From the horse’s mouth
A team – it’s always a team, isn’t it? – of scientists in Norway claims to have discovered that horses are more intelligent than we thought; and that they think like humans.
Dr Cecilie Mejdell of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, who led the research, says her team has found a way to ask the horse whether it likes wearing a blanket. In Nordic countries, it’s common for horses to wear blankets in all weathers. No surprise there, then. The team trained horses, by offering slices of carrot as an incentive, to touch a board with their muzzle to indicate if they wanted to wear a rug.
I don’t suppose for a minute that the horses touched the board in order to be given another slice of carrot?
Dr Mejdell added, “Horses are often considered to be not very intelligent…” By whom, Dr Mejdell? – “but this shows that, when we use the right methods, they can actually communicate and express their opinions and they can make choices that seem sensible even to us.”
Even to us, eh?
“Express their opinions”?
“Tell me, Trigger, what is your opinion of Jeremy Corbyn?” But horses don’t express opinions any more than we eat hay and neigh.
In trying to evaluate the meaning of these results, we might well remember a saying of Wittgenstein’s: “If a lion could talk, we wouldn’t understand it.”
For intelligence is related to a particular form of life, Lebensformen. And the life of a lion – or a horse – is a different form of life from the life of a human being. Horses don’t usually do crosswords, for example, or play the piano very well.
Of course, some animals can be taught to make responses to stimuli provided by humans in order to receive a reward: it’s called classical conditioning.
But this doesn’t allow us to conclude that, for instance, a horse understands the meaning of the symbol on the board in the same way that humans understand what it means.
In other words, horse sense is different – and necessarily different – from human sense.
The horse might well return to its stable and boast to a horsey colleague: “Guess what? I’ve trained human beings to give me a slice of carrot when I want one.”
Perhaps the experiment shows that horses are more intelligent than Dr Mejdell’s team?
Anyone for a carrot?