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Do horses experience love and have friendships? If so, do they experience the loss of those as we do and is their bereavement as enduring or debilitating? If so, how can we help them?

A draft horse refuses to work with another partner after his teammate has passed away, loses his zeal for life, and dies one month later, seemingly of a broken heart. A mare stands vigil over the grave of her dead foal for days, refusing to be moved from the spot. A gelding emits a crying whimper when his brother is put down and keeps up the eerie cry for weeks.

Horse-Canada readers provided many such stories when asked if horses grieve. One reader recounted the tale of her two young horses that had grown up with their greyhound buddy and felt his death intensely. As the owner was carrying the blanket wrapped body to the gravesite in a wheelbarrow, the two horses came to investigate. “I stopped, and they sniffed and sniffed and sniffed. The youngest one gently nudged the blanket away from the dog’s face and licked her. I had goose bumps! … I proceeded down the drive, and they came alongside – one on either side – pushing so hard against me, I had to push them away, I was worried they might get silly and kick. But all they did was form a processional, with me to bury their old companion!”

Researchers have documented behaviours in animals that look much like human grief – listlessness, decreased appetite, weight loss, sleep disruptions, etc. Still, science has been wary about labeling these reactions as grief, just as they are wary about labeling any animal emotions. Trained to be cautious about interpretations beyond the data, we scientists prefer to stick to what is observable and measurable. It has only been since the 1970s, when Donald Griffin coined the term “cognitive ethology” (the evolutionary and comparative study of animal minds), that the exploration of animal emotions was even allowed a place in rigorous scientific inquiry.

What then do we know about animals’ in general, and horses’ in particular, experiences of grief? And, might these accounts that look like grieving have an alternative and possibly simpler explanation? Whether horses experience grief as we do is a poignant question because of the ubiquity of separations and losses in the life of a modern domestic horse due to human intervention. If indeed horses grieve the loss of a companion (and I suspect that they do) they must do so much more frequently than most other animals – including ourselves.

“EVIDENCE” OF ANIMAL GRIEF

Although not studying horses specifically, researchers have documented numerous instances of what certainly looks like grief in a variety of other social animals. Crows seem to pay tribute to their dead, emitting a particular cry that brings others to gather around the body, even placing offerings of twigs or branches beside or on top of the body (Marzluff, 2005). Bonobos have acted out a very human-like rage against death, throwing rocks at the body of a deceased troupe mate and pounding on the deceased’s chest before pounding on their own (Kluger, 2013). Baboon infants have been observed crying and rocking over the corpse of their dead mother (Kluger, 2013).

Animals even seem to exhibit the denial of grief much like humans do. Both chimpanzee and dolphin mothers have been documented to not only carry the body of their dead infant with them for days or even weeks after the body has begun to decompose, but to exert extreme care with the body as if in denial of the infant’s death. (Kluger, 2013). There is also the heartbreaking story of Hachiko, the Akita dog, who accompanied his owner to the Tokyo train station daily, and greeted him upon his return from work each evening. He maintained this vigil for years after the owner died, diligently going to the train station every day and dejectedly padding back home alone.

The most extensive documented research on animal grief has focused on elephants, well-known for their matriarchal societies and complex social cultures, and the literature is rife with numerous accounts of the ceremony, ritual and seeming reverence with which elephants mourn their dead.

BUT IS IT REALLY GRIEF?

The scientific spoilsport explanation
All of these scenarios, however, can be interpreted from a less sentimental perspective. Crows surrounding a corpse to pay respects may simply be trying to discover what killed their companion so as not to meet a similar demise. Apparent rage may be an attempt to frighten the predator that killed a troupe mate. Baboon infants rocking over a dead mother may be hungry because their food source is cut off; the hunger makes them cold, and the cold is addressed by rocking. Even Hachiko’s vigil may have been a learned and reinforced behaviour that was so entrenched it was slow to extinguish.

Without the aid of psychological questionnaires – the foundation of how we know what we know in psychological science – many researchers claim that we cannot begin to presume what is going on in the heads of animals and caution against making unsupportable claims. Barbara King, professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary and author of How Animals Grieve, argues that animal grief is very real. Still she qualifies that it is not productive to ask questions we cannot answer such as whether or not animals understand death. “I’m just interested in what we can see,” she states.

