Posted by: Bob Fisher | October 29, 2013

Horse Play: the Behavioural Science of Horses, Humans, and other Mammals

Horse and human at play

Equestrian travel is one of the many niche markets within the travel industry, and equestrians especially (I am one of the breed) are fanatical about their sport.

International competitions especially are an opportunity not only to see the very best in equestrian sports, but to also experience a destination from a whole new perspective.

In terms of the equestrian sports, Europe is a top destination especially for what is known as dressage. This art-sport has been compared to ballet on horseback; it is equally as graceful, moving, and strenuous.


Have you ever looked closely at someone playing?

Did you know that play is a specialized area of study that explores the nature of the behaviour itself, in both animals and humans? Have you ever wondered why we play?

According to many psychologists and zoologists who engage in the study of human play, this complex behaviour has significant evolutionary purposes; quite simply, play is development  — physical, mental, and social. One theory suggests that play in the form of vigorous exercise is a survival strategy in that it serves to regulate energy and the surplus of same.

To anyone with small children, that might sound familiar.

Play is certainly motor training, and has become a highly specialized human activity that develops and enhances motor skills, social skills, creativity, and intellectual capacities and concepts.

Play as recreation also provides emotional release, is an important socialization agent, and can be an affirmation of individual identity. It has been demonstrated moreover that our play can foster behavioural flexibility. (We get along a bit better if we play together.) It even helps us develop and maintain spatial skills that we need in order to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Play is often highly symbolic, full of imagery, representative of some ideal inherent in our psyches, and culturally transmitted. Play helps us develop problem-solving skills. It’s a chicken-and-egg creative mechanism and need. Fantasy play should not be underestimated in this regard, nor should “rough-and-tumble play” nor “play fighting.”

Those playful puppies sure are cute, but it’s a dog eat dog world out there – or more accurately, a big dog eat little dog world. What has been referred to as “agonistic exercise games” develop all the above-mentioned skills as well as competitive skills.

(“Agonistic” play emphasizes power struggles, attack and defence, chase and escape, and the combative. The term has a similar root to antagonistic but not quite the same meaning … interesting wordplay though.)

But when does the play stop being fun? How do we balance competitive and collaborative forms of play especially when they exist side by side within the same activity? How does society in general benefit from play?

Sport as Play

Play has short-term and long-term benefits for both individuals and the community.

A quick look at the Yellow Pages reveals the myriad of businesses and not-for-profit organizations devoted to the many forms of human play: all kinds of sports, fitness training and health clubs, sports therapy, sporting goods stores, martial arts, dancersize … and the list goes on.

In many ways sport is ritualized and highly organized play, and it’s big business in my neck of the woods. If you look carefully at how many sports are “played” in your region, and how many facilities and corollary businesses support such play, you will get a good sense of the economic benefits to any community.

For example, what is required in terms of space, time, science, money, expertise, equipment, zoning laws, etc. so that I can play a round of golf? So that I can act out my hunter-gatherer heritage? Whether you call it sport, recreation, or leisure-time activities human play has increasingly become a social priority and flourishing industry in this community.

Equestrian Sports

Horse sports require the economic base and infrastructure found in cities but also proximity to the kind of horse-friendly rural areas that extend to the east, west, and north of the sprawling megalopolis in which I live.

In a nutshell, the equestrian industry is good for business; and can preserve valuable green spaces that otherwise would be swallowed up in mega-urbanization.

In my region, there is a horse industry that includes both public and private equestrian farms – for leisure and recreational purposes as well as serious training leading to international competition. It also includes many corollary industries such as horse breeding operations, specialized builders and contractors, feed suppliers, agricultural equipment suppliers, veterinary personnel and other healthcare resources that specialize in horses, pharmaceutical and homeopathic companies that serve both rider and horse, and clothing and tack stores.

A 1998 Canadian Horse Industry Study confirms the extent and impact of the industry in Canada. In that year, it estimated that there were 880,000 horses nationwide, owned by approximately 110,000 owners, and ridden by more than 1.3 million people.

Most Canadian horse owners own Canadian-bred horses and in 1998 had an average investment of $2200 in each of their horses. Ontario of course has about 21 per cent of the horses in Canada (surpassed only by Alberta with 35 per cent) but over 33 per cent of the riders. In Ontario each horse has an average of 1.89 employees looking after its needs; 116,077 of these are “non-family employees.”

According to the report, the horse industry is in a growth phase driven, amongst other factors, by “new participants.”

The general demographic profile for a rider is that of a baby-boomer, female, well-educated, a computer-based consumer and frequent Internet user; and someone who is participating in the sport with another person in the household.

The direct industry employment in the care of horses – the “invisible sector” – is 470,000+ nationwide. And equestrian sports – too many to mention here – are as diverse and distinct as those of track and field. This is not just the “horsy set”; this is a mass market of average wage earners who prioritize their lives around their horses.

Now that you are chomping at the bit and ready to ride off madly in all directions, let me introduce you to one of the fastest-growing horse sports in Canada.

The Aesthetic in Dressage

It’s called dressage, from the French meaning “training.”

