Such is the real nature of horses

Such is the real nature of horses

When I think of how feral horses are portrayed in the arts and media, the powerful image of battle-scarred stallions “striking madly at each other” — to quote the author Walter Farley — frequently comes to mind.

After all, it’s one of the images most often seen on-screen, usually accompanied by some description along the lines of stallions fighting for “supremacy” or “dominance” over a herd of mares.

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#cavalliselvaggi #avetohorses #wildhorses in una splendida foto di @franslanting regram @natgeo Photo by @FransLanting I was lying flat on my stomach with a wide-angle lens aimed at these two wild horses when they reared up to challenge each other for dominance over a herd of mares grazing in the Oostvaardersplassen Nature Reserve in the Netherlands. More than 1,000 wild horses thrive there, less than an hour from Amsterdam, in a place where a generation ago, there were none. It’s a remarkable example of how the Dutch are restoring nature in the midst of one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Follow me @FransLanting to see a video of me photographing these horses. @natgeotravel @natgeocreative @thephotosociety #Horse #WildHorses #Oostvaardersplassen #wildlifephotography #naturephotography

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Another typical image is the mystical one of a “lead” or “alpha” mare, leading the band (family unit) with her wisdom and strength of character; sometimes said to do so alongside the “lead” stallion.

As ethologist and horse trainer Lucy Rees has put it: “There’s a lot of fantasy written about wild horses.”

.  .  .

Last year, as I told people I was going to travel to Spain that summer in August to attend an equine ethology course, I was, more than once, met with a look of concern when I mentioned that it involved the actual study of feral horses. Even before asking me whether I was sure about it, I could sense that they thought of it as something insanely risky to do. Can’t say I blame them, considering the reputation that feral horses — and wild animals in general — have.

I had read books by Lucy; read about the Pottokas and how feral horses reveal a great deal about their domestic counterparts. Reading is one thing — and it certainly serves its purpose — but seeing, observing, and learning to objectively record what one observes is another. It was a trip that had been on my mind for the previous two years and at last I took the plunge.

For three days before my flight to Madrid, I spent time with a large group of about eight broodmares and their foals at a stud farm in the north of Poland.


Imagine my discomfort once I realized, in hindsight, that they were being kept in far too small an enclosure compared to the amount of space that a single, smaller band of Pottokas would have as their home range. How aggressive the broodmares were to each other and each other’s foals — no doubt aggravated by the lack of a stallion’s presence, along with the lack of space — compared to these “wild” (more like civilized) ponies. And how hesitant the domestic foals were in the presence of humans, compared to the curiosity and relaxed demeanor of the Pottoka youngsters.


Despite being aware of the fact that domestic horses are overall more stressed than feral ones, I was still gobsmacked by how unruffled the Pottokas are. Nervousness is widely perceived to be an essential part of the nature of horses, and it’s unfortunately not unusual to come across the statement that they are “dangerous” and “unpredictable” animals, to be kept under constant control.


When studying the Pottokas, popular beliefs about horses — such as the one that their social structure is based on a dominance hierarchy — completely fall apart. I saw how band movement can be initiated by a three-day-old colt wandering off to explore. While on the move, the stallion, being the protector, follows his band rather than leads it. And not once did I see — or any one of us in the study group see — evidence of an “alpha” mare. 

.  .  .

I even got to witness a scuffle between two stallions.

Txito (at the left) and his band as of August 2018

One evening during a theory session at the Majada — a traditional stone hut where students can spend the night — we suddenly became spectators of a muddle that ensued nearby as three bands (Txito’s, Erbi’s, and Beltz’s) crossed paths. Poor Txito ended up losing track of his small band — a yearling son, a black mare, and a piebald filly named Esku; I still vividly remember him galloping up and down the glade near the Majada, anxiously searching for them.

