Monday, October 6, 2008

Harvey's moment of higher reasoning

Years ago I bought a 3 year old Danish warmblood cross named Simon (pictured left). When I brought Simon to the barn, he occupied a stall directly across from Harv. At first I wondered if Harv would be anxious or upset to see me with another horse. Would he whinny pitifully? Pace in his stall? A little bit of me might have hoped that he would. But any notions of Harvey being "jealous" were squelched pretty quickly. Harv was obvlivious to the attentions I lavished on Simon.

Except for one memorable time, that is. And it was food-related. I'd just finished riding Simon, and he was situated in cross ties right outside of Harv's stall while I groomed him. Harv was eating hay, paying no attention. Getting ready to put Simon away, I pulled out a carrot and let him take a bite of the skinny end while I held it. With the "snap" of the carrot, Harv started and came to full attention. I could feel his eyes on us, and glanced over at him. The look on Harv's face was priceless -- one of sheer and utter disbelief. His whole being emanated "How can this be?" Standing motionless, he tried to absorb the scene before him. I chuckled at his expression and pulled out another carrot to share with him.

What happened next was a rare moment in Harvey history. There was Harv, trying to grasp what must have been inconceivable: I was feeding another horse and not him. Suddenly he turned around and walked to the back of his stall and peered into his feed tub, feeling the bottom with his nose. Empty. Again, he looked over at me, blinking and quizzical. [This is where my heart utterly melts. I throw the stall door open, offering up a fistful of carrots.]

Now that might not seem like much of an incident. I don't mean to suggest that Harv is any more clever than any other horse. I didn't exactly rush to call MENSA. But I'll always remember this, not just because Harv was adorable but because he was so clearly reasoning something out before my eyes. I mostly see horses react to things, any stimulus, in a visceral way (e.g., fleeing). Even the learning they do under saddle involves primarily yielding to pressure of some sort. Horses just don't seem to want to hang around and figure things out. I had never actually seen Harv, or perhaps any horse, trying to figure out a puzzle or connect cognitive dots in such an observable way. I could see what was going on in Harv's brain...

Mom is feeding another horse, and not me.
This does not compute.
There must be food somewhere.
Could she have left it in here? (peers in feed bin)

Maybe I'm making too much of this. Help me out here guys, have you directly observed your horse using reasoning through a problem? Interacting with the environment in an experimental way? Struggling to understand something? Mastering a new skill?


  1. Indeed! Sometimes I think horses are smarter then they lead us to believe...
    I used to do a lot of ground work with my Paint, and he is a very lazy horse. I was asking him to jump over two barrels I had placed on the ground, and after doing it once he realized it was way two much effort. The second time he refused, and I just sent him around to it again. The third time he trotted to a stop; I watched him peer at the barrels, he nosed them apart, walked to the other side and looked at me as he stopped as if to say, 'See, I made it to the other side like you wanted!'

  2. I think if you have horses at home, where they can get a bit more freedom, you tend to see more of the smartness and reasoning skills come into play.

    Our pony knows how to lift gates off hinges, walk them carefully around (b/c they're still attached by the chain to the post at the other end} and then carefully extract his head from the gate before trotting off to freedom.

    Keil Bay knows exactly how much force it takes to take his halter off the hook and fling it across the barn aisle, through the feed room door, and to my feet, to get my attention when I'm setting up feed tubs. He also knows that twirling his lead rope like a lariat gets him fed first b/c I find it so amusing.

    Keil Bay also broke into the feed room one day. He opened the big bin of feed and knocked it over so he could eat. But in the process of that he got his big Hanoverian hoof stuck in a wooden pallet I use to raise the bins up higher.

    He apparently couldn't get his hoof out, so he proceeded to very methodically bang the pallet against the wall. Bam bam bam bam. Like a clock ticking, it was so measured. Of course, we heard this in the house and immediately went out there. He was standing there waiting for us, and held his hoof, inside the pallet, up so I could see. You could see the expression - get this *&%$ thing off me!

    Cody turns the barn lights on. He doesn't like the dark! I can't tell you how many nights I've looked out, seen lights in the barn, and freaked that there was someone out there. He also takes the water tub scrub brushes and deposits them into the water tubs.
    (why does she waste time hanging them on hooks, I can hear him thinking)

    Salina wakes me up at my bedroom window with a loud alarm call if the geldings do ANYthing out of line during the night.

    The miniature donkey takes the hoof pick out of the grooming kit and hands it to me when he wants his hooves picked.

    I could go on and on. They are such characters! We didn't see these things until we got our own farm and could let them have access to more than just the pasture and the stall. If we didn't have a dog yard between us and the barn, it wouldn't surprise me in the least to have them come right up to the back door.

  3. I believe having two horses does bring out the cunning intelligence in them. Who will get the treat? Who is going to get ridden? Who gets the last sugar cube? I believe every micromillimeter of their intelligence can be marshalled for these questions.

  4. I was once hand walking a mare when she crouched down, ready to spook, and then suddenly realized the only places she could jump were forward -- towards the thing that scared her -- or sideways, on top of me.

    There was a long, long moment while she thought about what to do, and she finally gave a very calculated spook that was just a little forward and just a little to the side. She had to spook, after all the set-up she did, but she was so, so embarrassed about having to resort to that little crow hop.

  5. I have seen many instances of linear thinking by horses. The most recent a few weeks ago when we weaned a colt by taking mom away, leaving the baby out with my herd gelding (he considers himself the 'King of the Pasture')two older mares and a yearling colt. The baby ran around for a bit calling for mom, and our gelding followed him around, herding him away from fences, etc. After a bit, he came up to me and nudged me. Then he looked at the barn, went down to it and looked in the mare's stall for her! He knew she was supposed to be here, her baby was upset, and he went looking for her. What was really funny though was when he didn't find her he realized she was gone, put his ears back, trudged up to the baby and herded him back to the other horses, for all the world like a dad left babysitting...

  6. Shadow Rider, That's interesting, a good example that horses understand the social realm and can take steps to rectify problems (baby's mom missing!). That would also break my heart, so cute that he took the baby under his wing...

  7. One of my horses is a whiz at opening latches. He hates to be stalled, so after he finished his meals he would let himself out as soon as you turned your back. He knew he wasn't supposed to do this, so if you were watching him, he was good as gold.

    The same horse also learned how to open the latched door to the hay storage area. When he got hungry, he would open it up and pull a bale of hay out into the aisle.

    I've gotten far more disciplined (and creative) about locking doors with him around!

  8. I think you're right in observing Harv's reasoning. Armani displays what I can only call intelligence all the time. He actually intimidates my husband, who is used to sedate dairy cattle. Armani is very tactile towards objects and he's figured out how to open or break out of just about anything. At our last show he opened the stall door and was on his way to get me (out of sight across the grounds) when he was intercepted by good Samaritans.

  9. This is my favorite, Stacey! (And I love everyone else's supplemental stories). I just bought my first horse -- on Tuesday! -- and I have been enjoying your blog for the past month or so.


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