I see you – the necessary skill/art of observing/noticing


I have been interviewing and talking to horse nomads, horse herders in Mongolia, and I asked them, how did you learn about horses? How do you become a good horse professional? And with smaller variations, they always answer the same: You need to spend a lot of time with horses, be with them, watch them, get to know them, and let them get to know you. By doing this constantly and for long periods of time – you develop a way of understanding them, without having words for it, and they, in the same way, develop a way of understanding you. It is a mutual and reciprocal process.

And almost all of them say that they think the horse is the smartest animal of all, that he has the best survival skills. All horse people in Mongolia I have been speaking with, the ones who live with horses, have much higher esteem and respect for what horses are capable of, cognitively, emotionally, socially as well as biologically, than any traditional western horse person I have ever spoken with.

So to boil it down. Because I share this opinion with the Mongolian horse herders, to learn about horses, you need to spend A LOT of time with and observe horses (and if they are to learn about you, they need to be able to observe you too). Now I want to ask you, how often do you observe your horse(s), without doing anything else? And how often do you let your horse(s) observe you? Without asking them to do anything else at the same time?

Maybe you are more often succeeding in doing things together with your horse(s), and at the same time notice who he is, by observing his behavior, at the same time as you monitor your own behavior? Then, that is great, because that is needed too. When you put your horse in different environments and ask him to perform in different ways (because he seldom puts himself there), he will behave differently to how he behaves when he does not need to follow yours, or his own, agenda. (Yes, horses have agendas too, they have learned, of course, what humans can be good for, so they too have an agenda in the meetings between him and you).

In observing horses (or all beings, for that matter, who we want to understand), we need to be able to both zoom in – and out. Because you need to be able to see both the details – and to get the overview.

We need an overview to see the structure, to not get lost in details, and to see the whole picture. We need the zooming in on details to fill the structure with content and to not miss out on important pieces of information.

The art is to be able to shift your attention between overview and details.

The art is also to be able to observe in different ways/modes. What kind of observer do you tend to be? Can you alternate between these modes? Normally, we either:

  • Observe, with an open mind, to note – not to categorize, understand, interpret – but to just note. What do I see? When you observe in this mode, you practically disregard everything you already know, you then see, to see, not to understand. The understanding comes later. You see to ask questions.
  • Observe to sort and categorize. You sort the information you take in, so it makes sense to you. You couple it instantly with what you already know. In this mode, you build on and use your existing knowledge, to add to the picture, to make it more whole, completer. Then you see to understand. You see to find answers.
To observe to see new behaviors (not yet seen) or new things in old/known behaviors (already spotted before), that you need to work with (process, think, compare, connect dots, gather more information on) to know where it belongs – takes time.

What is it that we observe? We observe behaviors. Then, what is behavior?

Let us start with a definition of behavior: "behaviour is the internally coordinated responses (actions or inactions) of whole living organisms (individuals or groups) to internal and/or external stimuli, excluding responses more easily understood as developmental changes" (Levitis et al., 2009). 

Several distinct/different behaviors [in horses] share the same function and can realize the same act (can lead to the same outcome). As one distinct behavior can be interpreted in many different ways, mean many different things. A behavior do not always reveal its cause (Hickock, 2014).

This means that behavior is context-dependent and that the same behavior can mean different things in different contexts. It also means that what needs to be expressed, can be done so in different ways, with different behaviors.

Ears pinned back can e.g. mean aggression, herding, relaxing, listening to something behind etc.

Like blinking in humans can mean flirting, that you have something in your eye, that the light is too bright, that you are tired...

The same goes for when something, a feeling, a thought, an experience, needs to or is wanted to be expressed – how many ways can a horse show happiness in? Distraction? Stress? Or a human for that matter?

Meaning, the same meaning/content can also be transferred with different behaviors, in different ways. Like hunger, e.g., can be displayed by stomping, digging with a front hoof, with noise, with looking at food, with chasing away of herd mates etc.

Interest can be displayed by turning ears, looking, coming closer, stopping and over-viewing/scanning, smelling (with nostrils or Jacobson's organ) etc. Without knowing/looking at the specific context the behavior occurs in, you will not know what it means. What the content of the behavior is. And even when you do look at the context, the behavior can still look "out of context". Behaviors are complex, and sometimes to understand them, we need to know more than what just goes on for the moment. Maybe we need to observe the same situation many times? From different perspectives? At different times of the day? In different seasons? With one, or many, or none herd mates present? With one, many or specific humans present, and so on. We could also be helped by knowing the horse(s) biography, his genetic disposition, his medical history etc.

Why do we observe behavior?

Because the behavior is a link to what goes on both inside the individual and between individuals. They are the outer display of emotions, thoughts, relationships, history, biological states etc. They are also displays of reactions to the environment, right now, or to what the environment right now triggers from the past.

Behavior is the language of the horse (and of the human as well). We humans are often incongruent, that means, we say one thing, but act another meaning out, often not on purpose. It confuses communication, both for the sender, as well as for the receiver. Horses can do this too. They can suppress behaviors they know are unwanted or are likely to be punished. They can also show behaviors that they know are wanted and will, is likely to be praised/rewarded. So, it is not sure the behavior the horse shows is authentic, he too, adapts to his environment and the beings in it. This is why it is so important to observe horses and their behavior when nothing is at stake for them, so they know you are there, without asking anything of them. That you are just being there, observing/noticing.

The more aversively trained (and/or distressed) a horse is – the more he will try to figure out what you want of/from him in a situation. To help him relax and display normal horse behaviors, not conditioned – can take time.

