Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Horse communication: Food for thought

I am fascinated by the ways in which horses demonstrate their intelligence. One of the ways I see this is how they do things to point out something to us. If you think about it, this means that they are able to see things from another's point of view, to be able to anticipate how we will perceive their attempts at communication. Really an amazing feat of animal intelligence, if you ask me.

I ran into a great example of this a couple of weeks ago, when a friend and I visited a self-care barn we're considering moving our horses to. As we standing there talking, I looked over at a horse standing at the fence of a nearby corral. The horse looked straight at me, and lifted her left front foot and set it down again — twice.

At first I thought she was pawing, but I looked at her again and realized her leg was stuck in the fence. It was a wire fence with four or five strands of wire, and she'd gotten her foot on the other side of the bottom two strands, and couldn't figure out how to get it back again. She wasn't struggling, just standing there looking at me.

We walked over to figure out if we could untangle the horse. My friend lifted the foot and worked it back through the fence while I helped hold the wires aside. The whole time, she kept commenting about how the horse wasn't helping at all — the foot was dead weight.

Looking back on it, I think she wasn't helping because she knew it had to be people who untangled her — and if she moved wrong, she'd make it harder for us, not easier. Just as I think when she looked at me hard and raised her leg twice, she was telling me — or showing me — that she was stuck.

Another example: My brother-in-law and his wife have two horses, a 20-something Arabian and a 10- or 12-year-old Tennessee walker. The younger horse is deaf. My mother-in-law has watched the older horse run right up to the deaf horse to get his attention when it's feeding time, and literally bring him back with him. And the other day, when the deaf horse was injured, the older horse came up to the end of the pasture close to the house and ran back and forth along the fence, whinnying until someone noticed. When my mother-in-law came out, he immediately turned and led her to where the other horse was tangled up in the fence.

One final story of how horses demonstrate they are able to see things from others' point of view. Panama had this little trick he used to do when I'd lead him in from the grazing pasture at our old barn: He'd pin his ears and nip at my clothes, but as soon as I turned around to look at him, he put his head and his ears up. He was clearly aware that when I was looking, he had better pretend like nothing was going on. And it was someone else who pointed out to me what he was doing, so it wasn't a reinforced or learned behavior — I had no clue he was even doing it.

I recently read a National Geographic article from last year that talked about animal intelligence. In one part they talk about dolphins, and how scientists have recently come to realize that the ability to copy their human handlers' movements when learning tricks is actually a pretty significant intellectual feat: It requires that the animal be able to picture itself in its own mind, to understand how it will look if they move a certain way.

It's not exactly the same, but I'd say being able to understand how another person or animal would perceive something is a similar feat. Anyone who has ever confronted a child with stolen candy in their mouth, and had the kid deny taking the candy, knows that seeing something from someone else's point of view is a fairly high level thought process.

What about you? What little things do your horses do that demonstrate their ability to see things from another's point of view?



At September 30, 2009 at 6:34 PM, Blogger Nuzzling Muzzles said...

My horses do that innocent act too. Whenever they know they are doing something they are not supposed to, they instantly stand up straight and put their ears forward when I look at them. They also know that when I let them onto the RV lane to pick weeds, they are not allowed to eat off the haystack. So, they stay away from it until I go into the barn or to the far side of the paddock. Then they look in my direction to see if I'm looking at them. If I'm looking, they stay away from the hay. However, if I'm looking in another direction, yet watching them out of the corner of my eye, they'll snatch a mouthful off the haystack. As soon as I call out their name to let them know they are busted, they come back into the paddock because they know losing their weeding privilege on the RV lane is the consequence of eating off the haystack. It's like a kid putting himself in timeout.

At October 2, 2009 at 11:43 PM, Blogger Katharine Swan said...

Ha, NM, that's hysterical! Anyone who thinks animals are dumb or that it's "just a horse" needs to spend more time with them, in my opinion. ;o)


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