How horses think

In their new book, Francesco De Gior­gio and José De Gior­gio-Schoorl ex­plain the el­e­ments of equine cog­ni­tion and ex­plore how they shape our re­la­tion­ships with horses.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Francesco De Gior­gio and José De Gior­gio-Schoorl

In their new book, Francesco De Gior­gio and José De Ge­or­gioS­choorl ex­plain the el­e­ments of equine cog­ni­tion and ex­plore how they shape our re­la­tion­ships with horses.

Cog­ni­tion is a fac­ulty that pro­cesses in­for­ma­tion, ap­plies knowl­edge and changes pref­er­ences. It is both how the world is per­ceived and the knowl­edge that is de­rived from that per­cep­tion. At­ten­tion, mem­ory, prob­lem-solv­ing and de­ci­sion­mak­ing are all key el­e­ments within the cog­ni­tive pro­cesses. Try­ing to un­der­stand and ex­plain the men­tal abil­i­ties of an­i­mals often sparks dis­cus­sion be­cause there are sev­eral very dif­fer­ent def­i­ni­tions of cog­ni­tion that re­late to how peo­ple, in­clud­ing sci­en­tists, look at the world. The an­thro­pocen­tric view, for in­stance, places hu­man in­tel­li­gence and cog­ni­tion at the top of a pyra­mid, and tends to com­pare the abil­i­ties of ot For ex ex­am­ple, the use of lan­guage and the solv­ing of math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lems are eas­ily rec­og­niz­able cog­ni­tive process temptin to hors horses: Teach them how to count, recog then of a form of equine in­tel­li­gence. How How­ever, a horse that is able to cou count has ac­tu­ally learned a trick. It gives a mis­lead­ing pic­ture of t the true ca­pac­ity and needs of the horse and be­lit­tles his essence, es­pe­cially when it is achieved with food pre­mi­ums that dis­tract from the horse’s ac­tual un­der­stand­ing of a con­text.

Learn­ing the al­pha­bet is not of in­ter­est to a horse. It is, how­ever, grat­i­fy­ing to man to train a horse to per­form such a task. What is in a horse’s in­ter­est is an un­der­stand­ing of his sur­round­ings, spa­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tions and so­cial dy­nam­ics; he also needs to be able to solve prob­lems and to per­form pre­con­flict (where one horse in­ter­rupts two oth­ers that are start­ing a con­flict) and con­so­la­tory (con­sol­ing) be­hav­iors. A horse doesn’t need a re­ward for these be­hav­iors---his sat­is­fac­tion is in­trin­sic.

Try­ing to prove in­tel­li­gence by cre­at­ing be­hav­ioral pro­jec­tions from the hu­man world, or try­ing to com­pare ca­pac­i­ties in­stead of un­der­stand­ing dif­fer­ent cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, con­fuses the mean­ing of an­i­mal cog­ni­tion. It also col­ors our abil­ity to see the value of a par­tic­u­lar an­i­mal or in­di­vid­ual.

Equine Cog­ni­tion

In na­ture, a horse is a cog­ni­tive an­i­mal be­cause life in the wild re­quires it. Equine cog­ni­tion has been shaped by the evo­lu­tion­ary process, both by the en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges and com­plex so­cial dy­nam­ics. In fact, ev­ery species has its own par­tic­u­lar cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties and skills, as does ev­ery in­di­vid­ual. Bats and spi­ders, for ex­am­ple, have a de­vel­oped spa­tial cog­ni­tion that al­lows them to nav­i­gate through and hunt in their en­vi­ron­ment.

“We have long since left the realm where an­i­mals are viewed as sim­ple, stim­u­lus-bound re­spon­ders, pas­sive

learn­ers or robotic fol­low­ers of con­di­tion­ing regimes,” wrote Rus­sell P. Balda, Irene M. Pep­per­berg, and Alan C. Kamil in their book, An­i­mal Cog­ni­tion in Na­ture (Aca­demic Press, 1998).

Sadly, in to­day’s so­ci­ety, this con­cept doesn’t yet seem to be rec­og­nized for the equine species.

Think, for ex­am­ple, of a sit­u­a­tion when a horse is taken to a new habi­tat. Many horses are ex­pected to im­me­di­ately adapt with­out hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore and get to know this new en­vi­ron­ment. Although the new place is full of in­for­ma­tion for the horse, we do not per­ceive these el­e­ments as learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. As a re­sult, many horses live in a blurred world full of si­t­u­a­tions and in­ter­ac­tions they just get used to see­ing but don’t re­ally un­der­stand.

