Phew! It’s OK to be Anthropomorphic!

Well, maybe you always have been and have not been bothered about scientists moaning on that “animals do not have feelings”. But I did a degree in biological sciences and the charge of being anthropomorphic, ascribing “human” feelings to animals, was a serious put down. As I was trying to prove my equal abilities as one of the UK’s first women farm advisers during the 80’s, I had to be careful not to seem “soft”. Simply being a woman doing a man’s job put me under suspicion! “. I was in good company…both Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, studying wild primates, had their work discredited by the charge of anthropomorphism.

It was a scientific taboo, best summed up by this comment from B F Skinner, the “father” of behavioural science:
“The “emotions” are excellent examples of the fictional causes to which we commonly attribute behavior.”

If it looks like a duck…
Or, If your horse looks scared, it probably is.

Due to my concerns about animal welfare I got out of agriculture in 1990. Eight years later I got back into horses for my own pleasure and had no doubt that horses had feelings and, by this time, was bolshy enough to say so. But, still, science was against me and I had many scientific friends so I was glad to come across Marthe Kiley-Worthington in 1999, who gave me the term “conditional anthropomorphism”.

Essentially this says that, if it looks like the animal is sad/happy/fearful etc, by its behaviour, then it is valid to go with those feelings. To do otherwise may result in pain and suffering for the animal, which you wouldn’t inflict if you thought the animal had feelings.

Give Us the Evidence!
No-one in science wants to get too touchy-feely. We need evidence and humans are excellent at seeing carspatterns where they don’t exist and projecting their own view onto anything…look at Pixar movies, for example, and see how empathic you are to the emotions of Cars or Toys! So we do need to rein ourselves in somehow to try and see clearly, hence Marthe’s term of “conditional anthropomorphism”.

You need some evidence to back up your assertions and an understanding of the particular species you are working with, but in accepting that animals do have emotional lives, we are likely to give them more fulfilling lives in captivity and increase their welfare.


It’s All in The Mind
Marthe effectively breached the walls of my scientific training but about 10 years later I came across a neuroscientist whose work blew the bloody doors off!  panksepp-book In Karen Pryor’s book, Reaching the Animal Mind, she interviewed a neuroscientist to discuss just why clicker training was so effective. What happened in the brain of animals that was so different? This was Jaak Panksepp, who had been studying emotions in the brain for many years and had coined the term “Affective Neuroscience”, which was also the title of his first book.

It is a pure textbook, directed at post-graduate students of the brain. I was a horse lover and trainer, not a brain scientist. Many pages took me an hour to read and a pot of tea to recover from. It was dense, detailed, full of unpronounceable terms and utterly fascinating. And it proved beyond any doubt, that of course animals have feelings because they share the same brain structure as their fellow animals, humans. As Panksepp said: “We are brothers and sisters under the skin with all the other animals…” Bingo! Proof at last!

Part of the evidence base came from using Deep Brain Electro-Stimulation (DBS). This means identifying the parts of the brain where the emotions may be articulated and stimulating them with electrical probes. So, for example, when Panksepp stimulated one part of the brain, at low current levels the animal would freeze. At higher levels, the flight response was created. Doing it to a human, resulted in the human reporting feeling terrified for his life; e.g. “Somebody is now chasing me; I am trying to escape him”. This allowed Panksepp to map the FEAR system. Another DBS placement would result in the rat starting to run around sniffing vigorously and investigating its environment. Humans would report that something very exciting and interesting is going on. This was the SEEKING system being stimulated.

In this way, with slow painstaking research over 50 years, Panksepp identified 7 emotional systems in the mammalian brain: SEEKING, FEAR, RAGE, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF and PLAY. These systems are all founded in the deepest part of the mid-brain. They consist of brain structures and chemistries and track from this deep part into the cortex, showing that emotions and cognition (thinking) are part of networked systems. In order to differentiate between talking about feelings, such as fear, he capitalised the names he gave the systems, so we could be clear that we are talking about a coherent, traceable universal system of brain functioning.


He pointed out that these 7 systems are present in all mammalian brains and are given by evolution as the “tools for living”. So, the “go explore, find out what’s out there” instruction of the SEEKING system is present at birth. It does not have to be learned. It is hard-wired in and it feels good. The “run away from this scary thing” instruction is embedded in the FEAR system and it feels bad. So there’s the affective (or “feeling”) nature of the system. None of these systems feel neutral. They are either good or bad. You either want more or less of it (appetitive or aversive).

How Does it Fit into Horse Training?
As a teacher of horse training I have found this work to really help students to understand what is happening as they introduce reward-based training to their horses. The science of behaviourism has helped us a lot, but, deriving from Skinner’s work, it typically does not allow for emotional thinking and the training can become quite mechanistic. Adding in the emotional understanding immediately deepens our perspective of what’s happening and then we tend to focus more on how the horse is feeling, rather than getting too hung up on whether the horse is performing the correct behaviours .

For example, many domestic horses have become shut down. What does this mean? Essentially it means that they have learned to depress their SEEKING system, which primes natural curiosity and exploration. Horses have this in abundance but, if they experience too much punishment for displaying it, they will learn to suppress it. So, for example, horses who get jabbed in the mouth with the bit each time they look to left or right will learn to keep their heads straight and stop exploring the world with their eyes. They are doing the required behaviour of looking straight ahead, but what has happened in the brain? What is the nature of this learning?

punishmentWell, essentially the bit-jabbing causes actual pain to the tongue, lips, and mouth. This will activate the FEAR system which will engage the SEEKING system and the cognitive brain to work out what causes the pain, so it can be avoided. After many trials, since the horse is not consciously moving his head, but is responding to the innate SEEKING system urges to look around and be cognisant of his world, the brain will learn that the thing that happens before the pain is the head movement. In order to suppress the head movement to avoid the pain, the horse will have to suppress his natural SEEKING urge to view the world, so the SEEKING system will be suppressed.
Suppression of the SEEKING system is what we call depression in humans. So a horse who has learned to be submissive, through the pain training of the bit, is actually a depressed horse. A shut down horse.

When we start to change things for this horse and train using rewards, it is likely that the horse will befoal-target mistrustful at first, waiting to be told what to do rather than displaying curiosity and trying different things to earn a reward. The training will need to proceed slowly and the horse given big rewards to build confidence. It’s helpful for the owner to understand this and so she’ll be more encouraged by tiny responses from the horse and not lose heart herself.

Thinking about it this way, with the supportive evidence of excellent science, surely will also help the argument in the wider horsey world, that horses need enriched lives and reward-based training? This work will have currency with the scientific community and could even be used by expert witnesses in cruelty cases (OK, I’m a utopian thinker. Indulge me a little!). But it could certainly be the clincher down the pub, when you’re being told you’re being anthropomorphic when you say your horse is depressed because her buddy just died!

It’s Just You and Your Horse
At Connection Training, this knowledge of good modern neuroscience, supports our natural inclinations to not be dogmatic. We don’t feel any need to say “do this because you’ve signed up to our programme and we know best.” Instead we say, “look at the evidence, look at the video examples we give you, have a go and tell us what you feel”. It’s you and your horse and the only programme that’s going to work is the one the two of you work out as you go along. Using information like this helps us to empower you to feel safe to explore and learn along with your horse so you create your relationship together. You and your horse are complex mammals, with matching emotional brains designed to help you bond and relate to others. You have more in common than maybe you thought, and certainly more than you were taught in science classes!

More fascinating Jaak Panksepp Resources for you on the neuroscience of emotions:
Jaak’s TED Talk
Discover Interview
Jaak Tickling Rats (trust us on this one!)
The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion Jaak Panksepp’s more recent and easily digestible book

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13 thoughts on “Phew! It’s OK to be Anthropomorphic!”

  1. Rachel I am so pleased that you are there with the tenacity to read through this stuff. You then distill it into little nuggets which we lesser mortals can get our heads around. Thank you. Personally I don’t really care about there being real scientific evidence for horses having feelings. If you have kept them for years and been close to them then this is just so blindingly obvious. But I guess it gives authenticity to kind training methods. Keep up the good work and don’t forget to play with your own horses in between digesting the tomes.

  2. this is great. I am an equine massage therapist who also rehabilitates abused rescue ponies and like you, I know all this stuff from my own observations but it’s great to have it backed up by scientific research. I am always looking for better ways to help these ponies and I am going to buy this book right now

  3. Nice article, but I feel that you miss the definition of anthropomorphism – which is not the belief that animals have feelings, but the belief that animals have the same needs or desires as humans. I feel sad or angry because my new saddle is wrecked. My horse doesn’t care. I feel secure locked in the house on a stormy night, but locked in her stable on the same night, my horse is terrified. This is where I think too many people get into trouble with animals. Not in looking at their horse and saying “He obviously like that,” but in making the assumption that their horse will like what they like, or even what their dog likes.

    I’m surprised that as a self-defined scientist you have set out to misuse this word. Actual anthropomorphism does a great deal of harm to animals. Probably no less than the belief that they have no feelings. Please don’t confuse the issue!

