Why Do Equine Researchers Study the ‘Obvious’?

Why do researchers spend time studying basic equine behavior questions when the answers seems so obvious? An horse behavior researcher weighs in.
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Why Do Equine Researchers Study the Obvious
The way scientific knowledge advances is to actually start with what seems like the most basic questions, formulate and then test hypotheses such as this, and report the results for further scientific scrutiny and refinement. | Photo: iStock

Q.I’m fascinated to see studies (such as “Horses Ask Humans for Help With Unsolvable Tasks,”) on horses possibly trying to communicate with humans—it’s rather like scientists trying to tell us the world is flat when we can see perfectly well it isn’t!

Most of the problem equine behaviors result from blinkered or ignorant humans not understanding what horses are desperately trying to tell them. For instance, “I’m bucking because the saddle pinches,” “I’m kicking because you haven’t noticed I’m saying you’re hurting me,” “I’m chewing my stable because I’m sick to death of being cooped up,” etc. My very hairy Minis push their heads at me only when they need their eyes cleaned; they and my horse vocally communicate using the same intonations as humans do; they complain if I don’t feed them at the usual time. And my horse understands pointing directions to a fair extent.

My last horse got put in a different stable for a day, where the water basin was filled with rotting months-old crud. When I found him and opened the door, he grabbed the shoulder of my jacket and dragged me over to the corner in front of the basin to show me and indicate he was disgusted, very annoyed, and desperately thirsty. He drank nearly two buckets of fresh water when I offered it

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Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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