An Introduction to E. Caballus – The Horse.

25,000 years ago a tribal shaman drew a pair of spotted horses on a cave wall at Peche-Merle in the south of France (1), to which were added six stencilled hand shapes. Then, in ritual trance-state, the shaman reached through the membrane of rock into the spirit world of the horse beyond in search of healing and wisdom for his clan.

Even at that time the lineage of Equus was rooted in the ancient past, far beyond the reach of ancestral memory.  “Until about 1 million years ago, there were Equus species all over Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America, in enormous migrating herds that must easily have equalled the great North American bison herds, or the huge wildebeest migrations in Africa.” (2) 

It is easy to imagine the impact that the thundering hooves of such herds must have had on our early forefathers, but in order to gain a real understanding of the behavior of one of these species – e. caballus - we need to look back beyond the foundations of homo sapiens relationship with the horse, prise away the wrappings of myth, awe and servitude and attempt to confront the vital nature of the animal we find beneath.

So, let us make ready for the journey by relieving ourselves of the baggage of 6000 years of civilisation: shedding thought or image of bit or saddle, spur or stable, rider or chariot.  

Now we can begin to describe the animal before us. Physically we note a single toed quadruped of about 12 hands in height, with a well developed cardio-vascular capacity tapering through supple energetic loins, to powerful driving hindquarters. The head is remarkably large and heavy in comparison with many other grazing species, although we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that there is a particularly large cranial cavity as most of this is taken up by sensory organs.  However we might take a little time to speculate on the way in which the weight of the head acts to pull the spine straight so that the propulsion developped in the quarters can be transmitted effeciently into explosive forward action. The large eyes are located on the sides of a face dominated by nose to such an extent that a blind spot is created. The ears are of a tidy size, extremely mobile and in constant motion.

In fact the equus fossil record is one of the most complete and informaive of any known species, and we can very easily go on in great detail, setting out each small physical atribute and development back up the evolutionary chain linking the rodent like eohippus with the modern horse.  However behavior leaves little physical record and a wider range of skills are needed above and beyond those of physical description.

All known present day populations of equus caballus are feral rather than wild. (3)

So in order to describe naturally occuring behavior we shall have to focus on existing free-ranging and semi free-ranging groups and, with the benefit of evolutionary theory, extrapolate from there.


Harem group grazing in open formation – early afternoon – good visibility.

First and foremost E.Caballus is a social animal that associates in herds. We shall not find it alone except when sick or injured and close to death. Herds comprise two kinds of social group, harem groups, in which a dominant stallion is accompanied by several mares plus their various progeny up to three years of age, and bachelor groups consisting of colts and stallions from three years upwards. As with all social groups there is a working pattern that controls the life of the group and in which individuals have both place and status. The pattern is responsible for social harmony, sexual, parental, exogomatic and defensive strategies within the group and has two primary components – which we might characterize as genes and memes!  Just as genes are the component parts that make up a genotype, memes are the components of culture.

Each animal possesses a genetic structure that predisposes it to certain basic or core behaviors that have served the previous owners of those genes well. But we should be careful to resist the temptation to equate these genetic traits to notions of  present day ‘fitness’. Many will have been the product of that which served their owners ten, twenty or even a hundred thousand years ago – yet may have no great relevance in terms of present day conditions.

Throughout the long history of the horse’s development ‘genes for behavior’ have produced what some term ‘hard-wiring’, as if such behaviors were set in stone; yet

each of these behaviors is subject to a complex network of triggers by which they may be modified. Some have argued that the horse, as a herbivore, could not possibly sustain the dietary cost of a large brain, and therefore that behaviors must be automated rather than subject to the impact of reason or sentience, however basic. Yet the horse is so adaptable to a wide range of environments that, were this to be the case, the quantity of pre-programed information would need to be nothing short of phenomenal. It is then the interaction of genetic and environmental cues that serves as the basis for behavior – plus an ‘inherited’ product of the environment we call culture.


Coalitions of low and middle status members create multiple safety zones radiating out from the group nexus.

Once again we have arrived at a didactic cross-roads. Should we view culture as an inherently human, or at least primate, possession? Or, should we allow that many other species possess an, albeit rudimentary, cultural wealth that is passed from generation to generation? If we decide that the richness of human culture is so awesome that it is simply ridiculous to apply the same term to animals then we clearly need a new and different term to describe what other species do when behaviors are passed on within a group. Fortunately there is such a term: memes.

As around seventy five percent of the herd’s time is spent grazing it makes sense to focus on this element – and whether more or less time is spent this way is dependent on the environment, aspects of which include available plant species and pasture quantity/quality, season and weather.  Just as eating can be a social activity in the human species so it is with the horse, only more so. If we imagine an ongoing, long-distance, outdoor cocktail party, attended by the most practiced of party goers, ‘flowing’ across the landscape while also comunally maintaining a defensive high alert and preparedness for rapid relocation we are some way towards appreciation of E.Caballus society. Recent research has suggested that this type of movement is, in a sense, the product of an unconscious democracy, in which any individual may initiate movement in a new direction irrespective of age or status. (5) However this might be in other species, the horse has grazing techniques of its own.

