Equus: Story of the Horse Frames its Narrative Through Science

There’s been a bit of buzz lately in the horse pastures of social media about the PBS series Nature’s two-part series on the horse. Because this is the internet, the usual naysayers are in full cry: It’s All Wrong, They Didn’t Do It Right, They Didn’t Do MY Breed/Philosophy/Discipline, Let’s Hate on the Ones They Did Do. It’s been difficult to hear myself think through all the bitching and kicking.

And yet, once I was able to shut off the not-so-dull roar and actually watch the episodes, for the most part I liked them. They’re not aimed at specialists. They’re designed for an audience that doesn’t know much about horses, but is interested in the kinds of things Nature viewers are interested in. Science, history, humans interacting with animals, and of course, lots of pretty pictures.

In that context, these two hours of beautifully filmed documentary work perfectly well. Part One, “Origins,” talks about the evolution of the horse, focusing on the original animal from which the modern horse descends. It skips all the intervening stages, but that’s all right; there’s only two hours to work with, and what we need to know in this segment is that our big, long-legged, single-hooved, fast-running grass-eaters began as a dog-sized, multi-toed, forest-dwelling fruit-eater.

That’s where I learned something: that the most intact fossil of the “Dawn Horse” or Eohippus has a bellyful of grapes. But when the world’s climate changed and the forests gave way to grassland and tundra, this little fruit-eater evolved into an eater of grass. Its legs elongated and all of its toes but one migrated upward to facilitate speed in escaping predators, its neck and head grew longer so that it could graze more easily, and its teeth became ever-growing grinding surfaces.

The series’ narrator, anthropologist Niobe Thompson is enthralled with the speed of the horse (and, we presume, so are its writers). There I learned more new things. I knew that the horse is one of the fastest land animals and the only one of those that can carry a human, but I did not know the mechanism that allows him to run so far and fast.

First, a horse is so constructed that he can only inhale on the upstride—when he’s in the air. When he’s thrusting himself forward on the ground, his ribs contract and turn the diaphragm into a piston to push the air out. Second, he can run on levels of oxygen so low that a human would suffer excruciating pain and pass out. His blood will get more acidic, his carbon dioxide levels will soar.

It’s a similar mechanism, we’re told, to the one that allows a seal to dive for long periods. He’ll hit a level of fatigue far past what humans can tolerate, and he’ll keep on running. He’ll hit a truly epic runner’s high.

Which to me explains why speed breeds can literally run themselves to death. They’ll hit a point when they’re impervious to anything a rider may try to do, and really only stop when they drop.

Or, why I once rode a recently retired racing Thoroughbred into a tree. His brain was in Off position, his legs were pounding like pistons, and there was a public road coming up. I was able to haul on a rein and knock him just enough off balance to veer into the underbrush, where he grazed a tree and finally came to, a little scratched and breathing hard but not much worse for wear.

I will note that my preferred horses are horses who do not have this Off switch. Many of the performance and working breeds can keep their cool when they run. But they’re probably not going to win the Kentucky Derby or the Grand National.

Now I know how the running thing happens. The episode quickly shifts to another aspect of the horse that interests me more than the fact he can runrealfast: his social mind.

There’s nothing there that I haven’t studied or observed, but for the general audience it’s nicely presented. We learn about horse culture in the wild without human interference, and then we’re introduced to a couple of human ventures into horse communication and training.

The first is an ongoing set of studies in the UK, in Karen McComb’s herd of very interactive horses and ponies. This is one of the sources of the articles on how horses can recognize human facial expressions and read human emotions. I’ve read quite a few of these, but it’s great fun to see it in action.

It’s not just on the human side, either. Horses themselves, as animals go, have remarkably expressive faces. Chimps, we’re told, have 14 distinct expressions, and dogs 16. Horses are right in between, with 15. That’s right: Our closest primate relative is less expressive than two of our closest animal companions.

Of course horse people all say “Well, DUH,” but again, for the general audience, this is a revelation. Horses tend to be regarded as not very bright, but as the studies are demonstrating, they are a whole lot smarter than people may think, and they’re amazingly tuned into human signals. There’s even a bit about how misfit horses will adopt human “pets” in much the same way misfit humans turn to animal companions.

The second part of the discussion shows the bias of the narrator and the writers, in that it’s clear “his” breed is the Quarter Horse. He sings its praises, and he takes us to horse trainer Jimmy Anderson, who practices a particular brand of performative horse-breaking. We’re shown this without any reference to how controversial it is—in the horse world, it’s the stuff of flame wars.

It certainly looks impressive. Anderson and his trusty horse buddy take on a young Quarter Horse who has not been handled at all, get him accustomed to handling, and break him to saddle in a few hours. Within a day he’s out on the ranch, being ridden through water and learning about trails.

There are some good things about Anderson’s methods. He’s soft-spoken and quiet. He’s gentle, and he clearly has a deep bond with his horse; he uses that bond to show the young, unbroken horse how this riding works. He teaches trust by demonstrating it to the colt.

That’s a masterful use of the horse’s social mind. Horses learn by watching each other. The colt sees Anderson riding the horse, follows him around the confines of the round pen (usually they’re about 50 feet across), and in fairly short order allows himself to be caught, handled, saddled, and ridden.

As this brand of trainer goes, Anderson is good. He really knows how to get the job done, and he does it quietly and without force. He’s also supremely blessed by the temperament of the colt he’s training.

Rapid-fire training like this needs a calm-minded horse who is very tolerant of overstimulation. He yields to pressure with minimal pushback. If he asks questions, he takes whatever answers he gets. His brain does not fry (at least for the moment) as he’s asked to learn new skill after new skill in rapid succession.

Thompson calls a horse like this “smart.” What he really is, is submissive. He’s accepting; he’s tolerant. He’s a beautifully designed vehicle for the general-purpose horse person.

Provided—and this is a big caveat—that he doesn’t blow up the next day, and that he retains all he’s learned, most particularly his trust of the human who is making him learn a whole lot of things in a very little span of time. Other types and breeds of horses cannot be trained this way. They need time to process new data, and they need to decide to accept both that data and the human who is imposing it on them.

They, in short, are not submissive. They will cooperate, but they have to make up their minds to it. They have a sense of self that doesn’t take well to having information dumped on them all at once. Their learning process is slower, but it’s also deeper, and once they do decide to accept the information, they’ll perform with a high degree of willingness. They’ll bring fire to it.

A horse like that, even with a trainer as adept as Anderson, will emerge from the fast track with his temperament soured and his trust broken. He may tolerate being ridden, but he won’t be happy about it. His cooperation will be grudging. He won’t show the full range of his talents and spirit.

And that’s the best case. The worst is the horse who comes out of the experience with a hate on for anything resembling training. The one who dismantled a round pen and did her best to dismantle the trainer. The one who did a nice demo but the next time she saw a saddle, tried to kill the person who held it. The rehab horses who have come out of these exhibitions, who have had to be started over, if they can be started at all.

I wish there had been some sort of warning label attached to this part of the episode. Some mention of the fact that this mode of training is not suitable for every horse. And a more explicit testimonial to the mind and heart of the colt who did so well under such challenging conditions. That’s a good horse. I hope he kept his trust and his willingness in his later career.

Next time I’ll talk about Part Two, which is even prettier, if possible, and a little bit less controversial.

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 written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent 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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