The consequences of loss
One promising line of animal grief research that focuses on “what we can see” is looking at behavioural changes in animals that have lost a close family member. African elephants, in particular, have experienced mass deaths and subsequent social disruption brought about by culls, herd manipulation, poaching and lost habitat. This decimation of elephant herds has rocked the foundation of their social attachments by eliminating matriarchs and older females known as “allomothers”, leaving infants to be reared by less experienced, unsupported and stressed mothers. Gay Bradshaw, executive director of the Kerulos Center in Carpinteria California, and author of Elephants on the Edge, notes that wild elephants that have experienced violent early losses of close family members are more likely to later display symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): poor emotion regulation, an abnormal startle response, depression, unpredictable asocial behaviour and hyperaggression. Researchers have found that even fetuses are vulnerable to prenatal stress experienced by their mothers.

The biology of loss
Looking at biological changes in animals that have experienced loss offers another line of convincing research suggesting that social animals may experience grief reactions not dissimilar to our own. Anne Engh studied physiological responses in Botswana’s baboons after the traumatic event of the death of one of their troupe by a predator. Fecal samples showed increased glucocorticoid stress markers for up to a month after the event in all the tested individuals who witnessed the killing. This increase was higher still in the 22 members that had close family or social ties to the victim. The rise in cortisol also triggers the release of oxytocin the so-called “cuddle chemical” which encourages social affiliation. Engh proposes that oxytocin may be a factor in nudging both humans and animals to perform rituals around death that foster support in stressful times (in Bradshaw, 2013).

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT EQUINE EMOTIONS?

The scarcity of research on equine emotions leaves us knowing very little indeed, especially when it comes to friendship and grief at the loss of it. There are, however, some good reasons for believing that horses may experience grief in some manifestation. First, horses are social animals that prefer to remain in stable herds for life. They form attachment relationships with other horses, and where there is attachment there is grief upon loss. Secondly, the concept of evolutionary continuity suggests that most animals experience some version of the same emotional world that we do. I’ll look at each of these ideas in turn, beginning with a quick “Attachment Theory” primer.

What is attachment?
John Bowlby, first formulated “Attachment Theory” in the 1960s to explain an individual’s tendency to form enduring bonds with specific others. Bowlby argued that attachment served an adaptive function, critical to the individual’s survival. Infants who stuck close to caregivers were much more likely to survive and pass on their genes than those who wandered off and were eaten by predators. Thus, infants are biologically predisposed to maintain proximity to the attachment figure and to emit attachment behaviours that solicit caretaking (smiling, clinging, cooing, crying, etc.). Similarly, caregivers are hard wired to respond in kind with warmth, love and protection. As children mature, attachment to caretakers endures, but reciprocal attachment bonds are also formed with siblings, friends and eventually romantic partners. As adults, we learn to tolerate temporary separations from attachment figures, but the utter desolation of grief upon loss remains a defining feature of an attachment relationship.

The complex social networks of horses suggests that they too form attachment relationships to particular others. Horses, whose survival depended upon maintaining a cohesive and enduring social structure, have sophisticated social cognition – the ability to recognize, remember and understand the social rank and relationship of each of their herd members. And, when given the opportunity (i.e. living in natural conditions), horses often form lasting partnerships with particular individuals, cemented in the practice of allogrooming (mutual, synchronous, biting around the withers and neck). Allogrooming has been found to have stress-reducing properties by lowering heart rate, decreasing cortisol production, and increasing endorphin levels, thus solidifying pair bonds and contributing to herd stability.

If these specific relationships are indeed attachment relationships in the sense that Bowlby defined them, then we would expect that horses would experience distress upon separation (and we don’t need an empirical investigation to know that one is true!) and grief upon loss.

Whether horses’ experience of grief is as intense or as enduring as our own is still a question. Many researchers conclude that animal grief is probably not as complex as human grief, nor as enduring, because it is simply too evolutionarily costly to be debilitated by grief when faced with the everyday business of surviving. Animals are unlikely to engage in the complex reflection that makes grief such a lengthy and complicated process for us. Given that horses’ memory for painful events is surprisingly (and frustratingly) pronounced, however, it is possible that they may indeed experience long lasting pain from separation of a companion.