Before going into this in any more depth there is a need to establish some ground rules. Firstly, the pattern is environment and group specific. What is observed in a group of horses living in flat plains territory may be very different from what would be observed were the same group to be living among rolling hills in which traceries of small creeks and shallow ponds feature. Part of this difference will be due to the way in which the environment ‘triggers’ innate behavior, the genetic component.  Part will be due to the individuals that comprise the group, and another part of this difference will be due to the aquired knowledge the group have built up regarding the area, the ‘memetic’ component. This compound nature of behavior introduces some restraints on what can be safely stated. It is quite reasonable to record the behavior of a set group in a particular territory and to present the observations as one variable of horse behavior. But until such time as other groups are observed to behave in very similar ways in the same type of territory it is dangerous to present the observations as ‘general horse behavior’. If that were the aim then a method would need to be used to remove the meme component of the group’s behavior from the equation. Quite how this might be done with a reasonable level of objectivity is difficult to say!

And now, having got the ground rules sorted, the theme of grazing technique can be revisited. Take as an example a particular harem group (6) comprising 22 individuals, grazing a gently sloping hillside over a two hour period from 4 in the afternoon until the onset of dusk around 6pm on a dry evening with light winds in late Autumn.


Harem group grazing during rain. During periods of rain and wind incoming visual, audio and olfactory signals are impaired, and the group closes formation.

Note that the observation states a specific time, for, as with people, horse behavior is subject to change throughout the day. Weather and season also have to be taken into consideration, since both have an impact.

There are two pivotal individuals in the group, the harem stallion and head mare. Together the two form a high status nexus about which the life of the group revolves. Given that these two are the most important members it would be logical to expect them to be at the center, where there is the least chance of attack, and from which the safety of the group can be best co-ordinated – and this is exactly where they are found for the greatest portion of time. Lower status members spend decreasing amounts of time at the center and are more often to be found on the periphery of the herd. It is these lower status members that head the direction of grazing, with perhaps two or three relatively close together. Other low or middle status individuals take ‘point’ on either side, and a minimum of two at any one time, either at the back or at the wings towards the back, form a rearguard, facing in the opposite direction to that in which the majority are moving.


All points of approach are closely monitored – point gaurds take the high ground. Both Head Mare and Stallion occupy a central command position in readiness.

As the herd flows forward the rearguard and individuals on the periphery change position periodically as one horse falls to the rear and another turns and moves closer to the center. The same kind of changes are occuring at the leading edge of the herd, although one middle status mare, which, for the sake of clarity, we might term the ‘pathfinder’, is more often than not close to the front or actually leading.

This configuration creates an effective safety zone around the group. Information regarding threat perception is rapidly transmitted to the center, where the most trusted individual, the head mare, can then make a decision regarding flight, and the stallion, whose job it is to keep the group together, to prevent stragglers from falling behind, and, depending on the nature of the threat, to fall back and confront the source, can take up his protective role with the least possible delay.

It is virtually impossible to approach the herd without being noticed except by patient and careful use of cover, and even then the approach must be made from downwind. Nor is any one individual left to take point or peripheral sentry duty for any great period of time. Leading members such as head mare, pathfinder or stallion are protected but at the same time may cause the group to change overall direction purely by the use of subtle body language, or may actively block further movement in any particular direction.

What may previously have appeared as random movement is now revealed as the highly ordered and efficient workings of a social group that encompass both fixed and flexible enactment of role, status, discipline, centralised critical decision making, preventive crisis relocation, co-operative task sharing, risk management and more.

Whatever the mixture of instinct and sentience may be that produces this complex result there is no doubt that it bears great similarity to the products of human social groups. Even though it may be argued that people utilise a greater degree of sentience in social decision making one cannot escape the conclusion that horse society, as with so many other species, is more complex than previously allowed – and that the management of domestically kept horses should acknowledge this reality.  



(2)   Kathleen Hunt, 1995.

(3)   With the possible exception of a Tibetan pony breed, discovered during an expedition in1995, about which very little is so far known. But as descriptions of the pony sound like a smaller version of Equus Przewalskii specialised for existence in the Himalayas there is, as yet, no firm evidence that this is E.Caballus.  

(4)  Dr. Tim Roper of the University of Sussex in Brighton,
England and Dr. Larissa Conradt. Nature Magazine Jan 03.


(5)   Beck, A.D., unpublished. White Horse Equine Ethology Project, 2nd Generation Group, May 2003.


Exogamy = outbreeding.

Meme = A cultural or behavioural element passed on by imitation or other non- genetic means.