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The Mentality Principal

Written by: Andrew McLean BSc, Dip. Ed, PhD

Mentality Principle

MENTALITY PRINCIPLE - Appreciating the similarities and differences in mental ability between horses and humans is crucial to effective and humane training.

We humans are a collectively insecure lot. We are determined, it seems, to prove that we are not alone when it comes to being smart. We search for intelligence in outer space and here on earth we're desperate to show that many other animals, perhaps all, are just like us, but going about their lives a bit differently.

So important was the horse to Western civilization in the last two millennia that all European cities are adorned with statues of the horse. The horse fought our wars, it toiled for us; it helped build much of the New World. Nowadays it fulfils our dreams, and still fires our imaginations and inspires wonder in those who occasionally pause to reflect. Horses are not just pleasure vehicles - much is expected of them. A horse may be our best friend, our only friend, our child, our partner or other bizarre roles. So powerful is the horse in the human psyche that Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist believed that the image of a horse evokes our deepest primal drives. The horse has always been a paradox. How could such a big, powerful beast be typically so gentle, so forgiving?

In some ways we're not unlike horses. The similarities between horses and humans probably helped to bring us together in the first place. Like us, the horse is a highly social being. That's why horses kept in isolation are more inclined to develop behaviors like wind sucking and many other problems compared to group housed horses. Anyone who has witnessed separation anxiety also knows how much friends are important to horses. So strong is the instinct for togetherness that grooming and stroking horses in the area just in front of the withers has evolved to lower heart rates - it strengthens bonds. It's the best place to positively reinforce a horse.

The horse also has an excellent memory although in some respects theirs is much better than ours. While our memory is affected by our recall and reasoning abilities, the memory of the horse is more stable, probably because it is unclouded by reflection. Equine scientists Anja Wolf and Martine Hausberger showed that horses can remember reactions without practice at least for many years, and this probably extends to a lifetime. Thinking, analyzing and reflecting however, corrupts memory. We humans are always reflecting on our memories, dragging them up out of storage when we think or tell a story, then afterwards we re-store them again. Only this time they are stored a little differently than before. They may be altered by the contexts in which we reflect (physical, emotional, perceptual aspects of the moments of reflection). On the contrary, the horse only retrieves memories of events and places when it is confronted with the original or similar stimuli. This makes for a much clearer and more accurate memory. Every horse person is aware of the fact that the horse knows if there is something slightly different in its environment. You could say the horse has a photographic memory. Yet most of you wouldn't be able to recall hardly anything of the design of say a ten dollar note, (to the joy of counterfeiters!) despite the fact that you see them constantly. To the detriment of training, the horse remembers far more than you do of what happened where. During schooling you may notice that the horse goes better on one quarter of the circle than elsewhere, and gradually, if what you are doing is right, the good area increases. On the downside, the horse remembers tension and fear better than anything else.

Horses are mammals and so their learning mechanisms are similar to those of humans. Like us they are swift at trial and error learning (learning the right reaction through reward), excellent at classical conditioning (i.e. learning associations, cues or aids) and masters at habituation (getting used to things). They can also learn to generalize to stimuli, (alterations in aids) and they can even learn categories of things (based on similar physical characteristics). However according to one of the most respected researchers in this field, Professor Christine Nicol of Bristol University, experiments indicate that while horses are capable of forming categories of similar characteristics of things "there is no evidence that they can develop abstract concepts". So while there are some mental similarities that horses share with humans, there are also some important differences. Understanding these differences is central to achieving a high level of success with all horses rather than just a few.

