Breathers and Pointers

Right now, Eragon is on a training hiatus until (if I can control myself) 1/1/12.  He had a mysteriously stocked up back leg and while he wasn’t lame, the coming-and-going nature of the swelling worried me, so I gave him a week off.   The leg looks fine now, but then I got to thinking:  the holiday is coming up.  Work is crazy.  I’m going to be out of town for part of the month.  Maybe this would be a good time to give Eragon a breather?  He’s in a big growth spurt right now.  His mental abilities are way above what his gangly, growing body can handle right now, so training is sort of stalled anyway.  A month off to just be a horse might be a good thing.

I’ve still been going out to the barn, though, and Eragon exhibited some behavior the other day that surprised me.  I’ve always thought Eragon was unusually smart–and I don’t think its just because he’s my special little pony friend.  It’s because he does things that I’ve never observed another horse doing.  For instance, he seemed to understand my pointed finger the other day.  This doesn’t sound big, but according to experts, only dogs can understand pointing.  From the article:

Understanding a pointed finger may seem easy, but consider this: while humans and canines can do it naturally, no other known species in the animal kingdom can. Consider too all the mental work that goes into figuring out what a pointed finger means: paying close attention to a person, recognizing that a gesture reflects a thought, that another animal can even have a thought

So did Eragon really understand the gesture?  Decide for yourself:
Here’s the scenario:
Eragon is pastured in a very muddy lot right now, which is attached to a drier grass pasture that is being rested.  There are two gates.  Since I don’t want to step into his muddy pasture to get him, I’ve taken to open the gate and letting him into the grass pasture, and haltering him there.  Since he’s so food obsessed, he sometimes only takes a step or two out of the muddy pasture and then starts eating.  When he does this, he’s standing in the way of the gate that I need to close.  So sometimes I growl at him to keep moving, or push him or slap him lightly with the lead rope.
The other day, I opened the gate like always.  He stepped out and started to eat.  I said “no Eragon, keep going” and he lifted his head.   I pointed where he needed to go.  He looked at me (and I think at my hand) and walked  in the direction my finger was pointing.   Then he put his head down, in that spot, and started munching grass.
He really seemed to get that the finger was indicating where he needed to be.   I don’t think he was responding to my voice because usually my voice alone won’t do it.  Plus, the odd part was that he looked at me and my hand and then moved.  Perhaps he was responding more generally to my “keep going” body language, and not the finger itself?    Maybe.  But it seemed to me that he took note of my finger and then moved away that exact direction (which wasn’t straight forward, but off to the side a bit).
Even if Eragon didn’t understand the finger itself, his habit of looking at me for direction  is different than most horses.  Most horses I’ve worked with do not look at their handler as often as Eragon looks at me, and most don’t lock onto their handler’s face even if they are watching the handler.  Horses mainly work off body language–not faces–since equines do not have a broad array of facial expressions themselves.   The head–eyes, ears, etc–is a pretty small part of how a horse communicates.  That’s why its odd to me that Eragon watches me so closely, and likes to follow my face.   Perhaps he is just uniquely attentive?
Later that same day, in the indoor, I did little experiment.  I pointed towards a random spot on the wall to see if he’d turn to see where I was pointing.  He looked at my face, looked at my hand, reached his head over and….nibbled my index finger.

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