Thinking Equines

Damon Runyon

Do horses think? Any time we get among horse trainers we ask them that. It generally starts quite a discussion.

Nearly all the trainers are sure some horses do a heap of thinking. One trainer said he thought the proportion of thinkers among race horses is about the same as in the human race, which he calculated is one thinker to every thousand.

Race horses, like human beings, are creatures of habit. They are easily taught to do certain things in a certain way and most of them (horses and humans) go on doing those certain things in that certain way all their lives, without questioning.

Of course the horse does not have the same opportunity as the human to undertake innovation. There is a jockey on the horse’s back ready to give him a belt if it takes to experimenting. Still, there is usually a boss somewhere in behind the human, too, for much the same purpose.

However, the wise horse trainer usually studies a horse’s ideas as manifested in the way it runs a race, and he often comes to the conclusion that the horse knows best and orders the jockey to let it run in its own fashion. Some horses run best in front of the field. Others like to come from behind. We are not sure whether this is thought on the part of the horse or just idiosyncrasy.

Up at Saratoga Springs we had a long session with “Hummin’ Bob,” who is now ill in a Saratoga hospital, talks about horses, and, in fact—to them, as if they were human beings. He will give a bad actor of a horse a severe lecture on its conduct as if he were addressing a wayward youth.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” he will ask the horse, and you would be surprised how penitent the horse will look.

He told us the greatest thinker of all horses he has handled was (appropriately enough) Diogenes. This horse was no great shucks of a runner, though Bob did win the rich hopeful stakes with him for Walter M. Jeffords. But Diogenes was always lost in profound thought. He would stand for hours gazing into the distance.

When the stable hands would go around dumping rations in the feed boxes and the other horses would be hustling to their oats, Diogenes would continue standing and gazing and thinking. It was not that he was disinterested in eating as he would consume bushels of oats from Bob’s hands, but apparently he did not want to waste time from his thinking by devoting himself to the feed box.

Bob often approached Diogenes from the rear and tried to follow his gaze to see if the horse was looking at some definite object, but he says Diogenes never had any visual set target. He was just thinking. We asked Bob what he supposed Diogenes was thinking about and Bob said he never found out, but that he figured from the way Diogenes ran that the horse’s chief thought was the futility of running.

Bob said another horse he trained that did a lot of thinking was a filly called Silent Water. When brought out on the track for a race and paraded in front to the stands, Silent Water would make a terrific lunge. The crowd would invariably go oo-oo. Then Silent Water would lunge again and the oo-oo-ooing would naturally increase. It would appear that the horse was making a desperate effort to unseat the rider. Finally, Silent Water would make a third lunge, always the greatest of all, and the oo-oo-oos would reach a crescendo. That would satisfy Silent Water, and she would settle down. Meantime, the jockey, familiar with Silent Water’s whims, would sit perfectly still in the saddle and let her lunge. She never lunged more, nor less, than three times, and only when she was in front of the crowd.

“She was just a show-off,” said Bob.