From the horse’s mouth: Look out for my Umwelt

Spread the word
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“The tiger and the lion may be more powerful … But the wolf does not perform in the circus.”

Above his shoulder, I looked at this comment on his computer and he looked at me thinking, “Agree with you; there is a lot to think about this statement. Yes, wolves are proud and smart and capable of working together, but lions and tigers have similar qualities. You horses have an intelligence that is different than us but well developed and yet, you perform in the show ring, which is a circus.“

The question might be why our ancestors have elected to trust and work with humans when our cousins, the zebras, preferred staying away from humans. Why dogs elected to work with humans and their cousins the wolves did not. The response is probably in their Umwelt more than their pride.

Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll
Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll

Jacob von Uexküll (1996) used the term “Umwelt” to characterize the particular perceptual world of a species. Each species evolves the Umwelt which allows it to extract from the external world the information its ancestors needed to survive. C. A. Saslow wrote: “Once, we humans had devised ways to measure the physical world, it became apparent that our perception of ‘reality’ was a construction of our human minds and not a faithful physical replica. Our brain uses this fragmentary information to construct a view of the world that was advantageous to the survival of our primate ancestors.” (Applied Behaviour Science 78, [2002] 209-224)

With the failure of the human species, the choice of the wolf and the zebra appears as the wise one, but it would have been difficult for ancient horses and other mammals to imagine that humans would be dumb enough to destroy not only all the species living on the planet but also the planet.

I like him, as much as he likes me. I would not change my life for the wild west, but I see many of us betrayed by their confidence in humans. One major issue is genuine ignorance, which humans often label as “tradition”. They submit us to antiquated and heretical beliefs because it is the way it has been done for centuries. Obedience and submission are concepts deeply ingrained in classical equitation.

The father of classical equitation wrote in the 18th century: “When I say that it is necessary to be energetic and bold, I am not advocating violence and recklessness, which many riders boast of and which makes them undergo such great dangers, destroying the horse’s spirit and keeping him in continual confusion. Rather, I am speaking of a supple strength that maintains the horse’s fear of and submission to the rider’s aids and punishments, and also conserves the ease, balance, and grace that are the properties of the good horseman and that result of an extensive progressive study of the science.” (François Robichon de la Gueriniere, Ecole de Cavalerie, 1733).

Actual understanding of our Umwelt contradicts the first half of La Gueriniere’s statement. Actual understanding of our physiology, our willingness and our mental processing brings the second half of the statement to a new dimension. The last few words – “extensive progressive study of science” – are in line with actual knowledge. For instance, submission to the rider’s aids, includes obedience to the rider’s legs. Such obedience is often achieved kicking harder if we do not respond or punishing us with spurs or whip.

Using stimuli developed for gauging human tactile sensitivity, we were surprised to find that horse sensitivity on the part of the horse’s body which would be in contact with the rider’s leg is greater than what has been found for the adult human calf or even the more sensitive human fingertip. Horses can react to pressures that are too light for the human to feel.” (Saslow, 2002)

Many of us, deemed insensitive or “lazy” to the rider’s legs, are in fact surviving instability or rudeness of the rider’s legs, by shutting off their tactile perception. We can feel such subtle nuances in your calf contact that some of you believe that we have extrasensory perception. We have indeed, a sensory perception far more sophisticated that commonly believed. We are large and powerful, leading most of you to believe that we have to be handled with strengths and power. Instead, our finesse is proportional to our power and our comfort zone is within subtle nuances. There is a Samurai proverb which fits: “The stronger you become the gentler you will be.” We are actually gentle. Most of us would rather submit than rebel, leading classical education to believe that submission is a normal interaction between human and equine.

Few skilled riders have refined this submission to a subtle interaction, allowing us to communicate closer from our comfort zone, but, as hinted by Monsieur de la Gueriniere, it is the discoveries of advanced research that renders us justice. Saslow explains: “It is difficult to shake off one’s own species-specific perception or reality. When we interpret the actions of our animal companions, we are prone to attribute behavioral shortcomings or peculiarities to ‘lack of intelligence’ and ‘deficient obedience’ on the one hand or to animal extrasensory perception on the other. But often the best explanation is a mismatch of Umwelts.

As humans, you judge us from your myopic lens of self-importance and you misperceive who we are.

By judging our reactions in respect of what you believe our reactions should be, you shut off the dialogue before it starts. Your so-called correct aids are not a dialogue; they are just words that you shoot out, expecting a response. We perform out of tensegrity, elastic energy, coordination of many systems. We start the conversation willing to explore but protecting our body. Even if we are orchestrated the wrong way, we will protect it as our current body state. We are willing to explore further but we need a conversation with finesse, nuances and even between-the-lines suggestions. We will make errors and we need you to evolve from your primitive concept of obedience. As long as you judge our errors, we do not learn from your judgment and you do not learn from our errors. When we tell you, “I am falling on my left shoulder,” this is how we process the lateral bending that is protecting the imbalance of our back muscles. If we couple right lateral with an inverted transversal rotation, we fall on the left shoulder. We need then, your analytic capacities. What is the muscle imbalance that is causing the wrong rotation and how to fix it?

