horse intelligence (can animals think?, redux)


In a recent post of mine

“the forlorn cat”

the forlorn cat


I posed the question: “Can and do animals with whom we are familiar, such as dogs, cats, and horses, have emotions similar to our own? Can they feel a sense of neglect and abandonment?” I answered my own question with a qualified yes (qualified in the sense of my not being in a position to be able to say for sure, despite believing it to be so).

I have recently been reading John Steinbeck’s novella The Red Pony. It is the story of a boy and his horse; in writing it, Steinbeck must have drawn upon his own experience growing up in California.

In Chapter I of The Red Pony, “The Gift,” Steinbeck writes as an omniscient narrator who enters into and identifies with the impressions and feelings of the boy, Jody, who is the central character.

[Jody] unlatched the rusty hasp of the barn door and stepped in, and no matter how quietly he opened the door, Gabilan [the pony] was always looking at him over the barrier of the box stall and Gabilan whinnied softly and stamped his front foot, and his eyes had big sparks of red fire in them like oakwood embers.

Sometimes if the work horses were to be used that day, Jody found Billy Buck [the stable hand] in the barn harnessing and currying. Billy stood with him and looked long at Gabilan and he told Jody a great many things about horses. He explained that they were terribly afraid for their feet, so that one must make a practice of lifting their legs and patting their hoofs and ankles to remove their terror. He told Jody that horses love conversation. He must talk to the pony all the time, and tell him the reasons for everything. Billy wasn’t sure a horse could understand everything that was said to him, but it was impossible to say how much he understood. A horse never kicked up a fuss if some one he liked explained things to him. Billy gave examples, too. He had known, for instance, a horse nearly dead beat with fatigue to perk up when told it was only a little farther to his destination. And he had known a horse paralyzed with fright come out of it when his rider told him what it was that was frightening him.

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017




I was very attached to our family dogs when I was growing up, and, somewhat like Jody, spent a lot of time caring for them and getting to know dogs fairly well, though not as well as the stable hand in The Red Pony knows horses. I talked to my favorite dog all the time. She would sit there staring at me and seemingly listening. I am sure that my dog experienced contentment, if nothing else, from knowing that I was paying attention to it and from the cadence of my voice — I spoke in a measured, “friendly” tone, the way one speaks when one is trying to take someone into his or her confidence and gently assure them of something.

I had the feeling of auditory intelligence on the part of our dog Bambi.

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