Written By Walt Friedrich
Feral horses are smart horses. Living in a vast geography, they know where all the water holes are, where to find the best grass, where the mountain lions hang out. Very smart, indeed – but it’s all built around feral living. The feral has much, much more learning to do before he’s capable of routine, daily life with humans – yet the domestic horses we live with and enjoy, same species, identical animals – seem much smarter by comparison. But not really – it’s just that they’ve had opportunity to further develop their minds. It’s said that the human brain is capable of so much more than it typically uses. Same thing with horses. The domestics just give us a clue about what’s possible – and their thinking powers can be quite surprising.
To illustrate: Gail was riding her horse, Rocky, on a pleasant cross-country outing one warm summer day. Off in the distance, an interesting rock formation covered with wildflowers attracted Gail, and so she had Rocky leave the trail and walk through the brush toward it. The brush got thicker and thicker as Rocky plowed on, until he found himself unable to continue, with his legs tightly tangled in brush and vines. He was struggling to proceed, unsuccessfully, when Gail stopped him and asked him to stand still. She dismounted to examine the situation, saw that it was hopeless to plod through, and so she took out the small garden shears from her riding kit and calmly snipped away the entrapping vines, then led Rocky away from that patch of brush. Rocky followed her, calmly, and when clear, she remounted, patted his neck to tell him what a good, smart boy he was, and continued her ride.
Many horses, in that situation, might have panicked, thrown Gail, hurt themselves in the process. But Rocky understood that Gail will help him out of any difficult situation; he kept his cool and allowed her to do so. He showed far broader comprehension of unusual circumstances than would a herd-raised horse without human experience. But what made Rocky capable of controlling panic so well? Why is he so smart?
A horse’s lifetime is one of continuous learning. The two basic learning environments are his herd and the geography in which he resides. We’ll examine both, but first, let’s have a look at what happens between his ears, that makes it all possible -- the controlling factors that set the parameters for how he perceives and copes with those social conditions.
Learning by developing his cognition:
How he develops mentally is strongly influenced by what he views his physical limitations to be, what are his likes and dislikes, and does he know when he needs help, for example. But -- and this is tricky – we’re talking about understanding self-awareness in an animal, a challenging subject that’s difficult to define for even humans, about whom we do know something. It must be considered as the foundation on which knowledge is based because everything we see and understand is observed from a totally personalized standpoint. It seems unlikely that the relationship we humans have with our horses, as with our dogs, could exist if animals act only out of instinct. As we shall discuss, horses shape their behavior to fit the herd’s requirements; there seems to be some evidence, perhaps only intuitive, that they would do likewise in the company of humans. And it works both ways – a positive environment elicits positive attitude, and negative elicits negative.
Learning from the herd:
We know that the group environment is a highly influential factor in developing cognition. How smart a horse becomes is defined by the circumstances into which he is born and in which he develops – and it is a continuing process. Every event he experiences contributes to his fund of knowledge, and thus his intelligence. It follows, as studies confirm, that youngsters develop best in a herd environment, where its members have established complex interrelationships among themselves. The youngster comes to understand hierarchy, and that he must comport himself accordingly. But herd dynamics is much more than an unwritten rulebook – it’s also a blueprint for comfortable and safe living within a broad society, and to participate, he must learn it. The importance of the social environment cannot be overstressed. If you and I were to learn only at our mother’s knee until we were adults, we would be quite ill-prepared to exist in a society of people who developed within the broad panoply of school, playmates, close friends, neighbors, society in general. Likewise, a foal, growing up in such a group environment, will be far better prepared to cope with life’s events than one who knows only his mother and perhaps a few others during his developmental years.
Not only does the foal learn the dynamics of living with his mother, he also learns the relative position of every member of the herd toward himself, his mother and each other. Processing this data and understanding it, then living within it, develops his social intelligence so that he can quickly and efficiently continue the process going forward. Most importantly, this mental development forms the foundation for his ability to “fit in”, without unwarranted fear or anxiety, in new and different social situations. That means joining a new herd, for example, when he changes homes; it means handling show environments, joining strange horses in group rides, training experiences, and especially events with humans – as witness Rocky’s performance when tangled in the vines.
Learning from the environment:
Since a horse is such a physical animal and he lives in a primarily physical world, that physical environment is a major teaching aid in his mental development. It is the violin from which the music emanates. The objective is to allow the horse as great a range of experience as possible, with the understanding that the most threatening thing for many horses is, simply, change. But constant changeless environments set the horse up to react badly when change does occur. He learns to deal with changes by experiencing changes. Developing his experiences and thus his intelligence is squarely in our bailiwick. Keep him bottled up and we can expect him to be frightened of anything unfamiliar. But keep him in a complex social group and manage his terrain to promote frequent learning, and he will develop the ability to operate intelligently within his environment no matter how dynamic.
Jaime Jackson recognized that a plain vanilla environment is a boring place, for domestic horse as well as human. He also understood horses’ need for constant movement in order to maintain physical condition. He developed the concept of the Paddock Paradise, a whole new way for the average person with a bit of land and a drive to practice optimal husbandry, to create a stimulating world for her horses, for their health and deep contentment. The difference between Jackson's approach and the usual fenced acreage is like the difference between an animal safari park and a zoo with barred cages. Creating physical, social, even emotional environments in which animals can believe they're in their primordial setup, yields fascinating results when applied to horses.
Here's how Pasture Paradise works: instead of housing our horses in rectangular fields where they just stand in one spot and eat, an additional "inside" fence is added to create a "track" system. The track shape and width can vary - the narrower the track the more the horses will move. The topography can be changed quickly and easily, rock piles, sandy areas and water locations added. Hay can be piled in different locations within the track every day. The electric fencing can be moved to change the pathways, also allowing grazed areas to recover before being grazed again. The more innovative and creative our management methods become the more likely it is that we can create a real harmony between the needs of the horse and the space he lives in. It’s easy to change around, and it all can be done quite cheaply and quickly using electric fencing. It’s well worth the effort when you see how much happier and healthier he becomes. Horses adapt to such an extent that they look forward to changes in the route, watching while modifications take place. Once a change is complete they move into it without any need for pressure.
The sum of the parts:
The foal raised within the herd, an environment of diverse and interesting activity, builds a great deal of knowledge that influences his relationships, personality, decisions and actions into and through his own adulthood – it makes him a “smarter” horse, very much better prepared for your teaching and training when he joins you as your equine partner. And when he is your partner, allow his natural intelligence to continue to develop in an environment of diverse and interesting activity. The more he learns, the greater his capacity to learn still more, and the greater will be your own pleasure and safety. It’s one of the best investments you can make.