Monday, September 25, 2017

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 7


Hi, again! We're discussing the equine head from both an anatomical, evolutionary, and artistic perspective, a rather unique combination when it comes to the subject. This 20–part series provides the "Biologic" behind the head's anatomy in order to provide context for its structure and function. Equipped with this insight, our appreciation for this grand animal not only grows, but also our dedication for depicting him both right and responsibly increases as well.

Continuing on with our examination then, let’s consider his brain now, or rather his intelligence. This is actually a huge subject with multiple tangents, so we’ll only deal with it on a more simplistic level for brevity. For this reason, it’s encouraged to explore this topic further through proactive research. So with that in mind, let’s dive in…


During evolution, the equine brain had to evolve double time! By the end of the Ogliocene, as early horses started to enter the plains, they initially competed quite well with the Artiodactyls, diversifying quickly and growing into large numbers during the Miocene.

Yet having ventured onto the plains first, the Artiodactyla primed the predator species on the plains prior to the appearance of the early equids (Bennett, 1999). The result was a habitat full of smart, fast, efficient hunters, creating a kind of evolutionary Cold War of wits between these first plains animals—and it’s into this that the early horses stumbled. As such, early horses had to contend with packs of intelligent, roving predators already well–equipped to make them an easy lunch. Hardly an optimistic beginning! Yet this may have been this very condition that hastened and diversified equine evolution so markedly.

To explain, Hyracotherium is considered to have a proportionally larger brain than other comparative herbivores at the time, a trend that continued through equine evolution. Indeed, the development of the horse’s cerebral neo–cortex is thought to account for his great capacity for learning by associating sensory stimuli. Yet the frontal lobes of Hyracotherium weren’t impressive, so the nature of his problem–solving or planning abilities are debatable. However, once he ventured onto the plains, the development of equine brainpower seems to have accelerated, perhaps because those simply too dim were quickly devoured. In fact, a newborn foal is neurologically mature unlike many other species, and has his full capacity to learn within minutes of birth. Indeed, the first few days of a foal’s life are a critical learning period. Horses are born smart!

Yet many people actually take equine intelligence for granted, either regarding the animal as dumb, dismissing it entirely, or erroneously comparing it to a dog. Yet we must weigh his intelligence within the context to his biological evolution, and in that regard, the equine is a genius! Indeed, the horse is by no means stupid despite what some people may have us believe. He’s actually remarkably intelligent, intuitive, and perceptive, highly trainable, and a very quick learner who exploits many learning strategies to problem–solve involving generalization, association, deduction, categorization, and concept learning, and to even deduce our intentions. There have even been reports of horses using tools to snatch a desired treat, and we all know how fond horses are of unlocking doors and gates. Horses are very curious, too, being quick to investigate something once the “spook factor” fades. Horses are also very playful, and find play enjoyable with herd mates and other animals (including us) as well as with objects—and many animal behaviorists consider playfulness a sign of higher intelligence. This may be why horse’s learn our demands best when the training situation is framed as a game rather than a task. Horses have also been known to have a sense of humor, sometimes pranking people or herd mates. 

Research has also shown that horses show more interest in new conditions or situations. In other words, like us, they're more interested in looking at interesting stimulation. Studies have also found that equines use all their senses to identify things and other individuals, including us. This demonstrates that horses can put different cues together into one representation of a distinct individual, indicating that horses are excited to see us for more reasons than food—though treats certainly help!

Equines also have a good sense of spatial relationships and subsequent deductions. For example, a jumper is doing amazing calculations at speed when approaching a jump. For instance, he has to create a 3D concept of the obstacle to determine when to take off at his current speed, how much to arch over the poles, and how much strength it will take to produce the necessary take off. And he also has to listen to the rider while doing all this!

Horses can also count—to a point it seems. It was found that if a researcher put two apples in a bucket and three in another bucket, most horses will go for the bucket with three apples. However, when four apples were put in a bucket and six in another, the results were more randomized. However, this doesn't disprove the possibility that some horses may indeed be able to "count that high."

Yet another study found that horses have the cognitive ability to understand someone's knowledge in social communication. To illustrate, horses watched as someone put a carrot in a food bucket; the bucket wasn't accessible to the horses, only the person. In the first condition, the person saw the food going into the bucket (they had knowledge of its location). In the second condition, the person didn't see into which bucket the carrot was placed (uniformed state). The horses in the experiment used more tactile and visual signals with the uniformed person than with the informed person. In other words, the horses increased how much they looked at, touched, or lightly pushed the uninformed person to get them to realize where the carrot was hidden. This also demonstrates that horses have flexible cognition, able to adjust their communication behavior based on someone else's knowledge state. What's more, it shows that communication isn't a one–way street in that people order and horses obey. Instead, horses do try to communicate with us, only most of us don't learn their language or pay attention.