During my PhD, I wanted to investigate ‘understanding' in horses. I wanted to see if the horse had a facility similar to our prefrontal cortex (front of the brain) where it could imagine, ‘see with the mind's eye', where it could ponder on past events or think of the future. I decided to design an experiment that was later published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science. The experimental design utilized the horse's well-known ability to be cued to the delivery of food to either one of two feed goals in a test arena. One by one, each horse was held by a handler in the middle of the arena facing the feed goals. There was a feed goal to the right, and a feed goal to the left, and a person sitting beside each feed goal. The person sitting beside one of the feed goals would stand up and pour feed into the feed goal. The horse would see this and would then be immediately released. Over 40 trials the horses soon learned that when they saw food being poured, that's where the food would be, so they would go to the correct feed bin. But as soon as we separated the pouring of the feed and the release of the horse by ten seconds, the horse's success rate plummeted to 50% - in other words it became random. They couldn't remember where the food was actually being poured after ten seconds. While individual horses occasionally seemed as if they could manage the ten seconds, again their results would drop. Statistical analysis showed that horses collectively or individually could not recall the correct goal in a two choice situation where each goal was equally rewarded. Interesting things happened to when the horse's discovered they had failed. A couple of ponies and warm bloods would lay their ears back and make a bee-line for the correct goal, while some thoroughbreds decided to give up altogether and leave. To account for the results, some researchers suggested that the amount of food (100 grams oats) for each trial was insufficient to motivate the horse horses. However this can easily be discounted because the same amount of food powerfully motivated the horses in the immediate release trials.

The experiment reminds us that correct timing in training is essential, that unlike us, there is no stream of consciousness that accompanies instinctive behaviors and that there are differences in short-term memory in horses compared to humans. It means that we must keep training as simple as possible to be sure it is digestible and to be sure our training methods are not so difficult that only a handful of horses succeed. Sometimes the complexity of our training suggests that we are always inclined to over-estimate mental abilities in horses.

Observational learning of novel behavior (copying a novel act) has long been considered to be indicative of some abilities of reasoning. If you think about it, it's not hard to guess why this is so. Observational learning requires an animal to see and remember the behavior sequence, see themselves perform it in their mind and then perform it. Notice that I say ‘novel act' - that's important because there is a phenomenon in all animals where they are able to copy a behavior that is already ‘wired' into their brains. This contagious mimicking of instinctive behavior is adaptive. So when one animal eats, others are compelled to do so, when one lies down others may do also. For social animals synchronizing behavior is sensible. Contagious behavior is not learned but is more of an instinctive triggering device. Like when you see someone yawn you are inclined to yawn too. Horse people often believe that wind-sucking is copied. As Dr Paul McGreevy points out, this is not correct. Observational learning in horses has been thoroughly researched in horses and all published experimental investigations have yielded negative results. Unlike cooperative predators, horses are also slow to learn ‘rules' that govern where food might be found if food is switched from one place to another. Unlike Chimps, gorillas and dolphins they cannot recognize themselves in a mirror - they only see another horse. They are also poor at seeing a detour to a goal if the opening requires going further away from the goal first. Once they've achieved it though, they are quick to remember the path. Horses are unable to do these things because these abilities were not required in the millions of years of the evolution of their behaviors on the open grasslands.

Equine researchers agree that any higher mental processing abilities in the horse are, if present at all, poorly developed. On the other hand, greater reasoning abilities are seen in predators, and are most highly developed in co-operative predators with diverse diets such as chimps and dolphins. Dogs rate highly, according to some researchers. Even birds that face challenges in food procurement (seed, fruit and carrion eating birds and also fruit bats) might also rate as having some development of higher mental abilities. Such animals have to remember the location and amount of remaining food to save energy on wasted foraging journeys. Of course, if you think about it why would horses need reasoning abilities? You need a great memory to be a grazer but no deductive powers. As Stephen Budiansky points out, grass unlike mice, doesn't hide. Such powers require extra brain tissue which, as Dr T.W. Deacon showed in 1990, is ten times more expensive energy-wise (huge requirements for glucose and oxygen) than any other tissue in the body.

What people erroneously consider to be examples of reasoning in their horse generally turn out to be excellent examples of trial and error learning. The pony that fiddles with the gate latch and learns to open it is a typical example. It's clever, but it isn't reasoning. It's the same process by which horses learn equitation. Horses learn to avoid pressure from the reins and legs by giving a correct response that was initially learned by trial and error. Then they learn associated cues such as seat and weight aids.

Why do these differences matter?
That the horse is not a reasoning creature matters a great deal. Overestimating an animal's mental ability leads to all sorts of assumptions that have bad consequences for horses. That the horse doesn't reason means he is an entirely innocent partner in the training process. The horse cannot be blamed for misdemeanors or poor performance - these are due largely riding or training (or health) problems. When a horse behaves in ways that don't suit us it is wrong to say "He knows what he did wrong" or "He understands". There is no understanding in the horse - he simply reacts to situations, events, aids etc. His behavior at any one time is a snapshot into the sum total of all his training. If he behaves badly at an event compared to home it means one of two things - either he is not established in his work at home or else his work at home is flawed with at least some confusions. Tension is a good indicator. Does he grind his teeth because he is working hard, really ‘putting in' or because he is a little confused - perhaps there are conflicting aids or too many aids on at once.... We owe it to our horses to consider all these matters.

