How much thinking do our horses really do? What can they do and how far do we understand their abilities to think things through? Consciousness is notoriously difficult to define, even in terms of human psychology, so how far can we apply our knowledge in humans to our horses? And do we really want to know what our horses think of us?
Consciousness is usually defined as our experience in the here and now, or our experiences relating to others. There isn’t a specific consciousness nerve in our brains or a biological neural basis for the ‘mind’ but we all know we have our own minds. There is a theory that consciousness evolved in all animals, as an incredibly important survival mechanism. Consciousness allows us to filter all the information our senses are flooding us with at any single point in time, and decide on the best course of action. Emotions are closely linked to our consciousness, so if we perceive a threat we immediately feel fear and are energised to react appropriately. Although our initial reaction may be to jump or startle, we quickly assess the situation consciously and respond in the way we calculate to best maximise our chances of survival. So our horses do the same – when we accuse them of ‘not thinking rationally’ what we really mean is that they are not thinking like a human – rather a case of pot, kettle and black I think!
Similarly, animals are believed to feel other key emotions such as attachment, (which is closely linked with the oxytocin hormone released by mothers and offspring,) anger, hunger, thirst, happiness and grief. However, we can only judge the presence of these emotions by observing behaviours and we humans are sometimes not good judges amongst our own species! Cultural differences exist in our reactions to grief with a silent stiff upper lip the classic British response and much wailing and outward expression of sadness being the norm in other cultures. If we don’t understand these differences, we can’t judge the emotions behind the behaviours in other humans, let alone judging emotional responses in other species.
Horses certainly form attachments to other horses and to humans as well, with recent research showing that horses can recognise key humans they like, many months after they last saw them. Optimism has also been demonstrated in horses kept in favourable conditions with plenty of social contact with other horses, turnout and hi fibre diets, compared to horses kept stabled without turnout or social contact and lower fibre diets. What makes you feel optimistic? You had to think about it right? If horses can feel optimistic, this clearly suggests that there is considerable potential for the horse’s mind to make conscious judgements about its situation and how best to achieve its goals.
There are studies which show that animals, (and humans) produce emotions such as anxiety and fear at higher levels if their mother was stressed while they were still in utero, and that while we generally cope with one highly stressful life event, any further stressful event can produce an emotional reaction akin to depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. We regularly wean foals at six months old, where they would leave their mother at a later age if left in the wild, and even if done as sympathetically as possible this is an obvious key stressor in every horse’s life. Further emotional stress, like a recent case I heard of where a 2 year old colt was shut into his stable completely in the dark for two weeks, will undoubtably have an ongoing effect throughout the horse’s life. Apparently this particular colt has been very difficult to catch since he was turned back out, (what a surprise,) and this youngster is definitely using his conscious thinking to make a decision about his options each time people want to catch him! He may now never settle down when stabled, as he has cognitively linked stables with this particular episode in his life, and will consciously seek to avoid being stabled at all costs.
There are identified limits to consciousness in horses, with the mirror self-recognition test being one such example. Only 8 animals have been found who are able to identify themselves when presented with their reflected image in a mirror, including elephants, dolphins and magpies. These animals will all self-groom to remove a mark only identifiable when viewed using the mirror, but horses have not demonstrated this ability – in fact my own nutty Arab expended a lot of time and energy flirting with her own reflection the last time she was able to view it, but she definitely never gave any indication that she had recognised herself. However, does this mean that horses don’t have the same high level of consciousness as us? No, it simply shows how there is no evolved reason for our horses to self-recognise…. They do not need to groom themselves to look attractive for the opposite gender, and probably the more grey coloured they are, the more tempted they are to get themselves revoltingly dirty anyway. Cleanliness has no particular evolutionary advantage for horses.
So how much thinking do our horses do? They are highly likely to consciously process their emotional responses to given situations, and behave in a way which they think most likely increases their chances of survival, even if we are certain that is not the case. They form attachments to other horses and humans, and therefore will also feel emotional responses when those horses and people are no longer around, or their routine changes. They have demonstrated optimistic behaviours, which suggests that they are able to consciously evaluate their immediate environment and make decisions based on their perceptions. Their consciousness may not be the same as ours, but it is designed to best suit the horse’s survival needs, and is therefore not inferior, just a little different.
Can our horses think about us? They can recognise us, months even years later. They can become attached to us, or afraid of us, and can certainly outwit us when the motivation to do so is there. They will gallop, jump or prance about on the spot for us, and this isn’t purely down to training, but demands as much conscious agreement from the horse to perform, as good training and riding by the human. So what do you think your horse thinks of you? It’s an interesting question, and one which we should keep in our minds whatever we ask them to do – keeping the body physically sound is only half the job done, bringing the horse’s conscious mind on board with what we want is just as important.