Horses also join primates, dolphins, and pigeons with the ability to use symbols to communicate, influence, and interpret their surroundings. Scientists taught 23 horses to look at a board with three symbols to choose from, those being "no change," "blanket on," or "blanket off." Once all the horses independently learned the meaning of the symbols—after 14 days for all of them—they were able to tell their people when they wanted the blanket on or off, depending on the weather. For example, when the weather was cold and wet, they all chose the "blanket on" option. They even chose the "no change" option if the weather continued to be chilly and damp. Then when the weather turned warm and sunny, they all chose the "no blanket" option. This demonstrates that horses understand the nature of consequence with their choices. It also reveals that horses are eager to communicate with us and it's us that need to listen.

Like elephants, horses also display a love of learning. They're quite curious and amenable to learning new things given the technique is thoughtful and interesting to them. They're also quick to emulate other horses to achieve a desired end. For example, if a horse sees another get a reward for doing something, he may become immediately ready to copy that action. They also respond best to positive feedback loops that are predictable, reliable, and which produce a desirable result. They also never stop learning so we can teach an old horse new tricks!

Horses can also demonstrate emotional empathy. That's to say horses may feel the emotional state of another horse, which is expressed through posture, vocalizations, chemical scent, and movement. In doing so, they may copy those signals upon feeling a similar way in response. Likewise, they're highly sensitive to our emotional states and will change their behavior and state of mind in reaction to it.

The horse’s memory is infamous, too, and it seems he never forgets a lesson learned, good or bad. Luckily for us though, most horses have a forgiving, generous nature. Yet being so, he's also able to remember routes, objects, and locations very quickly as well as the locations of resources like water or the food bin. In addition, he's able to quickly make associations between cause and effect, and shape new behavior in response. His exceptional memory may actually be an evolutionary advantage—there may be very good reason why a horse spooks at a new feature in his customary habitat like a new building, a new fence, even a new bucket or newly–planted shrub. He’s not being stupid—from his perspective he’s being smart. For instance, when scanning the grass line for predators, he’ll use his memory to determine “all is well.” Truly, “no news is good news” to the horse. That’s because changes could indicate a threat stalking through tall grass or laying in wait to ambush. Even something new placed on top of a rock can be interpreted by the horse as a crouched predator ready to pounce—even if it’s just a backpack. Horses remember their surroundings quite keenly so anything new could be potentially threatening.

We also have to remember that nothing in the equine’s evolutionary make–up prepares him for our human world, our contraptions, our artificial habitats, or our imposed demands. For this reason then, he has to be taught how to interpret and react to a stall door, a bucket, a saddle, or even what to do when we fall off—no wonder our horse looks so confused when we tumble off! These are things we take for granted, but he has to learn, and quickly, and often despite what his biology would have him think otherwise—and despite how unclear we may be with our demands. Indeed, horses do a lot of “filling in” for us, adroitly deducing what we ask even when we’re entirely unclear in our request. Moreover, horses have been known to “babysit” inexperienced or compromised riders, even shifting their body position or balance to accommodate an insecure seat. For all these reasons then, the horse’s intelligence is a marvel as is his graciousness, willingness, intuition, and ability to trust.

We should also know that body language is so developed in horses that they have an uncanny ability to pick up even the most subtle or most unconscious body signals, even including those from people! At the turn of the century in Berlin, a rather famous example was Hans von Osten, otherwise known as “Clever Hans," who was renown for apparently solving complex mathematical equations, pawing out his answers. However, it was discovered that Hans didn’t actually know mathematics, but he did know body language, the unspoken language of horses. He had learned to key onto a person’s involuntary physical responses and quickly became able to perceive even the most subtle tensing and relaxing of muscles or changes in breathing in anticipation of a correct answer. So Hans would simply keep tapping his hoof until an unconscious cue from the human observer cued him to stop at the right answer. He was particularly keyed onto Wilhelm von Osten, his owner, resulting in answers of surprising consistency, but did reasonably well even with other people. But as long as the person providing the unconscious cues didn’t know the answer neither did Hans. All this makes one wonder just what we’re unconsciously telling horses with our bodies, smells, touches, breathing, postures, fascial expressions, sounds, and our tensions and relaxations! It’s known that a person’s emotional state can dramatically affect a horse, for better or worse, as horses may look to people for appropriate reactions or responses to a situation. So it’s important we be aware of what we’re “telling” a horse at any given moment, particularly during a scary moment. This is also why compassion, patience, calmness, clarity, consistency, and softness are so important for working with horses.

