Up until very recently, knowledge and appreciation of the equine mind has been noticeably lacking. Sure, we’ve learned rudimentary things about horses through the years, but only enough to breed and maintain pliability. Now, though, scientific curiosity is leading some to dig deeper. Biologist Dr. Evelyn Hanggi, co-founder of the Equine Research Foundation, is among the leading experts on equine intelligence. From her 2005 paper “The Thinking Horse: Cognition and Perception Reviewed”:
“A review of the scientiﬁc literature, as well as practical experience, shows that horses excel at simpler forms of learning such as classical and operant conditioning…. Furthermore, horses have shown ease in stimulus generalization and discrimination learning. Most recently and unexpected by many, horses have solved advanced cognitive challenges involving categorization learning and some degree of concept formation.” In short, she says, “Horses, both feral and domesticated, are faced with varied conditions that require an assortment of learning and perceptual capabilities.”
The small-brained horse, Dr. Hanggi points out, is an unkind myth: A horse’s brain is not the size of a walnut (400-700 grams compared to 15); in fact, this “complex organ” has many folds and “more folds, more brainpower.” It is equally untrue that their “flight instinct” (“spook-and-bolt”) is a sign of low intelligence. Dr. Hanggi (Horse Illustrated, 2001): “Horses spook not because they are stupid but because they are smart enough to have survived a few million years.”
Although horses do seem to have a propensity to hurt themselves on doors and fences – seen as “dumb” animal behavior by some – it’s because they are supposed to live on wide-open ranges, not “in small, dark enclosures with sharp edges.” This cruel confinement – for most racehorses, over 23 hours a day – causes mental anguish, as evidenced by “cribbing, weaving, head bobbing, pacing, and self-mutilation.”
Horses can sort geometric shapes into specific classes and have demonstrated an ability to conceptualize. By virtue of an “exceptional memory,” they can “generalize about things they have never seen before.” Oh, and they can count. In short, Dr. Hanggi says, “[H]orses possess some learning abilities akin to those of the more accepted animal intellectuals, i.e., dolphins, sea lions and chimpanzees – the result being a far cry from simple conditioning.”
But when questioning the morality of horseracing, the relative intelligence of the horse is inconsequential. 18th Century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham:
“The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognised, that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the [tailbone], are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.
“What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
“Can they suffer?” A simple, fundamental question with a simple, fundamental answer: Of course they can. And so it falls to us to assuage that suffering – nay, to eradicate it. This is not to suggest that we can end all animal suffering, any more than we can end all human suffering. What I speak of, of course, is ending one specific kind, one that is wholly manmade – the suffering, that is, caused by and inherent to the domestication and commodification of animals – animals like racehorses. And yes, I believe that this is eminently doable. But notwithstanding recent progress and momentum, it is by no means inevitable. For even if it is true that, as Dr. King famously promised so many years ago, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, it only does so through the courage, resolve, and diligence of people who believe we have a moral imperative to leave this world a bit better than we found it. Like the good people, most of you included, fighting to end horseracing in the United States.