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  • Writer's pictureJulie Taylor

Flights of fancy

Why do we call horses flight animals? Even I say it and I have witnessed how decidedly unflighty free living horses are and how little they concern themselves with running away from things. Of course, a horse is capable of showing a flight response, but so is a human and we don't consider ourselves flight animals.

Horse people have been told so many times that "horses are flight animals"that few of us have ever bothered to fact check or reflect on this assumption. 

A few weeks ago, however, I did just that. I looked up the exact meaning of "flight animal" to make sure horses fit within this definition. The occasion was that I was going to interview someone who - incredibly -  did not consider the term to be appropriate to describe horses. His name is Dr. Francesco De Giorgio and he is a biologist and ethologist who - among his many other achievements - sits on the board of ethics of the International Society for Applied Ethology. Ethology, as you know, is the scientific study of animal behaviour. And the ISAE is the bee's knees in the field of animal behaviour science.

It was not some nobody telling me that my understanding of the nature of horses was fundamentally flawed, and I was starting to feel a bit of cognitive dissonance, which is never nice. I decided to do my homework really well and it was then that I googled "flight animal" to find some arguments in the formal definition of the term with which to reconcile myself that horses are, indeed, flight animals, just like I had been told.

Imagine my embarrassment when the only search results that came up were articles about horses and animals that can actually fly. A "flight animal" as in "an animal defined by its flight instinct" is not even a thing. It's just a made up term used by horse people - including myself - to explain why horses get spooked. Kind of like we made up the concept of the "dominant horse" to explain why some horses meet us with aggression or resistance. The common denominator is that we mistake the abnormal for a natural and even necessary expression of equine behaviour.

Honest mistake? Perhaps. But just as the dominance myth is used to justify violent training and normalise pathological aggression between horses, the fallacy of the flight animal must necessarily also affect our approach. 

How often have you heard or uttered the term "flight animal" together with a mention of the horse's size or power? It seems to me the two go together. The horse isn't just a flight animal. The horse is a "thousand pound flight animal with a brain the size of a walnut" - actually, horses' brains are a lot bigger than walnuts. We once made a video about that. But my point is that when we call horses "flight animals" it's often in the context of controlling their flight instinct for our own protection. The more we think the flight instinct defines the horse, the more we are going to have to protect ourselves from that horse by training, by equipment, by control. And the less we feel like putting our trust in the horse we are with.

After all, if horses aren't flight animals and they're not trying to dominate us, why would we ever need to be afraid of them? Why would we need protection from them? What if the human is the only reactive, unaccountable aggressor in any horse-human dyad? What sort of future coexistence might such an admission bring about?

Those kinds of scary questions are what Dr. De Giorgio and his colleague and wife, José De Giorgio-Schoorl are all about. That's why I went to see them and their horses and filmed a series of interviews. You can watch the first episode right now. It's called the Flight animal fallacy and it's about why no animals - not even gazelle or zebra - are actually "flight animals" and how, in Dr. De Giorgio's view, we humans create what we think is a flight animal by trying to control what we think is a flight animal. And so on and so on.

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Jan 26

Hm I don't know if I can agree with this. I also looked up and yes in English it mostly gives out flying animals and then horses. But I think that comes from an incorrect wording. I searched the same thing in German, where a flight animal is called a Fluchttier ("fleeing animal"), and the definition for it was "animals, generally prey animals, that react to stressors or to something dangerous by running (fleeing)". And that too instinctually to the point they can actually run into a tree if they're in a high enough stress situation. This behavior can actually be easily seen in both wild horses as well as domestic horses in the field. Sure, wild horses might seem…

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