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The Mind of the Horse is a comprehensive, scholarly, and detailed survey of the knowledge base regarding equine cognition. The author, Michael-Antoine Leblanc, a psychologist with a doctorate in neuroscience, does a masterful job of describing a field and a literature that has been varied with respect to its coverage of various equine abilities, illuminating the great depth of knowledge in some areas (vision) and the dearth of understanding in others (olfaction and touch). Leblanc also provides a very useful contextual introduction to this largely experimental body of work, describing the historical roots of inquiry into equine behavior and training and outlining what has been discovered through observations of feral horses in natural settings. Notably, Leblanc relays in detail how the well-known account of Clever Hans demonstrates the horse’s keen perceptual abilities.
The book also provides detailed grounding in the equine brain and nervous system and a historical introduction to the study of the cognitive ethology of horses. However, the bulk of the volume is concerned with outlining what is known about equine perception in various realms (vision, hearing, olfaction, taste, and touch). Each chapter dealing with a particular faculty begins with a detailed and authoritative anatomical and neuroanatomical description of the sense organ. The extant research is reviewed and Leblanc is skillful in distilling clear take-home messages from the work. Notable among these are “the horse does appear to be endowed with significantly better vision than dogs and far better than cats,” “…although horses see better than humans in constant darkness…they have difficulty dealing with rapid changes of light,” “the hearing capacities of horses are roughly comparable to those of humans,” and “the horse appears to have a representational memory far superior to that of man.”
One interesting aspect of the book is inclusion of representations of what the perception of horses might be, if we could experience it as they do. For instance, a picture shows a simulation of a scene as it would be seen by a horse, which illustrates a significantly wider visual field than humans would perceive and a band-like region of high acuity. Similarly, a photograph depicts how a horse might see a colorful scene, with more muted, swamp-colored hues. These illustrations underscore Leblanc’s point that reality is not the same across species, with specificity and uniqueness of sensory filters. Such insights caution us from generalizing our human perceptions to horses. However, understanding in detail the perceptual modalities in the horse gives us an insight into their mental capacities. Such an understanding has practical implications for handlers and riders in that, for example, a horse may be reacting to a disturbance in the environment that the handler is not capable of perceiving. Developing an awareness of these differences in equine perceptual capabilities is an integral part of understanding their behavior, and may be helpful in determining solutions to common behavioral obstacles faced by handlers and riders.
One resonant point about experimental research with equines is that “the horse is a heavy, expensive, hard-to-handle animal that is less amenable to experimentation than many other species.” Accordingly, most of the literature employs small convenience samples of domesticated, well-handed horses (with even their names sometimes provided in the research reports). Leblanc is careful to note that “domestication may have favored the development of certain cognitive skills in terms of animal-human relationships and may have lowered cognitive skills related to individual problem-solving,” suggesting that some findings may have limited ecological validity. At the same time, there are instances where aspects of domestication are used to experimenters’ advantage, for instance in comparing the side preferences of horses whose handling is typically bilateral (i.e., Saddlebreds) to those whose handling is typically unilateral (i.e., Thoroghbreds).
Leblanc gives great attention to the research methodology used to generate findings and is careful to note both the painstaking controls used in many studies and the potential confounds that might be present in others. Similar to research involving the capacities of infant humans, experimenters cannot rely on self-report to discern what horses perceive, prefer, or react to. The book illuminates a number of ways to interrogate these, for instance: orientation of the head to determine which eye is being preferred in gaze, orientation of the ears and neck in response to a sound to determine hearing abilities, amount of a liquid consumed to understand taste, as well as physiological indices such as heart rate as a measure of arousal or anxiety. Some research employs apparatuses resembling larger versions of Skinner box-type technology whereby horses’ abilities are discerned by their responses to stimuli for food or water (as well as verbal) rewards. Interestingly, reports of this type of study reveal the individual natures of horses, some of whom are noted to become unmotivated and cease to perform, or wide differences in performance. This individuality is striking and concurs with Leblanc’s assertion that “individual equine capacity for learning, in addition to depending on what is to be learned, appears also to be linked to characteristics not only of age, sex, and breed but also of temperament.”
What insights from this book might horse handlers find useful? It would have been helpful to have a section of the book devoted to this, although findings are presented that bust particular myths, for instance, showing that stereotypical behaviors known as stable vices (i.e., weaving) are unlikely to have been learned through observation of other horses, and reinforces other common beliefs (horses can recognize individual humans). Some of the scientifically-based insights that might be useful include the demonstration that the scent of lavender has a calming effect on horses, as does massage, and that being scratched at the rate of two a second on the areas of the body most often focused upon when horses engage in mutual grooming produces a lowered heart rate. Another insight, perhaps useful in training, is that food rewards are more powerful primary reinforcers than tactile stimulation. Similarly, wearing a familiar person’s clothes may lead horses to take a stranger for that familiar person. Relevant to riding and jumping, the optic axis of the eye means that the horse must tilt his head up to see into the distance, an ability that is constrained when the horse is being ridden “on the bit.” Importantly, the places on the horse’s body where a rider’s leg makes contact (and where spurs are applied) are actually more sensitive than human fingertips.
This book would be most appropriate for a graduate psychology or neuroscience audience, particularly one interested in research methodology and perception and cognition. The descriptions of the methodology of the studies reviewed are extremely clear, but detailed in a way that would strain the interest of lay horse lovers, even those with a basic psychology background. However, these descriptions would be quite useful for those training in designing their own research on the capacities of non-human animals.
© 2014 Anne Moyer and Samantha Siess
Anne Moyer, Ph.D. and Samantha Siess, M.A.