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The Equine Perspective: Who Horses Are

by Bonny Mealand with Abby Letteri with photos by Jean Sinclair


Bonny Mealand explains how learning from wild herds can  help us better care for our domestic horses.


Years of observing horses in the wild, studying them living life on their own terms, has given me a rich understanding of why horses are who they are, and why it matters. My work is based on equine ethology, an observational practice that provides the insight that makes it possible for me to trim the hooves of wild-living horses without restraint, sedation or other aversive methods. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle to understand horses in order to better care for them.


Ethology is the study of animal behaviour, with a focus on animals living in natural conditions. We observe wild horses to gain insight into who horses are — how they have evolved and their unique adaptive behaviour: what the late veterinary ethicist Bernard Rollin described as their telos. The telos of an animal is the set of distinctive traits and powers that allow the animal to function and thrive in the environments they are adapted to. A good life for horses is one that allows them to fulfil or satisfy their telos, a life that suits their characteristic nature.



But what does this mean? When we observe wild or free living horses, we see the importance of strong social bonds within the herd. We see how subtle their communication can be, and how they learn from one another. Primatologist and biologist Frans De Waal talks about ‘biologically prepared learning’, the idea that each creature is driven to learn those things it needs to survive. Viewing equine behaviour in this way allows us to form a more nuanced understanding of what matters to horses. This simple shift in perspective leads to greater understanding, which enables us make the best decisions possible for our horses.


In the wild, horses are constantly engaged in decision-making and problem-solving, both as individuals and collectively within the herd. They benefit from constant movement as they graze, forage and seek water, and together with the importance of close-knit social bonds, these factors make for fit, healthy animals fully engaged in their lives. When we step outside of our human-centric viewpoint and apply an ethological lens, it helps us move away from flawed, outdated interpretations of horses, and see through their eyes. Free-living populations give us a window through which we can view natural horse behaviour. Ethology provides the depth of understanding which can positively inform how we handle, train and care for our own horses.



Once our domestic horses lived with the constant pressure of predation, and genetically programmed vigilant prey behaviour still shapes their lives. Stress is a powerful influence on horses. Not all stress is bad, but stress that a horse is unable to resolve will result in significant health and welfare issues. From social isolation to unidentified pain, the manifestations of unhealthy stress that many domestic horses live with are all around us (see Horses in our hands, 2018). The ways in which we keep and manage horses can either provoke unhealthy stress resulting in a multitude of physical and behavioural problems, or create conditions which help our horses feel safe, secure and confident.


We all want a good life for our horses, and we want them to be free from harmful stress. Understanding how horses manage themselves in the wild can help us create an environment in which they can build confidence and resilience even in the confines of a yard, barn or grazing facility. These domestic environments can be perplexing and challenging for a horse; we drop them in and expect them to function, often at a very high level, without attending to their needs for safety, security, companionship and cognitive stimulation. Fortunately, we now have a powerful tool to help us assess their lives: the Five Domains of Welfare Assessment of Sport and Recreation Horses.

A horse that feels threatened, stressed, bored or fearful is a horse that will manifest behaviours that frighten us. If horses can learn to behave in ways that don't frighten us, they’ll stand a better chance of staying in a long-term home. But how do we do that? Happy, content horses are horses who feel safe. When horses feels safe, they are able to express curiosity and engage with the world around them. These are also the optimum conditions for learning. The most direct way to evaluate and create these conditions in a domestic setting is to make sure that horses are able to fulfil their telos, their natural way of being in the world, which includes intact social relationships, and a high level of freedom and choice in their lives.



Providing an enriched environment where horses can make their own choices is one of the simple, but very effective ways, we can improve horse welfare — and also improve their willingness to engage with us. Continuity of social relationships matters to horses. This can be directly observed in wild and free-living herds. In fact, it is something horses and humans share: we are both profoundly social species, with a need to explore and connect.

The spotlight is on horse welfare, the world is watching, and as equestrians we must find positive and achievable ways to improve our practices. Millions of years of evolution have provided horses with a blueprint for survival. They are hardwired to behave in certain ways. They have an innate need to express these behaviours and when, due to our influence, they are unable to do so, it will inevitably lead to multiple physical and behavioural problems, from stereotypies to ulcers to dangerous reactivity. Horses who are able to express natural behaviours lead more fulfilled lives, which in turn creates confidence and contentment. This means there’s a good chance that when we interact with them it will be calm, safe and straightforward. Understanding the equine perspective is key to improving their welfare and our own.

Equine ethology has an important role to play as we move towards a more ethical and sustainable world for horses. By cultivating an equine perspective, we discover the essential elements of a good life for horses. We seek to understand their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive needs in order to make informed decisions about their care and management. Observing wild horses opens our eyes to the beautiful complexity of what constitutes a fulfilling equine life.


Ethology provides a way forward that is easy to grasp, and truly enjoyable to practice. It delivers insight into the lived experience of horses, who they are and why they do the things they do. Once we start paying attention to horses in this way, it is easier to evaluate their welfare status and find creative ways to help them live a good life. It's not a huge leap; it's really just a perspective shift. Once you've seen it, you can't unsee it. Our horses truly are our best teachers. The cherry on top is how much more engaged and willing our horses will be to live side by side with us in our shared world.



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Bonny Mealand qualified as an Equine Podiatrist in 2005 and alongside her business Touching Wild is currently an Equine Science Masters at the University of Edinburgh working towards her Clinical Equine Behaviourst qualification. Bonny's work takes her all over the world and she has recently launched an online course - Through The Eyes Of A Horse. She is a dedicated and passionate equine advocate teaching about wild horse behaviour and its application in the domestic horse world and showing people how inextricably linked these two worlds really are.



Abby Letteri is a writer and lover of horses based in Aotearoa New Zealand. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand). Her thesis explores the nature of relationships between horses and people across cultures and throughout history and examines the impact of human activity on horses' lives. When not traveling the world to observe free-living and wild horses, Abby divides her time between a small farm on the Otaki River where her dogs and horses live, and a home in town with her filmmaker husband.








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