Are You Frightened of Them?

We have a pair of horse “statues” on the window ledge of our barn. One is a rearing stallion. The other is Pokey of Gumby and Pokey fame.

It’s a reminder for me of the dual nature of the horse – fierce, intense, fiery, impulsive, emotional…. and cute, smart, and innocent.

All at the same time.

It’s part of what makes them frightening. It’s part of what makes them endearing.It definitely makes them fascinating.

They live in our paddocks, they live in our yards, they live in our barns. To those who don’t know them, to those who don’t handle them, they are intimidating. And even when they are being Pokey, it’s easy to be afraid they will suddenly become the rearing stallion.

But of course, it’s not so likely for the well trained horse, even though he has those aspects of his nature still captured inside his training.

Lensman is the sweetest horse in the world – but given the chance, he dominated Bella and chased her around the paddock. Seen from the ground in a reining spin, he looks like a dragon. But when he’s in the paddock with people or with his buddy Gunsmoke, and now even Bella, he’s cute and relaxed and curious. He likes horses, people. And kids.

Jack PJs and Horses

When people who were afraid of horses come to our place, they find horses who love their life with people and who are no longer scary. These are quiet, self-disciplined animals who have years of training and who are at peace with themselves and their surroundings because they are treated consistently and gently, because they are clearly and consistently corrected.

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Don’t be afraid. They are able to quickly bond with us and be part of our lives. But if you own a horse, think about what it takes to create a horse who merges these two natures into one coherent whole and think about what it demands of you as an owner, trainer or rider.

A Model Driven Life

People constantly wonder how “smart” horses are. They wonder if horses are like us or if horses are different from us. They exalt them as smart and empathic and denigrate them as stupid and lazy and spooky.

Scientists do tests and we use the results. But intelligence is very hard to test, especially when you can’t clearly articulate what it is.

When I think of intelligence, I think of models – models in the mind. Representations abstracted from reality that I use to test what I want to do without actually having to do it. Models that help me safely decide whether or not to do something, because the model shows the positive and negative consequences of an action without the risk of actually trying it.

So when I ask if horses are intelligent, I am really asking: “Do they form models? Do they use them? Do they avoid things without having to try them?”

The answer to these questions appear to be “yes”.

The horse has a great mental model of the electric fence. No matter how upset, he pretty much always doesn’t challenge even an uncharged fence. But he can fold his legs like a ballerina and insert his head under the fence and snatch the best tidbits of grass on the absolute farthest possible reach.Without ever touching the thing. Sure, he’s been practicing – he eats near the fence, then slightly under it, then far under it. But he always has in his mind the shape of his stance and the position of the fence rope and he keeps the two from intersecting.

They can hear me open the door to the grain stall and they queue up near the fence, waiting. The sound has a meaning. The cause and effect are widely separated, much further than the causal limit of 10 seconds that scientists have found in tests. So how do they  know? Maybe a model.

They certainly know where things are. How else to explain the day Gunsmoke escaped from the boarding stable arena and went right, left, right, left and ended up in his paddock eating?

It’s nothing more and nothing less than a model-driven life.