Essentially it consists of the training of horse and rider to perform together a series of precise movements that emphasize and enhance the natural way in which horses have evolved to move.

This is done in a defined area (the dressage ring); the moves are of varying difficulty, and together horse and rider demonstrate the harmonious development of the horse’s physique, balance, and rhythm.

It is both an individual and team sport internationally, with the Grand Prix “test” being the most accomplished form of dressage. Once described as “equitation in bedroom slippers,” dressage is a very popular and television-friendly sport in Europe.

For those not familiar with the sport the dazzling Lippizaners of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna is the image that best describes haute école dressage.

Dressage is a very physically demanding sport for both horse and rider and, like dance, its measured simplicity and purity of form belie its intensity. It also is a sport that has 2500 years of history; the ancient Greeks were the first to practise it and that was in preparation for war. Horses were “schooled” for battle so that they performed in a calm, supple, confident, and highly flexible manner. Their well-muscled bodies moved both longitudinally and laterally in response to the rider’s “aids” – the most subtle signals from hands, legs, and shifting weight. As equine war machines they moved in concert with their human partners and with the requisite balance, lightness, symmetry, and logic that battle required.

Since that time, little has changed in classical dressage except the purpose.

Decidedly differing opinions are still very much a part of dressage but the greatest area of disagreement in dressage may be the debate over whether it is a sport or an art. Often compared to figure skating or ballet – dressage is a subjective sport – many aficionados deem it a creative process that occurs between the horse and the rider who are, in the final analysis, one and the same.

Moreover, supporters of the dressage-as-art school point to its inherent symbolism, physical and aesthetic dynamics, visions of beauty, and the grace of movement, all of which they emphasize ultimately have nothing to do with functionality. If you are in favour of this view, it is here that dressage departs from its bellicose beginnings; excellence is the essence of victory, not the other way round.


Examine the anatomy, musculature, and size of the horse above.

Imagine the energy and the power that this magnificent animal generates. (Dressage by the way is a contemplative sport.) Imagine the integration of horse and rider: the human spine in a vertical plane and the horse’s spine in a horizontal plane. The integration of the two is the source of the enjoined power; the dynamic that blends the skills and physical attributes of rider and horse, for a precise moment in time – over and over again. It’s the beginning of what in dressage is called engagement.

A dressage horse has three distinct and highly efficient gaits: the walk, the trot, and the canter. Classical dressage demonstrates the optimal use of each. When the horse is well schooled and “collected” the immense energy that is present in its hindquarters flows forward through its entire body elevating the horse both physically and aesthetically. Defying gravity, horse and rider move with apparent effortlessness, sustained vigour, and grace.

Watching a horse and rider in the show ring you will see a collaborative performance in which the rider does not subjugate the horse but brings forth the animal’s natural brilliance in the dressage display.

And respecting the laws of physics and nature, an infinite sense of balance and rhythm of horse and rider is created despite the constantly changing centre of gravity and the powerful muscle action. The carefully controlled exertion and agility of rider and horse require that they function as one. The rider’s relaxed lower body becomes part of the horse while her upper body remains erect, still, but never rigid. The horse’s elevated presence is the magnification of the collaborative effort.

And horse and rider are listening intently – to each other. The rider is listening to the horse’s motion, feeling the prodigious muscles of the animal stretch and contract, sensing the emergence of excellence. The horse is attentive to the rider’s invisible signals: delicate pressure from hands, legs, and back. He is also hearing the rider’s silent encouragement to engage with her in the performance of excellence. The result is unity and harmony and the interplay of ideals in the mind and body of both human and horse.

All photos, with the exception of the lead image, and the final ones are courtesy of Ashley Wright.


Thanks to Ashley Wright for permission to use the photographs you see on this page (except the lead image and those at the bottom of the page).

You can visit Ashley’s website at

Ashley Wright’s Ben

For horse lovers especially, I recommend the Languedoc region of France. For more information, you can read my article “À Cheval Through Cathar Country in France” by clicking on the link.


Cindy Ishoy is one of Canada’s greatest riders as well as an Olympic Silver medalist. Watch her Grand Prix Kur performance.

See also Canadian Ashley Holzer’s stunning performamce on Popart.

Dutch equestrian Anky van Grunsven has won the World Cup Dressage competition more than any other rider. Here is her brilliant performance in Aachen, Germany.

Jaqueline Brooks is also a winning Canadian dressage ride. Check out her website.

This story is dedicated to the memory of Merlin

Merlin grazing in his favourite spot

He was a Hanoverian cross that we bred, birthed, trained, and sadly, recently had to say goodbye to.

Merlin as a youth

Merlin shortly after being “backed” for the first time

Like all members of his species, Merlin was a herbivore who loved to graze. Horses are grasslands animals, best adapted to a prairie environment.

To read more about these mammals,you may wish to obtain a copy of Stephen Budiansky’s book The Nature of Horses.


  1. Great Blog Thanks 🙂

  2. Excellent Bob. Thanks. and again, I’m sorry for your great loss.

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