Be­sides rec­og­niz­ing and ac­cept­ing a horse’s need to ex­plore a new en­vi­ron­ment, we must also un­der­stand he has his own in­for­ma­tion-ac­qui­si­tion process. We might not see any ev­i­dence of this process be­cause one char­ac­ter­is­tic of cog­ni­tive learn­ing is la­tency, which means that the im­me­di­ate re­sult of the learn­ing process often can­not be seen. What was elab­o­rated---worked out men­tally---by the horse might be used in a fu­ture mo­ment, if and when cir­cum­stances call for it. How­ever, even if we do not see the re­sult of the elab­o­ra­tion process, what we can do is cre­ate room for learn­ing.

This is a prob­lem for other an­i­mals, as well. Think of a cat go­ing out­side for the first time. Most cats will sit on the doorstep first, at the bor­der be­tween their se­cure en­vi­ron­ment and the un­known, tak­ing time to ob­serve ev­ery­thing and form an idea of the sit­u­a­tion. The hu­man com­pan­ion, how­ever, is often too im­pa­tient be­cause he wants to see some ac­tion and a re­sult. So he

Be­sides rec­og­niz­ing a horse’s need to ex­plore a new en­vi­ron­ment, we must also un­der­stand he has his own in­for­ma­tion-ac­qui­si­tion process.

in­ter­rupts that process and tries to con­vince the cat to step out. We need to learn to rec­og­nize and re­spect these learn­ing moments in­stead.

Cog­ni­tion and Well-Be­ing

Although the un­der­stand­ing of an­i­mal cog­ni­tion has be­come an im­por­tant topic and a cru­cial el­e­ment for the horse’s qual­ity of life, rel­a­tively lit­tle is known about it. We must, there­fore, not just fo­cus on how to train a horse but also un­der­stand his needs and pre­serve his so­cio-cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties.

Wel­fare, well-be­ing and cog­ni­tion are closely linked. Ig­nor­ing cog­ni­tion means ig­nor­ing a horse’s pro­found and in­nate need to un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing around him, un­der­stand his en­vi­ron­ment, and work out and ex­press his own ex­pe­ri­ence.

Ig­nor­ing it will cause ten­sion in the horse, men­tally, emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally. Yet, the more we study horse cog­ni­tion from a hu­man point of view, the less we know about his real emo­tional, so­cial, and men­tal per­cep­tion and un­der­stand­ing. We need to study horse cog­ni­tion in a new way.

What Is a Cog­ni­tive En­vi­ron­ment?

Horses who live in a so­cial con­text and an en­riched nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment con­tin­u­ously process in­for­ma­tion while for­ag­ing, walk­ing to­gether, stand­ing still to­gether and ob­serv­ing herd­mates.

As in other species, horses liv­ing in a fam­ily con­text have their own cul­tural trans­mis­sion. Know­ing each other, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing moments to­gether and hav­ing the free­dom to ex­press them­selves gives horses from a fam­ily---or fam­i­ly­like group---a de­tailed read­ing of each other that en­ables them to pick up on each other’s in­ten­tions by ob­ser­va­tion and ac­tiv­ity. Re­fined so­cial in­ter­ac­tions such as pre-con­flict be­hav­ior, af­fil­ia­tive be­hav­ior (be­hav­ior that pro­motes group co­he­sion) and shared ex­plor­ing are then also de­vel­oped. They take so­cial dy­nam­ics into ac­count and, in do­ing so, safe­guard a cog­ni­tive con­text.

Horses can share ex­pe­ri­ences, learn to­gether and from each other. A young horse can learn by ob­serv­ing a ma­ture, ex­pe­ri­enced horse, but a ma­ture horse can also learn from a young horse. It is called so­cial learn­ing in a so­ciocog­ni­tive con­text. In this con­text, liv­ing to­gether means liv­ing ex­pe­ri­ences to­gether, learn­ing nu­anced ex­pres­sions in a kind of di­a­logue in which ev­ery sin­gle re­la­tion­ship is unique and in con­tin­u­ous de­vel­op­ment. Ob­vi­ously, the rich­ness of these ex­pe­ri­ences de­pends on the in­di­vid­ual horses in­volved. Sim­i­larly, if the en­vi­ron­ment be­comes too dy­namic, too com­pet­i­tive or if there are no el­e­ments that sup­port the shared ex­pe­ri­ences, the con­di­tions for so­ciocog­ni­tive learn­ing de­crease.

