Horse Sense

Twelve hundred years ago, a Mongol chieftain wrote a poem to celebrate his war horse Dapple. Apparently he and the horse cared deeply for each other, reading each other’s minds in battle and, when not in action, sharing the chieftain’s tent. This is one of the oldest texts about horses. The chieftain’s poem has been followed by a seemingly endless collection of opinions, facts, and emotional expressions about horses from scientific papers to dressage instruction manuals to racing forms to Black Beauty. The most recent contribution to the subject is Stephen Budiansky’s The Nature of Horses: Exploring Equine Evolution, Intelligence, and Behavior. Why has it taken 1200 years to achieve such clarity and insight?

Budiansky’s book is different from most books about Equus caballus, or indeed about any other domestic animal, since it is not much concerned with the services provided by the animal, or with helping owners and trainers extract those services. Any animal is more interesting than the sum of the tricks it can perform, and Budiansky touches on training very lightly. When he does, it is usually to explain why horses will do certain things but not others. He tells us, for instance, why horses don’t like to back up. Their wide-angle vision has a pie-shaped blind spot to the rear, and backing up is “not a good idea for a highly social, prey animal that cannot see directly behind itself—where a predator or a dominant member of the herd may be lurking.”

This is typical of Budiansky’s ability to describe the world from the horse’s perspective. On spooking, for instance, Budiansky writes: “Some horses seem almost to enjoy scaring themselves. They will snort, or tense up and stumble, and then react with fright to the snort or the stumble…. The horse then begins to anticipate the fright it is preparing to give itself.”

Budiansky has gathered much information from his close relations with horses. His own horse, whose name is not revealed, serves as a respected colleague. This horse demonstrated, among other things, that horses sometimes rely on their sense of smell even though they rarely show much interest in odors. Once when the horse and Budiansky became separated from a hunt, the horse put his nose to the earth and, like a dog, successfully trailed his companions over much-used paths from which all visual clues had been obliterated.

Budiansky has splendid scientific credentials—he was the US editor of Nature—and he is particularly helpful in showing how much misinformation about horses has traditionally been circulated, not only among lay people but among scientists as well. Early in his book, for instance, he corrects an inaccurate version of horse evolution that nearly everyone seems to have acquired during childhood, a story in which the Eocene ur-horse that emerged some four million years ago grew bigger and better and stronger and faster, just as any animal would want to do, until it reached the height and speed of a horse today.

Not quite, says Budiansky, pointing out…

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