Does a horse know? What does a horse do or feel when it’s being whipped? The answer: not much.
“The horse has only one form of communication with a human. It can tell the human from its own body and its own body is often called the horse’s own body,” said Jonathan Brash. Brash, a lecturer in the animal sciences department, was lead author on the study, published May 1 in the journal Animal Cognition.
“Horses don’t show any sign of a whipping response, yet, horses also have a very rich social life, so the horse’s responses to human punishment likely are not the only way that horses are affected by punishment,” Brash said.
“Horses are so clever that they’ve become experts at recognizing punishment in the context of social relationships,” he added. “They’re quite adept at recognizing when it’s their turn to be disciplined. So, it may not always be obvious to the human that their punishment was harsh and unfair. These responses are quite common among horses that are very skilled and intelligent.”
The researchers were interested in how horses and humans respond when punishment is severe, and found that horses and humans show similar behaviors to each other. For example, when horses are beaten, they don’t flee in shock, they move in a way to avoid being beaten, but they don’t react as strongly. They’re not able to run, but they’re more likely to return to the horse’s stable. Horses that have had a strong punishment, however, will run back to their owner or be thrown to the ground.
“To our surprise, the degree of social reaction to punishment is quite complex as the animals understand why we hurt them and how we mean to hurt them, but it’s not clear enough for them to develop a reaction to help heal their own distress in their own society,” said Brash.
Brash explained that this type of behavior in horses is more complex than we might expect. They may understand why they’re being beaten for no reason, but there aren’t any obvious cues that cause the animals to return to a safer place.
“The behavior may be something that has evolved to help these animals survive in a highly stressful and stressful context. If we wanted to see horses use this behavior, we’d have to see them make a lot of specific changes to their societies and their social ties. We probably would have better answers if we studied humans in a similar situation,” Brash said.
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