Agonistic/aggressive behavior is big – affiliative/friendly behavior is smaller

Compare horses and humans – aggressive/hostile behavior is big and noisy – friendly/kind behavior is smaller and quieter, and not so easy to notice. With too much distance when you observe, you will lose the smaller details, that often also is about affiliation and creating cohesion. This is another reason why you need to change the distance, alternate between closer and further away, to not miss out on important information when you observe your horse(s). Affiliative behaviors are harder to catch/notice, and therefore they are also much less studied (basically not at all). But it is the affiliative behaviors that keep herd animals together, they help both with maintaining bonding and releasing tensions (Lundgren, 2017).

How can you observe?

  • Observe with a notebook – write down, take photos of what you see, film it, just notice it/take notes, in different ways, also notice with your other senses, smell, sound, touch, proprioception etc. But don't sort or categorize. Just take it in. To reflect on it later.
  • Observe in a more structured way, maybe you are looking for specific behaviors? Use an ethogram or more structured way of collecting what you see and maybe also what you perceive with your other senses.
If you use an ethogram, design your own, according to what you want to study, is it specific behaviors in a "focal animal"? Group dynamics, pair bond relationships? Play? Daily (circadian) rhythms? Use of space? Social learning? Or something else. Most pre-fabricated ehtograms you can find on the internet only have the usual, often more agonistic behaviors listed. Think outside the box and create your own, out of your specific interests and questions.

Whichever way you chose to observe ( preferably you alternate!), remember to stay aware of your lenses!

What do I mean by lenses?

Ask yourself: 

What is my background? (Personal history, in and outside of equine science, equestrian sports, what education do I have, what kind of trainings?) Where do I come from? (culturally, geographically, areas of work life (the military, the health care system, the school system, the private sector), what kind of interests do I have?) What do I carry with me? (trauma, bad relationships, what kind of belief systems when it comes to animals, horses, science, life in general?)

Then be aware of your lenses when you meet the other (horses as humans), and try to put them aside as much as you can, to look at the being(s) you have in front of you, as unbiased as you can.

The human lens – Merkwelt, Wirkwelt and Umwelt

We humans have also our species-specific human lenses. We, humans, are good at anthropomorphizing (and that is a good thing since it helps us see other beings as agent), but this ability needs to be used critically, so we do not equal human needs and behaviors with horses' needs and behaviors. Sometimes our behaviors are the same, are shown for the same reasons, and sometimes not. Horses and humans are both mammals, but we also belong to different species, with species-specific traits and needs.

Remember the terms: Merkwelt, Wirkwelt, and Umwelt from von Üxekull (one of the founders of ethology). Merkwelt meaning a beings particular way of viewing the world, specific to that individual consciousness. We, humans, favor perceiving with our eyes, e.g., whereas horses more rely on auditory and olfactory cues. Wirkwelt meaning how each individual reacts/responds to their world/what they perceive. The Umwelt being the result of the individual's Merkwelt and Wirkwelt. Living in our Umwelt mean that we all live in our species-specific, and an individual world – we humans see the world with our human and individual abilities to perceive, react/respond to and interpret the world, that is our Umwelt, the horse has another world=Umwelt. By using critical anthropomorphism, we can imagine how it would be to be a horse, in a horse Umwelt (Bueno-Guerra, 2018). Will we ever be able to know, for sure? What observing and studying horses does, is to shorten the gap between what we can imagine and what we can know, and thereby also shorten the gap between our different Umwelts. By learning more about horses and their Umwelt, they will start to make more sense to us, and more importantly, we to them. And by that – we will be able to initiate, build and sustain more trusting relationships, between them and us.

Having these terms in mind also helps with strengthening the study of a subject, who is an agent in his own world, on his own premises. "All that a subject perceives becomes his perceptual world [Merkwelt] and all that he does, his effector world [Wirkwelt]. Perceptual and effector worlds together form a closed unit, the Umwelt" (Bueno-Guerra, 2018). There is a difference between humans and humans, and of course, between horses and horses. And to learn more about horses (and humans), we do need to observe and study them on a subjective and individual level. A horse is a horse, of course, but he is also a horse individual, a subject, and an agent. And different individuals can show a very different range of behaviors. You learn about horses, by observing and studying different horses (horse individuals), different horse groups, horse cultures, horse nations. If you think all horses are like your horse(s), like the horses in your riding school, the horses you see in your stable or pastures, in your part of the world, or in the particular group of horses you have studied, you will draw hasty and inaccurate conclusions about what a horse is.

"[Niko Tinbergen and David Lack, two other important], founders in the field of ethology and ecology, realised that individual identification was the first stage in adopting the animal perspective and exploring the lived consciousness of other species" (Rees, Na).

Are you interested in broadening your views on horses and on what a horse is? And get some practical and/or theoretical boost on how to observe horses and understand horse behavior, join one of our trainings, courses or seminars!

Bueno-Guerra, N. (2018). How to Apply the Concept of Umwelt in the Evolutionary Study of Cognition. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2001, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02001.

Hickok, G. (2014). The Myth of Mirror Neurons. The real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition.

W.W. Norton & CompanyLevitis, D.A., Lidicker, W.Z. & Freund, Jr, G. (2009). Behavioural biologists do not agree on what constitutes behaviour. Animal Behaviour 78, 103–110.

Lundgren, K.F. (2017). Equine Cognition and Equine-Human Interaction. Expanding our Knowledge on Equines to improve Equine Assisted Therapies and Equine Welfare and Well-being. In A Horse is a Horse, of Course 2017, Part 1, Ilka Parent, CreateSpace. 

Rees, A. (Na). Animal agents. Can they shape their own lives? Or the course of history? It's time to reconsider the significance of animal agency. https://aeon.co/essays/can-animals-shape-their-own-lives-orthe-course-of-history. Retrieved 20180606.

Text and photo © Katarina Lundgren, MiMer, 2018
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Wednesday, 17 July 2024