It is a classic accusation amongst humans in relationships… subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) body language and gestures that make one person jealous of another. For example, women tend to be hyper-vigilant and sensitive to the attention their male partners pay to other women, and immediate judgments are formed about “the other” who is receiving the attention. Even if someone does not want to feel that way, or exhibit the sometimes-embarrassing behavior that arises from those feelings, jealousy seems to happen as a matter of fundamental neurochemistry. Is it an inherent mechanism? If so, what is it for?
Sometimes the basis for jealousy, which is actually a label for the fear of loss, is well founded. This can be especially true in humans where children or personal security are of concern. The situation that triggers jealousy also evokes thoughts of steps that would need to be taken in the event of losing their partner to the object of their jealousy. It is a defensive mechanism, in short, and should the underlying causes not be dealt with directly, it can lead to anger, depression, and other associated psychological effects.
In adolescents, the negative behaviors associated with jealousy are more common amongst those with low self-esteem. They may perceive their friendships as being easily threatened by others, sometimes leading them to aggressive actions . Jealousy differs from “envy,” which is the desire to have something that someone else has.
Jealousy is an anticipatory emotion and one of the most common, yet unsettling behaviors exhibited by humans… and remarkably, other beings too. I say “other beings,” because it is apparent that animals can also become jealous when their “person” gives attention to another member of that animal’s species, or even another human. If dogs experience such emotions, then horses likely do too, as they also have an amygdala and correlating neurochemistry.
My brother and I used to laugh at our dogs when they would immediately get in between our parents as they embraced. The dogs would bark excitedly and turn anxiously from one parent to the other. We could never determine if they thought our parents were trying to hurt each other and the dog was attempting to “save” one or another, or if the dog was actually jealous that one of their “people” was paying too much attention to the other. Apparently, now we know the answer to that.
Fortunately, animals can’t quite go as far as humans in exhibiting abnormal types of jealousy, which can become quite threatening and dangerous to other people. This can enter the realms of extreme insecurity and may move well beyond the typical fighting over emotional infidelity or other common issues encountered in romantic relationships, particularly where “attachment” has been mistaken for love. In fact, there may be a neurochemical basis for jealous reactions that persist when there is no actual threat present and the fears are entirely unfounded. Neurotic jealousy may become associated with a disorder such as schizophrenia, paranoia or chemical imbalance in the brain.
It is sometimes all too easy to anthropomorphize what a horse might be thinking, and sometimes, as with the dogs, their apparent jealous responses when we give attention to another being can be quite amusing. As science continues to produce more confirmation as to the actual biochemical basis for the behaviors of sentient beings however, perhaps it is not such a stretch to be thinking that our horse might be jealous when we pay attention to another.
I have experienced observations of apparent jealousy in horses on many occasions and when Dr. Schoen suggested the article about the dogs as a blog post, reading it brought back many memories.
One such incident was with a big dun Saddlebred gelding I would ride every now and then when his owner was away. He had been rescued from abusive circumstances prior to the owner I was working with, and found himself in a loving, compassionate situation with Katie, his new “person.” During her lessons, it had become very apparent that this horse was quite possessive of his owner, and he would make challenging faces at any horse that got too close to her. As it happened, Katie and I were very similar in appearance and energy, so it was no surprise when her horse took on the same possessive characteristics with me as he did with her.
One day I was grooming him in his pipe-rail stall, preparing to tack up for a ride. Off in the distant paddock, a young horse was playing with a ball, going through some hilarious antics as he was doing so. While still brushing the big dun, my attention was on the colt that was having such a good time entertaining himself. Within a minute or so, the Saddlebred noticed my attention had been distracted to the other horse. He swung his head in the colt’s direction and his ears went back. Knowing how possessive he was of Katie I realized what he was responding to. After glaring in the direction of the playful youngster that was well off in the distance, he swung his head in my direction and gave me a “look that could kill.” Then he promptly re-positioned his body so that his neck, held regally high on his shoulders as is typical of his breed, completely blocked my view of the colt. What else could I do but laugh and return my full attention to the jealous gelding?!
I think one really has to spend a lot of time around animals to fully realize and appreciate the similarities between our emotions and theirs. As Dr. Schoen and I have cautioned in The Compassionate Equestrian however, there is still the need to recognize that an animal is an animal, and that they are not “us.” Common sense has to dictate the way we handle and train them so they are safe and untraumatized, to the best of our knowledge and abilities. It takes a long time to acquire the sensitivity and skills necessary in determining when an animal’s behavior is related to normal responses and when it may be reactions to fear, pain, or other negative stimuli that can put a less-experienced handler in danger.
Have you recognized jealousy-related behaviors in your own horse? Tell us your story too! We would love to hear from you.
-  Dittman, M. “Study Links Jealousy With Aggression, Low Self Esteem.” APA.org. 2 Feb 2005. http://www.apa.org/monitor/feb05/jealousy.html