Taming the Wild Horse

I do a lot of thinking about horse intelligence, where it comes from and how it works. Part of it is personal interest, and a good part is practicality. I spend hours every day in the company of horses. I have to understand how they think, and why, or I’ll be a wet spot on the barn floor.

On my expeditions through the internets in search of new information, I’ve come across frequent references to the fact that when humans domesticate animals, the animals are “dumbed down.” Their brains get smaller and they lose the capabilities that kept them alive in the wild. Humans breed for tractability first, and then for specific uses that aren’t necessarily related to the animal’s original function.

Of course, as the article notes, we haven’t studied this subject enough really to draw firm conclusions. With horses, we’ve recently discovered that as far as we know, there is nothing left of the original wild stock. So there’s no way to know what changes we made in the intelligence of the root stock, because there’s no root stock to compare to.

There are wild equids, notably zebras, but zebras are more closely related to donkeys than horses. Interbreeding is possible, but they’re not the same species. They’re also notoriously difficult to train.

What struck me in reading about zebras was how they’ve evolved in an environment packed with major predators, from lions to humans. As a result they’re extremely spooky, extremely aggressive—they will kick each other to death in close confinement–and they just don’t make the connection to humans that horses and donkeys (and cats and dogs) have. There also something that the young woman who trained a zebra noted, which is that zebras’ attention spans are quite short, and they don’t retain information as well as horses.

It seems to me that when it comes to assessing intelligence, attention span and information retention should be pretty high on the list. According to that measure, domestic horses out-smart wild zebras by a wide margin.

Zebras are lethal biters and ferocious, targeted kickers—they look, they aim, they fire—and that’s crucial to their survival on the savanna. For humans who try to handle them, it’s a serious problem. The National Geographic claims that zebras do the most damage to zookeepers. More than lions or tigers or crocs or even elephants.

They’re mean. And horses (and donkeys), though they definitely have their moments, are pretty generally not.

That’s a fundamental difference. And I think it goes all the way back. The original wild horse would have had instinctive behaviors that human captors would have to train or breed out. Spookiness and the natural paranoia of the prey animal, aggression particularly on the part of intact males and nursing mothers, resistance to confinement—handlers and trainers still deal with these things after thousands of years.

But the horse at base is a good-natured animal. It’s not aggressive unless seriously challenged, and generations of breeding have ramped down the claustrophobia significantly—to the point that horses can cope with life in stalls and small paddocks, and won’t kill themselves trying to get out. Even feral horses, with some time and patience, manage to survive in captivity. Which in fact is more than can be said for many feral cats.

So, in light of all that, can we speculate that the modern horse is less intelligent than its wild ancestors? It’s been said that dogs can’t come near wolves in terms of overall smarts, but cats seem to have the world figured out regardless of where they happen to live. Rodents don’t seem to have lost any intelligence under human influence.

With horses, there’s no wild population to compare. If zebras are any analogue—and they well may not be, considering how different their personalities are—horses may actually be smarter, if we’re measuring attention span and ability to retain information. For all we know, we may have bred for more intelligence rather than less, in among breeding for docility, speed, color, size, strength, and all the other things we’ve bred horses for over the millennia.

Horses need quite a bit of social smarts to get along with humans. They have to be cooperative. They have to respond well and quickly to training, and be tolerant of human error. A horse that can’t interpret broad ranges of signals won’t do well as general-purpose transport. He has to ramp down his instincts, trust his handlers, and hold steady when by all natural rights he should be completely losing it.

I keep coming back to the way the articles about domestication of horses default to “meat and milk first, transportation later.” So easily, so casually, they talk about milking mares. Having not, apparently, thought about the logistics: where the faucets are and what it takes to get up under there and fill a bucket.

If people were milking mares in the beginning and not getting maimed or killed, and those mares were either wild or only a generation or two removed from wild, then that wild stock has to have been willing to cooperate. They tolerated human handling, they allowed themselves to trust the predators who had taken control of their lives and decisions. They made a choice—because while humans might figure out how to confine a herd in a fortified corral or blind valley and then cull it for meat, actually milking a mare requires the mare to agree to it.

Domestication goes both ways. In the case of the horse, there’s been a whole lot of abuse and misuse, but a lot of positive interactions, too. It’s quite likely the horse survives as a species because humans found it so useful—and so easy to use, thanks to their nature and personality. Otherwise they’d simply have been hunted out of existence, like the aurochs and the Irish elk.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.


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