The post title is a question, but I have heard this philosophy repeated numerous times as a statement:
"Horses cannot reason."
The first person that I heard make this statement was a local trainer who has been in the business about twice as long as I have been alive. Disagreeing with an individual who has that much experience seems foolish, but this statement always bothers me. I have noticed that people who work with this trainer repeat this statement almost like a mantra. I think I understand the sentiment, but it strikes me as being too black and white.
Horses do not have the ability to think into the future like people do, but horses do understand consequences. If I offer my horse as much food as he wants, he may eat himself sick or at least become obese. He doesn't know that eating too much will hurt him later on. I get that. BUT if my horse steps on his lead rope while he is grazing, he knows that he must raise the foot on the lead rope when he feels the tug on his halter. I know that some horses respond differently to this situation, but I never taught him to pick up his foot, at least not intentionally. He has figured out that he can tether himself and free himself with his foot.
The trainer who makes the blunt assertion that horses cannot reason, would probably justify my horse's response as a "learned pattern", but it wasn't a pattern the first time it happened.
The same trainer likes to explain just about every behavior that horses exhibit as a result of "muscle memory". Muscle memory and habits definitely go hand in hand, and these are definitely barriers when the muscle memory "installed" is not the one you want!
I still feel like this is not indicative of so many horses that I have observed. For example, take the lesson horse who "realizes" that he can get a break during the lesson by stopping to poop and not actually pooping. I have worked with some very smart lesson horses and the smartest ones figure this out. The horse stops, plants his feet, and raises his tail, but nothing happens. The group of volunteers, rider, and instructor wait politely as the horse feigns the call of nature. I am not talking about a horse who is having some type of intestinal distress or physical problem. I am talking about a real life faker. I have seen it, more than once, and the worst offenders save a few gems for each "break", so that you will be even more reluctant to hurry them along.
(I know that many people do not allow their lesson horses to stop for the call of nature, but I gave up on this a long time ago.)
Part of reasoning is judgment. Horses definitely cannot make judgments, right?
Although there was that time, that I rode Harley in his old western saddle and he ran away from me the next time that I went to get him in the paddock (the saddle did not fit). He has never done this before or since. He also pinned his ears at the special shimmed pad that I bought for him when we were between saddles. He loved that pad until I tried using it under his new (used) well-fitting, comfy saddle. Was this just a response to pain/discomfort or was he passing judgment on gear that was not working for him?
Am I going too far? I do not consider myself the equestrian equivalent of a hippie and I am absolutely not one of those people who buys into animal communicators or magic, unless you consider a really great dressage ride "magic", that is.
What is your answer to the question?