A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Horsey ESP, Empathy, and Sympathy

Any one that spends time with their horses is usually amazed at how well their horse understands their emotions.  When you're happy, your horse is happy with you, when you're sad, your horse comforts you.  Why do they do this?  How do they know?

In my earlier post "Your Horse is not a Dog" I was asked if I thought that horses felt empathy.  Well, lets define empathy first.  One place (Dictionary.com) said it is the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.   Another said (wikipedia) it is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient being.  Well, those are VERY different definitions!

So, as for the first one, then no, horses do not work like that.  Horses do not rationalize another's reaction to something, and then try to react similarly, unless mimicking the reaction benefits the individual in some way.  In other words, a horse won't hear that your friend died, and cry with you, but the horse will run from something new if you do, because it might just eat them too.  Horses don't do things vicariously.  Their mind just doesn't work like that.  You don't see a horse watching a work out, and then feeling happy about it.  Jealousy maybe, but not pride that their herd mate just performed something well.  These are things that only critters with extra big brains do.  You know, like humans.

On the flip side, horses can feel empathy using the second definition.  They easily recognize feelings.  They can also share those feelings, or react in appropriate ways to those feelings.  A few examples of this is a horse recognizing an angry person.  That's recognizing feelings across species, a pretty impressive thing really.  The can react appropriately to those feelings - like running away when they know they are about to get a hard workout.  And horses can share those feelings to some extent.  Herds grieve at the loss of a member, horses may comfort their owner at a time of sadness, and haven't we all seen a horse nuzzling a fellow farm animal (mine pet my cats).

These are all examples of empathy.  Horses do all of these things, there fore, horses can show empathy.  Just because a horse is a horse, and not a dog, nor a human, and they don't always show the feelings we WANT them to, doesn't mean that they aren't able to be empathic.

The biggest example cited in the conversation, was about being dumped from a horse.  The human falls off, and the horse shows no remorse, doesn't come back to check on the human, and really could care less.  If it does check on the human, it seems to be more shocked then caring.  Lets stop for a second, and look at this from the horse's point of view.

"Stupid 2 legger climbs on me, makes me carry their fat butt around doing stupid and boring things, and THEN can't even stay on when that lion almost ate me?  What the hell?  Why do I put up with this from them?  I work all day, and do I get any appreciation for it?  Oh no!  Do they know how many times I've stayed calm and still even though there was a monster about to eat me?  But the one time I can't take it any more, they lose patience with me.  Never mind how often I show them the best grass to eat, or swish the flies off of their face with my tail.  I go through all of this extra effort for them, and they just never seem to notice.  Eesh... silly humans!"

Now, the thing is, horses can feel empathy, but they don't necessarily sympathize.  Empathy is the ability to understand and recognize emotions, and respond to them appropriately.  Sympathy is the ability to put ones self in the place of another and comprehend the others feelings as if it were ones own. Put it this way: Horses are selfish.  When you're a prey animal though, being selfish tends to mean that you live longer.

See, this is part of the problem with trying to give your horse the mentality of a dog, or a human.  Anthropomorphizing some would call it.  I don't, because I really hate typing that word!  But in order to understand any animal's ability to empathize, you must understand the point of view that the animal is coming from.  Oh sure, they will even sympathize with you, so long as it's in the animals' best interest.

See, these emotions are so solidly engrained in animal behavior because of evolution.  Now let me explain the science version of evolution to you.  If you live longer, then you have babies.  If your babies live long enough, then they have babies, and thus your genetics are passed on.  That's it.  No fancy schmancy ideas of cognizant evolution or anything.  Just the facts here.  So, if you die young, you have no offspring, and thus your combination of genes was deemed unfit to pass on by the cruelty of the world.

Now, most all of us can agree with the above type of evolution, regardless of religion (because I am not looking for a religious debate here)   So, empathy allowed mothers to care for their offspring better.  If baby was tired, mom would find a safe place to rest.  That baby tended to live longer then the baby whose mother did not do so.  So, the empathic baby grew up and passed on the empathic genetics.  A stallion who protected his mares tended to have more foals live to be adults, then one who let the lions eat them.  A horse that could understand the rattling tail of a snake meant the snake was threatening it would not stick its face into the snake and get bit.

