Ponies are pretty easy to understand, for most of the time, under normal, non threatening circumstances, think stroppy teenager who doesn’t speak, or understand, a word of your language. The behaviour pattern is then pretty easy to identify. They don’t want to do anything before noon, are obsessed with eating or drinking, sometimes both, and they want to get laid, ideally with the minimum effort somewhere that food and drink are easily available.
But ponies have an extra factor. They are scared. They are a prey species, and prey species survive on fear. Courage isn’t respected, it may be necessary on occasion, but good old honest fear is what kept all the preceding generations alive long enough to create the next generation.
We can’t understand that level of fear, living a comfortable first world existence. We aren’t on anybody’s menu for lunch. Killers aren’t hunting us. And we are descended from hunting stock. Most predators are in their turn prey for something else. An arctic fox is a predator, but to the Snowy Owl it is potential prey. However the predator has far more victims in his environment than threats, and to survive, must hunt. So his attention is divided between the potential prey and the potential predator. But the pony sees only threats.
Grass doesn’t need to be stalked. Or competed for. Either there is enough for all, or some are going to starve, but no single blade of grass is worth fighting for. A pile of hay, or a feed bucket is a different matter, but is a product of captivity. In the wild a shortage is a well distributed shortage. So the focus for a pony is on fear of predators, not anything else.
So the pony is frightened of predators, what does that actually mean. Other than man, there is nothing in the UK or on the continent that can eat him, though a few wolves are returning. In the America’s there are more threats with Jaguar and Cougar, but the risk is not massive. The fears are clearly instinctive, or the problem of fear would have gone long ago.
An instinctive fear will have to convey a better chance of survival to be inheritable. A pointless phobia that achieves nothing is evolutionary neutral. A fear of traffic might be a survival trait. A fear of food buckets would be the opposite. To understand the benefits of fear as a survival trait we need to understand hunters.
Imagine that a predator wanted to kill and eat you, and every morning, when you wake up, you drag on some clothes and head for the corner shop to buy some cornflakes and milk. If the predator lies in wait on the route between your house and the shop, it gets two chances every day to kill you. If these predators are common, those who head straight for the corner shop, are not going to get a chance to breed.
Look at a pony in the wild. The easiest way is to think of the zebra, a wild horse leading a nearly natural existence. Man has some influence zipping around in tourist buses, and by reducing the available open terrain for roaming herds, but most of the zebra’s behaviour is still pretty natural.
The zebra is nomadic, and every dawn, it sees a new horizon. No predator can predict its morning routine, because every morning is in a different environment. Watching a zebra, and what it does in the morning, and then the next morning, lying in wait where it went for food, is going to result in a very hungry predator.
To kill a zebra, you are going to have to hunt it. It is said that good hunters stalk, great hunters wait. This makes sense. Waiting burns up less calories. A stationary hunter is far more difficult to see, and the prey is moving, and consequently easier to see. But lying in wait for a zebra has problems. Even the bits of Africa that are left to wildlife, are huge. Which termite mound are you going to hide behind? It might be ten years before anything walks past.
Lying in wait only works in one location, the waterhole, and only during the dry season. And even then, everything congregates at the waterhole, so the lion hiding at the waterhole will have every animal around coming past from all angles, seeing or smelling him, and pointing out the fact to every other animal who all know this is a massively high risk place. The lion can wait, but while he is waiting and not eating, all the prey species are grazing, OK they are getting thirstier, but the lion is getting hungrier. It is a stand off.
How is this relevant to your pony? You have removed its main safety valve. You think his field is safe, you think the lane you ride or drive down every time you go out, is safe. You think the pony knows it is safe.
The pony isn’t stupid, he knows that it is exactly where any intelligent predator will hang out. The more often he goes down that route, the more dangerous it becomes. The fact that you think it is safe has no bearing on how the pony sees it. Millions of years of evolution are telling him that using a predictable route is massively dangerous, so what you see as napping, or him playing games, or being stupid, or naughty is no such thing. He is showing common sense and you are beating and kicking him for it. So how does he see you? Probably as just another predator, driving him to his death.
When Obama and I travelled from Brecon to Birmingham, and then from Exeter to London, I was amazed how chilled out Obama was. The napping and industrail scale laziness that I normally face is replaced by a pony who is happy to cruise along with a 150kg plus vehicle for up to 25 miles a day, and keen to set off the next morning. Take him out of his home field and the first few hundred yards are definitely a pain. He stops, refuses to move, sulks etc. Take him somewhere new and his paces improve out of all recognition.
This isn’t a scientific study, but it is a thought experiment. This hypothesis suggests that a naturally nomadic animal will show fear symptoms if forced to behave in a non nomadic way.. I suggest napping et al are fear symptoms. Can anyone suggest a more economical explanation of napping.