Life Beyond Words

capriacanter091609_bvcAs I sit here thinking I have a blog to write and nothing to say, I recall Dave Trowbridge’s wonderful exegesis of canine perception. When I read it, it reminded me quite a bit of what it’s like to live on a horse farm, surrounded by sentient beings whose many and complex modes of communication have nothing to do with words.

Most of the time, in my observation, humans use words as a screen. Set phrases and conversational filler surround us with a cloud of essentially meaningless sounds–though the fact those sounds are made has its own significance. It’s a tribal rite; a set of signals that declare, Here we are. We interact. We communicate. We are human.

For horses, vocalizations are a minor part of communication. The whinny, movie tropes notwithstanding, is primarily a distress call. The flutter of the nostrils known as the whicker or nicker signifies welcome, approval, “Oh! Something good is coming! Or is here! Food! Or a baby! Or a friend!” An explosive snort sounds the alarm, and a softer, sometimes repeated snort expresses relaxation or release of tension, as does a deep sigh. A shrill squeal or scream indicates rage or pain. A stallion will have a whole repertoire of sounds to call to his mares, warn off his rivals and his natural predators, and generally state his position in the universe.

All of these are the equivalent of human shouts: emphatic declarations in exceptional circumstances. Default mode within a horse herd is, in human terms, silence. And to human eyes, it can look as if these big animals are hanging around at random, saying and doing nothing. Just eating or digesting or sleeping, or biding time until the next meal.

I used to follow a cartoon a long time ago, in which one of the characters was depicted as spending all of his time sitting in the same place, in the same position, staring blankly into space. Then one day, the cartoonist showed us what was actually going on inside his head: a balloon filled with intricate and advanced mathematical equations.

I’m not sure where horses stand on the subject of mathematical theory–generally, I think, they’re much more concrete in their thought processes. Though who really knows? But that herd of horses standing in a bunch, with a few stragglers, ears slack, tails flicking at flies, is in fact interacting on a fairly complex level.

It’s all in the geometry. Who stands next to whom. Who is nose to tail, flicking flies off each other’s face. Who is outside the main group: outcast or herd guardian. Sentry or stranger waiting for her (or sometimes his) chance to integrate into the herd. Who’s on the inside, in the protected spot–young or weak or, conversely, dominant individual taking advantage of the others’ bodies as windbreaks or protection against predators.

Humans can learn to observe these things. Even to understand them, though on a much simplified level. There are nuances that we don’t have the senses to detect, though we can sometimes observe the consequences of a communication, either positive or negative. Suddenly one horse in a herd walks up to another and begins mutual grooming, or one shies off or refuses to go near one or more of the others. It doesn’t appear that anyone “said” anything, but there they all are, answering whatever signals were sent out.

Dave’s essay goes into beautiful detail about how a dog’s world defines itself in space and time by the range and intensity of smells. Horses have quite acute noses–can even be used for tracking in place of dogs, since they stand much higher off the ground and can detect airborne scents that may pass above dogs’ heads–and may have a similar form of perception.

Certainly they seem to identify each other by smell. I’ve observed a stallion appear to acknowledge his own offspring, though the foal was born fifty miles away on another farm. When the mare was brought in with foal at side to be rebred, he showed every sign of recognizing the colt, and treated him as if he had always been on the farm as part of the stallion’s herd. My stallion had not, be it noted, done this with foals by other stallions. There was a distinct difference in his reactions to his own offspring.

There’s something else I’ve noticed however, which may be even more of a key to how horses perceive the world. If we look at them as herd animals–as members of a fluid but ordered group, designed to function both individually and as a unit–we can begin to appreciate the depth and breadth of their spatial sense. Everything, for them, is some form of relationship. In space, in the herd–maybe even in time. Who knows?

It’s a truism that horses live in a perpetual present. We’re often told this as an article of equestrian faith. But do they really? They have exceptional memories, can remember a single incident a decade later. It would seem to follow that they have an excellent sense of past time. We don’t know if the same is true about the future–but then again, that horse shying at a bush that might have a monster behind it is showing some form of imagination or perception of what might happen.

Maybe to them, time isn’t the unbreakable line it is to us. If we’re imagining alien intelligences, we might contemplate what living in a perpetual present might actually imply: that time is not a strict progression from past to future, but a more fluid and malleable medium, with the consciousness existing in all times at once.

There’s another and less arcane aspect to equine perception as well: as I mentioned above, the relationship of objects in space. The long tradition of the horse who can always find his way home indicates that horses have some form of global tracking ability–not just scent and memory but a sense of movement through space. A horse is, to an interesting degree, a kind of sentient GPS. It can feel, to the rider who is tuned in, that the horse is mapping its surroundings with every step, developing a sense of where it is now, where it has been, and how it can get back to its home base (either barn or herd).