We need a dialogue; we don’t need a monologue. The application of the correct aids is a monologue; you order, we obey. This soliloquy condemns us to the limits of our natural reflexes, which are ill adapted for the demands of complex athletic performances. We are designed for efficiency. Our tendons, ligaments and even muscles store elastic energy during one sequence of the stride, that is used during the following sequence. Most of the length change required for the work of locomotion, occurs not in the muscle fibers themselves but by elastic recoil of the associated tendons and muscles aponeurosis.” (The role of the extrinsic thoracic limb muscles in equine locomotion. R. C. Payne, P. Veenman and A. M. Wilson. J. Anat. (2005) 206, pp 193-404). 

)Lateral view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy. (B) Ventral view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy. (C) Deep view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy (Figures adapted from König & Liebich, 2004).
(A) Lateral view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy. (B) Ventral view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy. (C) Deep view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy (Figures adapted from König & Liebich, 2004).

Despite our weight and size, we can move fast and for a long distance because of our clever biological mechanism. Ease and effortlessness is what we are muscularly and neuro-muscularly designed to achieve. When the performance is complex, we can show ease and effortlessness, but we need to have an intelligent conversation with you. From protecting our actual body state, which is what we instinctively do, we can explore coordination that is far more sophisticated than our natural reflexes, if you regard our errors as a genuine description of our actual body state and from which you can provide useful insights. Errors are part of our mental processing and if you punish our errors, you shatter our capacity and willingness to explore. 

If we punish errors we stop the process of exploring.” – Jean Luc Cornille 

We can hear what you cannot hear. We can smell what you cannot smell but because in your Umwelt, your sight is your main perceptual tool, you look in the direction we are looking at and you judge us in respect of what you see or don’t see. Sorry to burst your bubble but having your excellent visual perception as your main tool of perception limits you to what you can see. At night, or for long distance, the sight is limited; the smell is not. Instead of convincing yourself that there is nothing, you should believe us. There is a wolf or a hare that you cannot see. A terrible thing happened there weeks or more ago and we can smell it. When you are afraid of us, or you are angry because your day did not go well, your body secretes molecules that we can smell. You can draw a smile on your face but we can smell behind your smile.

The vertebrate cerebral hemispheres developed from the roof of the olfactory lobe. Olfaction was the principal sense that animals coming out on land exploited for ‘distance’ information. The limbic system of the mammalian brain, which regulates emotion and motivation, was originally driven primarily by olfactory imputes. While in primates, and especially humans, olfactory structures have greatly diminished, the horse brain has extremely large olfactory bulbs with a convoluted surface. Since densities of olfactory receptor cells remain constant per unit surface area, the extent of olfactory epithelium determines the total quantity of receptors. The extensive size of the smoothed-out epithelium of the horse olfactory bulb implies that volatile odors should form a much more significant part of their Umwelt than is the case for humans.” (Saslow, 2002)

The potential for obtaining olfactory information about physical world is also affected by nasal structure and breathing patterns. The horse nose can move large volumes of air at one breath and trap large numbers of molecules. An additional equine anatomical advantage is that the horse has its nostrils separated and pointed in opposite directions, permitting stereo faction in localization of olfactory source.” (Stoddart, 1980).

Another anatomical indicator of the potentially large role chemosensing plays in forming the equine Umwelt is that the horse has a prominent vomeronasal organ, an accessory olfactory structure which is nearly vestigial in humans. While the epithelium of the olfactory bulbs responds to smaller, volatile molecules, the vomeronasal organ is more responsive to non-volatile, large, species-specific molecules such as are found in body secretions.” (Coren and al., 1999).

Our range of hearing does pick up the low frequencies as you do, but we can hear hight frequencies that are beyond your capacities. We can more than 33,000HZ. Or cycles per second, as compared to your hearing that is limited to 20,000HZ. As it is more frequent in men than women, he has lost some hearing capacities. If I did not know it, I would wonder, as he is handling me, if he is uncaring or just plain stupid, which exactly what humans do when they judge our reactions from their Umwelt. He has completely lost the hearing of his right ear. Consequently, he cannot determine the direction of a noise. Sometime, he vaguely hears a huge sound, he looks at me asking, “where the noise come from?” I told him by looking and pointing my ears in the right direction.

We are partners because we respect each other’s Umwelt. We complete each other in every aspect of life. I teach him life, ethics and respect and humility. He teaches me how to be comfortable with my body, how to think, how to perform effortlessly, how to stay sound. He is becoming a better person because of me and I am becoming a better horse because of him.

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Jean Luc Cornille

Jean Luc Cornille M.A.(M.Phil) has gained worldwide recognition by applying practical science to the training of the equine athlete. Influenced by his background as a gymnast, Jean Luc deeply understands how equine training can be enhanced by contemporary scientific research. A unique combination of riding skill, training experience and extensive knowledge of the equine physiology enables Jean Luc to "translate" scientific insights into a language comprehensible to both horse and rider. This approach has been the trademark of his training. - read more about Jean Luc

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