Brain-based horsemanship makes a person pretty skeptical about what horses do and don’t “like.”
Without a prefrontal cortex that can evaluate and judge, horse brains are left to innate instincts and training rewards when “likes” and “dislikes” are determined.
For example, most horses like to graze on grass. It’s an innate behavior that allows for the natural chewing and sauntering motion that is so important for equine digestion and physical health. And rewards, especially edible ones, often cause horses to behave in ways that suggest desire, when really the draw is taste or relaxation.
Unfortunately, most people judge a horse’s “likes” and “dislikes” by human standards. Too often, we equate equine anxiety with human excitement. A horse who prances and dances a bit at horse shows and who works faster or more eagerly than usual is said to “like” to show. It’s more likely that he is nervous at all the bustling activity a show presents.
A horse who steps out quickly on a rare group trail ride, faster than he does alone or at home, is probably trying to keep up with his buddies rather than displaying his love for the trail. When a horse reaches eagerly for a treat given only in the barn, it’s rarely because he “likes” the barn or even the person giving the treat—he just likes the taste of that yummy dessert.
So when people say their horse “likes to jump,” I question it. Too often, a horse who “likes to jump” is one that approaches fences too quickly out of nervousness. Or it’s one whose rider likes to jump and prefers to assume her horse does, too.
Imagine my surprise, then, when True recently opted to jump while loose in a small arena. You all know that when young horses are cooped up without ample pasture time, I like to add “free burns” to their training. These are simply open play/exercise sessions without tack in a safe, well cushioned arena large enough that the horse can gallop and buck if he wants to.
The other day, True and I played in our usual spot for 10 minutes or so, then it was time for him to go to work at liberty, trotting and cantering around the arena on or near the rail. Someone had set up a small simple jump, about two feet high, on the quarterline of the arena, well off the rail, and my plan was to ignore it.
I spoke and motioned to True to go to the rail, just as I usually do, and he complied immediately at a nice easy trot. First time around, he turned early to go up the long side. Hmmm, that was unusual. He proceeded to trot up the quarterline and hop over the jump.
Well, horses sometimes do this. I wasn’t going to put any meaning on it; maybe he hadn’t noticed it until too late to avoid. This, of course, was a very human thought because horses notice almost everything—and they have no trouble evading an object at the last minute.
But I had been working hard at the computer all day, and my tired brain automatically fell into its natural presumption that every brain is human.
True trotted around the second time, and darned if he didn’t approach the jump on a long straight line and hop it again. Now, my antennae were up! He was clearly singling out this jump with his attention, and trotting purposefully toward it with an intention to jump.
I usually stand roughly in the middle of the arena for the exercise portion of a free burn, but True’s second jump caused me to walk to the opposite side of the arena, stand still, and just watch. I said nothing and held my body in a relaxed posture out of True’s path. I was at least 30 yards away from the jump. I verified that he had at least six yards of clear space between the jump and the rail, more than enough to simply trot past it.
Here’s the kicker: While I just stood there, our sweet young horse True trotted and cantered around the arena and, at his determination and with no encouragement from me, hopped over the jump eleven times. ELEVEN!
Now, that is unusual.
In fact, having worked with about a thousand horses in my lifetime and watched many more, I have never seen an untacked horse do that, while relaxed and at play in a small arena he knows very well. There’s nothing innate about a loose horse jumping an easily avoided fence eleven times, trotting in and cantering out exactly as he has been taught to do under saddle.
And there’s nothing rewarding about it, either—it’s extra unnecessary work, and True has never been given treats for jumping.
How do I interpret this behavior? I’m still thinking on that. But finally, I am more willing to imagine that, well… maybe True likes to jump!
Janet Jones will present “Brain to Brain: Cross-Species Communication between Horses and Riders” at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida, on March 14, 2024. Come to the talk and enjoy the international Winter Spectacular Hunter/Jumper Horse Show too. Learn more and reserve your tickets at https://janet-jones.com/product/janet-jones-ticket-sales.
A version of this story originally appeared on janet-jones.com. It is reprinted here with permission.