In her book The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion, journalist and equestrian Wendy Williams visits with horse experts from around the world to chronicle the story of the bond between horses and humans, a 56-million-year journey. The book includes only fairly recent scientific insights regarding the social sensitivities in which horses can read emotional cues — much better than humans.
In an interview for National Geographic, Williams tells the story of the Clever Hans, a horse who used social clues to trick the humans around him into thinking he was performing addition and subtraction.
“It turns out the person doing the questioning was giving an unconscious clue to let Hans know he had gotten to the right number,” said Williams, “Maybe the person would lean forward a little or look more excited. So Hans was reading the clues that people were giving off in this very subtle way, and giving the right answer.
“Eventually, people said Hans was not a very smart horse because he really couldn’t do addition and subtraction. But the new thinking about Hans is that it showed how incredibly smart he was, that he could read clues in the human psyche so much more clearly than we can read clues in horse language,” Williams said.
William Woods University students have the option to take EQS 304 Theory of Equine Behavior and Training Methods. In addition to learning training techniques, such as haltering, leading, handling and more, students also learn the ins and outs of equine behavior, as well as the physical and mental processes that contribute to it.
In an article for Equus Magazine, Jonathan Field refers to the connection we hold with horses (that they naturally do with each other) as “feel.”
“Feel gives you a subconscious understanding of what your horse is telling you at each moment and how to best communicate with him. With feel, you know what aid to give, how strong it needs to be, the precise time to give it, and exactly when to release to reward the horse,” writes Field.
“For the horse, he is born with feel in every cell, and he is just waiting for you to catch up.”