Monday, November 30, 2015

Horses Have Consciousness

"It was the first time the realization hit me that animals love to engage with us in games. And if you figure out how, in ways that work for the horse as well as for you, you can end up with a really fruitful relationship that also includes riding. But riding is not necessarily the first goal of these relationships."
I discovered a wonderful article today, which you can read online at National Geographic, Read Before Riding: Horses Have Consciousness. It's a book review of,  The Horse: The Epic History Of Our Noble Companion, by Wendy Williams.

It discusses the intelligence of horses: like the horse that could do math...but not when he couldn't see the test-giver.

And, the smartest horse in the world....who likes to play games.

And, the evolution of the horse from wild to domestic.

Anyone who has spent time around horses has, hopefully, seen examples of consciousness--that thing beyond simply being a biological sum of the parts.

I want to share one of my own personal "proofs".

As you all know, we have an old horse in our herd, Red, who is 35 years old.  Old and rickety, he is, but he is second in command in the hierarchy.  Most people who see them wonder, how is it that such an old, arthritic horse is able to eat first and boss the others, young and strong, around?  

I have the answer.

They let him.  They, in this case, is the mare herd, led by Cowgirl.  Cowgirl loves Red and has since she was a baby.  I call them the old married couple.  She's 10, he's 35.  And, if you watch, Cowgirl will give a twitch of an ear here, a glint of an eye there, telling the other mares to part and let Red through, let Red drink, or let Red eat.

But I have more proof than that, and it comes from my evenings spent watching and hanging out with them after dark.  I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't kept Old Red around (there is so much value in our older horses!!!!) or if I hadn't decided to let my old guy live out with the herd, rather than sequestering him off somewhere "safe".

Here's one of my "proof's" of consciousness...

Red's old eyes don't work well at night and he has a hard time navigating the pastures, yet, he somehow was doing just that.

Last spring I saw how.  The first time it happened I was calling him in to eat after dark, pitch dark, and the horses were in a pasture far away and to the south of the house.  They had to make their way north, into another pasture, and then east, to another gate, and south, back to the barn.

I started making my way out to find Red, to help him get back to the barn, but instead, I saw him being led by the mare herd.  There were two mares in front of him, one at his side, and one behind him!  They made their way VERY slowly, along the path, and through the gates, but I wondered what they'd do when they made it to the stall--the stall with the grain and alfalfa.  I mean, we all know what horses usually do, they go in and fight for it.  But the mares walked him to the gate of the stall and stood to let him go in, then each one of them walked away. 

It was no big deal to them, they did it like a well-oiled machine, but I was dumb-founded.  Could a mare herd be THAT disciplined, THAT able to help an older gelding?

The answer is YES, and they did it again and again and again, several times through spring and summer.  I was so thankful for having the opportunity to have witnessed it.  Just one more proof of the noble hearts of our horses, their ability to empathize with one another and perform great acts of kindness.
"Horses teach you courage, patience, persistence; rewards of kindness and gentleness; companionship; the excitement and vitality of life; and warmth. They also provide an awful lot of memories, and the importance of caring for another living thing."

All of you, like me, who believe in the consciousness of the horse, what are some of the things that prove it to you?


  1. Wonderful story about your horse herd. I have seen it in my stallion when my handicapped sister comes to visit. She is in a wheelchair and unable to speak- she had a brain fever as a baby and it pretty much left her in her own world.(She is in her 50's now). When I take Beamer to see her, he stands very quietly with his head within reach of her hands, which means his head is a couple of inches above her lap, and just stands there very quietly, just breathing softly with a soft look in his eye; this lasts for about 3 or 4 minutes, and then they mutually look away and I back him away. It is beautiful to watch.

    1. Wow, Shirley, that's a precious story. These acts of intelligence and gentleness are the reason we are all so horse crazy.

  2. That is a wonderful story. I always believe that horses have far more consciousness then we give them credit for.

    1. Yes, and tapping into it and getting that spontaneous show of protection and affection is a wonderful goal.

  3. I've seen this same effort by my horses to 'take extra care where my feet are' when we have children visit the farm.

    1. Absolutely. I'be seen that time and again, too, and also their sweet curiosity toward children. . ..bending their heads really low and letting them pet them. Also, the barn kittens. Our horses were curious to watch them born, and then, as they were growing, allowing them to walk in and out of their legs and, when running, missing the kittens that would get in their way. Very careful placement of each hoof.

  4. Oh yes, I've seen examples of kindness and empathy so many times from our horses. It still amazes me that so many people are surprised by this though - but not those of us who truly love these wonderful animals. We have a blind horse, and occasionally Harley will get disoriented and not know where his herd mates are at. When he calls, or becomes upset, one or 2, will go gather him up and lead him back to the herd. Eagle will also use his head to push Harley to a food pile, or a water trough at times. It's just a little nudge in the right direction. Always makes me smile at the kindness. Once, when my grandson was still in diapers, phone rang while they were at the breakfast table. I left to answer it, just for a minute or two, and David was gone when I returned. His brother told me "he went to see the horses". I panicked because he was barefoot, and so tiny. I found him in the pasture where the horses were eating their breakfast, there was Dave sitting on the ground with his whole little body wrapped around one of Ladde's front legs, kissing him. After I panicked, I noticed that Ladde was frozen in place with a look of stark terror in his eyes, afraid to move for fear of hurting the little one. I ran across the yard, crawled through the fence and collected my totally unworried grandson, who informed me that, "he loves me gammy". I think he was right. All the horses are especially careful around the little ones. Always have been.

    1. Those are great stories!! I've seen that look of worry in my horse's eyes when they're nervous about hurting someone. My son ended up under a horse when he was about three. We'd gone to look at a camper trailer and the people selling it had horses. Somehow, my son ended up in their pasture and under their great big gelding. That horse stood stock still until we could get there, but it scared us to death. That story about Harley is really sweet. <3

  5. I also believe horses have consciousness. How could you not when you see things everyday that you wouldn't expect. This past weekend my two granddaughters were over and went out to "play" with the horses. As big as they are they will always put their heads down to let the little ones pet them and they lick their hands etc. They are so sweet with all the children they encounter.

    They really watch out for my daughter's dog Gunnar too. He was making a real pest of himself while I was lunging Blue. Getting in the way and Blue would just go around him. He's still a puppy even though he's gigantic so he can be intimidating. He even thought it was a good idea to grab Blue's tail while he was trotting. He could have gotten a kick but Blue just stopped and looked back at him with a "really" look. There's a new rule though, Gunnar is not allowed out until he can behave around the horses being worked.

    Love the story of your herd, very sweet. Our Mellon is about 30 and is still the herd boss because he insists on it. One more short story. When Dusty was dealing with some laminitis and had to come in at night by herself her best guy Nate came to the gate and asked to be brought in to keep her company. They were inseparable.

    1. I couldn't agree more that they're sweet with children. That is really special about Dusty and Nate. Horses develop deep love and loyalty for one another.


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.