Now, we have to remind ourselves that horses have itty bitty little brains.  They can only do so much with what they have.  A horse will never have a complex mental leap from one thing to another.  So, don't expect your horse to feel bad for you after you fell off it, yanking its head around, and wrenching its back.  Falling off usually is just as painful to the horse as it is the human.  The irony here is that as we talk about horses being empathic, the example cited instead showed humans NOT being empathic, let alone sympathetic.

I'm sure most people are in the moment of an accident.  When I fall from the horse, my first question is always if my horse is ok.  Well, if I can talk that is.  Now, I can worry about my horse, and still be pissed off at it though.  But those are complex mental leaps that horses just can't do. The horse is usually an honest creature, and they keep things simple.  Cause and effect is how they work.  You hurt me, so I will stay away.  You look like you might feed me, so I will come closer.  I do this thing, and you make good things happen back (we call this one training).

We humans tend to make multiple steps mentally, and then forget that we made them.  "My friend is getting divorced, therefore she is sad, so I will do something nice, that will make her happy, and then we can do things that I want to do again".  That's a whole lot of mental steps there, but most of us just think "my friend is sad, I will do something nice for her".

Now, the problem here, is that horses also work with horsey ESP, or extra sensory perception.  This is a miraculous thing that they can do.  Well, kinda.  See, the largest thing that horses react to, is often not what you WANT them to react to.  Instead, the horse reads your mind.

No seriously, how many of us have tried so hard to not be scared, only to have a horse see right through us?  What about when you're frustrated, and just can't get the horse to do what you ask, because the horse thinks you're going to beat it, and you know you WANT to, but never would.  That's the type of thing I mean when I talk about horsey ESP.  Basically, it's the same thing we've been talking about.  The horse is being empathic, but we aren't quite sure at what the horse is responding to.

That's because as big as our brains are, there are a few bits in it that don't work so good.  Horses have the advantage over us here.  Horses don't "speak" like we do.  Instead, they read body language.  Think about it for a second, in order for a horse to understand what is being said across the distances they keep with their friends, they would either need to be very loud, use a very low (and carrying) pitch, or use visual/scent cues.  Most predators would love for them to simply be loud (and always be telling them "here is your prey") and elephants kinda have the deep sound thing going on, so horses chose the last option.

For a horse, it's not only what they see, but also what they smell that matters.  When you are stressed, the body releases certain hormones.  Anger has one cocktail, and fear another, while love is different still.  These hormones are processed by the body, and in many cases are secreted out in our sweat glands.  Even if we aren't actively sweating, the skin secretes oils, and even the smallest bit can be picked up by a horse's amazing nose.

There are also many minor nuances to the way we show emotion.  We know this subconsciously, and react to it, even if we don't know it consciously.  Haven't we all seen the fake smiles?  You know it's fake because of subtle and small changes to the face.  The smile doesn't reach the eyes, or the cheeks are just too stiff.  We can all think of hundreds of examples of this, but we can't always put on finger on the why that tips us off.  Horses on the other hand don't care about the why.  They simply read the emotion, and take it for what it is.

Just like you can tell when someone is shy by the way they hold their body, a horse can tell when you're in control or not in control because of the same thing.  The set of your shoulders, the rhythm of your breathing, the direction of your gaze.  All of those things scream to a horse what you really mean.  Even though your words may say "I'm a leader" if your body doesn't say it too, then the horse won't believe you.

And have you ever ridden a horse, and had the horse just KNOW what you wanted it to do?  Have you ever wondered why?  When you look in a direction, most of us tilt our whole body that way.  Look left, and you slightly shift your shoulders to balance the change in head position, that puts more weight on your left seat bone, and that presses on the horse slightly more on that side.....and the horse moves left.

