Saturday, January 16, 2010

Horse Sense; Is Your Horse as Smart as a Guinea Pig?

Well, that seems like a simple enough answer , doesn't it?? Of course! A horse must be smarter than that? Right?... Right?

While horses brains aren't exactly big, they apparently do use much of that grey matter just to keep their feet in the right place. Imagine, so much brain power used to do what is seemingly a simple, subconscious thought. I guess Harry Whitney, Ray Hunt and some of the other masters of natural horsemanship out there really do have a point when they talk about the relationship between a horses feet and a horses thought!

" Agility , speed, and the variety of gaits create a huge demand for hard wired control in the central nervous system", according to the book. Apparently, getting motion and controlling four limbs in an organized way isn't as easy as one would think. Now, add to that those four limbs now traveling at high speeds over uneven ground, turning , maneuvering around and over obstacles.

"A four-legged creature on the move is not a wind up toy that just goes, maintaining balance is a matter of continual feedback and adjustment". The added burden of rider, who may not be so coordinated themselves adds another level of difficulty for the horse.. and yet, look at how they so often take care of their passengers? It really is quite amazing when it's coined in those terms, the horses ability to just move, in a coordinated and balanced fashion suddenly becomes not so simple of a task. How many of us have ever thought about it that way?

It's more common place , as humans, to define intelligence in an animal by it's ability to learn the tasks we ask of it, is it not?

In some of the tests that Budiansky mentions, horses were able to discriminate between a feed box and a feed box covered in a black cloth. They were taught to go to one of the other. This was a pretty simple task, especially if there was a reward involved. More interesting, the book points out that they "learned to learn". They were able to identify when a pattern reversed. So , they are able to make appropriate distinctions that something has changed and then adapt to it. That's probably a pretty well known fact among horse people. If the routine changes, the horse picks up on this and learns that feeding time is no longer at 5:00 but now at 6:00... eventually they stop getting anxious at 5:00 and hold off until a bit later... However, the studies went on to show that the horses ability to be a quick study was lacking, about equal to an aquarium fish, guinea pig or octopus... So maybe our horse are a bit more complex in their abilities to learn but I guess they aren't any quicker than a guinea pig.... I might have to get used to that idea....

Maze studies were also done to test how a horse makes a choice. 20% of the horses tested to take a left turn upon entering the maze still turned the wrong way. The more interesting, although a bit disturbing, occur ed when the scientists tested what would happen if the horse received a negative consequence for choosing the wrong turn in the maze. The horses were greeted with a blast of carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher. Physically harmless but a bit traumatic in my opinion. The results showed that while horses made fewer mistakes with fewer lessons, they ended up spending quite a bit more time deciding about which way to turn. The study revealed that while they may have learned faster, they were more worried about getting the right answer.

That sounds alot like the horses I have seen come out of the "60 days to a fully trained horse" programs out there...

...but I digress.....

"Discrimination experiments have shown how a lack of clear choices results in hesitation and confusion.. When ponies were taught to tell a black feed box from a white one, they became confused to the point of neurosis as the color of both boxes was gradually shifted to an intermediate gray; they would hover between the two boxes unable to decide", essentially trying to figure out what happened to the black and white colored boxes.

The point??? Consistency , consistency, consistency; It is of utmost importance as a training principle. Unfortunately, it also is one of the most overlooked principles because it requires " self discipline to give commands in a consistent fashion and to insist on an obedience every time"

We can all think of times when we let our horse get away with pulling their head down to graze because we were distracted with something else, and then we can't figure out why we can't get our horse to stop doing that when the horse is dragging us around trying to graze every time a blade of grass crosses his path. Yep, you guessed it right, you taught him that....

The book goes on into much greater detail about experiments done and what was found but the part that really resonates with me is that these experiments show the importance of " making sure that the horse has an opportunity to pick the right answer and that the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable responses is clear" and consistency is crucial to keeping our horses from becoming worried or worse.. crazy!!

Set things up for your horse so he/she can be successful and you have a happy, willing friend who is at least as smart as a Guinea Pig!!

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