The Escape Artist

Escape artist

There was a recent post on Facebook that postulates that horses don’t have frontal lobes and, therefore, cannot undertake higher mental functions such as reasoning. This would mean that horses cannot plan to be naughty or blamed for bad behavior or poor performance.

Well, no one told Zelda. After much thought and planning, Zelda has figured out how to break out of her stall. I haven’t seen her do it so I don’t know how much is finesse versus brute force, but, without a doubt, she reasoned through it. Why am I so sure? Because she’s done it before. She is an escape artist, for sure.

When she first came to me, we were at a co-op barn close to my house. I put her in a stall overnight, only to find that she had figured out that if she leaned on the door long enough, she could pop the lock off. Brute force.

Another time, she got separated from her BFF, Curly so that they were separated by a fence. Instead of waiting her time, Zelda ran at it. As she approached, she pulled up short, looked long and hard at it, then retreated so that she had more space and could take a longer run. She tried to jump it the second time but hit the top rail. Luckily, the fence wasn’t very strong, so she brought it down without hurting herself.

She also learned how to go through the electric fence. She waited until it was cold enough that the fence wasn’t grounding well and then walked through it. I found the fencing down and she stood and watched me fix it. As soon as I turned my back, she chested it and brought it down again.

She’s not the first horse that I’ve owned who partook of a bit of Houdini-inspired mischief. Kroni, my Trakehner, could unlatch just about any door latch you put in front of him. He was sneaky and wouldn’t let himself out if anyone was watching. One day I hid in the tackroom and peeked through a crack in the door. He was masterfully adept at using his upper lip to slide the bolt back. At which point, he walked right out.

He is, however, the only horse I’ve known who broke into his stall. One day I left my two dogs in his stall while I went to run errands. When I came back an hour later, the stall was open and the dogs had vanished (it took hours to find them). At first I was angry that someone had been rude enough to let them out. Finally, I figured out Kroni had wanted to go in and had opened the door himself.

Zelda now has a chain and clip to keep her where she belongs. She looks forlorn staring through the bars and I know she’s been examining it with great care, but so far she’s not figured out how to escape again. I’m planning on bringing her a stall toy to keep her entertained. I understand her frustration as it’s the first time in six years that she’s been asked to live in a stall and she hasn’t quite reconciled herself to it.

Is your horse an escape artist? What “tricks” to they have up their sleeves?

5 thoughts on “The Escape Artist

  1. I saw that Facebook post as well and was kind of wondering about it. That claim was made, but has it been objectively studied? I definitely think, just from experience, that it’s true to a certain degree. Horses are incredibly smart in their own way, but their strength is in observing their environment for incredibly subtle changes. The clever Hans effect and all that. But I personally don’t think that brain localization is the end all be all, so who’s to say frontal lobes are the only area where higher reasoning can take place?
    On the other hand however, with horses being such keen observer‘s, who is to say your escape artists weren’t just able to watch you manipulate the environment and replicate that?
    It’s hard to know what’s going on inside someone else’s head without actually getting in there. But I think, with Horses starting to be the subject of more observations and studies, more objective information will come to light for us to work with.

    1. I agree that more research is required before we write off horses’ reasoning ability. My guess is that we will come to realize that all animals have greater awareness and more defined personalities than we give them credit for.

      1. Absolutely, couldn’t agree more. Even my trio of guinea pigs that I had each had their own personalities. People who don’t think that animals have feelings and personalities just haven’t spent time around them.

  2. The people who say horses (and other animals) are incapable of planning must not have animals.
    My Arab, Jordan, could untie any knot. The barn I boarded at had a warmblood who was tall enough to reach the top of the open upper half of the door. He’d place his poll on the upper part and lift the door right off it’s rollers. Then he’d open the doors of his friends by lifting the latches, allowing them out of their stalls, too. No one, including me, ever opened a stall door by lifting it off it’s rollers, never mind it was heavy as sin. My friend, Sue, had a dog that knew how to open doors. My nephew has a service dog that can not only open doors, but she’s learned ON HER OWN, how to do things like check the mailbox. I grew up with Samoyeds. Our older one was so smart that you could THINK “I have to go to the supermarket’-even with the dog out of the room-and she’d go get her leash and the car keys.

    I could go on and on, but you know what I mean. Many animals (I’m not saying a creature like a snake has much in the way of brains) are highly intelligent, are self aware, and can reason.

    Studies on avians, especially the smart ones like parrots and corvids, have shown that they lack a specific part of the brain that mammals have. Yet those birds, and many more, are highly intelligent, can reason and plan. They use a different part of the brain to do the same higher level reasoning that we use. No frontal lobes don’t necessarily equate with non intelligence.

  3. My Friesian, named Van Zant, has been renamed, Houdini. He can turn door knobs, grab the tool bag out of the truck for the workers if they come in for a look first, knocks on my door at 7 AM. And 4:30 PM everyday to tell me it is feed time. He watches everyone and mimics everything. He is brilliant, truly a competitive brain power! Can’t wait to get him into dressage, he will watch every horse and do better than!

Leave a Reply