Hav­ing shared ex­pe­ri­ences is cru­cial in cre­at­ing a cog­ni­tive en­vi­ron­ment and of­fers deeper un­der­stand­ing of the con­text and of each other. How­ever, it is also im­por­tant to un­der­stand that putting a num­ber of horses to­gether doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally mean that a safe so­cial en­vi­ron­ment is cre­ated. Most horses in our so­ci­ety have no fam­ily ties or fam­ily-like groups in their liv­ing habi­tat and do not grow up to­gether.

Pre­serv­ing So­cioCog­ni­tive Abil­i­ties

Liv­ing to­gether in the same field is not the same as hav­ing shared ex­pe­ri­ences in a so­cio-cog­ni­tive con­text, es­pe­cially when a herd changes con­tin­u­ously. In many si­t­u­a­tions, horses are busy de­fend­ing them­selves rather than try­ing to un­der­stand each other.

Zooan­thro­pol­ogy rec­og­nizes the non­hu­man “other” as a sub­ject and, for this, clearly dis­ap­proves of the use of co­er­cive in­stru­ments, whether phys­i­cal, emo­tional or men­tal . . .

Pre­serv­ing cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties means en­sur­ing a horse lives in a con­text where there is re­spect for his spe­cific needs and where he can ex­press him­self and un­der­stand his en­vi­ron­ment.

Hu­mans can play an im­por­tant role by cre­at­ing the op­por­tu­ni­ties for horses to share so­cial ex­pe­ri­ences with each other, such as fa­cil­i­tat­ing an ex­plo­ration in the field. In­stead, horses are often sub­jected to fast dy­nam­ics: Many peo­ple go into a field to di­rectly take a horse out, not to spend time in the field and no­tice from nearby what kind of en­vi­ron­ment and dy­nam­ics their equine com­pan­ion is liv­ing in.

Pre­serv­ing cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties means en­sur­ing a horse lives in a con­text where there is re­spect for his spe­cific needs and where he can ex­press him­self and un­der­stand his en­vi­ron­ment. It is also mak­ing sure that he isn’t con­tin­u­ously ex­posed to pres­sure and ex­pec­ta­tions in his in­ter­ac­tions with hu­mans. Nowa­days, how­ever, most horses are placed in stress­ful si­t­u­a­tions from the mo­ment they are born. Many com­mon fea­tures of mod­ern equine life, in­clud­ing pre­ma­ture wean­ing of foals, so­cial iso­la­tion, liv­ing in non-fa­mil­iar and un­sta­ble herds, be­hav­ior­is­tic

train­ing and life­styles shaped by per­for­mance or com­pe­ti­tion goals all strongly af­fect the cog­ni­tive struc­tures of horses and their wel­fare.

As so­cial cog­ni­tion is strongly re­lated to the per­cep­tion of each horse, and de­pends on all the pre­vi­ously men­tioned el­e­ments, we need to learn to see a horse in this com­plex sit­u­a­tion. We need to adopt a more holis­tic ap­proach in un­der­stand­ing a re­la­tion­ship dy­namic that can­not be cap­tured by or at­tained with a method. That would be like find­ing a method for a happy hu­man-hu­man re­la­tion­ship.

Although many may have ac­tu­ally tried to cap­ture it in a for­mula, in the end, we still have to ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery sin­gle re­la­tion­ship. And that is the beauty of it! Ev­ery sound re­la­tion­ship is a unique in­ter­ac­tion in con­tin­u­ous evo­lu­tion. With ev­ery new ex­pe­ri­ence, ev­ery­one grows and ac­quires new in­stru­ments with which to see and per­ceive life.

A re­la­tion­ship that lasts and is based on cog­ni­tion can­not be put in a man­ual as if it were a math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tion. It re­quires an aware­ness of all the var­i­ous el­e­ments within the re­la­tion­ship dy­namic.

Adapted by per­mis­sion from Equus Lost? How We Misun­der­stand the Na­ture of the Horse-Hu­man Re­la­tion­ship--Plus Brave New Ideas for the Fu­ture, pub­lished in Fe­bru­ary 2017 by Trafal­gar Square Books. Avail­able from www. EquineNet­workS­tore.com; 866-655-2698.

About the au­thors: Francesco De Gior­gio is an equine cog­ni­tive ethol­o­gist, zooan­thro­pol­o­gist lec­turer and writer. José De Gior­gio-Schoorl is a speaker, trainer in the horse-hu­man re­la­tion­ship (zooan­thro­pol­ogy) and horse and peo­ple coach.

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