Cohesion, Synchrony, Swarm Intelligence, and Hierarchy – Group-Structure and Dynamics in Horse Bands
Social animals live in groups, that include horses, as well as dogs and humans. So what do these group structures look like? How are they organized? What principles do they follow?
Humans have for a long time wanted to see and prove hierarchy structures in other species, besides our own, but are hierarchies really there, in the way many of us think of them? If they are, what purpose are they then serving? Or are they just a misunderstanding from our side?
First of all, I think we mix things up. Other animals, besides humans, are living, spending their lives in different kinds of groups. That is because of ours, as well as other animal's needs, change when we and they grow up, but also because certain situations demand of us that we re-group.
Below I will explore what this can mean. Is there only one way that horses behave, in groups? I am starting to think, – no, horses take part in different kinds of groups, in different contexts, and not all horses live in the same environments. Some differences in behaviors can simply be explained by adaptation to these different environments. Other differences can be explained by the different functions these different groups have to horses. Some behaviors will be similar or the same, no matter what group a horse is a part of, some behaviors will be different.
I will give you an example. Horses are usually living in smaller groups, so-called family bands. They consist of an active breeding pair, a stallion, and a mare, with their offspring. The offspring will grow up, and around 2-3 years of age, they leave their original family, to find another horse, or horse band to live with. When the colts leave, they most often join up with other young, and old, stallions. They form bachelor groups, with their own and different structure and dynamics from the family band, Fillies, turning into young mares also leave their natal band, and sometimes join a band of fillies, or a lone stallion, or an existing family band. Family bands do most often accept new mares into their band. A family band can have "sub-families". The more mature and experienced the stallion is, the more mares he can protect from other stallions, hence he can be a stallion protecting an extended family band. A mare always stays closer to her own offspring forming a little family unit themselves within this extended family band. In natural settings, it is rare with bigger, extended family bands. In any family band, there are seldom over 20 horses. On occasion different family bands join in with each other and together form bigger herds, often when some common threat exists, like pumas chasing them, or humans, from a helicopter. But in their ordinary daily life, they don't live in these bigger herds.
Have you heard about swarm intelligence? It is when individuals or groups of individuals join together and form a bigger entity, it is the "collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems" (Wikipedia, 2019). This is what Lucy Rees talks about in her article "Anti-Predator Behavior in Horses. A new Light on Social Relations". In the Minds-n-Motion compendium 2018 "A Horse is a Horse, of Course?!" from 2018 (Rees, 2018). There she describes how several family bands join together and form big herds and how they move together in this big herd. They move as one body, with a form of collective intelligence. This way of moving together is inbuilt in many species, also humans, to some degree. Think of schooling fish or birds, how sheep, ants, or bees move together. Lucy Rees has explored how this happens in horses when faced with pumas. When they are, they join together into these larger herds, which moves in synchrony, in cohesion, unconsciously following a couple of simple rules; do not collide, do like the one closest to you do, move at the same speed and direction.
This is the wisdom of the crowds, which can act very intelligent with very little information. "The agents follow very simple rules, and although there is no centralized control structure dictating how individual agents should behave, local, and to a certain degree random, interactions between such agents lead to the emergence of "intelligent" global behavior, unknown to the individual agents" (Wikipedia, 2018).
For this to work, the group needs to filter out any (for the situation) irrelevant information. This means, they temporarily disengage their own thinking, and just follow the 3 simple rules; do not collide, do what the one closest to you do and maintain the same direction and speed (Rees, 2018).
So far so good, but what Philip Warren Anderson wrote about in his famous article from 1972 "More is Different", shows the problem when we try to apply this way of looking at cohesion, collaboration, co-creation and co-regulation in smaller groups. Smaller groups function differently from larger groups. The same building blocks of cohesion, collaboration, co-creation, and co-regulation are there, but the individual plays a larger role. Which is somehow self-evident, since the collective intelligence principle does not apply to smaller groups. In a smaller group, each participant and his way of being and thinking have a bigger impact. Less is filtered out and more conscious decisions need and are to be made. This is the problem of scalability, you can not anticipate the same behavior of individuals in a big group as in a small group, and vice versa (Khan, 2017).
The collective intelligence doesn't think.
It coordinates. This is the essence of being part of a very big group, every individual becomes a "dot", who do not need to think and make decisions. Alone, or in a small group, this advantage of the many disappears.
Big groups are dependent on filtering information out, they have a negative feedback loop, this is what keeps the collective together. Everything that has not to do with the collective's task at hand, is filtered out, and the easiest, most energy-saving, and safe way emerge through the collective intelligence which is formed by the many following the same simple rules.
