Can My Horse Read My Thoughts?

A certified equine behavior consultant addresses the seemingly telepathic relationship some of us have with our horses.
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Can My Horse Read My Thoughts
Horses can feel a fly on their flank, so they certainly are capable of detecting the small shifts in muscle tension caused by a rider's intention movements that precede and predict a deliberate rein or leg cue. | Photo: iStock

Someone recently asked me an interesting question: “Can my horse read my thoughts?” This person went on to describe the extraordinary bond he has with his Arabian horse, and his belief that the horse knows how he feels and where he wants to go without being cued.

What appears to be a telepathic connection develops from experience and sensitivity and emerges when the horse and rider are working together in harmony with a common mind and purpose. Even if some individuals seem capable of mind-reading, there’s no scientific evidence for it in humans or horses.

A rider’s intentions create unconscious and automatic muscle movement.

A rider’s intentions are telegraphed from mind to muscle, even when the rider isn’t consciously aware of it. From the moment the rider’s brain thinks about changing speed or direction, that message is automatically transmitted through the nervous system to the muscles in preparation for action.1 Small changes in the position and tension of the rider’s muscles anywhere in the body—legs, hands, arms, seat, rhythm, and breathing—can get the horse’s attention and foreshadow a specific action. The more experienced the rider is, the more automatic the unconscious the intention movement will be.

An intuitive connection with the horse is enhanced when the rider has a quiet seat and hands, because the horse is more likely to detect the subtle intention movement and can learn to anticipate the rider’s rein or leg cue. If the rider doesn’t have a quiet seat and hands, the intention movements will go unnoticed in a background sea of random, meaningless movements—the “noise” some riders create that a horse will learn to ignore.

Horses have a keen sense of touch that can detect a rider’s smallest movements.

As prey animals, horses have heightened sensory abilities,2 which includes highly sensitive pressure and pain receptors in the hair and skin. Most riders use tactile signals to communicate with the horse, through tension in the reins, movement of the seat, and pressure and position of the legs.

Horses can feel a fly on their flank, so they certainly are capable of detecting the small shifts in muscle tension caused by a rider’s intention movements that precede and predict a deliberate rein or leg cue. An experienced, attentive, and willing horse will pick up on these subtle intention movements and learn to respond to them even before the rider is conscious of having given a signal, giving the impression that the horse has read the rider’s mind.

Horses learn to anticipate familiar routes and routines.

Horses have an impressive capacity to learn, remember, and problem solve. Given a limited selection of choices, many horses will easily anticipate the most likely course of action. What feels like mind-reading is, in some cases, simply reflect a horse making the most obvious choice before the rider signals it to do so. This might be even more likely if the route or routine are familiar and predictable.

Take-Home Message

Horses probably cannot telepathically read a person’s mind, but some horses might seem to do so by learning to respond to subtle and unconscious intention movements that precede a rider’s deliberate cues. This level of sensitivity and responsiveness in a horse is uncommon, and usually emerges when both horse and rider are attentive to one another, skilled in the activity, and possess complementary interpersonal styles.


References

1Zschorlich, V. & Köhling, R. (2013) How thoughts give rise to action-conscious motor intention increases the excitability of target-specific motor circuits. PLOS One 18(12): e83845. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083845

2Saslow, C.A. (2002) Understanding the perceptual world of horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 78, 209-224.

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Written by:

Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

3 Responses

  1. Fascinating article. I have always believed that this was the case, but to see the actual research done and the results is amazing. I agree, you have to spend a lot of time with your horse to get to this point, and, for me, it has not been the case for all of my horses, just one really.

    I have seen many of those Youtube videos as well, amazing.

  2. The best horse I had went where I looked. As the author says, you need to be with the horse a lot (I rode her 2 – 3 hours a day out across the tracks and hills), and you need a quiet seat and independent hands (I practiced to achieve this). Even at speed, she went where I looked – she could feel the slight shift of weight of my turned head (and accompanying subtle shift of weight). She was ridden in a light bosal with loose reins, or just a bit of rope round her head. Some on-lookers would ask me how I controlled my horse, but I was no “horse whisperer”, just someone who worked on getting signals more and more subtle and horse that was willing to pay attention. I think that it helped that we were out in the natural environment for most of the riding time, so she was interested in where we were going.

  3. While it is true that horses can become so tuned in/well trained they can respond to invisible signals & the slightest rider movements, it is also very true that animals can communicate with humans given the right sensitivity,attitude & timing. Think how difficult it is to communicate with some teenage boys- who go through stages of ignoring parents & just grunting – & they’re humans! Animals don’t always feel like ‘talking’ either, personalities vary like ours.
    There are stacks of utube videos from professional animal communicators, who have a natural gift for it, courses where people can learn to do it (if they have the right mindset & sensitivity) & I have personally experienced this myself when not even thinking about such matters. (And extremely useful it was too!)

    I was a complete skeptic, I need incontrovertible proof of unbelievable things . Animal-human telepathic communication is truly amazing, but a fact. It is not unusual for people to have telepathic communication with family members, especially if one of them is in danger, & the same ability exists between humans & the other sentient creatures of the world – though it’s a two-way choice.
    I have used animal communicators when the usual systems have failed, & had big problems solved by getting the animal’s viewpoint, & details that no-one else could possibly know, yet can be verified. This is often done by telephone, & internationally. How do telephone signals pass through solid walls & internationally?? Another mystery to most people, but it’s accepted..
    Just bear in mind that scientists used to (not so long ago either) assure us all that animals were ‘robotic’, on auto-pilot, & had no feelings. Utube is full of amazing evidence of animals behaving in ways that don’t fit with the old ‘scientific’ descriptions. I learned long ago to keep a very open mind about any pronouncements by scientists.

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