Science and the horse

Scientists are studying equine social behavior, now. No horse person is surprised, but they keep finding out that horses are insanely smart, learn body language, words, and problem solving skills. Some horses definitely have more problem solving skills than others. I can’t wait  for them to do a study comparing horses, ponies, donkeys and mules.

NBC recently reported that horses remember people and how they were treated for long periods of time. And the entire equestrian community said “Um, yeah…this is why training works and abused horses have a lot of emotional baggage forever.” All the same, I enjoyed reading the article.

It confirmed my own experimentation. Don’t worry, I didn’t go around mistreating one horse and pampering another. A couple years ago I watched a Tommie Turvey clinic and in the Q&A afterwards a little girl asked him how he got horses to like him. He paused, then said he tries to do something nice for the horse that it cannot do for itself–such as scratching a hard to get spot. Simple enough. Not unlike making friends with a human, doing something nice goes a long way.

For the past couple years I’ve been really focused on Midas and haven’t really paid much attention to the other horses at the barn. So, I decided I would make it a point to greet the other horses because they notice when you don’t. There were four others at the time, one has since passed on of old age, so now there are only three others to greet. In summertime it’s easier because they are in during the day, so I go around and pat everyone before fetching Midas.

At first they were slightly suspicious when they discovered I was coming to see them–and also not bearing treats. But I told them I wasn’t bearing treats, asked them if they wanted pats, and tried to give them a nice scratch in an itchy place before moving on. Eventually they caught on and they usually come to their gates to say hello and get their scratches.

It helps, I think, that I use a lot of the same phrases–things like, “No treats today, just pats” or “hey, do you want a treat?” so they know what I’m asking and decide for themselves if they feel like moving their feet to get their whorl rubbed or the spot under their manes scratched.

Most of the time they do. It’s always gratifying when someone is glad to see you.

The NBC article also talked about horses hearing humans even better than dogs do, suggesting that verbal commands will be met with great success–which confirms what I’ve observed (especially working with Midas): Horses definitely learn words, and tone is huge.

Barking orders at a horse–particularly commands like “whoa” or “stay” is entirely counterproductive because your tone is saying “jump!” “run!” “I eat you!” so obviously the horse is not going to respond with the desired slowness and relaxation.

Even barking “trot” will result in a much uglier up transition to a much more tense trot than crooning out as gentle a command as you can manage with a “t” at the front and back of the word. I witnessed my youngest brother-in-law growling out commands the way most kids are taught to address ponies. You know, that “do it now or face the consequences” tone that ponies always seem to invite, and then ignore. It was freaking Midas out. When I convinced my brother-in-law to breathe out his commands in a soothing tone, Midas responded just as quickly as before and much more quietly. Suddenly they could go around transitioning up and down in a relaxed fashion.

It made me re-evaluate how we’re taught to address ponies–but at the moment I don’t have access to any so I can’t experiment.

When I was a teen exercising horses in winter, I accidentally taught my mount a verbal half halt. Before asking him to canter–or gallop, we had a lot of fun out on the trails together–I always asked him “Are you ready?” I don’t know why, I just did. Of course, he figured out really quickly what I was going to ask for next, so even without half halting he would shift his weight back, ready to launch.

I’ve started asking Midas “Are you ready?” before most transitions, up or down. It’s a verbal reminder, which I think he appreciates, something that doesn’t require nagging at him with my hands or legs. I try not to nag in general, but this is another “nice gesture” I can offer to this particular horse.

I’ve already mostly taught him “right and left” so I can give him a heads up when leading him–with or without a rope–but I haven’t yet figured out how to control that when he’s at liberty. Another goal that I don’t know how to reach is refining “stay” and “come” so that I can ask him to come a few steps and stop–before reaching me–like sheep dogs do.

Anyway, all that to say: Science is catching on!



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