In which I ponder about how much our horses really understand

I know that we sometimes say our horses understand us,
but how much do they really understand?

The Dragon: a horse who understands

I was tacking up beside the trailer the other day while talking to Monica.  We were catching up on the news, and one of the things I said was that I'd gotten distressing news:  Jacqui, the lady who gave Fiddle to me back in 2006, was back in the hospital.  Her cancer has recurred.

Monica sympathized, of course, because she is a nice person, although she's never met Jacqui in person and it's certain that they will be friends when they ever do meet.

The effect on Fiddle was much more dramatic.  She went from barely awake to fully alert and tight as a banjo string.

Sure, you say.  I was distressed about my friend.  My horse has become a caretaking horse, and she was reacting to my distress.

But, wait.

I was distressed before I even walked down to the barn.  I'd gotten the news while eating my breakfast cereal.  Fiddle didn't react until I said out loud that Jacqui was sick.

Fiddle remembers Jacqui.  She recognizes her on every visit, as she recognizes most of my friends.  I've learned to let her greet new folks if we're going to be riding together--she seems to appreciate a proper introduction.  

I've often been told (though I don't entirely believe it) that animals recognize words, short phrases, and body language.  Certainly not a complex sentence like "My friend Jacqui is back in hospital because her old nemesis has returned."

Fee was instantly, obviously worried when she heard.  She has been dude ranch pony calm for months now, but at the trailhead, she suddenly started acting out. I worked her a bit, just to re-establish that the boundaries hadn't changed, and that reassured her.  

Then we took off down the trail, with four horses and five people, so Monica tailed for a while

And then I tailed for a while behind Hana...

And then I rode Hana and Duana tailed for a while

Monica was riding Fiddle, and she took the picture

And then we saw mushrooms, 

Duana spots our quarry

which was the excuse purpose for the excursion.

So, we stopped and picked a bunch.
A trick-or-treat bag full!
I can't believe I didn't take a photo of the horses tied along the road while we all scampered around in the woods looking for chanterelles.  Fiddle and Hana, recognizing "mushroom hunting" as a new variation on "trail work" immediately cocked a hip and fell asleep.  The other horses followed their example.

The work of hauling different riders up the hills calmed and reassured Fiddle, as work often does for so many of us.

But it got me wondering about how much she really understands when I'm talking.  I talk a lot.  Babble, really.  Couldn't blame her if she wanted to tune me out fairly often.  

And then she does something like this.  


The comment box is open.


  1. "The work of hauling different riders up the hills calmed and reassured Fiddle, as work often does for so many of us."

    the work was good for all of us :)

  2. I'm sorry to hear about Jacqui. I do believe horses understand more words than we give them credit for.

  3. I believe that they certainly do recognize many words - but read or smell or "feel" what "state" their riders may be in. I tell Farah who we'll be riding with that day & she "for sure" understands those names! Especially of her "friends" Jesse & Target! :-)

  4. I've taken to more verbal communication after Eryn helped me last year with the donkey. She couldn't get the donkey to go over the cavaletti, or circle her on the lunge, so she started telling the donkey, right into her ear, what she was hoping for. Then the donkey did whatever she told her. Eryn insisted that my donkey understands English. So, I've done a lot more talking since then.

  5. This is my very firm belief. Here goes:

    I think animals - more specifically, herd animals which are largely non-verbal, communicate in a more complex fashion in a kind of... oh, I don't know. It's not necessarily ESP - it's just... like, their ability to read body language and nuances and interpret emotions through scent is so developed and complex that it seems like ESP to us, since we are such a verbal predator animal.

    Horses can absolutely learn commands with a voice: kiss, cluck, bow, look away, stand, whoa, etc.... but the real communication is far beyond that.

    I believe we (humans) communicate in a limited fashion with our bodies with them - much the same way parrots learn to "speak english" or gorillas learn to sign.

    There is a much deeper body language going on at all times which we are largely unaware of - because we rely on words.

    So, here's what I think happened.

    You arrived, and communicated with your body that you were sad. Fiddle recognized this, but didn't perceive it as a threat.

    However, when you mentioned Jacqui has cancer, do I believe Fiddle understood Jacqui had cancer? Yes and no - I believe when you said that phrase out loud you unconsciously projected with your mind - giving your overall sadness a very definite reason and meaning - and thus subtly with your body, that your friend Jacqui (maybe you have a way of holding yourself, or breathing, or tilting your head so that Jacqui has a "name" in horse language, much the way sign language people have unique names that are more than just a phonetic spelling of their English name?)

    Anyways, you said "Jacqui has cancer again" and unconsciously you said, with your body, and maybe even your scent, "Jacqui is in danger. I am sad for her. The danger from this enemy is very serious."

    And Fiddle understood and reacted accordingly.

    At the very least, she knew from what you said (be it words or as I believe your body/scent) one of your herd members was in danger, and she took you very seriously, as you are her alpha mare and she respects your judgement.

    Horses don't need words to communicate - but we, humans, usually n eed the crutch of speaking those words aloud words in order to speak horse in anything more than one or two word sentences.

    1. ^ This. What Becky said. I believe this too. I have a mare that is so utterly sensitive to every little thing I do that I had to take 6 months off of more focused training so that I could learn to communicate with her because we were both getting so frustrated. This was not for training her or teaching her, but so I could learn to realize what *I* was telling her with my body, so I could streamline my language. It was a really incredible experience. And I realized that prior to doing this, I had basically been doing the equivalent of trying to speak a foreign language but mispronouncing the words so badly, they were unintelligible. This was 2 years ago. My mare and I communicate so much better now, but I'm still learning. My point is, I totally see this the way Becky explained it, and I agree that this is the manner in which Fiddle understood what you were saying. I'm sorry about your friend. :(


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