It makes the world of difference to know that our best chance of getting through to horses in training is to keep everything as simple as possible. That's what makes trainers like Kyra Kyrklund so inspiring. Her training scheme embraces a correct interpretation of learning theory as well as simplicity. It is certainly possible to train horses to the highest levels yet keeping true to correct learning theory. For welfare reasons I believe that such principles should be taught at every level of instruction, from pony club to the training of coaches throughout the world in all disciplines.

If the horse ‘understood' his training then maybe we wouldn't need to be so simplistic, so consistent, so precise. On the other hand if he were so smart as to be able to comprehend training, then perhaps he would not be so rideable. Maybe it would be unethical to ride horses if they were capable of reflection, because then they would be suffering, given that they would rather eat grass and be with friends.... But the horse is unstressed by good habits whether they are under-saddle or wherever. Furthermore I believe that correct horsemanship is equivalent to behavioral and environmental enrichment, since it is part of the horse's ethogram to experience many more stimuli and environments than he would normally encounter in a small paddock or worse still, a box-stall. However, bad habits, inconsistency and confusion have very negative welfare implications for horses.

Mankind's responsibility to horses
Because the horse is an innocent partner in equitation, we have a special responsibility there. As time passes and the material needs of the developed world are fewer, more thought is devoted to welfare and ethical issues. Short necks, tension and conflict behaviors can no longer be brushed off as the horse's fault or personality. Judges need to clear and certain about signs of tension. The signs of tension need reviewing and predetermined penalties ought to be issued for the various signs and levels of tension. Judges should recognize that they are ultimately custodians of the performance horse because the rewards they issue give direction to horse sports. They should have clear perceptions about how they might judge a flash moving but tense horse as opposed to a more average moving ‘happy' one. Otherwise the sport of dressage becomes more of a meat market than a competition of training.

Our greatest responsibility is never forgetting that the horse's welfare is paramount. Every horse trainer should always have an open mind about possible limitations and confusions in their training. Like all sports and performing arts, egos can get in the way, and ways of understanding can be severely hampered by closed mindsets. But when it comes to doing sports that involve animals, egos should count for nothing. It is a privilege to ride horses and remarkable that nature has evolved the possibility. Not for one moment should that be forgotten.

About the Author
Andrew McLean BSc, Dip. Ed, PhD
Andrew has a rare mix of academic knowledge and equestrian achievements. Andrew is a zoologist with a Diploma of Education and a PhD in cognitive science. He has won Australia’s premier Horse Trials, the Gawler Three Day Event, and represented Australia in Horse Trials in 1989. In dressage he has competed to FEI level and trained horses to Grand Prix level; he has also ridden to Grand Prix and Championship level in Show-jumping. He has held a race trainer’s licence and has won bareback races in Australia and New Zealand. Andrew has been an equestrian coach for 25 years and, with his wife Manuela, has developed the internationally recognised Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (AEBC). He has coached some of the world’s greatest riders, coaches and trainers and reformed internationally competitive horses up to Olympic Games and World Championship level, as well as some top Australian racehorses.

Andrew has published numerous peer-reviewed articles, and has made original contributions to our current understanding of the animal mind that have been published in peer-reviewed journals, academic texts and as encyclopaedia entries. He has been instrumental in forming the International Society for Equitation Science, of which he is vice-president. His goal is to create knowledge bases for equitation science in the universities of the world and to ensure that horse training is optimally ethical, sustainable and evidence-based. He conducts clinics in 10 countries, has given lectures and demonstrations at Saumur, France, and twice at the Global Dressage forum, as well as at many of the world’s leading veterinary universities. One of his books, The Truth About Horses, is Australia’s top equestrian international best seller and is available in Dutch, Spanish and Danish. Andrew is also the head trainer for WEPA (Working Elephant Programme of Asia) and conducts elephant training workshops throughout Asia promoting an elephant friendly method of elephant training that has been embraced by the Nepalese government in a 5 year plan