Can Horses Think?

Every afternoon during the school week, our horses line up at the fence and watch the school bus drive by. I’m not sure why they have a fascination with the school bus. It never stops at the driveway and no one ever gets out. My only guess is that possibly they hear kids’ voices from the open windows or that one day, one of the kids leaned out of a window and called to them.

I wonder what exactly the horses think a school bus is?

What do I mean, “what the horses think”? Are horses able to think?

That might sound like a stupid question to anyone who has anything to do with a horse, but for thousands of years, the official answer to that was “no”.

Horses, along with all other animals, were classified as an entirely separate type of being from humans, and the main difference was that horses and other animals were not capable of thought according to the mainstream science and religious authorities since sometime around the ancient Greeks.

You might think the idea that anyone would doubt the intelligence of a horse is ridiculous, but I have many times encountered that notion when people question the concepts behind clicker training.

Instead of using training principles relying on a horse’s ability to reason through a problem, I’ve been told by fellow horsepeople things like “you need to show them who’s boss,” and “you just need to jerk his head around” and “what that horse needs is a 2×4 between the ears.”

Given that neurology is a fairly new science, I guess it’s not that strange to encounter these sorts of responses, especially considering some perfectly normal people in our world still rationalize such things as spanking, juvenile solitary confinement, female mutilation, and child brides.

Why just recently I discovered that 1 in 4 Americans believe the Earth revolves around the Sun.

What?

Didn’t you know that the Earth revolves around the Sun?

According to the article I read, in 2012 the National Science Foundation surveyed 2,200 Americans about general scientific knowledge. One of the questions was, “”Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?”

Twenty-six percent, or over 1 in 4 Americans answered that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

Amazing.

Although this brings up quite a few questions (such as exactly who was surveyed?) it also, sadly, explains a lot about what an uphill battle science-based horse training is up against.

Horse behavior is one of those fields which has been barely studied by science because horses were going out when the Industrial Revolution was coming in. Other than racing and high-end jumping and dressage, there has been very little money to generate much equine research. Many riders and trainers seem to be content to hold on to unproven, traditional ideas about horses.

Traditional ideas are a hard nut to crack.

Traditional ideas based on collective observation are even harder.

Using the Earth and the Sun as an example, over the last several millennia, everyone has looked up in the sky and noticed that the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It clearly moves around the Earth.

However, as far back as 900 years before Christ, an Indian philosopher/mathematician, Yajnavalkya, wrote that the Sun was the center of the Earth’s and the planets’ revolutions.

He was basically ignored.

About 400 years before Christ, Greek scientist, Anaxagoras, argued that the Sun is a star, not a god.

That didn’t go anywhere.

One hundred years later, Greek scientist Aristarchus wrote that the Sun is fixed in place and the Earth revolves around it.

Aristotle disagreed and he was the authority of the day.

(Aristotle also didn’t think horses were capable of reason because they weren’t capable of speech. Tell that to my mare who calls out to me every time I get home, even when she can’t see me.)

In 1532, Copernicus revived Aristrachus’ theory and completed his manuscript, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. He didn’t dare publish it until his deathbed, however, for fear of what the Church would do to him.

Galileo Galilei supported Copernicus, but the Church made him take back the theory that the Earth was not the center of the universe and put him under house arrest.

It wasn’t until Sir Issac Newton invented the reflecting telescope in 1688 and showed that the Sun is the center of our solar system that astronomers could begin making gains based on an accurate theory.

If not for the acceptance of the fact that the Sun does not revolve around the Earth, we would never have had NASA or men on the moon less than 300 years later.

Again, what does this have to do with horses?

Horses can think. Horses can read people’s expressions. They can recognize symbols. They can do such things as “ask” to have a blanket put on or taken off depending on the weather. They can anticipate our responses. They can learn a vocabulary.

What else can they do?

Studying horses’ neurophysiology can teach us about human emotions and mental health. Horses may be key to understanding human depression, anxiety, and recovery from PTSD. And that may just be scratching the surface. Because a comparative study of horses and humans may lead to answers to questions we haven’t begun to ask.

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