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How smart is your horse?

Andrew McLean played a leading role in educating horse owners around the world, in particular, he tried to convey how horses think. This article appeared in 1995, but is still relevant today.

Over time, all animals developed certain behavioral mechanisms that ensure their survival in a particular environment. People, for example, have hands with opposable thumbs, the ability to walk on two legs and the brain, which is in many ways ahead of the brains of other animals, is able to understand and reason. Understanding is the highest form of learning and can be defined as the ability to spontaneously connect unrelated information stored in memory to obtain a result or solve a problem.

The development of understanding allows us to anticipate, invent and invent ways to change the environment. For humans, this has always been the key to survival. After all, humans have never been good hunters – relatively slow, without fangs, claws, and in order to survive, a person had to think that this was a success for our species.

People are unique in their ability to reason, and the first mistake we can make when assessing a horse’s intelligence is to think that they are not very intelligent people enclosed in a four-legged body. So – there is nothing further from the truth …

Horses – amazing creatures, perfectly adapted for survival, because by nature they are victims. They do not have insight or something remotely similar to this. Their brains work differently, and the main task is not to be eaten and to avoid this by escaping.

That is why horses are so well suited for running from birth. But you need to understand that the rapid flight does not require special mental processes. In this case, instincts are triggered – any unfamiliar sound, object or smell means one thing – to run. In addition, herbivorous horses, unlike predators, do not need to think about how to get food.

This contrasts sharply with the thinking of predators, who need strategy and understanding, close communication within the pack for a successful hunt. Horses are knocked down for safety reasons.

This explains why dogs, bears, seals, whales (including dolphins) and primates are much more effective to train by encouraging food (positive reinforcement) than by negative reinforcement, through which we most often train horses (encouragement mainly by reducing pressure).

Horses also tend to form repetitive patterns of behavior. The more often the horse repeats an action, the stronger neural connections are formed in the brain. The habit gets into the brain and becomes more resistant to change. It is the formation of habits and quick reaction that help horses survive.

Imagine that you are a horse and a predator is attacking you, if you spend at least half a second thinking about whether to run or not, it can cost you your life. That is why lightning reactions are characteristic of your brain.

Training also leads to the acquisition and formation of new habits in horses that people need. When training a horse, it is necessary to take into account an interesting fact: they are not capable of connecting events, between which there is at least some period of time. What does this mean – if you punish a horse an hour after the manifestation of undesirable behavior, then, in addition, that this is not very ethical, such training is ineffective and, as a rule, leads only to confusion.

There is also no need to punish a horse when the source of “bad behavior” is not in its field of vision. The comments “he knows what he did wrong” are fundamentally wrong …

When we say that one horse is “smarter” than the other, what do we actually mean, and what is intelligence? It is at this moment that an understanding comes in how vague is the question of intelligence when it comes to horses. When people measure the intelligence of people, they basically test their ability to reason.

Unlike us, horses do not have such abilities. The level of intelligence in horses is reduced to the speed of the association of events. So what we call the mind is actually learning. Then the following question arises: what is the ability to train and what are the characteristics of a trained horse?

Horses vary in their ability to learn. What makes one horse more trained than the other is related to how sensitive (reactive) it is and how responsive it is to stimuli (calm). An anxious jet horse will be less trained than a calm non-reactive one. The ideal combination is a reactive horse that responds adequately to external stimuli.

Thanks to the selection, people managed to bring horses that have a high learning ability and are able to partially suppress the instinct to escape. Such horses are called half-blood. They appeared as a result of a rush of blood from heavy breeds, which are distinguished by calmness and low degree of reactivity to thoroughbred race horses.

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