Studying the Obvious


Q. I’m fascinated to see studies (such as “Horses Ask Humans for Help With Unsolvable Tasks,”) on horses possibly trying to communicate with humans—it’s rather like scientists trying to tell us the world is flat when we can see perfectly well it isn’t! 

Most of the problem equine behaviors result from blinkered or ignorant humans not understanding what horses are desperately trying to tell them. For instance, “I’m bucking because the saddle pinches,” “I’m kicking because you haven’t noticed I’m saying you’re hurting me,” “I’m chewing my stable because I’m sick to death of being cooped up,” etc. My very hairy Minis push their heads at me only when they need their eyes cleaned; they and my horse vocally communicate using the same intonations as humans do; they complain if I don’t feed them at the usual time. And my horse understands pointing directions to a fair extent.

My last horse got put in a different stable for a day, where the water basin was filled with rotting months-old crud. When I found him and opened the door, he grabbed the shoulder of my jacket and dragged me over to the corner in front of the basin to show me and indicate he was disgusted, very annoyed, and desperately thirsty. He drank nearly two buckets of fresh water when I offered it. How can any sensible person suggest that horses might be trying to tell us things?

All creatures who evolved to live in social groups must have the ability to communicate and often, if not always, between species. Prey animals know when predators are not interested in hunting them, they learn other species’ predatory calls, and many species will adopt and raise different species’ young and manage to communicate well enough. The more I see of this kind of “scientific” research, the less respect I have for the researchers, who must not be very observant or animal-orientated to doubt the obvious.

Gill Evans, via e-mail

A. I certainly can relate to your exasperation with researchers investigating a question that, to you, seems so obviously already known to anyone paying attention. Over my long career in horse research, I very often have been similarly frustrated when asked, “where’s the scientific evidence?” on topics in horse management and behavior that seemed to be obvious facts requiring no peer-reviewed scientific research to back them up. And there have been times it led to research that demonstrated the exact opposite of what I thought was the “no-brainer” interpretation.

The way scientific knowledge advances is to actually start with what seems like the most basic questions, formulate and then test hypotheses such as this, and report the results for further scientific scrutiny and refinement. In the case of interpreting animal behavior in terms of communication and the underlying cognitive processes, I can guarantee you that, as you say, not everyone sees the same thing, and the interpretations that seem just as obvious to individual observers vary widely. And without scientific knowledge, there is no way to know which interpretation among the many is correct. These different interpretations in scientific terms are essentially untested conflicting hypotheses. 

I personally have come to realize that it is becoming more and more important to better understand equine cognition, particularly as it relates to horse-horse and horse-human behavioral interactions. It’s not just trivial information, since our interpretation of a horse’s behavior and complexity of cognition and motivation often has welfare/safety implications both for the animal and for us. So these basic studies on equine cognition and communication, as silly as they may seem to you, really do need to be done. And the results need to be carefully scrutinized and scientifically refined for decades to come. I am looking forward to reading the full scientific report from the study you mentioned when it comes out. No doubt it will generate a lot of discussion among behavioral scientists, with most likely disagreement concerning the adequacy of the methods, the interpretation of results, and the validity of the conclusion. This is especially the case for a very new science such as this. That discussion/­disagreement will hopefully stimulate further research.


About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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