    1. Kris, I have to admit I was kind of thinking the same thing. When I hear the word “anthompomorphic,” I tend to see someone who is treating his/her animal as though it were human. I can’t imagine why anyone who has spent time around animals wouldn’t think they have feelings.

      On the other hand, I do like that I can feel happy spending less time worrying about perfecting a move and more on getting my horse “happy” about doing it.

  4. I have never doubted animals have feelings. However, I hate it when people project their own feelings and emotions on their animals (“that horse is lazy”, instead of recognizing that horse is a prey animal and it’s not to his advantage to waste energy without an appropriate motivation or he may be confused by the cue)!

  5. My understanding of anthropomorphism is when you treat an animal as if it is a human, like a child. It goes against their natures and makes for an unbalanced animal. I have never felt that they don’t have emotions, but their needs are not human, especially with a prey animal. I appreciate more education on this subject.

  6. Here’s my thought: no, it’s not.

    The fact that we and other animals share similar responses to stimuli does NOT mean other animals are “like us.” Heck, plants emit a high-pitched screech when their leaves are ripped.

    I do not disagree with the idea that all mammals share certain instincts such as survival, pleasure, procreation, avoidance of pain, but I take issue with Mr. Panksepp’s naming of, what he calls, “the seven emotional systems in the mammalian brain: seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, panic/grief and play.” Those are wholly human constructs – I doubt a stallion feels “lust”, for example, in the way that people do.

    There’s a big difference between saying a horse has “feelings” and ascribing human constructs to those feelings, i.e., that horse is lazy or naughty or whatever, instead of looking at it from the horse’s point of view.

  7. You know, I don’t mind if someone who knows and understands animal body language makes a comment about a horse being depressed or sad…when there is a reason for the horse to be depressed or sad and his/her body language confirms that is the case. I do mind when people who know nothing about horses claim they are “sad” because they are standing with their head lowered, when in reality they are relaxed, calm and maybe even dozing a bit. I definitely mind when people ascribe thoughts and emotions to horses that are not even possible for horses to have, such as claiming a horse that shows affection for his owner is “suffering from Stockholm Syndrome”.

  8. Exciting thanks so much for posting this Rachel. One recognises a shut down horse but now I have much more understanding of the process involved. Look forward to checking out the resources.

  9. Having taught special Ed with positive reinforcement, I have been thrilled to use these techniques with my dogs. I have two totally different personalities and I do know when one is jealous and the other is frightened. Their expressions always tell me how they are feeling. I’m sure they may not have all of the feelings we have, but I would never discount they are thinking, reacting, and feeling beings.

  10. I totally agree that horses have emotions. When my horses adored friend was laid to rest her behaviour changed dramatically and she lost weight It has taken about 2 months for her weight to increase and for her to be more settled in her mind She has almost returned to the peaceful girl she was. I felt very sad that I couldn’t explain to her what had happened. She still has a way to go to get her weight back to normal. Never underestimate what they feel

  11. Lovely article Rachel. thank you for taking the trouble to write it.

    I am a professional scientist myself and for many years since the 1980s I have been conducting Chiroptera research in UK, Europe and USA in collaboration with others who work within this field of study,
    I too used always to consciously avoid using anthropomorphic statements in public about the bats behaviour when captured and handled. Bats of course are physiologically very different indeed to horses – and most other groups of mammals, but even so they still share a common set of wild mammalian fundamental fear responses to being caught – which are clearly variable when handled inexpertly or when handled calmly and confidently.

    I have witnessed a range of captured bats in the many 1000s of wild bats I have caught and handled myself over the years plus training others to handle and extract from mist nets and harp traps.
    Arguably a bat is a more complex, less well understood mammal than a horse in terms of almost all aspects of life, social structures and bats are especially complex and variable across the species in behaviour and communication, which is still very poorly understood in most of the bat species (there are over 1100 bat species globally) .

    So, personally, having identified that even a complex and tiny creature such as a bat can display understandable responses to different kinds of stimulus, touches and handling styles, I find it no problem to extrapolate this to an unspoiled horse – ie not shut down or highly fearful horses.

  12. Absolutely fascinating it is like opening a new world, so stimulating. I always felt my horses had emotions but it is so interesting to read the science of emotions. Thank you so much Rachel. I read all the Jaak Panksepp articles references, it gives another dimension to the everyday activities with horses. I will certainly be buying his latest book. On a personal level it gave me another understanding of the brief but intense depression I suffered recently and new insights into my developing relationship with Adeeb and his on going rehabilitation. Finding game activities he likes is clearly important.

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