Do horses really have emotions?
I am often asked this question, and I have to say that my answer in the past has always been “no.” How could they? I’ve always thought that horses are simple animals, unable to reason, and have no conscious perception of ‘self.’ I thought that surely such a simple creature cannot possibly process the complex information involved with emotions. And yet, while doing research for another article, I found myself once again plagued by this question.
In my search for more information and hopefully some ‘scientific’ answers, my eyes were opened to the possibility that I may have been wrong. This reality led me to some very important questions. If a horse does truly possess emotions, then how does this impact the way we train, house, ride, and interact with them?
On the Path to Knowledge
My quest for answers led me to a wonderful book, “Animals in Translation,” by one of my favorite authors, Dr. Temple Grandin (with Catherine Johnson). Dr. Grandin’s work primarily revolves around the cattle slaughter industry; she has done a lot for the humane treatment of these animals. In this book Dr. Grandin makes a very interesting case for animals having emotions. She describes emotions as both simple and complex. Simple emotions are fear, rage, discovery, confusion, gain, loss, happiness and depression. Complex emotions are shame, guilt, embarrassment, greed, respect, contempt. She makes reference to the fact that animals don’t have the ability to have mixed emotions. She also feels that animals aren’t ambivalent and don’t have love/hate relationships. As humans, these emotions are second nature to us. We don’t think about being unable to express joy or sorrow, empathy or indifference — we run the gamut of these emotions on a daily basis.
What’s Different Between the Species?
The emotional differences between horse and human are significant. The horse lacks the complexity that makes up the human brain. Emotions come from the cerebral cortex; in humans this area of the brain is very well-developed. Research has shown that the measure of intelligence is based on the number of folds in the brain in addition to the brain-size-to-body ratio of the organism.
Horses have relatively small brains with little folding. The more folds in a brain and the greater the overall size, the more intelligent the animal is. This does not mean that horses are not intelligent, but reflects their intelligence in relation to humans. In fact, there are many studies that show the horse as having a highly effective memory. They can recall past experiences and react to them readily. This alone doesn’t make the horse intelligent or unintelligent, just unique to its species.
After months of reading about horses’ emotions and studying and observing my own horses’ emotions, I now believe that horses feel the simple emotions of fear, anger, curiosity, confusion, sadness and possibly happiness. I can say for sure that a horse doesn’t feel these emotions like you and I do. The way emotions are processed in the human brain is different from the horse because of the compartmentalization of the horse’s brain. As humans, we have the ability to reason why we feel a particular way. Horses simply feel emotion (without reasoning) because they don’t have the ability to rationalize the feeling.
How Does This Relate to the Horse/Human Relationship?
Knowing this information about how humans and horses process emotions should change the way we train our horses. We need to realize that horses don’t feel animosity or contempt towards us; their misbehaviors aren’t premeditated attempts at ‘getting back at us.’ They are simply expressions of what the horse is feeling at that given time. If the horse is fearful, it is because it is. If the horse is unsure and confused, it is because it is. You wouldn’t punish a child because they were scared or confused, nor would you use fear and intimidation to try to teach a child a new word or lesson. We wouldn’t do this to our children and we shouldn’t punish a horse for its feelings either.
How Does Round-Penning and Desensitization Affect a Horse’s Emotions?
This brings me back to my stance on what I believe are particularly harmful training methods like round-penning and desensitizing. I strongly believe that round-penning a horse (the act of chasing a horse in a round pen) is possibly the most harmful thing you can do because horses are prey animals. The round pen lesson teaches fear. Dr. Grandin says that she believes that “instilling fear in an animal is far worse than pain.”
Horses are prey animals — they are the embodiment of the fear response — and since fear is quickly remembered and never forgotten, it doesn’t make sense to invoke this fear response, whether in the round pen or anywhere else.
The same holds true for desensitizing. I realize that this is a very popular term and function in the training of horses. However, when done improperly it can have far-reaching adverse effects on the horse’s psyche and emotional state.
Is Natural Horsemanship the Be-All, End-All?
I often wonder if natural horsemanship is such a great thing, since there is still such an over-abundance of horses with behavioral problems. I literally get hundreds of emails every month from owners with horse problems. I think the obvious reason lies in the misunderstanding of the horse’s psychological makeup. I have spent years studying how horses learn, how they interact with humans, and why so many common misbehaviors are so prevalent.
So What’s the Answer?
I have come to the conclusion that most horse owners don’t interact correctly with their horses. Their cues are confusing, complex, and not at all consistent. This miscommunication can lead to many of the horse’s emotions we are talking about that so often then progress to behavioral problems.
My goal as a clinician is to educate owners and trainers that horses can become confused when confronted by opposing cues, or similar cues that are too close together. Your horse is a living, feeling creature that when pressed into a stressful environment will do what it thinks is best for itself and not for you.
That may mean the horse bucks you off, runs away with you, or generally misbehaves. These misbehaviors are what the horse thinks it needs in that very moment and what it feels will make the pressure go away. It is your responsibility to understand that you may be causing many of the misbehaviors your horse is expressing!
As I think back to time spent with my mentor Dr. Andrew McLean (who developed and manages the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre and holds a PhD in horse training psychology), I am reminded of our conversation about the emotional horse. His view was that horses have no emotions, and that they are simply products of their environment. If your training was bad and inconsistent, your results were bad and inconsistent.
I believe that this is fundamentally true, but overly simplified. If we don’t understand what the horse is feeling, then we as ‘feeling beings’ find it hard to relate. We then become confused when our training goes wrong and this confusion translates to our horses. We are quick to blame the horse for his mistakes and never fully realize that the problem is truly our fault. We are the teacher, they are the student, and therefore our lesson should always be more clear to us than to them.
So how do we become better at communicating with our horses?
We must never stop learning and developing new and better ways to communicate with our horses. Do horses possess the ability to feel simple emotions? Yes. Do they feel and process these emotions the way humans do? No.
This simple knowledge should change the way we interact with our horses and how we train our horses. It should make us realize that horses can feel pain, they can feel fear and curiosity, and they can feel lonely, confused, sad and possibly happy. It means that every time we scare our horses with improper training techniques and use improper training equipment, we cause irreparable damage to our horses. This human-induced behavior takes us one more step further from our ultimate goal — to have a connected relationship with our horse.
What I’ve Learned
This change in my thinking about emotions did not come easy. My Connective Horsemanship training methods already worked. But my training methods work better now because I have new knowledge that is based on research and not just what seems right to me. Knowledge is power and power should be used for the benefit of others. Seek out new, viable knowledge. By doing so, you will benefit both you and your horse.
For more information on Ryan Gingerich’s Connective Horsemanship program, call 800.359.4090.
Man O’ War and Equine Emotions: Fact or Folklore?
Perhaps the most famous racehorse in history was Man O’ War, undisputed king of the turf during the gambling-happy roaring 1920s. He was a large and imposing horse, and even when he was alive he was a tourist attraction, drawing visitors from across the country to pay homage at his farm. Racing historians say that the only reason Man O’ War never won the Triple Crown is because his owner refused to race him in Kentucky.
Man O’ War lived nobly and developed a unique relationship with his groom of many, many years. He showed his allegiance to Will Harbut every day of his life; Harbut was absent from the horse only at night. Harbut, the horse’s constant companion, died suddenly in October 1947. Man O’ War was so grief-stricken that he pined away, wouldn’t eat, and was obviously crestfallen as he hung his head in the stall, knowing that his friend would not return. Less than a month later Man O’ War died of a broken heart.