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Horses, Reasoning, And Learning To Learn

Posted by vwkoch, 17 November 2008 · 291 views

Horse Handling Thoughts
One of the myths about horses is that they cannot reason and are limited only to learned responses to stimuli. This myth is based upon a scientific fallacy that dates back to the early 1600’s, when Rene Descartes declared that animals were essentially automatons, reacting only by reflex and unable to think, experience emotions, or feel pain. In the early 1900’s, B.F. Skinner reinforced that viewpoint by portraying animals as machines which simply translated stimuli into responses without any thought being involved. (He also famously said “The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.”) Psychologists (and others) jumped on this bandwagon, and anyone who dared to disagree was ridiculed as being anthropomorphic; i.e., crediting animals with human characteristics. Eventually, however, in the mid-1980’s, Gordon Burghardt coined the term “critical anthropomorphism”, making the point that, when a person is careful, it is possible to recognize that animals do share some human characteristics. Since then, most scientists have come to admit that animals can, in fact, both think and feel at least some basic emotions (for example, happiness, sadness, boredom, or fear).

Whether or not you believe horses can reason probably depends partly on how you define “reason.” Webster’s dictionary defines it as “the power of …thinking”, or as having intelligence. Intelligence is defined as “the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations.” Horses are demonstrably capable of thinking, learning, and dealing with new situations. They are not just stimulus-response machines but are perfectly able to use reasoning to solve puzzles. It is true that a horse’s response to anything will depend upon what it has learned from its past experiences, but the same is true of people. It is also true that horses will never become rocket scientists, but neither will most people. The inability to understand quantum mechanics does not equate to an inability to reason. Just because horses cannot reason as well as people does not mean that they cannot reason at all.

The training of horses is done predominantly through conditioning (i.e., training using stimulus-response reactions), but our choice to concentrate mostly on that particular type of training does not mean that it is the only way a horse can learn. We also commonly use habituation, to get horses to change their responses to scary stimuli, and we also depend upon generalization, although most people are unaware that it is even occurring. An example of generalization is my horse’s understanding of the game of “fetch.” She first learned to fetch a cone. When I substituted a milk jug, she immediately fetched the jug, without having to relearn the task. She knew what she was supposed to do; the cone wasn't in sight; she reasoned that she should get the milk jug instead of the cone. When we changed to a frisbee, she immediately fetched the frisbee, too, even though she'd never seen a frisbee before. She didn't have to relearn the task each time. She generalized from the cone to the jug to the frisbee. She used reasoning to consider her options in each new situation, and she came up with the correct one.

Learning is a skill, and like all skills, it improves with practice. This phenomenon, in animals, is called “learning to learn.” Animals which have learned to learn will learn new tasks very quickly, making them appear smarter than other animals. They can also learn very difficult tasks which other animals would not be able to master at all (until they, too, learned to learn). Unfortunately, the usual training of horses is relatively limited in scope and variety, so very few horses learn to learn. Since our opinion of horse intelligence is based on what we can teach them, it may be that our failure to teach them how to learn to learn our lessons is the reason why we think they cannot think. A scientist who first teaches a horse to learn will get very different results in his experiments than one who does not.

Scientists studying the mental capabilities of horses have successfully trained them to pick out the biggest or smallest item in a group. Both the items and the group of items can be different every time, but the horses have come to understand the concepts of “biggest” and “smallest”, and they will use this reasoning to pick out the biggest or smallest item, depending on what they're asked. They've also been taught to pick out hard or soft objects and to make other similar discriminations based on mental concepts (i.e., biggest, smallest, hard, soft, etc.). The formation of a mental concept requires the ability to reason, and the use of a mental concept cannot be explained in terms of a simple stimulus-response reaction. The horse cannot just respond by picking out a particular item it has been taught to choose, because it has never seen any of the items before. It must consider as many options as there are items it could pick, and then choose the correct option; e.g., the item which matches its mental concept of biggest or smallest.

There was a time when it was essentially a fad among scientists (especially psychologists) to believe that animals were simply stimulus-response machines, and anyone who thought differently was ridiculed. That ridicule prevented a true scientific investigation of the mental abilities of animals until relatively recently. Most of the scientists now studying animal cognition have come to believe that many animals CAN reason, at least to some extent, and they are finally investigating just how deep that ability goes. Unfortunately, the scientific fad became a popular myth, and many people (including some scientists) still believe the myth even today. However, it was, and still is, only a myth. Horses (and other animals) CAN reason, and there is now scientific evidence that they can do so. It is time to bury that 400-year-old myth.

This seems so true & they know so much more of OUR language than we do theirs... just goes to show you how much they CAN learn AND how much we HAVE to learn.
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