Emotion and evolution

Perhaps the most convincing argument for the fact that horses and other social animals grieve is that of evolutionary continuity. Today’s ethologists propose, as did Charles Darwin in 1859 with his publication of The Origin of the Species, that there is no radical break between the emotional, cognitive or psychological world of human and non-human animals. Evolutionary continuity argues that these particular mental capacities would not suddenly show up in human beings with no precursors in other species. Rather, there is a continuum of capacities where differences among species are differences in degree rather than in kind. As ethologist Marc Bekoff, states, “The more we study animals, and the more we learn about them and us, the more we discover that there is not a real dichotomy or nonnegotiable gap between animals and humans, because humans are, of course, animals.”

Christoff Koch, at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, comments that there is little foundation for believing that particular emotions or thinking abilities would be categorically unique to humans. He notes that the nervous systems of most multicellular organisms are highly complex, and their gene structure, proteins, synapses and neural connections are just as sophisticated as anything we would find in a human brain. Less complex brains may have less differentiated and less nuanced conscious experiences, yet “even a worm has perhaps the vaguest sense of being alive (2014).”

LOST COMPANIONS: THE SPECIAL CASE OF HORSES

Much of the research that has explored animal grief is based upon grief brought about by the death of a companion. Although horses too may face this scenario, they endure permanent separations much more frequently from human manipulation. Horses are sold, moved to other stables, forced rather than naturally weaned and separated because their bonds interfere with our goals. These separations are every bit as intense as a loss due to death, since, from the horse’s perspective, the loss is as absolute and irrevocable.

To assume that horses do not suffer psychological pain as a result of these social disruptions because they are not sufficiently cognitively sophisticated may make our human intervention more palatable, but it may be misguided. Bekoff cautions that creating arbitrary dividing lines of emotional capacity between humans and animals is especially problematic when we view human beings as superior and more valuable than “lower” animals. “Higher invariably and arrogantly means human…While there are many differences, these variations should be cherished rather than used to establish species’ boundaries. The multitude of likenesses clearly shows … that we are them, and they are us. We are all part of the same deeply interconnected and interdependent community (Bekoff, 2006).”

Although we may never know whether horses experience loss as we do, Bekoff’s words are worthy of consideration the next time we permanently separate two horses that have become “too attached”. Instead, we might honour their bond and train them to tolerate increasingly longer periods of separation. Perhaps in this way our objectives could be enhanced rather than compromised by their friendship, as our understanding of their social worlds is enriched.

 

HELPING YOUR HORSE DEAL WITH SEPARATION AND LOSS

Provide a substitute: Although it seems likely that horses experience grief, it is not clear whether they reflect and ruminate on the loss as we do. Attachment figures for humans are not easily replaced, but the same may not be true for horses. Setting your horse up with a new companion may well ease some of his distress. And, if the match does not seem made in heaven, try another. Horses have personal preferences in their choice of friends much as we do.

Support your grieving horse: Horses are evolutionarily hard wired to form strong social bonds, preferably with other horses, but will do so across species barriers when there is no equine alternative.

Researchers have found that vigorous currying, particularly around the wither area, mimics the allogrooming that horses do with each other and appears to have similar calming properties. Equine researcher Andrew McLean proposes that it may also have a comparable bonding function. A good daily curry may well have some benefits for your grieving horse.

Let them make friends: Horses have an ethological need to form specific bonds with other horses – a need that was evolutionarily designed to ensure herd stability. Owners and trainers are often reluctant to let horses form alliances for fear that bonding will interfere with training goals when friends become inseparable. If horses are systematically trained to tolerate temporary separations, however, allowing them to create the social alliances for which they were evolutionarily designed, separation distress may well diminish, rather than increase.

Train separation tolerance: When two horses become “too attached”, the typical remedy, is to permanently separate them, and endure their calls of distress until they eventually cope. Not only is this ‘cold turkey’ method psychologically abusive, it does not train the horse to deal with separation. Instead, the anxious horse, now hyper-vigilant about the unpredictable disappearance of a friend, invariably and immediately makes a new friend, the process repeats, and his clinginess escalates with each new attachment. The intensity of behaviour exhibited by extremely herd-bound horses may well result from a history of attachments being continually and permanently severed.

More effective and enduring is to train the horse with positive reinforcement and desensitization to tolerate progressively longer periods of separation. Building up small increments of separation (walking into the other horse’s stall and putting on a halter may be an initial starting point), and rewarding the “herdy” horse for his calm behaviour will gradual build his confidence to tolerate increasingly longer separations. Always returning the friend to the place the anxious horse expects him to be offers yet another reward for his separation tolerance, and increases his confidence that his friend is not leaving for good.