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Harmony & Ethic in Horsemanship

The false idea of the “predator / prey” model


The “predator/prey model” of horse-human relationship has been widely accepted as a science-based cornerstone of the natural horsemanship movement founded by Tom Dorrance, his brother Bill, and Ray Hunt. But “predator / prey” was not part of the original horse-human relationship renaissance these men started. Perhaps more important to you and your horse, the “predator / prey” model is not based on science !

Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt laid the groundwork (for what Miller and Lamb have called “The revolution in horsemanship” ) without saying one single word about “predator / prey” in either of their books : True Unity ( T. Dorrance,1987) or : Think Harmony with Horses (Hunt, 1991). But by 1993, the model was appearing, nevertheless, in major training publications ( like in Pat Parelli's book : Natural Horse-man-ship,1993 ). So Bill Dorrance was asked about it in the interviews for the 1999 book True Horsemanship Through Feel he wrote with Leslie Desmond. He gently discounted the model as : “something people like to talk about,”....then added : “To my way of thinking, it’s a lot more valuable to spend time learning how to feel of your horse, and to teach that horse to learn to feel of you, because there’s sometimes a big gap between [..] what a person wants the horse to do and what the horse has in mind.”...

But unfortunately it was too late to turn peoples’ attention back toward “feel” by then. Science carries authority in our culture, and so do things that seem scientific — including the "predator / prey model".

The supposed core of the model is that :

(1) horses eat plants but humans eat meat, including horses; so...
(2) horses are a “prey species” but humans are a “predator species”; and...
(3) prey species are instinctively afraid of predator species because of evolution. Therefore horses (prey) are instinctively afraid of humans (predators).

It’s true that horses eat only plants, whereas humans eat meat as well as plants. But does that make humans a “predator species” with respect to horses ? More important, does it mean that the underpinning nature of the relationship between humans and horses is the one of a “prey’s” fear of its “predator”? For the model to hold up, it has to.

But have us now a look at the facts : The predator / prey model’s primary assumption is that horses recognize predators, whether lions or humans, in one of three ways: sight, smell, or touch. In other words, the mere fact of a predator being a predator is enough to cause a horse to react with fear and a flight response. That’s actually not how it works. Wild horses such as zebras don’t generally respond to predators on sight (or “on smell”). Instead, there is strong evidence that they recognize and respond only to predators who are actively engaged in hunting at the time. Predators who are simply ambling through a landscape are ignored. Let’s consider these points in more detail.

For horses to recognize predators by sight, they must know a predator when they see one. If so, they use one or more aspects of physical (visual) appearance to tell predators apart from fellow plant-eaters. The primary physical traits that separate predatory mammals from ones that eat plants are adaptations for seizing and slicing up prey – modifications of the teeth, jaws, and head muscles. Humans don’t have these, as you can see by comparing the teeth of wolves, bears, cats, humans, horses, and bison.

Wolves, lions, and even pet dogs and cats have prominent fangs, but the “fang” teeth in our mouths are the same size as all the other teeth. And if you compare your very front teeth, or incisors (in the middle of your mouth, between the “fangs”), to those of your horse on one hand, and your dog or cat on the other, you’ll see that those teeth look alike in you and your herbivorous horse, not in you and your meat-eating pet. All our other teeth, our digestive tracts (especially the small intestines), and the bone and muscle structures of our jaws and necks also show adaptations for eating plants rather than animals. Since we don’t have the meat-eating adaptations of biological predators, we use weapons, fire to cook it, and eating utensils to eat meat. Culture allows us to behave as if we are biological predators. But we are not a “predator species” biologically. So even if horses are somehow able to tell natural or biological predators apart from plant-eating mammals by sight, humans could not fit the criteria they use. They cannot see us as “biological predators” because we aren’t.

For horses to recognize predators by smell, they must know a predator when they smell one. The argument has been made that animals that eat meat smell like meat, so the horse has been selected to recognize the scent of meat as meaning “predator.” Humans also eat meat, horses smell the meat, and horses therefore recognize humans as predators. But if this is the lynch-pin of the horse-human relationship, we could replace natural horsemanship methods with a vegetarian diet and be done with the problem. It’s worth trying, but it doesn’t seem to be what the predator/prey model is about because it doesn’t justify all the special methods of natural horsemanship.

For horses to recognize predators by touch, they must know a predator when they feel the touch of one. A common line of support for the predator/prey model is that horses naturally fear anything on their backs because predators such as mountain lions drop down onto them from trees to kill them. So when a human gets on the horse’s back, the horse’s sense of touch (pressure on the back) causes it to recognize the human presence as “predator.” This line of “reasoning” has even caused people to say that it’s only “natural” for a horse to buck a rider because it mistakes the rider for a mountain lion.

The problem is that there aren’t any trees to drop down out of in the habitats where horses evolved and historically live wild — grassy treeless plains. Running adaptations in horses’ anatomy, physiology, and behavior developed because the only way to get away from predators on the plains is to run, fly, or dig. Horses run. They have hooves, long legs, and other adaptations that enable them to run fast and sustain on hard prairie ground. Their predators share their ecological habitat. Plains predators, whether hunting alone or in packs, chase their prey and run it down to catch it. There aren’t any trees to jump down out of. There aren’t even usefully common cliffs in such areas.

