I love reading about science like hungry people love over-cooked greenish-gray Brussel sprouts. And that’s the kind of sentence you never come upon while reading scientific research.
I have better luck understanding these behavioral studies if I read them aloud. The words all seem to trip over each other’s feet; science jargon is a language of big words and self-important run-on sentences. In their defense, scientists probably wouldn’t be wild about my oversimplification of the same topic. This week, I’ve been studying social learning theory. I have a passion for evolving my understanding of horses because we could always do a better job of training them. Because after a life with horses, I honestly believe we are close to a breakthrough in understanding this creature who is like no other. Not like a cow or a dog or a cat. Horses are in a category of their own.
Science affirms the mistake of fear-based training, so I love science. At the same time, we have precious little research on brain dysfunction in horses. Is it possible all horses are born physically perfect, in a way that humans are not? Science also has a rich history that includes steel-rod lobotomies, leeches, and electrical impotence cures. We humans are works in progress and that might be the best thing about science. You gotta love all the question-asking.
At some point in school, I learned that Edison invented electricity, but he didn’t. Electricity was always there, he invented the light bulb. It’s one of those small semantic details that make all the difference. What else haven’t we discovered? Are we missing something hard to quantify about horses that will be obvious in hindsight?
At the same time, is there an animal we have more romantic (and less scientific) notions about than horses? We see them as manifestations of freedom but keep them in stalls. We value their strength but work them past soundness. We think they’re magically psychic because they understand some of our emotions. Yet we don’t listen to their emotions as well as we should. We think horses want domination or that horses are hapless creatures who need our micro-managing care, but most of us are between those extremes, trying to find a middle place of understanding. We are looking for something beyond evoking a response. We search for an authentic connection without intimidation or baiting.
Here is my favorite sentence from a recent research paper: “This shows that although horses are quite intelligent, their personalities vary so greatly that we can’t simply use one metric to measure their intelligence. Researchers will continue to modify and conduct this test to really get the answer.”
This wouldn’t be news except for things like the ongoing controversy over gender, race, and economic bias in college entrance exams. Is one group less intelligent, with less potential, or are we asking the wrong questions? Do we ask the right questions in the wrong language? That’s why I savored this sentence, in a study that each horse failed, because it acknowledges the difference between individual horses. It sounds like the researchers could see intelligence but had no way to quantify it. That sounds about right.
Horse owners have something that science doesn’t. Historically, we’ve ridden to battle and traveled great distances. We’ve had their help building homes and planting fields. We put little girls on their backs to be rocked until they climb down, thirty years later, being better for the ride. Our lives have always been intertwined with horses. Even now, we risk life and limb riding, understanding their flight response in visceral ways, and we’re honest to say that horses have stepped up for us, filled in for us, or even saved us. Horses somehow let us know there was something much bigger below the surface. Sometimes we call it heart but it’s a frustratingly flat and trivial word for what our relationship has become. And if we have the opportunity to work with a horse without human language getting in the way, maybe a long trek or a solitary path of training, we learn the depth of meaning in simple words like empathy and trust. Science doesn’t have an explanation for the hook horses have in us but I hope the science evolves. I hope horse people evolve as well.
Longtime horse owners have experience that taints our belief in the studies. If the research requires that horses be taken from their herds, for instance, we know the horses are stressed already. The answers will be colored by separation. We have a lifetime of knowledge that boils down to anecdotal evidence and which science considers the equivalent of old wives tales. But is all anecdotal experience false? We observe our horses just as closely, we know how much horses change from day-to-day and evolve over the course of their lives. No one needs to tell us that quantitative information can be fleeting.
When will we learn to stop making up narratives and actually listen to horses? When we still the noise in our heads, when we let the air rest, horses tell us more than science can define. Perhaps we are on the edge of returning to the language we lost with civilization. Perhaps we will discover something that’s been here all along, and we will become fluent in the equine body-voice or calming signals and get our answers straight from the horse’s mouth.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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