The following day, we watched the drama unfold as the black mare and the yearling were found by Erbi, who tried herding them into his own band. The mare’s noisy protests were not in vain, as Txito happened to be close by. The stallions found themselves in an awkward stalemate, as Txito was persistent in wanting to retrieve the mare and their son; Erbi, on the other hand, was dead set on keeping Txito away from his mares.

Lots of melodramatic squealing, foreleg strikes, and running around took place, but it came nowhere near the level of violence we see in popular depictions of fighting stallions; I can even recall at least one spell of parallel grazing. In the end, Txito and Erbi quietly reached a truce. Erbi let the mare and her colt return to Txito, and there couldn’t have been a sweeter reunion.

Later on, as I watched Txito loaf in the shade of oak trees together with his mare, their son dozing between them, my heart sank; I thought of how stallions in domesticity are commonly sentenced to social isolation, their consequently deranged behaviour believed to be “normal”.

.  .  .

It’s by observing those that are untouched — horses that are strangers to bridle, saddle, or whip, strangers to the oppression of confinement and the subjection to misguided, anthropomorphic ideas — that you get what the true nature of the horse is like.


I must add that it wasn’t only the Pottokas who made that trip so memorable. In those nine days spent in Piornal with Lucy, the volunteers, and fellow students, I grew up a little more, making new friends along the way. It felt akin to being part of one big, extended family; a sense of community that’s hard to find.

Needless to say, I left the place with my heart dragging on a leash, and an insatiable yearning to return.


Horses have hoofs to carry them over frost and snow; hair, to protect them from wind and cold. They eat grass and drink water, and fling up their heels over the champaign. Such is the real nature of horses. Palatial dwellings are of no use to them.

— Chuang Tzu, c. 300 – 400 B.C., as translated by Herbert Giles

Lucy Rees – Wild Horses in Spain

Going to extremes

Going to extremes

Let me begin by asking a simple question: how does the photo below make you feel?


This is the “descent of Mombrone”, a six-metre drop from what once was a window of the old ruined Castle of Mombrone. It was a “test of nerve” which every officer was required to do before leaving the Italian Cavalry School in Pinerolo.

So how do you feel about it? Does it send shivers down your spine? Or, does it make you angry?

I first came across it on Facebook, and to me it’s a chilling yet fascinating vintage photograph, commemorating something that thankfully no longer has to be done today. When I read the comments on that post however, I was somewhat surprised by the vast majority of them being negative. When researching the background of this photo, it didn’t take me long to find out that, well, the anger expressed by those commenters was not out of place. Brigadier Philip Ernest Bowden-Smith, cavalry officer and later armoured commander who served in the British Army in both World Wars, noted that “accidents were not unknown and occasionally rather serious, and the practice has rather died out since the war.” We can debate about it all day, but I think that, considering its context, there was a fairly reasonable motive behind this. In those pre-war days, the descent of Mombrone was to test the capabilities of horse and rider. Looking at our times, falls are not unusual in upper level eventing, just as horses falling are a normal sight in jumps races such as The Grand National. Falls that not only result in “rather serious” injuries to both horses and humans, but fatalities too. Not to mention the depressing number of horses that break down on racetracks every year.

The reason why I found those Facebook comments intriguing is because they made me wonder how many of those people are enthusiastic about horse racing, steeplechasing or upper level eventing — all three of which, due to various factors, subject horses and riders to a high risk of injury and even death. I didn’t put my investigator hat on and set out to study their profiles and likes, because I’m not a creep; I’m not ruling out that I could be wrong and that most of those people who commented do dislike these sports as much as they dislike the descent of Mombrone. But the horse world is so full of strange and amusing contradictions, I won’t be surprised if most of those people do like at least one of these sports. Unlike the tests that were required in the cavalry, such as the descent of Mombrone, what reason have we to risk the well-being of horses in eventing, horse racing and steeplechasing? When death in a sport is not a tragic and rare incident but happens with disturbing regularity, to the point it literally has been accepted as the norm, it’s not just awry. It is morally questionable.

Since I might have opened a can of worms, I’m going to stop here. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts.