Figuring out what and how horses think, and how we talk to them, is at the core of all training we do with horses. And the challenge of answering the question is the reason there is such a wide range of schools and methods of training and handling horses.
I’m going to use this week?s blog to ponder how horses think, in response to a letter we received this month from reader Dr. Carole Francis-Swayze. She was responding to my Commentary in the June issue of Horse Journal, which I called ?Horse Training Takes Time.? She disagrees with my observation, ?Horses are intelligent animals, but they’re highly sensitive and not terribly logical,? and she wrote:
?You can’t be both at the same time. An intelligent being is a logical one, by definition. That is why they make sense in the grand order of things, [although] they may not make sense to Mr. Strassburger or us. I think that’s what he meant to say. He said it himself in his other article ?Every Horse Can be On the Bit? [in the same issue]. Here he notes that a horse’s logic is from back to front, which is hard to understand?FOR US. And just because we have a hard time understanding horse logic does not make the horse irrational or illogical. It rather calls into question our ability to communicate with them on their terms, not ours.?
I don’t think that Dr. Carol-Swayze and I disagree as much as she thinks we do.
Yes, as I’ve often written and said, the most basic challenge to working with horses is that we don’t speak the same language as horses. I often suggest to students that they view our attempts to communicate with horses as if the other is speaking the difficult language of Greek, and that we’re both using our bodies to try to communicate to the other what we’re attempting to say. For instance, when we close both legs together on the horse’s side, we’re saying, ?trot,? which the horse learns to understand because we reward him for his response; and we learn that when the horse raises his head, puts both ears forward and swerves, it means, ?Something is scaring me!? But often we miss or don’t understand subtler messages.
The real trick for us, as riders and trainers, is that our senses and, thus, our brains, do not experience the world in the same way. Basically, we’re predators and they’re prey.
A variety of complex motivations guide us humans as we go through life, but, basically, we’re always looking for something?including something to eat, something to enjoy, something to destroy, something to fix, or somewhere to lie down.
Horses, on the other hand, are largely guided by three innate and primary motivations in their life, things that they’re always watching out for, roughly this order: safety (so they’re always alert for a predator), food and companionship or reproduction. Through centuries of training and breeding, We’ve added a fourth motivation, which I call work ethic or a desire to do a job. But even that is motivated by their desires to be safe, to eat and to be with others (including us). Doing a job always provides them with satisfaction from at least two of those motivations.
Yes, Dr. Carol-Swayze, I agree that horses do often react logically: An action by us almost always causes a reaction from them. We push against their side with a leg, and they move off it. We rattle a grain bin, and they nicker and come to it.
But you can ride them into the same ring every single day, and every single day they?ll spook at the same chair next to the ring or the same mirror on the wall?even though that chair or mirror hasn?t moved and has never attacked them. Do you really think that’s logical’ It shows how aware and sensitive they are, but I don’t think it shows any logic. I think it shows they’re about 180 degrees from the disciplined logic of Vulcans.
I can think of many people I know, or know of, who are highly intelligent and often extremely sensitive to their environment or to the moods of other people. they’re often very creative people, but they rarely behave logically, unless they’ve been trained as research scientists. I know brilliant people who can also be some of the most scatter-brained and illogical people in the world.
I believe the real challenge to training horses is trying to see the world from their perspective and to guess what they’re trying to tell us. It can be very frustrating, and there are days when I’m glad they are so trainable, despite our language barrier.