See, horses have a wide gap between what they can feel, and the level of pressure that causes pain.  They can feel a fly on the tip of their hair, but it takes a serious kick to actually hurt them.  Just because they can take a lot though, doesn't mean that they have to take a lot to get the hint.  The weight of a fly on the end of a hair isn't a lot.  Just think about how much more pressure it is when you lean a bit in the saddle.  It's these subtle changes in our stance, our balance, and our actions that horses react to.  This is what we see as ESP in horses.  They aren't reading our mind, they are just reading our bodies better then we ever could.

I think the confusion though isn't about whether horses are empathic.  Their whole language requires empathy to work.  Instead, I believe that the confusion is over whether horses are sympathetic.  While a horse may understand the emotion you feel (Empathy), that doesn't mean that they will share your emotion (Sympathy).  Sympathizing is the sharing of emotions for no other reason then social closeness.  This kinda goes against everything that a horse is - prey.  As a prey animal, you don't want to feel bad that someone else was eaten and not you.  In fact, prey animals live in herds for that very reason!

Also, in order to have sympathy, the horse must be able to comprehend a lapse in time.  While they can do this to some extent, they aren't all that good about it.  Just ask a horse after feeding time!  "Is that for me?  I'm starving I need more!". Sympathy is something that is more commonly found is predators.  "You didn't get any food?  Here have some of mine."  This again goes back to the differences between horses and dogs though.

But empathy they do have.  It's how we push them forward, explain what we mean, and ask them to do just about everything.  We ask them to read our emotions and body language, and react to them.  And that's really all that empathy truly is.

6 comments:

  1. I love your posts, but probably because I just got up and haven't finished my first cup of coffee, I'm a little confused. You say that horses have empathy (last paragraph), but in the paragraph 3rd from bottom are you saying they don't so much? . . . That it's more sympathy?
    Overall, I think I agree. Though- to me, it almost reaches points of "Toe-Mai-Toe" VS "Toe-Mah-Toe." Simply meaning- Sympathy and Empathy aren't always far apart.

    The only other curve I would throw this subject (after-all, I was the one to throw the whole "empathy" curve to your other post . . . so here I go again . . . hope that's okay) is:
    My unshakable belief is that, bottom line, it depends on the horse itself. Each horse has it's own personality - derived from all the same things that make us who we are. Our experiences in life. Our relationship with our Moms. (Not so much the Dads in the horsie world) Our treatment in our social circles from birth on. Just plain- things that have happened to us.

    Here's the Q I would pose on this subject -
    Are there horse breeds that are more empathic/sympathetic by nature?
    Like dog breeds- are there some horse breeds that give you a better chance for a more personable horse? ie: empathetic/sympathetic? Does the breed(s) of a horse make a difference in how it will respond to it's experiences in life?

    ReplyDelete
  2. No, I meant people get confused because they ask if horses are empathetic when they really want to know if a horse is sympathetic. Horses are not sympathetic (kinda doesn't work so good for prey animals to be sympathetic) as a general rule. Think of it this way, Empathy is the ability to understand and react to another critter's feelings. Sympathy is caring about what that other critter feels so much that it alters your normal behavior. It's a fine line, no matter how you put it.

    We can always see examples of the "exception to the rule" because of course, as domesticated animals, we humans have selected for personality traits that please us. A horse that takes care of us pleases us. But, often times that taking care of us is also a selfish thing for the horse. Like, I won't let my rider fall off - because it hurts when they do. We like the results, we don't need to delve into the selfish part too much.

    Just look at small children and how they think. They want to be nice, and they want to be good, but at the same time they are selfish because their brains haven't fully developed yet. A 3 year old doesn't really understand why they should let another kid play with their favorite toy, as an example. Horses brains also haven't developed all of the parts that a mature human's brain has.

