, persuading them to perform, perfectly, effortlessly and beautifully. There are people who can do the same with people, charm, empathy, charisma all describe an ability to persuade other people to agree.

For these gifted individuals, Science is actively bad. The heroic horsetrainer doesn't want some fat unfit slob walking in and instantly taming the horse. Bang go his chances with the heroine. But the fat unfit slob would buy into a system that taught him to tame the horse and get the heroine in bed. Rivalry, the very heart of the Selfish Gene. Nobody endowed with a natural benefit wants to see it handed around to everyone. There goes your survival advantage.

There are two parties in every relationship. In this case, horse and man. For the sake of the horse, its time to share around a little knowledge, and that is why we need the scientists. Horse behaviour, horse ethology, is a Scientific desert. The horse is just a transport system. So is the car, yet Google "car scientist" and geeks are all over the place, Google "Horse scientist" and real science, is frighteningly thin on the ground. Peer reviewed academic journals featuring horsemanship, or any element of horsemanship are almost invisible.

The horse deserves better. Horse veterinary medicine is totally scientific as befits an offshoot of the Agricultural Industry but the whole behavioural field is actively ignored. The reasons derive from two very different power structures. Agriculture is massive, still employing nearly half the worlds population. Any policies on animal welfare have massive and unpredictable consequences to the global economy. Horses are just another farm animal so welfare issues are political dynamite.

Horses are also the longest serving status symbol, reinforcing attitudes to class, war and political dominance. "Equestrian activities" virtually define the ruling classes. Look at political iconography, from Alexander onwards, no military leader can afford to be seen without a massive power symbol between his legs. The riders are armed, booted and spurred, carrying whips and holding reins attached to implements of torture in the horses mouth. Look at the facial expressions of the horses.

Suggesting a policy of loving kindness to the horse contradicts thousands of years of history, policy and the power structure of todays ruling class. Scientists haven't looked at horse welfare because the easiest way to control science is to control funding. How many of those on the Universtity Funding Comittes are, or have a close family member, involved in elitist horsemanship. Is it really worth blowing the University Science Budget just for the Horse. Look at the problems Creationists cause, we can't afford new enemies.

I started saying Horses needed Science and I have explained why they won't get it.

1 comment:

Maureen Fienburgh said...

I agree, that it does seem a task that involves taking on current power structures (economic imperatives in two words) and that goes for all animal welfare issues. Including getting our own mental and physical health and welfare needs met. Huge, but no alternative than to care about the other and learn mutual respect, changing the habits of thousands of lifetimes.