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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Posted by Pinzgauer at 9:18 AM