This is due to the sheer overwhelm of interactions in a huge collective. There is no way to take in all that information and use it, so it is filtered out and leaves very few possible outcomes open. The larger the collectives, the more interactions, the fewer impressions are dealt with. This is a form of distributing processes into a mass of individuals. And this is how large complex systems emerge out of basic simple interactions between many different agents, without any central plan (Kahn, 2017).
Researchers argue both that humans behave in the same ways, showing signs of collective, swarm intelligence, but also that it is harder for us, we lack the negative feedback loop, probably because we are so swamped with information and that we feel we depend on it and our ability to think. But we do coordinate in this way, in crowded subways, marathons e.g., if nothing out of the ordinary happen, but as soon as there is a disturbance of some sort, we lose it and panic can easily emerge. We are also raised to think for ourselves and to not follow the crowd. Following the crowd is often a very good choice, but there are situations where it will end you up in a dangerous situation. And furthermore, our morale often tells us to exercise our individual and independent values.
There is no right and no wrong in this – just different ways of being and responding in potentially dangerous situations. But this is good knowledge to have, we are a species who can have problems relying on collective intelligence, horses are not.
Collective intelligence in big crowds has the "goal" to secure as many as possible, but there will always be individuals that are "sacrificed" for the larger good. If you can't follow the tempo, you can get trampled, if you are in the outskirts, you can get stuck against obstacles, if you are in the middle, you can get squeezed, etc.
So what has this meant in regard to horses? Horses act differently if being a part of a small group or a bigger group. For horses living in areas where there are certain kinds of predators and in certain kinds of environments, to form big groups is a working defense mechanism, for horses living in areas with other kinds of predators, there might be other more beneficial defenses. And for our horses, in the western world, who most often live without predators, and without the possibility to join in big herds of several hundreds of horses, this defense system does not occur in the same way. Though they, of course, strive for cohesion, collaboration, co-creation, and co-regulation too, but in slightly other ways. They need to think more, take more individual responsibility and cannot use collective intelligence in the same way. It makes them more vulnerable. Most domesticated horses in the west live in very small and unstable groups, they do not form this kind of collectives, even if it lays inherent in them to do so.
And what has this to do with hierarchies?
In big collectives, it is obvious that there is no hierarchy because there is no central plan and no central figures, everyone is just a "dot", direction and speed can be changed by anyone, but it needs to be an individual not in the middle (because they won't have any impact).
But what about smaller groups? The smallest unit is the family group, and there the hierarchies would be unnecessary. The only groups where one can talk about some sort of hierarchy existing is in groups with many individuals unknown to each other, but not enough of individuals to form a big collective. These groups are in general man-made, and the individuals are living under unnatural circumstances, but even there it does make little sense to talk about hierarchies. The struggles and fights for food, water, shelter, rest, sexual opportunity, etc. are what causes the tensions in these groups, together with the fact that nobody can leave, due to fencing in. In these kinds of groups, there is more need for both aggression and tension release – so there will be more both agonistic and affiliative behaviors being displayed, than in any naturally formed group. There will be displays of submission and dominance in these groups, but these behaviors are context-bound and are not to be confused with personality traits. An individual can have a preference of actively trying to change his situation or to more passively adapt to it, but this has nothing to do with leadership, alpha mares, lead stallions or "dominant" horses, etc., and both active changers and passive adapters as personality types are needed in groups, also in natural groups, it enhances survival (Korte, 2005).
Hierarchies are a human phenomenon and a human construct. They are based on a system of oppression and a belief in hierarchical societies, where there needs to be winners and losers, some who are better, stronger, smarter, and some who are worse, weaker, dumber. In hierarchical societies there needs to be some who are, often by birthright, pure chance, due to gender, ethnicity, etc., higher ranking, and some who are lower ranking. This is human culture. This is how we historically have organized ourselves, and still do to a large extent.
When we look at animals through that lens, we will see things that are not there. I think we would gain a lot from leaving this kind of thinking behind us and start to look at group structure and dynamics, from an open, non-biased perspective. All beings form and belong to different kinds of groups throughout their lifetime. They can also belong to different kinds of groups simultaneously. If I look at my own, very man-made group of horses, there have through the years been many couples, often a mare and a gelding, but sometimes same-sex pairs, or also a mother and her offspring. Then they formed smaller groups in the bigger groups, some horses tended to keep together more often, but they also moved together, all of them during the day. They could choose to rest together, eat together, seek the shade together, etc. They chose their own level of cohesion, collaboration, co-creation and co-regulation. If there had been a sudden danger, and the fences had been down, so they could move into the neighbors' horse groups, would they have done so? Probably. There is undeniably safety in numbers.
