Sunday, October 2, 2011

Logical thinking?

Phew, what a week.  I lost internet connection midweek and didn't recover it until Friday night.  You don't know how much you need it until you don't have it.  I can definitely admit that I am quite dependent on the internet in my every day life.  I'm not sure this is a good thing.  Although, as someone pointed out on my other blog, the internet connects like minded people which in my case means it gives me the opportunity to connect with people like you folks, who love horses and are looking for a gentler way to be with them.  So, it can't be all bad to depend on something like that, right?

I have had a few interesting experiences with Little Love this week.  With interesting I mean thought-provoking.  As you know, I like to study her behavior and pretty much anything she does, is intriguing.  Like the other day when I was about to go for a walk with her and the barn owner told me a big truck was about to arrive to the barn to drop off some new bedding for the stalls.  I didn't want to meet the big truck on the long and narrow driveway leading to the barn, so I decided to wait with Little Love in our makeshift arena by the road.  It was a windy fall day and Little Love was highly alert.  I walked her around, trying to avoid the mud in the far left corner.  The barn owner asked me to move my car, so I let Lilo loose.  She grabbed a bit of grass, but when she realized I was going to walk way, she ran to the gate and started pawing. 

"It's okay," I said.  "I'll be back in a second." 

Little Love stopped pawing, but I asked the barn owner to stay with her, just in case.  I was only gone for a few minutes, but Lilo was waiting for me at the gate the entire time.  When I finally came back, she followed me around the fenced in area, nibbling on grass here and there.  She wasn't completely relaxed, a bit jumpy maybe with the wind blowing around, so when I heard the truck approaching, I decided to attach the lunge line.

Two minutes later the truck went by.  As soon as Lilo saw the truck, she became very nervous.  Her head came up as she tried to peer through the trees to the barn.  When she couldn't see the truck in the yard, she nearly dragged me to the gate.  I haven't seen this side of her for a very, very long time, but it was definitely the Little Love I had seen before; worried,  frantic and highly impatient.  I didn't really know what to think about this sudden change in her behavior, but since I had the clicker in my pocket, I started to do simple trot to halt to trot exercises down the long side.  When Little Love gets nervous like this, the best thing to do is to let her move.  We trotted and halted and each time Lilo stopped, she tried to whip around to check out the situation at the barn.  What was going on?  It was as if she was obsessed with this truck.  At the same time I could see that she was doing her best to stay with me and humor my requests.  But I only had her attention for about 30% of the time; her mind was somewhere else.

Five minutes later the truck was done unloading the bedding and it drove off down the road.  When Little Love saw it leave, all reason went out the window.  In her past life she was known to jump the fence under distress, and even though I know she is different horse now I could still feel that urge in her.  She could not stand still.  It was obvious she needed to get to the barn and she needed to get there that very moment.  I opened the gate and it was all the control she could muster not to plow over my and run back, she was nearly shaking from distress.  We raced to the barn and as soon as we were in the yard, all three horses called from the pasture.  And that was that.  Little Love snapped into her body and within seconds she was eating grass in front of the barn. 

Needless to say I was a bit confused.  It was obvious that the truck had triggered something in Little Love.  Was it a memory?  A fear?  How do horses think in these situations?  Can they put two and two together?  I could have sworn (and am still completely convinced of this) that Little Love thought the truck was there to pick up one of the other horses.  She had been frantic because she thought someone was leaving.  And the other horses knew this, that's why they all called to her from the paddock, to let her know they were still there. I can't tell you how I know this, but this the feeling I got immediately after the incident. 

The interesting thing is that as hyper as she had been in that situation with the truck, just minutes later she was completely and utterly in her zen.  I know this because I witnesses her react, or rather NOT react, to something that a year ago would have freaked her out for weeks.  The truck had left 40 bags of straw pellet bedding on a wooden slat in the middle of the small area in front of the barn.  These bags were piled up to about my chest and they were white - very, very white.  Little Love has always been extremely fearful of white objects (and even animals such as birds), especially if they move.  These weren't moving, but when we got close to them, I could see Lilo eye them suspiciously.  She did, however, walk right up to the pile and touch it with her nose which is something she wouldn't have done in a million years last year.  After touching the bags Little Love started grazing while I talked to the barn owner, telling her about Little Love's hysteria over the truck.  But, as I was talking, I kept thinking in the back of my mind how amazing it was that Lilo was just grazing next to these plastic back that formerly had been extremely scary to her. 

