BY TOBEY PEARL
Not long after three ponies named Hufflepuff, Cruzer, and Dacardi arrived at Bar-B-Ranch in South Florida, they identified a perceived threat in their turnout pasture—an unfamiliar gelding or mare brought out from the stable to graze. And they didn’t bolt. Rather, they triangulated. Each pony squared off, approaching the offending animal at a sixty-degree angle. Curious, the ponies silently communicated with each other as they maneuvered in tandem to investigate the alarmed newcomer. Stable-hands did a double take and intervened.
The behavior startled everyone who saw it, folks who had spent a lifetime around barns and stables. Horses waiting for turnout noticed the distinctive behavior too, watching with cool-eyes, ears up and rotating, tails twitching anxiously. The barn-hands could only describe what they saw within the context of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movies: raptors taking down prey by triangulating, approaching in unison. The young ponies achieved a strange exalted status—they became known as “the Raptors.”
Before arriving at Bar-B-Ranch, the Raptors lived with a large, now dispersed, pony herd at the University of Florida’s Equine Sciences facilities, where scientists including researcher Dr. Samantha Brooks, Associate Professor of Equine Physiology and Genetics, study and measure the variability of equine temperament. Dr. Brooks explores the physiology of the spooked horse, the split-second physical reaction triggered in the subconscious area of the brain. According to Dr. Brooks, preliminary data indicates that up to two thirds of this reflexive reaction is genetic or hardwired.
Hardwired responses evolved through domestication and selective breeding. Dr. Brooks notes, “when domesticated, you do reduce the fear response” of horses and ponies. That is how they “tolerate a predator like a human at close range.” Dr. Brooks explains that “the curious animal is more likely to be the one happy and successful in domestication.” For example, a draft horse should have a steady temperament; a skittish workhorse could become “Sunday dinner.”
Two centuries ago, a dramatic uptick in the selective breeding of horses for speed, stamina and desirable dispositions led to “genetic bottlenecking” (Wallner, et al., 2013 & Pennisi, 2019 & A.S. Lloyd et al., 2008, 369–383). This singular historical event reshaped the trajectory of equine genetics and behavior.
Scientists have zeroed in on a genetic difference at the equine DRD4 gene, which directly affects behavior. Horses missing an A allele at that gene site are more curious (Momozawa, Kusunose, Kikusui, 2005, 538-44). The research findings shed light on why some horses and ponies spook while others remain curious. One of the top-notch handlers at Bar-B-Ranch would simply describe these differences in temperament as “horsenality,” a term coined by real-life horse whisperer Pat Parelli to help people more effectively understand horse personality.
Dr. Daniel Sharp, Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, offered a striking anecdote about curiosity as an attribute of ponies and horses. Sharp kept his ponies on pastureland adjacent to a maximum-security men’s prison. Security at the prison got wind of a breakout attempt in the works and requested permission to set up a stakeout in the pasture, deploying hidden guards under shrubs and trees among the ponies. The men did not remain hidden for long. “Every tree with a guard behind it was surrounded by five to ten sniffing and snorting ponies curious as to what was happening,” Dr. Sharp recalled. While skittish animals might avoid an unknown person, the curious not only approach humans, they thrive alongside them.
Today the Raptors carry expert bareback riders through one of South Florida’s last remaining silver-leafed oak hammocks, bordering Bar-B-Ranch. Over a hundred and fifty miles of equestrian trails loop through sunlit meadows and vast tropical forest shrouded by a canopy of clinging air plants.
At a trot, riders occasionally steer the Raptors past children’s birthday parties hosted in the shade of the oak trees. Many of these celebrations feature “unicorns,” mischievous, snow-white ponies prized for their unbridled curiosity.
Tobey Pearl earned degrees in law and international relations from Boston University and studied international law at the University of Hong Kong. She is the author of Terror to the Wicked.