Sunday, 26 July 2015

How Monty Learned to Speak Equus

I read this a few years ago. I had always wanted to read the book, it had been referenced by so many of the other authors I read and when I finally stumbled upon a copy at the Payless book sale (sadly a thing of the past) I grabbed it so fast, there was no time for you to say Whaa?

Anyway, this is the most fascinating part of the book...the part where young Monty observes a pack of wild mustangs and picks up on how they talk to each other. Without words of course.

I noticed in particular a dun mare with a dark stripe along her back and zebra stripes above her knee. Older than most of the others, with a heavier belly that hinted at many more pregnancies, she seemed to give a lot of commands in the group. It was she who ordered her group to move off. She started and the others followed; she stopped and so did the others. It seemed she was the wisest, and they knew it.

What I was observing, in fact, was the dominant mare. No one had told me that wild horses were controlled by a dominant mare before, and I suspect that a lot of people today still think that it's the stallion who runs the show. That isn't true. The breeding or dominant stallion, sometimes called the alpha male or lead male, will skirt the herd and defend it from marauders. His motivation is to prevent anyone or anything from stealing his harem.

But was the dun mare who was in charge of the day-to-day running of this group. There was no mistaking it.

And then I saw an extraordinary sequence of events. A light bay cold was behaving badly. He was about 20 months old, I guessed, with a vast amount of feathering around his fetlocks and down the backs of his legs and mane running down well below his neck line. Right in the middle of the group, he took a run at a filly and gave her a kick. The filly squealed and hobbled off and this colt looked pleased with himself. He was only about 550 pounds in weigh, but very aware of the fact that he was the owner of a pair of testicles.

As I watched, he committed another crime. A little foal approached him, snapping his mouth in a suckling action to indicate he was no threat but subservient, only a little foal. That didn't cut any ice with this colt; he launched himself at his younger cousin and took a bite out of his backside. He really was a terrorist -- if he wasn't kicking, he was biting. Immediately after the attack, he pretended nothing had happened; he went neutral. It was as though he was trying to avoid having the blame pinned on him. Each time he behaved badly, the dun mare -- the matriarch -- weaved a little closer to him. I became certain that she was watching to see if there was going to be any more of this behaviour. Even though she showed no sign of interest, she'd left her station and was getting closer to him all the time.

She witnessed about four such episodes before she made her move. Now she was within 20 yards but this sugar-coloured colt couldn't help himself; he launched at a grown mare, grabbed the nap of her neck and bit down hard.

The dun mare didn't hesitate. In an instant she went from neutral to full-on anger; she pinned her ears back and ran at him, knocking him down. As he struggled to his feet, she whirled and knocked him down again.

While the chastisement was going on, the other members of the herd didn't turn a hair. It was as if they didn't know it was happening.

The dun mare ended by driving the colt out of the herd. She drove him out 300 yards and left him there, alone.

I thought, what in the hell am I seeing? I was amazed. The dun mare took up position on the edge of the herd to keep him in exile. She kept her eye on his eye, she faced up to him. She was freezing him out.

He was terrified to be left alone. For a flight animal. it's to be under a sentence of death; the predators will get you if you're separated from the group. He walked back and forth, his head close to the ground, executing this strange, uncomfortable gait several times. It looked like a sign of obedience, similar to a bow made by a human being.

Then the light bay colt made his way around to the other side of the herd and attempted to come back in that way, but the dun mare had followed his circle. Again she drove him out, running at him until he was about 300 yards away before returning to maintain her vigil on the edge of the herd. She kept her body square on to him, and she never once took her eye off his.

He stood there, and I noticed there was a lot of licking and chewing going on, although he hadn't eaten anything. I remembered the foal and how it had snapped its mouth, which is an obvious signal of humility as though it was saying, "I'm not a threat to you." Was this the more adult version? Was this colt saying the same thing to his matriarch?

By this time, some hours had passed and it was rapidly getting dark.

A few hours later after it had turned dark and he focussed once again on the herd to see what was happening...

To my astonishment, the dun mare was now grooming the light bay colt. She was giving him little scrapes on his neck and his hindquarters with her teeth, and generally fussing over him. She'd let him back in; and now she was keeping him close by and giving him a lot of attention. She worked away at the root of his tail, hips and withers.

So...after his purgatory, came heaven. As I watched, she groomed the hell out of him.

It was the single most important thing I saw -- this matriarch disciplining the young, adolescent horses. There was a gang of adolescents she had to deal with, and it was educational to watch her do it because a lot happened. Their youthful energy drove them to do things, and their inexperience meant they made mistakes, much like the young of any species.

It was the dun mare's job to keep them in order -- and over the three-week period I watched every move.

Certainly, she went and made a Christian out of the sugar-coloured colt. Often, like a child, he would reoffend immediately after being let back in, to test the disciplinary system and gain back the ground he'd lost. Maybe he'd start fighting with another colt or bothering the fillies.

The dun mare came right back and disciplined him again. She squared up to him and said, "I don't like your actions. You're going away."

He sinned a few more times, but she always drove him out and kept him out there before letting him back in and welcoming him into the group with extensive grooming. The third time he sinned, he practically owned up and walked out there by himself, grumbling about it but accepted his fate.

Then he came back in and stuck to the group like glue. He was a positive nuisance; he turned out so nice and cooperative, wandering about and asking everyone, "D'you need any grooming?" when all they wanted was to be left alone to eat. For four whole days the dun mare had made the education of this awful brat her number one priority, and it had paid off.

After a time spent observing these signals, I could see how exact a language it was; there was nothing haphazard about it. These were precise messages, whole phrases and sentences which always meant the same thing, always had the same effect. They happened over and over again.

Perhaps I could use the same silent system of communication myself, as I'd observed employed by the dominant mare. If I understood how to do it, I could effectively cross over the boundary between man -- the ultimate fight animal -- and horse, the flight animal. Using their language, their system of communication, I could create a strong bond of trust. I would achieve cross-specie communication.

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