2014-06-14 / Columnists

HORSE TALES

‘The Mind of the Horse:’ A Look Into Equine Perception

Mackinac Island’s Dr. Francis Straus II had many interests beyond the medicine that he practiced at the University of Chicago. On Mackinac Island, he was also known as an avid gardener, architect, patron of history, a boater, and a voracious reader. Few people, however, know that “Fran” was a lover of horses, and he was very interested in them. One of the last gifts that I received from Dr. Straus, prior to his death in January 2014, was a book, a fascinating work entitled “The Mind of a Horse, An Introduction to Equine Cognition.” It was written by Michel-Antoine Leblanc, and published by Harvard University Press, Dr. Straus’ alma mater. The book is not what one would call a “light read.” I was interested by the depth of the material and findings that deal with equine cognition. Simply put, this is a horse’s perception.

The book applies datum from several studies on how horses adapt to their surroundings. This includes studies on memory, vision, and sensory abilities such as hearing, taste, and touch. Foremost, the work helps horse owners and managers have a clearer idea of horses’ actions, and this helps them in turn with training and management.


Written by Michel-Antoine Leblanc, and published by Harvard University Press, the book “The Mind of the Horse” is not what one would call a “light read.” Simply put, this is a horse’s perception. Written by Michel-Antoine Leblanc, and published by Harvard University Press, the book “The Mind of the Horse” is not what one would call a “light read.” Simply put, this is a horse’s perception. To begin with, horses do not perceive the world in the same manner as people; therefore, they may react to their surroundings in unfamiliar ways. Humans view horse teaching as “the action of training an animal, with the goal of habituating it to respond to human expectations.” In basic understanding of these creatures, one studies how they lived in the wild. Looking back to their feral days, horses lived in harems, and in these harems, one or another male stallion took up with several females, who were accompanied with their offspring, until they grew up, at about three years of age. The structure was stable because of the females, not the stallion. The bands of horses are not territorial, but rather, they are roving. Horses will band together while foraging for food and as a herd in times of danger. Thus, the horse is a very social animal, and in the wild, quite rarely lives alone. Horses tend to only leave the herd because of illness, and the strong desire for mating with a select set of other horses. Then they may strike out away from others. In other words, horses discriminate among themselves, preferring one companion, or companions, over the other.

There are huge debates as to the intelligence of a horse. Intelligence is often defined as a specific set of adaptions and coping. But, cognition, or perception, is a behavioral adjustment in response to changing conditions in the environment. So, one can say that horses can adapt well, such as go over a bridge or through the water if they have to get somewhere, or even jump, if danger is present. But they cannot figure out the reason for the danger. A horse may learn to open a door, a gate, or a closet and find his food, but at the same time he may never figure out how to take a detour. Interesting.

We do know that horses will respond to a stimulus, food, a treat, the pressure of a rein, a bit, the leg, and the whip. Man uses these aids as tools to obtain an effect. Interesting, because in the world of animals, horses have a kindred affection or trust in humans, which is why we have been able to have domesticated them for centuries. Man has been very cruel to these animals, and also very kind, and most horses react openly to people. Horses do respond to cues, such as with clicker training, which has been very popular with some circus horses and dressage trainers.

Horses hear very well, which is one reason clicker training has had success. Did you realize that a horse is not only a “receiver” of sounds, but is an “emitter” of them? Auditory perception plays a huge key role in a horse’s communication.

Leblanc’s research also supports the fact that horses do discriminate between larger and smaller horses, as well as humans and other animals. While wary of large ones, a horse may develop a fondness for the small, or show a more aggressive behavior toward the larger. An animal emitting sounds, such as a small dog barking, by bring up a horses’ radar, the same as with a small child or a baby crying loudly. Noises are unsettling to many horses. This is why the training of horses subject to such auditory predators is an important step in trying to maintain a harmony in their behavior. A horse will remember a “bad” experience quicker, and for a longer time, than a “good” one. Again, the reaction time of approximately three seconds seems to hold true in Leblanc’s findings, as well as being known as sage advice from your average horseman.

Horses, though, do differentiate people and remember them by smell in a more or less positive and generalized way. This is the reason nostrils are large, to smell. Horses tend to respond to strong odors, such as urine and manure. Sniffing is involved in all ages and stages of horses. If a horse really responds to a smell, he will dip his nose toward it and then look at where the smell is coming from. This is how you know he is paying attention. Horses seemed to be soothed by the essence of the oil of lavender, in experiments. Valuable information? I’ve never heard of this. Predatory smells such as a coyote’s pelt or wolf urine increased a horse’s heart rate and visibly agitated him.

They also distinguish color. Red and black are the strongest colors, followed by blue and yellow. Under conditions of dusk or in moonlight, their visual accuracy was found to be “only mediocre.” Horses are better at seeing in the dark. Horses have just about the largest eyes of terrestrial animals, and it has been proven they can see better at night than at twilight or dawn, as bright colors tend to be muted at these times. Their perception by smell and hearing becomes more acute. A horse’s skin will often twitch when they’re in an alert state.

As any equine massage therapist will tell you, externally there are six points on a horse where he responds well to touch: the withers and shoulder areas, the neck, the lower back, the top of the forelegs, the sides of the rump, and the top of the head (the poll). These are also the areas that horses socially interchange within their herds and at birth.

“The Mind of the Horse” is more than just a scientific text. It is a rich and informative treatise. The publication date is 2013, and it may be obtained through the Harvard University Press.

Best wishes for a great week, and enjoy the lilacs and equines of Mackinac Island.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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