A corollary to this idea is that the reason predators jump onto horses’ backs is so they can kill them with a bite to the back of the neck. But real horse predators don’t kill that way, which further erodes the whole scenario. It’s well-documented that lions — and other plains hunting cats, too — kill large prey by suffocation after they take it to the ground. They grab the prey animal at the throat beneath the jaws, or over the muzzle, and clamp down to stop the passage of air to the lungs. Canid predators such as wolves usually kill their prey simply by tearing into it as they eat it rather than as a separate act. And to catch and bring down their prey, both wolves and big cats first have to chase and run it down — from low and behind. If any touch could make a human seem like a predator to a horse, it would be one from low and behind rather than one on the top of the back. So if this is the lynch-pin of the horse-human relationship being what it is, all you have to do to “fix” things is never approach your horse in a crouch from behind. Not many of us do that anyway.

So how do horses recognize predators that pose a lethal threat to them ? In terms of science, this issue is the heart of the predator-prey model as it’s been proposed and discussed, so the answer to the question matters very much. And it turns out we do know something about real predator/prey behavioral ecology of horses and both lions and wolves, and what we know is very interesting.

Zebras — the only truly wild equines we can still see interacting with natural predators — commonly respond to predators according to whether or not they’re actively hunting at the time they are seen. More than 35 years ago now, extensive studies by the great naturalist George Schaller showed that zebras will graze calmly as a lion or other predator walks right past them or even through a spread-out herd — so long as the lion’s not hunting at the time. But the moment the predator begins to display typical hunting behaviors — lowered head, fixed staring, and sinking into a crouched posture — the zebras and other animals respond by moving away. If the predator’s behaviors intensify, the animals run off. The predator may select and chase one at that point, using methods of pursuit and killing already described.

It’s important to realize that the particular group of stylized hunting behaviors that horses and other plains ungulates (hoofed mammals) respond to is typical only of plains mammals. The crouch lowers the predator into what ground cover there is, partially concealing it, and also positions the limbs and back for bursting into a run. The stare is part of what’s called a “sight-hunting” behavioral repertoire that’s common on grasslands because there are few obstructions between an animal and the horizon and so vision is highly useful. The lowered head posture actually connects the other two behaviors; it permits the predator to keep its eye on the animal it’s hunting even as the rest of its body leaps into a bounding run. So horses don’t just respond to “hunting behaviors” in general, but to hunting behaviors specific to plains predators only.

So is it possible for humans to behave in a way that a horse might mistake the human for a predator and respond to with fear ? Yes. If the human sneak up on the horse in a low crouch, from behind, staring intently with his head lowered as he do so, the horse might shy away from him or even run and possibly kick. There is not enough information or evidence to support this connection as a “fact” — science simply doesn’t work that way — but if there ever is a time that horses could mistake a human for a predator, that would be it. The thing is, you don’t need natural horsemanship methods to stay out of trouble in that case. Just stand up and let your horse see who you are.

Finally, what about the idea that maybe, despite published explanations of how and why the predator / prey model supposedly works, it isn’t really about biological recognition ? Is it possible that horses’ instinctive fear of humans is specifically a response to Homo-sapiens instead of to predators in general ?

This idea supposes that horses learned to fear humans from immediate human contact, and that their fear has been genetically maintained by the continued practice of eating horse meat in various cultures. If that makes sense to you, consider the dog. Humans have eaten dogs for at least as long, and in at least as many places, as they’ve eaten horses. Would you therefore consider dogs a “prey species” ? Would you expect their relationship to us to be one of instinctive fear ? Even in contemporary cultures where dogs are used as food, dogs’ fear of being eaten is not the basis of relationship between pet dogs and their owners. Clearly an idea that sounds logical at first glance may not actually be logical — or scientifically sound, either.

The predator / prey model of horse-human relationship doesn’t tell us anything useful about how our horses see us, or how we can better relate to our horses. Yet the method founded by the Dorrances and Hunt does work. That’s why it’s spread so widely and been carried on. The question is: if it’s not the predator/prey model that explains the power of their system, what does ? Bill Dorrance told us, in his 1993 quote: feel.

On the other hand....“Natural Horse-man-ship”, as Pat Parelli defined it and a Miller and Lamb elaborated it, is based on the totally false [!] idea that humans must unilaterally overcome the horse’s instinctive perception of us as its actual, biological enemies. But this model, as we do know now, is nothing else but pure fiction in the eyes of science !

When Bill Dorrance talked about “feel,” he was using language his brother, Tom, and Ray Hunt also used. If you read their publications or attended their clinics, you know they were talking about communicating better with the horse, in part, by occupying the same psychological space the horse occupies. This is not possible if horses and humans are polar opposites and natural enemies, as some clinicians have claimed on the basis of the predator/prey model. But if we are both herbivores at the genetic level, we actually have a great deal in common, biologically. American Indian horse trainers have seen horses and humans as relating in kinship all along, and what we’re seeing now is that both science and the founders of the entire “natural horsemanship revolution” are and were in complete agreement with that view.

Donald Newe's “Harmony in Horsemanship” Horse-Human Relationship Program is about this kinship and sympathetic understanding that naturally exists between horses and humans. To fully develop that relationship, we need to learn how to feel, balance, center and connect, not just when we’re riding, but whenever we interact with horses. If we focus on these four principles, then we will understand that horses and humans were never enemies to begin with, and that – with a little effort on the part of the human as well as the horse – we can instead become partners and very good friends. We can finally have the relationship with horses that we have been searching for all along.


"The cultivated mind have to draw it's inspiration from nature."
François Baucher (1796 – 1873)


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