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Winners and Losers

Updated: Jun 14, 2018

Jenni Nellist Animal Behaviourist Horses Translated Blog Wild Gower Ponies Herd Winners and Losers

“Sing when you’re winning.”

“I get knocked down, but I get up again, ain’t nobody gonna keep me down.”

“The winner takes it all, the loser standing small”

“How come I feel like I win when I lose?”

Strictly speaking, the “winner and loser” effect is applied by the scientists who study natural behaviour to the effects of winning and losing in a fight to the tendency to engage in future fights. In nature these would usually be over resources that are scarce. Winners grow in confidence and losers shrink and step away from further threats.

I also think there’s a broader generalisation we can apply to some aspects of the horse-human interaction. Do you see horses that are confident and act like winners with their people, and others that look kind of hang dog, like they are losers? Meekly compliant in response to the smallest of threats and directions.

Recall the recent Italian research on heart coupling between a human and a horse. In this study, when the horse had choice his heart rate variability (variances in time between each heart beat) was similar to the human he was interacting with, but not when the human forced the interaction by doing something as seemingly benign as tying the horse up and grooming him!

So where does this tie in with my generalisations about the winner and loser effect? How does a horse get to feel like a winner with us? When he gets choice in what he does, when he finds that his behaviour works (or in other words, his behaviour finds relief from anything aversive that might be happening, or it finds some pleasant and rewarding outcome). In essence, the human reads the horse well, times cues carefully, and makes it possible for the horse to be effective.

When does he feel like a loser? When he has no choice and when his preferred behaviour doesn’t work and he has to suppress his own motivations to comply with (often frequent) instructions (which are thinly veiled threats) from his human. The human makes more demands, is less likely to be aware and responsive to the horse’s emotional state, and doesn’t always enable the horse to be effective.

This reminds me of the concept of freedom and control is something that fascinates researcher and rider, Lynda BirkeThat we are often drawn to horses because of their representation of freedom, but to share that experience of freedom, we are usually driven to control them. We may be want a horse who looks like a winner, but may turn them into a loser, deliberately or accidentally.

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