Then there's the case of Lukas, dubbed "The Smartest Horse In The World" by the Guinness Book of World Records. Among many things, he's able to recognize words and react in a way that indicates he understands their meaning. For example, when asked to point to a red object, he reliably does so. When asked to point to a square object, again, he reliably does so. He can also count!  Then on June 16, 2010, he received Guinness certification for "the most numbers correctly identified by a horse in one minute," having identified 19 numbers. What's more, he can spell his name, his owner's name, and her husband's name. Even more, he can tell the difference between those objects that are the same and those that are different, like those that are bigger or smaller. He also understands the concept of "absentness," or recognizing when something is missing, an ability thought only reserved to people, primates, and parrots. He's also been known to fake being lame to get out of work, and nodding "yes" or "no" to get what he wants. It's been reported, too, that he has definite opinions while also being observant, sensitive, and empathetic. He's able to deduce what's requested as well, and will do the required task even before being asked. He also has a great fondness for games and training framed as play, which tends to be typical of the horse. In fact, he's become on of the top liberty performers today, knowing 35 separate actions, and growing. Clearly, Lukas gives us more insight into equine brain power, and the potential of any relationship we may have with one.

Horses also have distinct personalities which become more apparent the more their intelligence and autonomy are factored into their treatment. In other words, the more we respect and protect their personalities, the more they let them show. Horses have to be met “halfway”—we have to “go where they are” first in order to tease out their character and best facilitate cooperation. A horse can be bullied into submission, but he’ll tend to “shut down” as a result, drawing into himself and hiding his personality, even dumbing himself down in trepidation of bullying. Our chronic lack of clarity in our demands may also cause him to essentially give up, to lose interest or even become resistant to learning or trying new things. Instead then, the best results are produced in the spirit of respectful teamwork with perceptiveness, gentleness, thoughtfulness, playfulness, and compassion at the forefront, with absolute clarity the rule.

Horses also get bored and so do best with an enriched environment such as herd mates, toys, trick training, and training and workouts framed as play and exploration. It’s no surprise then that horses can become resistant and barn sour when all they do is move in circles for a couple of hours a day. It’s not that they’re lazy—they’re probably bored! Remember that much of what we ask makes no sense to him, and may also be interpreted as a bullying relationship as he's forced to do these things. Indeed, horse behaviorists now discourage the use of the round pen. Indeed, being compelled to trot in circles probably doesn't serve his psychological enrichment. This is why equine behaviorists often recommend trick training, play, quiet time with no demands, grooming bonding, or trail rides to break up the monotony of routine training and to develop more of a partnership rather than a "master and servant" relationship. Researchers are also now discouraging the "dominant alpha" paradigm of working with horses, of taking over the alpha position in the relationship. There's no evidence that the equine's cognitive abilities prepare him to understand the abstract concepts of "leader" and "hierarchy," especially when it comes to people. Equines interact with each other on an individual, fluid basis, and we don't yet fully understand how they interpret the world when it comes to their human bonds. Plus, the concept of dominance introduces the practice of punishment, something that's proving to be deleterious for building an equitable partnership. This may be one of the reasons why the Dorrance brothers were able to develop such deep, psychologically beneficial, effective bonds, and working relationships with horses since dominance and punishment weren't part of the schooling paradigm.

Conclusion To Part 7

As equine artists, chances are we’ll run across the sentiment insisting that equines are dull–witted, stupid creatures. Maddening, isn’t it? The sad thing is, too, that it’s likely the horses of such people have simply withdrawn into themselves as a consequence of being regarded so disrespectfully, only perpetuating this ugly sentiment. But as equine artists, we can express his intelligence and spirit in ways that advocate for him, deepening the meaning and importance of our work. Truly, it’s one thing to sculpt a representation of a horse and quite another to sculpt a representation of a soul. Which is our aim?

