Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nature vs Nurture

I'm sitting perched on a window sill, trying to get internet reception, watching two very different foals, as they experience the first real rain of their young lives. We have had the driest spring ever recorded; our area is officially a drought zone. But today the rain finally came, and down it pours. I swear everything is greening up before my eyes. The weather has also given me the chance to sit/ perch and write something down that I have been thinking about for a while now….

How much of our future is determined by our experiences in the past?? How much of our ability to succeed, our skills in overcoming challenges is determined in our DNA?? How much of our personality is genetic, how much is our upbringing?? How much is nature how much is nurture?? The old nature vs. nurture debate.

In the paddock are two very different foals. Physically they are different, but even more striking, is the way they emotionally react to new experiences. There is Sonny the wild foal, his father would have been the fittest wild horse in the area, and his mother survived in good enough condition to carry a foal to term. Sonny bloodlines are selected by Mother Nature, the fittest and strongest reproduce, while the others struggle to survive. Then there is Hope, who comes from the best racehorse and warm blood sport horse bloodlines I could find. Her mother carries the genetics for speed, lightness of build and hot blooded temperament her pedigree can be traced back many generations and her lines go directly to some of the best racehorses in the world. Her dad's lineage can be traced to, but his to the best jumping and sport horse bloodlines of Europe. The Father himself jumped at Olympics and world cup level many times. The warm bloods are bred for athleticism, power and their slightly calmer attitude. There is no natural selection little Hope's breeding she is created by human selection… But both Hope and Sonny though, have had exactly the same handling, same daily routine and pretty similar life experiences. So are they the same in their behavior, despite their differences in breeding? I think not. There are so many differences between the two, both physically and mentally in their attitude.

Now how much is affected by their mother's behavior vs. the actual genetics they inherited would be hard to say, but I think the two kind of go hand in hand. But it is interesting to see the difference in maternal behavior and how it affects the offspring.

Sonny is the fattest foal I have ever laid eyes on. A compact and well proportioned boy, with good strong legs, and well muscled. He looks like he could power himself up and down a mountainside easily. Fern is also the fattest broodmare, and produces the most milk of any horse I've ever seen. All of this is on the absolute minimum of grass. But this is exactly how nature designed her. If you think of a horse in the wild, there would be times of very little or no food at all, like in winter. So therefore when food is readily available, their body goes into overdrive turning grass into fat, ensuring they have enough stored up to survive the lean times. The horses that were the most efficient at turning the grass available into body fat, in the wild, would be the ones to survive, therefore more likely to carry a foal to term the full 11 months gestation period... Therefore their genes would not be passed on to the next generation. On the same principle these mares would go on to produce the most milk for their offspring, giving them the best start in life, and the best chance at maturing into bigger stronger horses, than the ones not so efficient at food conversion.


Hope is like a little ballerina, she's is incredibly leggy a lean, a small body with delicate head and neck. She is athletic and graceful, and springs across the ground with every step like a little dancer. She does however lack the look of raw power that Sonny possesses. Her long legs and small body can be attributed to the fact that her mother is a racehorse, built for maximum speed and light weight. Racehorses are known for the fact that once finished racing they can be incredibly hard to get to a good weight. It's harder to keep them fat as they have a smaller body mass, higher metabolism and are prone to being slightly overactive in the paddock. Hope's mother gets three feeds a day, just to keep her from becoming skinny, and to make sure little Hope gets enough milk to grow big and strong. Fern gets literally a handful of feed, just to ensure she gets enough vitamins and minerals .While Fern uses the minimum amount of effort in her daily routine. Hope's mother spends a good deal of her day wandering and pacing aimlessly. She produces far less milk than the wild horse as well. Sonny spent his first week, sleeping flat out on the ground, or eating. It was rare to see Hope lying down, even her feeding was less frequent and less amounts consumed, and she spent her time wandering after her mother. I'm quite sure that little Hope chances of survival in the wild would be far less than Sonny's.

Both Foals are lovely and sweet, friendly, and love to be scratched. Sonny though if not enjoying attention will quietly move away, while Hope usually bounds in the air, bucks, or kicks when you haven't scratched the right spot (something she is getting constantly corrected for). Hope is flighty, whirling and leaping when something frightens her, although she does this in the most elegant and graceful way, it beautiful to watch. Sonny is bolder, more willing to wait to see if something really is scary before he flees. His days are filled with three activities, playing, sleeping or eating. He takes s his job of helping Fern eat her hard feed each day, very seriously. He runs and jumps and whirls and kicks, bucks, rears and tackles his mother in plat, but this is always followed by a nap in the sun. Little Hope doesn't play quite as hard as Sonny, but does spend her days trotting back and forth across the paddock after mum; it is still rare to catch her sleeping for any length of time.

This brings me back to watching them both in the rain. Sonny was excited for the first few minutes bucking and playing, but is now backing to drinking milk. Fern never stopped eating an ignored all of her sons antics. Hope is still prancing back and forth, in a little foal tantrum. She is trying to shelter under her mother's neck and belly, shivering and nipping her in frustration.

So while I think nurture plays a huge part in what a horse will become. By taking away natural selection, man has created horses that are amazing athletes, but has moved away from attributes that help a horse survive easily and naturally. As well as their ability to cope with challenges, and also lost some of their physical sturdiness.

I love both babies equally, but I do find it fascinating to compare the two. You can learn so much just from watching.