My point is that there is no way we can decide what horses do or not do by simply looking at one kind of activity or one kind of group. They behave differently in different contexts. Cohesion can look like one thing among a certain group of horses coming together under predatory pressure, in another group that looks differently, depending on the context. The same horses can then in other contexts, behave cohesively, but display it differently. There will be different levels of individual thinking, depending on what group the horse finds himself in. And we know this from humans too. We talk about mob mentality, group or peer pressure, about disappearing in a crowd. Now there is research that shows we do become like a water drop in the ocean, when being in a large crowd, and we like it too. It suspends the need to think and decide for oneself (Bain & Bartolo, 2019).
I end with one of my favorites:
Several distinct behaviors (in horses) share the same function and can realize the same outcome. One distinct behavior can be interpreted in many different ways, mean many different things, but that behavior does not always reveal its cause (Hickock, 2014).
We do not always know what we see, or how to interpret it. Horses are complex social beings – which means they live in groups with complex social structures – and we are just at the beginning of understanding how complex. So what I write is not me presenting "the truth". It is me thinking and trying the different puzzle pieces out.
So – do horses organize themselves differently in different groups (and therefore also behave differently), depending on group size, the other group participants (sex, mixed-sex groups, age, potential biological family relations), possible predation or other dangers, other factors?
I would love to hear what you think!
Bain, N. & Bartolo, D. (2019). Dynamic response and hydrodynamics of polarized crowds. Science, Vol. 363, Issue 6422, pp. 46-49. DOI: 10.1126/science.aat989
Hickock, G. (2014). The Myth of Mirror Neurons. The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition. W.W. Norton & Company
Khan, A. (2017). Adapt. How We Can Learn From Nature's Strangest Inventions. Atlantic Books.
Korte, M.S., Koolhaas, J.M., Wingfield, J.C. & McEwen, B.S. (2005). The Darwinian concept of stress: Benefits of allostasis and costs of allostatic load and the trade-offs in health and disease. Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews 29(1):3-38. DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2004.08.009.
Rees, L. (2018). Anti-Predator Behavior in Horses. A new Light on Social Relations. In: A Horse is a Horse, of Course?! by Ilka Parent, Kindle Direct Publishing
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swarm_intelligence. Downloaded 20190311.
Text and picture copyright protected ©Katarina Lundgren 2019
Yes probably collective consciousness, but it has also been called social facilitation ( lots of papers on this), ( what you call swarm consciousness) does work in larger groups, but why would it not work in smaller groups too? Yes, dominance works for primates because of the distribution of food and other resources, but rarely in large heritors ( see my recent papers on elephants and horses), but it can be put in place with scarcity of resources in domestic situations.
Yes lifetime experiences have a profound effect on how you I or a horse behaves and thus we all end up with different cultures and horse cultures will vary depending on environmental variables as well as size of group, and their relationship and knowledge of the humans they are familiar with.
More interesting probably from the point of view of most people living or having to do with horses is collective intentionality ( see Searles work here), where the horse and the human have the same goal but may do different things to achieve it, and it is what many of us riders who are seriously interested in communicating with their mount, strive for, and it comes out of cooperative associations, not "dominance" and "obedience", but is worth the struggle, and probably inter-species collective intentionality is more sophisticated and perhaps common when rlding than any other type of inter-species effort ( for various reasons).
Anyway all of this stuff together with other, and publications etc are discussed in my book Friends are Family that you choose. TSL.co.uk where you can buy it on line or hard copy.
Thank you for your comment! Smaller groups can handle that more information is shared in the group, bigger groups need to simplify how information is conveyed and shared. Synchronization becomes more important, but also harder and needs to follow fewer rules. Group size matters a lot.
Yes. Agreed. We build in social dominance into groups kept in captivity - the same way we have built it into our own human systems. And as you say, primates has an affinity for it too... it is part of how primates make sense of the world, by categorization, seeking and applying patterns and systems.
Yes - I too think good riders and good horsemanship persons are searching for the collaborative aspect of finding out together how to reach a goal. And for most people that works when it works. The interesting part to watch is what happens when it does not work, what comes out of that frustration. Then the human need for solving stuff with dominance shows up... and the horse's way of seeking their herd... which usually is not the human... (but can be).
I have just gotten your new book in the mail (together with a lot of other books necessary for my writing). Looking forward to read it!