Our Language

Yes, you can be Doctor Dolittle. This chapter provides some ideas on how to talk to one of the animals — your horse — and how to both listen and understand what he is saying back to you.

Consider Alex:

Alex could identify 50 different objects and recognize quantities up to six; that he could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same”, and “different”… He had a vocabulary of over 100 words, but was exceptional in that he appeared to have understanding of what he said. For example, when Alex was shown an object and was asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. He could describe a key as a key no matter what its size or color, and could determine how the key was different from others.

Alex was an African Grey parrot.

An Unhealthy Mind

Once upon a time, someone captured a wild horse and succeeded in riding her or milking her. Eventually, humans figured out how to breed horses. The horses that prospered in the relationship were those who were quickest at habituation — the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response through repeated exposure. Over generations with humans, the horses that survived were successively less skittish, less nervous, more relaxed when confronting new sights and sounds. These horses were the bravest of the band. Today’s horses can handle scary stuff a lot better than yesterday’s. In fact, they seem to be able to endure almost anything. Perhaps, though, our breeding has gone too far. No one who climbed on a feral mustang would claim that it was lazy. Only the dull horses at the barn, those who’ve had the shit kicked out of them again and again, are called lazy.

Much of what we demand of our horses is challenging, running counter to their natural behavior. The challenges of unnatural horsemanship affect all ridden horses, regardless of setting: trail ride, obstacle course, eventing.

Learned Helplessness

Some horses who struggle with the task of avoiding unavoidable discomfort learn to give up and become mindlessly compliant, apathetic, dull and listless. Yank hard on the bit, and they won’t turn and bite you. They’ll just suffer. Kick them hard, and they won’t buck. They’ll just suffer. A horse who believes it has no control over painful stuff may give up trying to avoid the pain. It willingly does whatever nonsense their rider asks of them. It seems to tolerate everything without excitement. This condition is called learned helplessness. We have created a lesson horse. I have met many dull horses who seem to have no life left in them. I do not like those who made him this way. I do not want such a horse. Seeing them breaks my heart.

Learned helplessness was discovered in 1967 when researchers immobilized a dog and exposed it to electric shocks that could neither be avoided nor escaped. Twenty-four hours later, the dog was placed in a situation in which electric shock could be terminated by a simple response. The dog did not make this response; instead, it just sat passively. Dogs in a control group, who had not experienced uncontrollable shock or who experienced shocks which they could control, reacted vigorously to the shock and learned to turn it off.