Are horses secretly just big dogs?

What is the difference between a dog and a horse? Look beyond the more obvious differences: the hooves; the moons; the lack of weft – and you’ll find that the two species are actually much more similar than they appear.

Man’s best friends

Of all the species that humanity has domesticated over the millennia, dogs and horses undoubtedly stand out from the rest. We’ve come closer to this species than almost any other – only the cat cat can actually compete, but they simply refuse to follow orders, just like their horse and dog brethren.

But while we’re used to the idea that our dogs love us, we don’t often think of horses as having the same kind of bond with our kind. This is partly because dogs simply express their emotions in a way that is more easily interpreted by humans: “Dogs jump on us and invite us to play with us and seek safety,” says Elke Hartmann, researcher at the Department of Animal Environment and Health from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala and first author of a pilot study on horse-human bonding, told The Horse in 2021. “Is that how horses would show attachment? Don’t know.”

Granted, the small amount of research that does has No conclusive evidence has yet been found that our equine friends feel about us in the same way we do – but it’s not out of the question either. “We just don’t know enough about it yet,” Hartmann said.

Perhaps the problem, however, is that we are too people-oriented. “Horses show similar physiological and behavioral responses to humans as they do to horses,” says equine ethologist Renate Larssen. “We know that people-oriented friendly behavior is mediated by the hormone oxytocin […] that plays a role in social bonding.”

Research has also shown that horses, like dogs, view people as a ‘safe haven’ and experience stress when their owner is absent. “However, there was no difference in the way the horses responded to their owners or to an unknown person,” Larssen noted, “meaning it may be due more to a general positive association with people than to ‘love.’ ”

But some other clues show how attuned horses are to our species. Yet another point for the “horses are just three dogs in a trench coat” column: they can understand the human pointing gesture—an ability heretofore unknown outside our little three-species club. They can also direct us attention to something of interest to horses: they “appeared to use both indicative (pointing) and non-indicative (nodding and shaking) head gestures in the relevant test conditions,” a 2016 study found, and “elaborated their communication by talking about switching from a visual to a tangible signal” to get their point across.

Like dogs, horses can distinguish between positive and negative facial expressions in humans; they may even be surprised by the combination of a happy voice and a sad face. And they are also sensitive to even more subtle human signals: just think of Clever Hans – the horse who convinced the world that he could speak German and perform complex mathematical calculations, but was in fact just a master at reading the body . language of the people around him.

But to really reinforce the similarities between dogs and horses, consider this: People can essentially be the third wheel in the relationship. Just like our pups, horses love to run and play – and in very similar ways: both species indicate an openness to open-mouthed friendship and behavioral mimicry. In fact, the two animals are so attuned to each other that they even play like this with each other“Despite difference in size, phylogenetic distance, and differences in behavioral repertoire, dogs and horses are able to fine-tune their actions, reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings and escalating aggression,” a 2020 study concluded.

“It shows how two animals that look and behave so differently can still manage to negotiate how to play in a way that is comfortable for both of them,” said Barbara Smuts, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan, to National Geographic at the time.

“It’s even more remarkable considering the large size difference between horses and dogs,” she added. “The dog is vulnerable to injury from the horse, and the horse has a deep-seated tendency to fear animals that resemble wolves.”

Designed for success

It’s hard to think of a species whose history is as intertwined with ours as dogs and horses. But while we tend to think of the two species as filling quite different niches, the truth is that there is a surprising overlap.

Take the greyhound for example: the fastest of all dog breeds. They were bred with toned bodies, powerful hind leg and back muscles, large hearts and lungs, and a host of other specialized physiological traits that help them reach top speeds. up to 72 kilometers per hour (45 miles per hour).

Compare these traits to the thoroughbred horse – widely known as the fastest of all horse breeds, and capable of extremely similar speeds to the greyhound – and you may notice some similarities. Big hearts; specialized jackets; jacked hind muscles – they’re all there, helping the beast fill the same ecological niche (enabling human gambling) as its canine friend.

And that’s just the beginning. One species has been bred for almost every role, and so have the others: if you can’t get your hands on a draft horse, for example, there are huskies and sled dogs; For those who do not want a guide dog, a guide horse is an excellent substitute.

“They want to please you,” guide horse trainer Katy Smith told The Guardian in 2018. “It’s the way they look at you and want to be with you […] Buy a few suitcases and they can also transport your groceries.”

Just like dogs, horses come in all different shapes and sizes. And just like dogs, this is directly due to human interference. “Domestication has made both species very successful and widespread throughout the world,” wrote Juliane Bräuer, head of the DogStudies Lab at the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology, in a 2023 article for Psychology Today.

“Dogs and horses are used for many purposes and undergo extensive training in different human cultures,” she added. “Although horses were domesticated much later than dogs – about 4,000 years ago – they also developed special skills for communicating with humans.”

The vagueness of it all

Of course, as useful and practical as our domesticated animal friends are, that’s probably not why most of us keep them close to us. Not only do we enjoy petting dogs, we get measurable health benefits from it; Not only do we enjoy caring for horses, it also gives us a sense of peace and security, making both species valuable as therapy animals.

But beyond all that, horses also share some unexpectedly adorable qualities with their canine friends. For example, they get the zoomies; they are super social and love cuddles and affection; they even like to roll in the snow and create snow pegasuses.

Is it strange to think of horses as just big dogs? Not really. As we have seen, they have a lot in common – and for some cultures this has always been clear: “in the Ioway language, a horse is called a ‘big dog,’” Bräuer noted.

“The connection between horses and dogs in Ioway and other indigenous languages ​​underscores something important,” she wrote. “In a sense, you can think of the horse as a big dog – at least one of the few animals willing to enter into a close relationship with us.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *