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The Bonds between Horses

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

We’re all affected by COVID, and I don’t see any possibility of running ethology courses until late autumn at the earliest, least of all ones involving British visitors to Spain. So I’ve decided to try to write a blog that keeps you in touch with our project and the revelations that the pottokas continually enlighten us with.

Polita Arbela: Polita, (Pretty) the piebald, who has just had her first foal, is never far from her friend Arbela (Slate).

Despite the calamities befalling its inhabitants the world keeps turning. Paradoxically it's a marvellous spring with rain and sun, flowers and foals and an abundance of grass after two years of drought and hungry winters.

For me the prohibition on courses has its blessings too: time to sort out a mass of handwritten notes into digitalized data, helped by computer-wise Cathy Edwards who's just graduated from Writtle College. We're working on social networks in the pottokas: who associates with whom, the evidence of bonds and how they interact to produce social organization.

When you know a population as well as I know the pottokas you inevitably start to see patterns in their behaviour. But the human mind has a tendency to leap to conclusions too easily, seeing the instances when facts support your conclusion and ignoring the ones that don't. That's the point of scientific investigation: you have to count all the data and see whether the numbers support your ideas. Sometimes they reveal ones you haven't even thought of.

For over 10 years I have written down which pottokas I have seen, whom they were with and where they were. As in any feral population you tend to see more or less the same mares and their youngsters with the same stallion (natal band) in more or less the same places (home range): Ekain's live on the heights which we call the End of the World, Beltz in the oakwoods of Jubajerra and so on.

Bidaia Oihan Bidaia (Way) was aptly named since she follows her own independent way. Here she’s escaped and found some better grazing to give birth to her foal.

More or less. Some mares are intensely loyal to their stallions. If you see Ilargi Pintxo will not be far away though he may be hidden in the heather. Bidaia is different. When her foal is small she stays with her stallion, but when food gets scarce in drought or winter she wanders off with her foal. She comes back to the same stallion to give birth and mate but otherwise she doesn't seem to care. And Gau is a different case altogether.

Gau. Gau (Night) always looks shabby at the end of winter since she refuses to come down from the area we call The End of the World (1,500m), where spring arrives later. She’s feeding a big, healthy foal.

She's loyal to a place, the End of the World, and she stays there come snow, hail or drought. If Ekain is there, fine. If he and the others in his band move down to the woods in bad weather she stays there alone with her foal - and her yearling and two year old too. If Pintxo goes up there, as he does sometimes in the summer, she may live with him. She doesn't seem to mind which she mates with as long as he's where she wants to be. Gau is a wonderful mother and always ends up thin feeding her foals but she won't go down to the shelter of the nourishing woods.

Most youngsters stay with their mothers until they're between one and two years old. But Argi wouldn't leave her mother even when she was four – and her daughters are the same. Since stallions won't mate with their daughters, these mares usually don´t conceive until later than others.

And then we have Arbela and Polita, both young mares. They live with Erbi, a gorgeous young stallion but rather distracted. If he dashes off on some mission his other mares try to follow him but Arbela and Polita stay together. They've been together for years although we don't see much evidence of strong bonds between other mares.

In other words I'm seeing different kinds of bonds and strengths of bonds. And the funny thing is that females seem to follow their mothers. Whether this is genetic or learned you can't tell. But Ilargi the faithful wife is like her faithful mother Izar. Bidaia and her sisters are like their errant mother Gaztain who eventually wandered up the mountain (they're big here) and was never seen again. Gau's daughters stay on the heights too. Argi's daughters are like she was, tied to her apron strings.

Argi etc. Argi (Light, centre) accompanied by her two daughters Eki (left) and Ispi, who are 4 and 3 years old. We call this group The Feminists. Since their stallion Gabiri died at Christmas 2018 they haven’t settled into another stallion group but wander from one to another, causing disruption wherever they go. Eki and Ispi have just foaled but they still cling to their mother’s apron strings, as Argi herself did.

Until we get the numbers out of the huge and complicated tables Cathy is constructing I can't prove that what I've been seeing is true, but it fascinates me. Could this be a way of defining character differences in wild horses? Ones that love their stallion, ones that love their mothers, ones that love their place and ones that put food first? We do know that domestic horses too differ in the way that they bond to each other or to us but then we wreck their schemes so often that there's no knowing whether these differences reflect family, the way they were raised or the way we're treating them now. But the pottokas aren't constrained in any way: they follow their hearts.

There are other sorts of bonds too and maybe I'll have time to talk about them later.

Lucy Rees


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