As horse lovers and owners, we all suffer a bit of barn blindness from time to time, thinking we have the most intelligent or the prettiest , or handsomest horse in the neighborhood. But in the moments when no one is watching, or in a moment when you are struggling through a training session with your horse, have you ever occasionally (maybe more often ) found yourself asking “Just how intelligent is this horse?”.
Maybe you are one of the fortunate few who own a horse that is a breeze to train, or alternately, your mount might be dumbed down a bit; slow to understand but willingly complies with your requests.
Or maybe, just maybe, that notion is backwards; Is the horse that is willing to comply the smart one and the one that gives you training fits, the not so smart one? I don’t really know… I don’t even know if there is really a good way to measure intelligence in a horse considering how many different qualities we label as intelligent behavior.
Exactly what behavioral tendencies make a horse a quick and uncomplicated training prospect? Or does complicated always correlate to intelligence ?
>>>>Is your head spinning yet??
How many ads of horses for sale read “great trainability” What does that mean exactly? Is it code for “this horse is so dull witted, you’ll be wondering if your dealing with a camel or a horse” (I guess I have no idea if camels are dull witted, never having the opportunity to try to train one, they just look like they are!). Perhaps you’re like me and happen to own or be working with a horse or two in particular that behave with such purposeful cleverness that you wonder about their capacity for advanced thought. Kinda like street smart versus book smart?????
These are some of the questions I was asking when I first came upon Budiansky’s book several years back . The book answers some of these questions but I also found it provoked more questions as I compared it to my little herd. Nonetheless he offers some very interesting data on the evolution of the horse, the movement of horses, and horse behavior. I have found myself referring back to the book time and time again.
To start, I think it’s probably a safe statement to make that with horses and their learning, they rely heavily on instinctual responses.
Much of what we expect horses to learn is a bit at odds with their general nature. Standing still for electric clippers, asking to hold one of their feet up (their main tool for their best survival instinct) crossing water on the trail, walk into a horse trailer, and the list is endless.
The survival instincts of horses compel them to flee from the loud noises, a vibration of the clippers, to avoid stepping into places where solid ground is not visible and to escape the trap of confinement. And yet , we still ask these things. In time, most individuals comply with these requests. It continues to amaze and humble me that these creatures are so willing to adapt to what we ask of them, which may very well be the exact reason they , as a species, they continue to thrive.. adaptability. If we put ourselves in our horse’s hooves for a moment, spooking and bolting at frightening objects is a smart response for these prey animals to make in the wild.
However, to live in the world with humans require that horses learn to overcome such behaviors to better suit our purposes. In behavioral science, there is a difference between the ability to perceive and comprehend meaning, which we call intelligence, and the willingness to comply with human expectations, which is called learning ability.
A few years back, when we had just bought our place , one of our horses became entangled in some chain link fence panels that were out in the pasure. We didn't know about , since the sale had just gone through and the pasture was covered in snow. We noticed that Cassidy was not coming in to eat and was instead lying down. We walked out there to investigate, thinking he was colicky. Judging from the amount snow on him ( it had started snowing that morning), he must have been tangled in the fence for several hours, but he had patiently laid there, until help came. The leg was not damaged exept for a slight patch of hide worn off . We got the wire cutters and set him free . He was not injured and shook off the long day with nothing more than a little stiffness. The fact that his horse did not panic and struggle is what protected him from permanently debilitating tendon injury. I'm certain most of us would value such a sane and sensible disposition in the horses we trust to carry us.
If your wondering, tt was not total coincidence that this horse did not struggle when he became entangled. Cassidy had been taught about giving to pressure on his legs, with some rope work earlier in his life. It wasn't a skill that was practiced with him routinely, but it had been taught to completion with a solid understanding when it was taught years before. This horse can be led around backwards or forwards with a cotton rope attached to a hind leg. In horse training, we expect horses to build upon prior learning to attain new levels of performance. The long-term effects of early training may be more important than we ever imagined. In this case, it saved this horses leg and possibly his life.
With all the research out there, behaviorists are making rapid advances in understanding learning ability in horses. As an owner, trainer, and breeder , I think it's important to remember the development of this species depends on the decisions we make. As research discovers ways to determine learning ability in horses, it may become more a trait specifically selelcted in breeding programs. For better or for worse, if that happens, the future of the horse rests with all of us.
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