Pt. 2 - Catagorization and Classification

Pt. 2 - Categorization and Classification


Understanding and using a language requires two special cognitive abilities. One is the ability to create and understand categories. The other is to classify objects or actions by these categories. Do animals, such as horses, have these abilities? 


A wealth of sensory data flows into every animal brain. This flow would be overwhelming if he brain did not also have the ability to group this data into some basic categories. In human languages, such categories are called words.

We now have scientific proof that animals can use categories. Prairie dogs have a system of whistles that can sound an alarm, identify the type of predator, or identify individual predators. Experiments with parrots have shown they understand categories and can use them to classify objects by properties, such as size, color, and shape. They can also create a new word by combining old words. Pigeons have been taught to classify paintings by individual artists.

Early in our acquaintance, my Spanish Mustang demonstrated his ability to create and use categories. Before I asked him to accept a halter, I decided to teach him to lead with rope thrown over his neck. I showed him the rope, let him smell it, and dragged it around in front of him. Before he let me touch him with it, he backed away from me and went over to look at some lead ropes hanging on the fence. For a few minutes, he trotted back and forth between those ropes and my rope. After he had carefully compared them, he decided my rope looked and smelled like the ones on the fence and he could safely let me touch him with it. 

My own analysis has shown the language of the aids uses categories of actions, They are go forward, slow down or stop, turn right or left, pivot right or left, sidestep right or left, and circle right or left. If horses could not understand the first three categories and adjust the degree of their response, they would not be useful to humans. Just as parrots can classify objects by their properties, horses can use other clues to help them identify special commands within general categories. They can recognize relative pressures, differences in aid sequences, and placement in command sequences to help them figure out precisely what we want them to do.

In human languages, words can have multiple meanings. Context is what separates one meaning from another. Horses can also use context to interpret our commands. They can figure out how what is going on around them and where they happen to be can affect the meaning of the commands we give them. Such contextual variations in meaning cannot easily be explained by behaviorist theories.

Information Sources:

Ladendorf, Janice M.

    Human Views and Equine Behaviors: Self Fulfilling Philosophies and Communicating with

    Horses, 2013.

    A Marvelous Mustang: Tales from the Life of a Spanish Horse. iUniverse, 2010.