That’s one reason why a horse will go slower away from the barn and faster–sometimes much faster–coming back home. It’s not just reluctance to face the unfamiliar and flight back to the familiar; it’s a mapping and tracking exercise.

Sometimes when I’ve been riding a very well trained horse through very familiar exercises, I’ve felt as if the horse is swimming through air; she’s aware of everything around her, of the way her body moves, and the shapes that movement transcribes in space. Maybe a dolphin feels this way in water. For horses, their native element is air around them and earth underfoot.

They can go into a kind of meditative state when in motion: not only running alone or in a herd, but executing ridden exercises under human control. For a truly well trained horse, when the training accommodates the horse’s character and instincts rather than making use of artificial aids and physical or psychological force, it can seem as if the horse is taking a deep pleasure in the exercise, generating endorphins one might say. It is, for all useful purposes, happy in its work.

When this happens, human and horse achieve symbiosis–and the human gets a sense, however fleeting, of what it’s like to be an alien intelligence in a body designed, oriented, and constructed completely differently from the human.

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Life Beyond Words — 11 Comments

  1. The memory is amazing, horses that knew me as a girl when I met them again older knew me, and some of them started mugging me for treats or scritches, as if it had been a day rather then years.

    The nonverbal, the posture, the tilted ear, the use of space… yes exactly so.

  2. Mocha spent the past year contemplating Trail class in the one big show we go to a year. This summer I suddenly noticed that she had started deliberately placing me where I could open the gate accurately (not a practice gate, but the corral gates, of two different types). When we did the Trail course in the show this past weekend, she studied the rope gate, the raincoat, and the drag carefully the first time around…and then boldly did it. We finished 1st with all three judges in an 18 & over class, and took 2nd to a professional on another catty little reiner in Timed Trail. She likes stuff like that which challenges her visually and spatially.

    At another show, when we were heading for the trailer after dark, when the trainer had moved the trailer from where she got off of it, in an unfamiliar setting she’d been to only once before, she figured out where the trailer was and locked onto it, recognizing it from quite a distance in the dark long before I did. The other horse with us who has actually spent more time in that trailer than Mocha (a well-bred pleasure-type gelding) didn’t alert to the trailer at all but followed Mocha’s lead.

    She’s much more spatially aware than most horses I know. Might be the reining/cutting breeding. I considered it to be significant tonight when she came up to me and pressed her head gently against my chest. She doesn’t do stuff like that–I think that’s the only time she’s done it. But we’ve just been through an intensive three-day show, and did well, and I was just there to lunge her and check on her after a quiet day back at home. I get the sense she knew she did well, and she just wanted to share a moment.

  3. So many intelligences in the universe, and somehow it seems that human intelligence is plummeting — at least our political human intelligence.

    We need more interaction again with animals and plants and the rest of the non-human world to get back our own intelligence, perhaps.

    Love, C.

  4. with my arabs a thing we both enjoyed was endurance racing. i was always amazed at the memory of my stallion (whose name in arabic means “5150” but we call him Casey). The biggest strategic issue in these races is pacing. Casey is still competitive, riding trail he always tries to be at least a nose in front of any other horses, but in a long race, that could be disaster. After a long afternoon of fighting him to keep him down to a trot, and seeing all the energy being wasted in that fight with many miles to go, I simply gave in. I gave him his head and let him blow himself out. I knew there was a vet check in 8 miles, and that there was no way he’d be allowed to continue without a long mandated rest period, which would certainly take us out of the lead pod. It ended up with us withdrawing from the race. I kept him at the checkpoint while we were waiting for the trailer to come get us. He stood there watching the other horses and riders, many of whom he had blown past, come in, get checked out, take a short blow and ride off without him. He never forgot that day and when we raced he would always let me choose our pace. It was the beginning of a strong bond of trust between us where we understood that together we were more than the sum of our parts.

  5. Lovely essay. The notion of existing in all times at once is very appealing and very **real**, somehow. I also didn’t know about horses being such good trackers, and it’s fascinating (but understandable, when you think about it) that their scent trails are up higher than dogs’ are.

  6. Loved this one (well, as usual).

    I just got back to my riding lessons, and I’m starting to insist on manners with the old (21) school horse gelding I ride most often. He actually listens. I think he knows how to behave properly, but he waits for his riders to demand good behavior. It even translates to the lessons. I got an incredible round of canter with him this time, and it seemed he actually had fun doing it with me.

    So I try to watch for body language and cues and try to give them clearly myself. I feel like a beginner student, but thanks to your post, I also believe I’m on the right track.