The barn owner lifted a bag off the pile and as she did that, the stack closest to Lilo (nine bags altogether) started slowly falling over - towards Little Love.  I could see it fall as if it was happening in slow motion.  There was nothing I could do, but get out of the way and brace myself for the massive freak out that would follow when those plastic bags hit the ground at my horse's feet. As the bags smacked against the ground just inches from Lilo's hooves, she flinched.  That was it.  She didn't even stop eating let alone look at the bags.  Both the barn owner and I stared at each other.  I don't know whose mouth was hanging open more. 

"Wow" she said. 

No kidding.

I drove home thinking about all this.  How the truck triggered the frantic behavior but then on the other hand the big, white plastic bags falling over right next to Little Love barely got her attention. Even though she is not generally afraid of trucks and has previously been completely horrified by white plastic bags. There are so many thing I don't know about this horse, but I do know that her brain works in far more complicated ways than we give her credit for.  I don't think it is the same sort of reasoning as humans have, but rather a whole other level of complex thinking.   So many people say (and yes, some of them scientists) that animals are not capable of  logical thinking and maybe they aren't, at least not the logical thinking we humans are capable of.  But maybe there is some other sort of logic, something we can't quite grasp.  Could Little Love have associated the truck with the departure of another horse?  Was this a memory that was triggered or was she actually thinking logically (truck = someone leaves)  Has there been a truck that took someone she cared for away?  Or was she thinking about the truck that brought her to Finland?  And how did she understand that the plastic pellet bags would not harm her? 

Sometimes I really wish I could get inside her head and see for myself how it is wired.  I'm pretty sure I would be blown away.


  1. My horses get excited whenever they hear a horse trailer coming down the road. I've always been amazed how they can tell the difference in truck sounds (we have all kinds of farming equipment going up and down the road). You have a very smart and sensitive mare on your hands, and I'd be surprised if she DIDN'T get upset if she thought one of her new friends was being taken away.

    The bag thing is another matter...maybe she had been on such overload about the truck that the bags didn't seem like that big of a deal.

  2. Sometimes it blows my mind what bothers horses and what doesn't - things that I would SWEAR would spook a horse don't (like a little girl with a pink parasol skipping by), and the most innocuous things (like a tree stump) cause absolute panic.

    Just when you think you've got them figured out, something like that happens and it becomes blatantly obvious that you've got a lot to learn about them, lol!

  3. I think horses are capable of logical thought, maybe not as advanced as humans but they can put 2 and 2 together. Back when my horses used to be stalled my mare would start to freak out if it even looked like I grabbing her brother's halter. She knew that it meant he'd leave.

    I also think that we humans underestimate how hard it is on horses to lose their companions or family members. That truck probably did sound too familiar.

  4. No one really knows how horses think, we can only guess through observation and evaluation. And anyone can be observant. But what we do know is how we feel, and what our intuition tells us. I wonder if Little Love's previous anxieties stemmed not so much from the "thing" as much as the humans around the "thing". In other words, is it possible that the expectation from the humans, or fear of "what if", or not letting the horse think her way through a situation, sort of set the tone of Little Love's behavior. She's clearly able to think her way through these situations now, she has a human she can trust and depend on, and she's always asked to do something and not dominated or punished into the doing. K, I think your instincts are 100% correct that Lilo thought one of her stable mates was leaving, it was a message you received loud and clear. What a day this was for the two of you! Amazing journey...

  5. Great comments, there is so much truth in everything you had to say, horses are such sensitive creatures that they can recognize the smallest sounds etc. and know what they mean.

    I totally agree with smazourek about humans underestimating how hard it is for horses to lose their companions. I was just listening to Linda Kohanov on a call through the HorseConscious website and she talked about how her beloved mare, Rasa, passed away. When they brought her body home, they gave the other horses the opportunity to say goodbye, which apparently they did, some lingering longer than others. It was really moving to hear that (Linda was crying talking about it)and living proof that horses do want to say goodbye, just like we do.

    And what Shelby said is also so true. It is amazing how much our own emotions can affect the situation and even create "fears" in horses. Little Love used to afraid of being afraid, because she knew that when she got fearful, people started acting violently and irrationally. Now she barely ever gets afraid and when she does, it is somehow different than before, more manageable. She also calms down so much faster than before.

  6. Jenj - what IS it about tree stumps????

    That is so very sad, K, that Lilo was afraid of the truck taking one of her friends. I'm sure you're right. One time I was at the dairy farm picking up some milk, and I saw a truck leaving with a cow on it, and a bunch of other cows clustered up as far as they could to the end of the field, mooing after it. Depressed me for weeks. Still does.

    I thought of you today when I met some cows out on a walk with Bridget. Last time, she managed to be quite brave and keep her feet on the ground. Today she was in heat, and there was no reasoning with her!