    And of course some breeds have been bred for personality traits over others. I can't think of one that was chosen specifically for its empathy, but I have never looked into that either! =)

    Draft horses, as an example, have been bred for centuries to have good work ethic, and to try to please. This could be considered empathetic to a degree. On the other hand Thoroughbreds have not been bred for that, but many still show strong relationship skills. While not bred for it, I think my most empathetic horse is my Thoroughbred mare.

    So, the breed of a horse gives it a chance to excel at certain things, but will not alter how much of an individual it is. Breeds are nothing more then a conglomeration of the same gene alleles over and over. So, just because a horse is tall, big muscled, and has a slow metabolism doesn't mean that it will act like another big tall slow metabolic horse. Most breeds were selected to have the same or similar physical traits - to look alike. I would have to dig a bit to learn about breeds selected for mental and personality traits, but I know that Arabs has a lot of selection for personality back in the day.... I just don't know how much modern breeding may have altered that.

    Looks like I have something else fun to research while it's stinking hot out! (because at 110, it's too hot to do much else, and research is more fun then laundry).

    ReplyDelete
  3. You are my new best friend! =) I love how you think things through!
    Interesting that you mentioned the drafts - as you know, fjords are kinda drafty (so funny, since she is rather gassy as well!) and she seems very "into" her surroundings - and she really looks at me - if that makes sense. It's almost unnerving.
    And when I recently got a nasty head wound from a feeder I was filling up, I just flopped on her and cried. (Being the tuff cowgirl that I am) I figured she would just walk away with a "What the heck? . . . look at me over her shoulder. But she didn't. I swear- she seemed concerned. Stayed right there and just turned and looked at me a few times. Because I feel Disney-animal-experiences are usually more in our heads than reality - I just absorbed the moment, but knew it was probably not quite as touchy-feeling as I wanted to believe it was.
    However, I told a friend of mine about it - she has fjords and raises them - knows them well and she said there was no doubt to her, that Lew had "felt" for me. That she knew/cared that something was wrong. Because "Fjords are very empathetic."
    That's why I asked the question about horses and empathy on your other post. It's something I hadn't thought much about.
    Interesting, eh?

    ReplyDelete
  4. (Mine is the comment that "collapsed." I had left some things out, so re-wrote it.)

    You are my new best friend! =) I love how you think things through!
    Interesting that you mentioned the drafts - I have a mare named Lew and as you know, fjords (which she is) are kinda drafty (so funny, since she is rather gassy as well) ~ she seems very "into" her surroundings - and she really looks at me - if that makes sense. It's almost unnerving.
    And when I recently got a nasty head wound from a feeder I was filling up, I just flopped on her and cried. (Being the tuff cowgirl that I am) I figured she would just walk away with a "What the heck? . . . look at me over her shoulder. But she didn't. I swear- she seemed concerned. Stayed right there and just turned and looked at me a few times. Because I feel Disney-animal-experiences are usually more in our heads than reality - I just absorbed the moment, but knew it was probably not quite as touchy-feeling as I wanted to believe it was.
    However, I told a friend of mine about it - she has fjords and raises them - knows them well and she said there was no doubt to her, that Lew had "felt" for me. That she knew/cared that something was wrong. Because "Fjords are very empathetic."
    That's why I asked the question about horses and empathy on your other post. It's something I hadn't thought much about.
    Interesting, eh?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow you really hit the nail on the head. I hate when people say that horses don't have emotions, but is just are irritating when people think that horses think like a human.

    I think you explained it very well!

    ReplyDelete
  6. "You don't see a horse watching a work out, and then feeling happy about it. Jealousy maybe, but not pride that their herd mate just performed something well. " When I drove past McQuay this morning I just had to slow down and marvel. I'm pretty sure it was Smart & Shiny, the Palomino stallion co-owned by Tim McQuay and Lyle Lovett, standing at the far end of his turnout pen, intently watching a horse being worked in the covered arena diagonally from him.

    Yeah, they can so tell when you're faking. And that goes back (again!) to your advice to only ever do with a horse what you are confident doing, because they know when you're not, even if you don't.

    Another excellent post, my friend. Good blogging weather, eh?

    ReplyDelete