It seems as if touch doesn’t merely increase your good feelings, but it also decreases your bad feelings.

For many years, researchers believed that the nerves of our skin could recognize just four kinds of stimulation: touch, heat, pain and itch. But there is growing evidence that cutaneous senses include another one that conveys information not just about touch, but about the pleasant properties of touch.

Animals that are social by nature, such as many birds and mammals, have areas that can’t be reached by their own design and must be addressed either by rubbing against objects or by grooming by others. These areas — largely the head and neck — appear to be endowed with extra nerves that feel good when stimulated.

Mood and Emotion

I believe that all animals have moods. Sy Montgomery writes “hormones and neurotransmitters, the chemicals associated with human desire, fear, love, joy, and sadness, are highly conserved across taxa… This means that whether you’re a person or a monkey, a bird or a turtle, an octopus or a clam, the physiological changes that accompany our deepest-felt emotions (moods) appear to be the same. Even a brainless scallop’s little heart beats faster when the mollusk is approached by a predator, just like yours or mine would do were we to be accosted by a mugger.”


Among the most remarkable animal stories are those involving friendships where we might not expect them. A friendship between man and dog is not surprising — after all, a dog is man’s best friend. Nor is it surprising to find a friendship between two dogs — or two men. We expect intraspecies friendships (friendships within the same species) .

But then we don’t. A friendship between two fish would surprise us, or between two invertebrates, two amphibians, or two reptiles. And we are surprised when we come upon apparent friendships between two very different species, such as cat and bird or duck and owl.

Dominance and Hierarchy

I have argued that a herd of horses is much like a school of fish or flock of birds, leaderless and choosing a course of action via collective decision making. I have argued that “respect” as is normally meant by humans, does not exist in the horse, and that humans often use it as a euphemism for “fear”. I do not dispute the existence of “dominance” in a herd of horses, but I have questions about what it is and whether the concept is useful. Thirty years ago, researchers were far from a consensus on how to define and measure dominance, and little has changed since then. Anything gets harder to talk about when we can’t agree on what it is.

Courtship and Reproduction

Stallions are from Mars, Mares are from Venus
’The single most important difference between the sexes is the difference in their investment in offspring. The general truth is this: females do all the investing; males do none of it. Although the general rule has many exceptions, it accurately identifies the primary source of conflict between the sexes: in most sexual organisms, most of the energy and time invested in offspring comes from females. From this basic fact it follows that, for males more than females, reproductive success is limited by the number of matings with fertile partners. For females more than males, on the other hand, reproductive success is limited by the time and effort required to garner and transfer energy to offspring and to protect and care for them. Males therefore are usually more eager than females to mate at any time with any partner who may be fertile, while females are usually more careful than males to choose mates who seem likely to provide good genes, protection, parental care, or resources in addition to gametes. Combined with female interest in mate quality, male interest in mate quantity creates a widespread conflict of interest between the sexes. But I guess you knew that.

Our Language

Yes, you can be Doctor Dolittle. This chapter provides some ideas on how to talk to one of the animals — your horse — and how to both listen and understand what he is saying back to you.

Consider Alex:

Alex could identify 50 different objects and recognize quantities up to six; that he could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same”, and “different”… He had a vocabulary of over 100 words, but was exceptional in that he appeared to have understanding of what he said. For example, when Alex was shown an object and was asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. He could describe a key as a key no matter what its size or color, and could determine how the key was different from others.

Alex was an African Grey parrot.

The Horse’s Language

You’ve probably noticed this: horses don’t speak our language. (Many of us don’t speak it very well either.) So our job is either to teach the horse to speak our language, learn to speak the horse’s language, or come up with a compromise: giving the horse signals it will understand, and understand what he is signaling back.

The horse’s language is one of emotion, of approach and avoidance. It is more connotative than denotative. Several parts of the horse may combine to express the same emotion, and to make his position unmistakable.

The Mind of Your Horse

The brains of mammals are very similar, and differ in degree rather than kind.

The human desire to believe that we are the most intelligent species has led to a number of comparisons of brains. Brain size must matter, but our brains are smaller than those of the elephant or whale. Some researchers find pleasure in noting that some parts of our brain are much bigger than the same parts in other animals. For instance, our friend Cowboy Bob reports that “the brain cavity of a horse is filled with a lot more than what we usually think of as the “brain.” Although the space would, in fact, hold a small grapefruit, the cerebral hemisphere — or “thinking” portion of the brain cavity is a lot smaller.”

If horses could talk, though, they might point out that the brain cavity of their skulls is about the size of ours, and that lots of preprocessing happens between the nostrils and the brain, and between the eyes and the brain. If we compare head size of Mr. Horse and Mr. Man, Mr. Horse does just fine.


The immense field of view of the horse may underlie your horse’s apparent short attention span. The more a horse can see, the less it focuses. The more it can see, the more distracted it becomes. Blinders or blinkers are very useful for horses with important jobs, like racing or pulling carts and wagons. By narrowing the field of view to just what is in front, we eliminate the distractions. Of course, this heaps more responsibility on us to ensure that there are no dangers coming that the horse can now not see.

The binocular vision directly in front of the horse’s nose benefits him when he is grazing, which is most of the time. When he’s watching the grass, his peripheral vision — which is monocular — is at work watching for danger. He’s perfectly designed for being watchful while dining.


Even if words fail us in talking about chemicals, olfactory receptors don’t let us down. In a mammal’s nose, each olfactory neuron possesses a single type of receptor; each receptor responds to several molecules, and each molecule is recognized by several receptors. Scents are discriminated by various combinations of 10 or more receptors. With 350 types of receptors, the number of ways you can produce combinations of 10 is ridiculous. As I’ll show you later in this chapter, a horse can detect about 1,816,285,375,084,304,096,155,409,990,400 different scents. That is about 1,699,868,436,439,970,000,000,000,000,000 more scents than your dog. And it is more than the number of chemical compounds possible. The perfect nose could detect stuff that doesn’t even exist! My old nose doesn’t do so well, but the nasal cavities of Mr. Horse are filled with possibilities.

Are Horses Like Dogs?

Our familiarity with dogs provides us with a model for how we see horses and what we expect of them. For many people, the first childhood experience with an animal is with a dog or cat. Familiar animals serve as a baseline of expectations of unfamiliar animals. But horses aren’t dogs.

Dogs are about 25 times as common as horses, and so we are more likely to ask “Are horses like dogs?” than “Are dogs like horses?” Dogs give us a baseline for expectations. Horse are obviously much bigger than a cat or bird, so we think a horse should be like a big dog. If it likes us, it should follow us around. It should obey us, respect us, crave affection from us.

Horses disappoint those with such expectations. And such expectations are rarely fully shed.