If you go down to the river, you may see a fisherman. Ask him — they are almost always hims — whether a hook in a fish’s mouth hurts the fish, and you’ll hear what I always hear: “No. Fish don’t have any feelings. They don’t feel pain. A hook doesn’t hurt them.” If you go down to the stable, you may see a rider. Ask her — they are almost always hers — whether a bit in a horse’s mouth hurts the horse, and you’ll hear what I hear: “No. Even a very severe bit, in the right hands, can transmit extremely subtle, nuanced signals that cause no pain to the horse.”

Logic tells me that this can’t be true.

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.