Memory is a similarly loaded concept when applied to horses because their memories are arranged and constructed so differently from our own. Here’s an example… We have a ditch at the end of our arena and every couple of weeks we change the jumps over it. It’s a small change but the horses recognise it every time. The riders don’t – they are usually a little bit frustrated that their horse, that last week didn’t seem to mind the ditch at all, is this week rolling his eyes and snorting. It is almost as if we need separate words for the ways that horses and humans store information from the past because memory functions so differently in both species. I’m guessing that people can tell you where they were when they saw the first plane crash of 9/11 because of some primitive wiring in our brains that links shocking events with their location. But for the horse it seems that every single memory is intrinsically linked to real estate. And if you think about his evolution this makes perfect sense – but it doesn’t make the way his memory works any easier for us to understand.
Even if we don’t have a different vocabulary for speaking about horses it’s still important to understand the ways in which the language that we use crafts our reality. Just as it would be difficult to build a space shuttle with parts recycled from a 1960’s Cessna it’s difficult to describe our new evidence based understanding of the horse using language that is hundreds of years old. But if we’re conscious and vigilant about the meanings that words inadvertently bring to any conversation about the horse then at least we are part of the way towards, if not eliminating, then at least illuminanting our inherent anthropomorphism.
As a very wise friend of mine once pointed out, none of us arrives at the side of the horse empty handed. The relationship between humans and horses is a little bit like a 6000-year long marriage. Because the relationship is no longer driven by need it’s as though the kids have all grown up and left home and now it’s just the two of us, sitting around the dining room table trying to figure out exactly why it was that we fell in love in the first place. It’s the perfect time to shed linguistic baggage, because it seems to me that the more we understand the creatures with whom we chare our lives, the more we come to understand ourselves.