Horses and Time


How do horses perceive time? Do they have agendas? Are they always in the here and now? Cognitive scientists are now debating how good non-human animals are at planning – which imply they have an inbuilt sense of time, and are not always present in the now. That they understand the passing of time and can act out of this knowledge. That they can plan ahead. But also that they can mix up the now with the past. 

In the horse world, I have many times heard the "truth" that horses have no agenda and always are in the here and now. Is this true? Or is that purely human projections? Do we want them to be without agendas and always in the here and now? Because that would make them different from us and in possession of something we ourselves feel we lack – the ability to let go of agendas and to enjoy the here and now? 

Do the horse have an agenda? 

This depends on what we mean by an agenda. Do we mean that a horse plans years ahead? Do we mean if the have a plan, or can have a plan with what they do?

Horses, like other mammals, have agendas. They know were to move, when to move there, they plan their food intake, when to and where to seek shelter from wind, rains, sun, insects and so on. Some mammals (and birds) learn how to use tools, so they need to figure out how to find such tools, sometimes how to bring them along and then how to use them. Do horses use tools? In a way they do. They do not take them in between their hoofs, the way we use our hands. But they use branches, bushes, other objects for scratching (or humans!) and they use things to sit on or lean on to stretch muscles. This is a kind of tool use. They have a plan with an object and they use the object to fill a need. To make it easier or more comfortable for themselves. If we decide that horses do not use tools, we will never see them do it. 

We say that horses have no agendas when it comes to their meetings with humans. But as with the scratching example, they have also other things they want us to do, needs to fulfill. And this is what agendas are about – fulfilling needs and having a plan on how to do it. And horses can draw conclusions, think in sequences, learn and re-learn, they have an excellent memory. So when they meet us, they surely do have an agenda. If a horse has very bad experiences of humans, or think we are unpredictable, their agenda can be to stay as far away from us as possible. But otherwise, they see us as resources. We can help them fulfill their needs. Their needs can be about food, closeness, scratching, company, exploration time, "entertainment" f ex.

But of course, they do not write their agenda down. And I do not think they plan to be evil or to be nice next time they meet a human. They don't think, next time, I am going to bite her again (or maybe they do ;-) ). Maybe it is fairer to say that they do not have hidden agendas? That they are more honest with their agendas?

In Mongolia, you seldom sell a horse. Because if you do, you are always faced with the problem that it will leave and go home. To where it came from. To its own family. You can move a horse a long way – but it will find its way home. This is also a sort of an agenda. The horse wants to go home, so it finds its way. It has a need, a goal and it acts to fulfill it, reach it.

In elephants there have been studies how the matriarch takes her family to very distant places sometimes, she remembers a waterhole, a particular place with good food etc. This can be seen in wild horses as well. Where the horses can travel to take care of their own needs. You can also see it the domesticated horses in Mongolia, who pretty much take care of themselves in the same ways as the wild horses. E.g. on a hot day they can travel for hours to a special place where the wind reaches them and there are no insects.

Are horses always in the "here and now"?

To be able to answer that question, we must first define what we mean by being in the "here and now"? It is a much-used phrase in mindfulness practice. And there it refers to the ability to stay fully present in the moment. To be able to take in what is around you, to the stimulus your senses are receiving right there, right now. Other descriptions say it is to be grounded, to be in your body, to not be on autopilot. To be here and now means that you do not react to things around you as they are something else than what they are. Or that a situation in the present takes you back to a situation from the past. Or that an individual you meet turns into someone else (via your projections). If this happens, you are no longer in the here and now.

Horses do not only live in the moment, they are not present all the time They are not always in the here and now. Every living being is a sum of what they have experienced – also horses. They are not super spiritual beings – and they do not need to be that in order to help people overcome difficulties, in practices like EAP. 

As humans, horses experience hard stuff. And sad to say, a lot comes from the way we as humans treat, train and keep them. How does this effect horses? Pretty much in the same way it effects humans. When a horse frequently spooks, it is not because it is a flight animal (and being partially a flight animal does not define them more that it defines us, as we humans are also partly flight animals), it is because the horse connects it with scary experiences. Often experienced when it has been subjected to a situation it got scared of and had no means to understand, was not given the opportunity to integrate it in its knowledge bank about how the world works. Other horses freeze when being scared and are made to move out of the freeze with the aids of whips, spurs and kicks. Add the facts that they still regularly are taken away from their mothers between the age of 4-6 months. Often put together with other young horses they do not know, made to eat food their digestive system is not adapted to, often in stalls in boxes, alone, with too little space to move around in and for many hours in a row. This way we deprive them of a lot of things. They can not learn from older horses, they do not have their mother to show them what to eat, how to interact with other horses, their bodies suffer from the wrong kinds of food, from under stimulation, no bodily contact with other horses when stabled, too little movement (which is bad for growing muscles, tendons and bones – and the digestive system, which needs movement to function properly). I can go on for a long while. The point I am trying to make is that we humans contribute with a fair amount of hard experiences for horses to deal with. And with no help – they will develop anxieties, spookiness, fears, stereotypical behaviors and other problems. They will act like flight animals.

But, they will be able to help people better if also they can start their "healing journey". Which is about being able to trust their own perceptions, daring to use all their senses, have access to their cognitive abilities – living in a safe environment where they have all their basic biological needs taken care of, enough to eat, friends, space to move around in etc.

So, if a horse reacts to a situation with fear, where there are no obvious threats? Is he in the here and now? Or is he reacting to his past? We can of course argue that the horse perceives something that we as humans can not (having differently evolved senses). But then again, he maybe functions as we do? Horses learn to be afraid of things, as humans do. They can be triggered by something, that then makes them afraid. And when in this state of fear – they are not in the here and now. As with humans, this fearful situation can be replaced by a new and more positive experience, so the horse can again feel comfortable in the situation and be in the here and now. Or we can decide that horses are flight animals and therefor naturally fearful.

There are of course other aspects of what being in the here and now means. What does the horse's sense of time look like? Do they know if they are in the here and now, or not? If they do not have a hidden agenda, or a malevolent/benevolent plan when they meet us – they are somehow in the here and now, acting out of what now presents itself in front of them, in a way humans are struggling with. We often actively think about yesterday and tomorrow, our minds wanders. So maybe it is a spectrum, mammals can more or less perceive, understand and use a concept of time? And horses are somewhere on that spectrum, as we are, as species, and as individuals.

And just a little added food for thought. How good was the average human on estimating time and planning before we started to measure time, by the hour, day, month and year? We often forget that our society, our habitat, today looks drastically different than the one we originally were evolved to live in. 

Giving the horse a sense of agency – positive equi...
Wild horses in Mongolia


No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Already Registered? Login Here
Sunday, 22 May 2022

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to