At some point in our career then, we'll be confronted with a choice—to sculpt equines as we wish them to be or sculpt equines as they really are? Or put another way, do we wish to sculpt the idea of an equine or an actual equine? Know it or not, the former idealizes and objectifies, turning our work into more like representational art. For example, "this is a Thoroughbred" or "this is an Arabian" and that's about all the sculpture has to say. And that's fine! If that's the kind of work that appeals to us—go for it! But if we want to say something more, we're going to have to dig deeper. That's because wanting to portray the inner experience and soul of an individual equine, through the vehicle of equine realism, is an entirely different task. Rather than focus on clinical structure alone, we must also ponder his inner experience and the world from his perspective in order to climb into his head, heart, and spirit to better convey all that in our clay.

And to do so, we must first recognize the dignity and autonomy of his being—this is a creature far older than us who perceives the world in radically different ways. Being so, he has very different priorities and expectations, none of which are fully prepared by evolution for our human world. So we must acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: the typical horse lives in constant existential terror in our world. Can you imagine being captured by aliens and made to do confounding things simply by learning their unfamiliar, strange language, body language, or intentions from scratch? None of it makes any sense, either! Why are they making us spin a light for an hour every day? Plus, everything would be communicated with pressure release and voice associations, none of which are easy to learn, or ever really clear, or lack clarity altogether. Can you imagine being spoken to in a language that has no context for you? Or actually gives you mixed signals, or signals that conflict with our human interpretation or biology, or are unconsciously given? Can you imagine being in a room with frightening, unknown, confusing objects and unseen sounds, then required to "behave"? And being tugged, hit, shoved, yelled at, or poked as an inducement to "behave"? All the while all the rest of this is going on? Now add in dominance treatment and the application of punishment, especially when you have no idea what's wanted or why you're being punished in the first place! No wonder they're so typically content to be left alone in their stalls! No wonder they shut down so often! No wonder why they can become barn sour! No wonder why they can be so jittery and unpredictable! It's not them—it's us!

His experience is as real to him as ours is to us, and just as valid. It also has a far more ancient basis, one designed for very different circumstances and priorities. Now this isn't to say that keeping horses is wrong. In fact, if not for domestication, Equus caballus would probably have gone extinct! But what it does mean is this: if we hope to pay homage to this generous creature, we must first dismiss our latent arrogance, casual indifference, one–sidedness, and predilection for objectification when it comes to our regard for him. We need to see him with fresh, respectful eyes that take nothing for granted and first recognize the autonomy and grace of another individual soul, one that's vulnerable in our distracted world. If we can see him from the perspective then of "what can we share?" and "what can we learn from each other?" rather than "what can he do for me?" or "what can I make him do?," we'll have come one significant step forwards in what our Voice can convey. The truth is that the more we come to appreciate his inner experience, on his terms, the harder it becomes to objectify him and overlook his reality. Just like with us, we come to see him as an individual soul and so tend to stop judging him based on physical "perfection." If we don't want to be judged by a Barbie–standard ourselves, shouldn't we also afford the same consideration to something we profess to love?

Now granted, we must also realize we do have to pay attention to some ideas of "perfection" such as certain notions about conformation and breed type. There's just no getting around many of the rampant objectifications in the horseworld. But what we can do is reframe it all with a new outlook. Truly, when we can more clearly see the inner beauty of each equine, we're better armed to weigh such notions with more objectivity and evidence–based determinations. If everything is weighed against his perfect heart, only those features that are good for him rise to the top and the rest sheds off like chaff. Then marry this with an understanding of his anatomy and evolutionary biology, and we can now more fully appreciate what it means to be equine in the first place, and that informs our work in deep, countless ways.

Even more, it not only changes our work forever—it changes us forever, too. Everything about how we See ourselves, how we See each other, and how we See our purpose evolves into something more—we become more. It's a kind of Enlightenment. As such, how we perceive this creature and the nature of our work will never be the same, and the better for it! It's a journey, one led by the equine and we follow—humble, unassuming, open, and willing. This is the great gift of equine realism—it's not necessarily just about attaining accuracy, but even more about attaining Insight. And in coming to understand this creature, we actually come to understand ourselves more, and this improved self–awareness informs everything we do—everything we are—thereafter. As always, the horse is the best teacher. So until next time…ponder those doors he opens for us!

“We might as well give in to the tug of our spirits to explore this confounding and wondrous world. We might as well greet each other as endless pilgrims and bid each other well on our way. Because we’re already on the road…” ~ Anthony Lawlor

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