Stupid Horse?

Stupid Horse?

We say a horse is smart when it does what we want it to do. But many disobedient horses (the ones we classify as stupid) are actually every bit as clever as the "smart" ones. As quickly as the smart ones learn obedience, the so-called stupid ones learn evasions. We tend to be impressed by a horse that will stand for mounting and canter on the proper lead. Then totally unimpressed by the horse that had had three months of professional training only to begin to selectively ignoring our commands to walk a straight line, while he is busy grabbing at bunches of grass. In both cases the underlying intelligence is the same. In fact from a real learning point of view, the latter example of intelligence can be seen as superior, for the horse as learned that the rewards of eating are greater than obeying.


Disobedient horses have mastered sophisticated evasions to our instructions, not just the responses we are trying to teach them. A disobedient horse can display antics meant to scare its rider and cause him to end the lesson and take the horse back to the barn. This horse has cleverly learned to associate frisky behaviour on its part with the immediate reward of not having to work anymore. From some people’s point of view, the horse is untrainable, when in fact it is a very good learner. The horse just hasn’t learned what we had in mind, when we started the lesson.


Maybe we call horses smart because they are teachable. They are teachable because they are highly social animals and are attuned to the vocal and physical signals of dominance and submission. They have a natural instinct to follow the will of the herd leader. Few of the things we ask them to do go against their natural abilities, be it running, jumping or flying lead changes. Unfortunately we choose to teach the horse to do some things that are against the horse’s natural instinct to remain in a safe environment. We ask horses to enter the narrow, dark, confining space of a horse trailer willingly. An act the flies in the face of the horse’s instinctive need to run from danger. Do we accuse the horse of being stupid, if he refuses to load up promptly?


Horses tend to move suddenly, as if startled, because the construction of their eyes is optimized for a near 360-degree field of vision. Useful for spotting danger, but the price the horse pays for this handy feature is a somewhat out-of-focus view until the horse looks directly at an object, causing it to suddenly snap into sharp focus. The horse may react and jump at the sight of the box of brushes sitting by the gate. "You stupid horse" we shout. For the horse, it is purely a reaction meant to save his life from possible danger. The smarter, faster and stronger horses we have today are the result of the theory of evolution whereby the superior animals survived to reproduce.


What about our pet cats? Most cat lovers are quick to vouch for the intelligence of their pet, but also have to admit to their relative un-trainability. Cats are not pack or herd dwelling animals and have no need for its resulting complex system of dominance and submission. We congratulate our cat on its intelligence for running to the kitchen, when we open the fridge door. But we accuse the horse of being dangerous and stupid for rushing to the feed bucket.


So what do you think about it, stupid or smart? Intelligent or not? I for one vouch for the intelligence of my horse.


c)2001 by Karen Murray. All rights reserved.
Do not reproduce or redistribute any material
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