Sunday, July 31, 2011

Do horses feel emotion?

A few days ago, Fugly Horse of the Day shared a link to a trainer's online newsletter, which addressed an issue a woman was having with her horse.  Most of us, reading this, will immediately recognize what's going on: The woman is afraid of her horse.  Because he shows fear, he is convinced that he was abused, and is letting him get away with being afraid.  He threatens to kick her when she tries to pick his feet, so she doesn't try to pick them.  He spooks, so she dismounts and leads him.  The horse is clearly the boss in this relationship, as she is allowing him to choose what he will do and when.

I agree with the end result of the trainer's rant, which is that she needs to toughen up and start making her horse mind, or he's going to get her hurt or even killed one of these days.  I just don't agree with how he gets there:

You are attempting to develop a relationship with Champ based on LOVE, KINDNESS, PATIENCE and TRUST... There is only ONE problem[:] The meaning of those words, your horse doesn't UNDERSTAND.

From there he goes on to explain that horses don't have emotions, which is why you cannot build a relationship with them based on emotion.  I agree with the latter, but NOT the former.

As a little background: The idea that animals don't have emotions is a throwback from the era of psychology known as behaviorism.  This prevailing theory was based on the fact that as a scientist, you can only come to conclusions that you can observe.  Emotion is not observable; therefore emotion does not exist.  (They thought emotion in humans boiled down to instinct, too, but where their ideas really stuck was with animals.)

But not long before this, scientists actually thought that animals didn't feel pain, either.  Any show of pain was simply reflexive and instinctive, not because they actually felt anything.  For many decades, animals were operated on without anesthesia because this was accepted as fact.

See where I'm going with this?  We were, quite obviously, wrong about animals not feeling pain.  In fact, a lot of people would be shocked to think that we ever doubted that they do.  Someday, I believe people will be equally as shocked that anyone doubted an animal's capability to feel emotion.  Just because they can't express themselves to us, doesn't mean they don't feel it.  It may be more simplistic than the emotions we feel — but then again, it might not.  After all, what is "love," but a mixture of being able to trust someone, enjoying someone's company, and in the case of romantic love, physical attraction?  All of these boil down into the basic needs of animals that this trainer refers to: safety, pleasure, and instinct (procreation).  All behaviorists will agree that both humans and animals make decisions based on basic needs like these, but if love is comprised of these things, doesn't it follow that animals feel love, too?

(I should note here that I don't romanticize love.  I don't believe in "soulmates," "one true love," or any of those notions.  Our society has come to romanticize love by promoting those kinds of ideas, but I think most often they either cause a lot of disappointment in people who would otherwise be happy together, but expect fireworks for the rest of their lives.  Ideas like those are also society-approved justifications to keep people, mainly women, in physically and emotionally abusive relationships.  I think romanticizing love is a dangerous idea, whether you are talking about horses or people.)

When I arrive at the barn to see Panama, he knows my car.  He's usually waiting at the gate by the time I park the car and get out, and whinnies to me — then repeats his call if he decides I'm not coming to get him fast enough.  A behaviorist's explanation for such behavior is that he wants, treats, hand-grazing, whatever it is about my visits that gives him the most pleasure.  In my opinion, that's kind of like saying that I love my husband because he makes me dinner.  I have no doubt that Panama enjoys those things, and that he probably loves me partly because I provide them, but I also have no doubt that he truly loves me and misses me when I'm not there.

As I pointed out in my comment on Fugly, though, just because I believe that my horse loves me — and want him to love me — doesn't mean I'll allow him to push me around.  Claiming that this woman is allowing her horse's behavior because she wants a relationship based on love is ridiculous.  She is afraid of her horse, plain and simple.  Think about it.  You know your kids love you, and you want them to love you, but does that mean you let them eat cookies for dinner or play in the street or use you for a punching bag?

No, of course not.  It is NOT an expression of love to allow something or someone to hurt themselves or you.  Anyone who says otherwise is either lying about their motivation, or really confused about what love means.

So, bottom line: I believe horses feel emotion, but I still expect my horse to behave himself.  And you know what?  Getting in trouble from time to time has never changed how happy he always is to see me or how much he enjoys his work!



At July 31, 2011 at 5:34 PM, Blogger Susan said...

I can definitly say that my mare was "pissed off" about being hosed down the evening even though it cools her off. I'd have to call her staring, ears pinned, tail tucked thinking about kicking my butt was an expression of emotion LOL. Don't worry, she didn't act on it.
I believe animals have "feeling's" whether their the same or similat to ours, I have no idea. Kind of makes me wonder if our horses have similar conversations regarding us at times.

At July 31, 2011 at 6:56 PM, Blogger jane augenstein said...

Several years ago we had some cows, two cows, one heifer and two calves. One of our cows gave birth, the calf was born too early and try as we might he died after 7 hours of being in a warm kitchen and being bottle fed. It just wasn't meant to be. A few hours before he died we took him back to the barn so his mother could see him. After he died the others all stood around him all night as if protecting him.
My husband buried him in another part of the field where they couldn't get to. But for a week the small herd would go to where he was born and cry; then they would hunt all over the field looking for the baby. It broke my heart to hear their mournful calls.
Any one who says that animals don't have feelings and emotions well, then they don't know animals.

At August 1, 2011 at 12:12 PM, Blogger Katharine Swan said...

Susan, I didn't even think about that -- there's definitely no doubt that horses get angry, and that's an emotion! Whether their emotions feel the same as ours, well, we can't tell that any more than we know whether your idea of anger and my idea of anger feel the same.

I wonder if they "talk" about us, too, by the way. After all, just because we don't understand what they are saying when the whinny or nicker, doesn't mean that it's not a perfectly good method of communication!

Jane, thanks for sharing that story! It's a great example too. I've also seen and heard of horses moping around when a favorite companion leaves to go to a different barn. And when KZ, the old gelding who used to be in Panama's corral, colicked and had to be euthanized, I was told that Panama and the mare ran back and forth in the corral whinnying their heads off the entire time it was being done. They obviously know and feel much more than they are given credit for.


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