Some time around 35,000 years ago, when much of Europe was locked up in sheets of ice, an artist acquired a bit of mammoth ivory and began carving. A masterpiece emerged in the form of a two-inch-long horse. Its magnificently arched stallion’s neck combines muscular potency and natural grace. Its head, slightly cocked, gives the animal an air of deep contemplation. One can almost hear him snort and see him toss his head, warning rivals to take care. No one knows who created this miniature marvel, dubbed the “Vogelherd horse” after the cave in Germany in which it was found, but it is clear that this ivory carver spent a lot of time watching wild horses, studying their social interactions and learning their body language.
Sadly, in the modern world, this pastime became something of a lost art. Equine scientists have studied the best way to train show horses, the best way to feed racehorses, the best way to heal the delicate bones in a lame horse’s feet. But in contrast to the behaviors of wild chimpanzees, whales and elephants, among other species, the natural ways of horses have rarely garnered scientific interest. And of the few studies that were done, very few were long-term projects.
Recent efforts have begun to fill that gap—with surprising results. Scientists have documented behaviors among free-ranging horses that upend many long-held ideas about how these animals bond and interact with one another.