Did horses navigate on their own?
July 24, 2018 11:05 AM   Subscribe

In a recent comment on HackerNews, someone asserted that the idea of self-driving car would have seemed fairly obvious to those who had used horse drawn carriages, because horses would traverse well-known routes more or less on their own. Is that true?
posted by phrontist to Science & Nature (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Yes, and not even in distant history - I lived on an island for a year where people were reminiscing about the time 15 years before when scooters were still outlawed in the town limits and the local drunks relied on their donkeys to get them home at 3am.

I think in a recent Twitter thread about milk delivery in England, people were remembering how the milkmen used horses and lamented the advent of electric milk trucks because the horses knew the route but the trucks had to be piloted.
posted by annathea at 11:13 AM on July 24, 2018 [10 favorites]

Horses, like a lot of animals, have a navigation sense and can find their way "home". They are also herd animals and have an ingrained desire to return to their herd/home for safety.

For mammals, navigation can be as simple as remembering landmarks and building cognitive maps.
posted by muddgirl at 11:18 AM on July 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

Totally a real thing. Of course some horses would be better than others, and training certainly helps.

It wasn't like you could hop in and say "horse go to X", where X is 50 totally different places.
But if a horse mostly takes one route from home to town for a while*, they will often take that path unless otherwise instructed.

Here's a nice article from The Equine Independent that explains some of the science, and gives several references to more scholarly literature.

*Keep in mind horses easily live 30 years, and the oldest horse on record reached 62. So they have plenty of time to learn a path, and remembering is relatively easy when you do a thing often. Also the wild ecology of horses involves traveling long distances and returning to distant places at distant times. Navigational memory and communication is 100% in their wheelhouse. It's what they've evolved to do, not some weird thing we pressed them in to.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:24 AM on July 24, 2018 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Have I seen horses do that specific thing -- no.

Does it seem totally within reason -- yes.

Horses are smart animals and, more importantly, they know where home and food and water are. That's where you get the phrase "barn sour" to describe a horses that doesn't want to leave or, once it's left, does everything it can to get back. I lead trail rides. All the staff know the horses (the whole line of them) will walk faster on the way back than on the way out, even when we're a mile or two out from the barn.

Horses know their environment and learn associations from what they experience. They would be able to know landmarks if they saw them often enough. And they're happy with routine. Most don't want to escape. It's likely connected with herd mentality ("we're better together / home is safest") and also being a prey animal ("explore new things only with great caution because predators could be lurking").

As another data point, when my friends and I ride through the woods at night, we feel more confident giving the horses rein and letting them decide the route than trying to figure it out ourselves. They can see better and want to get home just like we do. But even among all the horses, some are better than others at actually navigating there via a path. One will get you home via the quickest route, most will amble in the correct general direction, and one or two will ignore the path and walk through the trees.

If the horse is used to going back and forth along a route, and receiving care and rest at their destinations, it makes sense to me they'd learn to do that route on their own. I would be most confident in it working if we were heading home and there was just one clear route for the horse to take, and/or if it were a route we'd done over the course of years. I would be less confident if there were a lot going on, if the horse didn't have a certain kind of steady personality, or if it were really hungry and the route had distracting green plants nearby.

You can totally select for horse personalities, so if people wanted horses that did this, it'd be within the realm of reason and capability.

Re: the self-driving car part: I mean, it's a connection, and a good horse that knows its route is sort of self-driving, but you still have to be awake as a wagon driver and the amount of training and time it requires isn't a small amount. Even if you're talking about donkeys getting people home at night, it takes time for the donkey to learn the route.
posted by rockyraccoon at 11:26 AM on July 24, 2018 [12 favorites]

I'm not a rider, but my 4 year old takes lessons at a local horse barn. Recently we were waiting for lessons while a middle aged woman rode a horse she was thinking of buying. She insisted she knew how to ride, then kicked the horse into a gallop and was shocked when the horse did just that.

My daughter's instructor said they see a lot of people like that, particularly because we live next to two big touristy riding places. People go on trail rides on horses who are trained to ignore untrained riders in favor of following the horse in front of them on a proscribed route dozens of times a day; the experience, she said, often makes people think they can ride when they can't.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:33 AM on July 24, 2018 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, definitely - much like annathea's account, very useful if you are drop-dead drunk. By my grandmother's account, it was pretty much normal before cars for men in farming communities in the north of England to go to the market town for business with the horse and cart, in the course of that business get paralytically drunk, fall into the cart and be taken home by the horse. You're talking a single route which will have been repeated a lot, and with a reliable 'go' trigger (ie an increased weight in the cart + shouting along the lines of 'gerromeyerbassart' = go to where the comfy straw is). You couldn't get drunk and demand that your horse took you somewhere new, but get you home? Definitely.
posted by Vortisaur at 11:33 AM on July 24, 2018 [24 favorites]

I read old news stories a lot, and stories about where a person hops/falls off a moving wagon, only to walk the rest of the way home to find the horse and wagon waiting in the yard where they're supposed to be, or a horse and wagon arrive home without a driver and its path retraced to find the missing person, is a common and not-surprising story.

I can very much expect that when self-driving cars really take hold this will become a common story as well: "Mrs. Anderson became suspicious when she watched the self-driving car that her husband left for work in, arrive in the driveway around the time her husband would usually arrive home, but without him anywhere in sight."

(And, to relate to "barn sour", there's many stories where there's a fire, and the horses "escape" into the barn, only to be burned up when the fire reaches the barn, is also common; the safety of 'home' overrules the safety of 'away from fire')
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:48 AM on July 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

I recently took a carriage ride and I was continually unnerved that the driver would turn around for lengthy periods and talk to us riders. But it was fine. The horse knew the way and could be more or less trusted to not to wander into oncoming traffic and so on. (The driver mostly only turned around that way on straightaways on side roads; it seemed safe)

At one point, the route we were taking intersected with the route the horse knew led to its stable. It was a pretty hot day and the driver had to be rather persuasive with the horse to get him along the route the driver wanted and not the route the horse knew led to shade, water and home.

Also, see this XKCD.
posted by ZeroDivides at 12:03 PM on July 24, 2018 [9 favorites]

Not exactly the same thing, but along the same lines: At one time, I thought it would be a good idea to farm with draft horses. I didn't know much about farming but had been around horses quite a bit. My sister and I went to a draft horse auction and came home with three Belgians--an older mother-daughter team and a week-old colt--from an Amish breeder.

I'd never driven a team before, but I understood the basics. Our first project was to hitch them for a wagon and go for a drive down the lane. The wagon was parked in a shed between two other pieces of machinery, so we backed them up to it, hitched them up, and away we went. The drive went without incident,. When we got back, I realized that my driving skills were probably not up to backing the wagon back into its slot, but decided it couldn't hurt to try. Well. As soon as I started to back them, those girls looked behind them, saw where it had to go, and just did it all for me. Perfectly. And backing a horse-drawn wagon is even more complicated, due to how it's articulated, than backing a trailer behind a car, if you know how that is.
posted by bricoleur at 12:39 PM on July 24, 2018 [53 favorites]

Not only do (most) horses (and all mules*) know how to find their way to the barn, they can remember where you parked the trailer when you go out on the trail, even if it's a 50 mile ride. They know when the compass is pointing "due trailer" and if the trail takes a jog toward it, then turns away, there's quite often an "aww crap" vibe. When a new trail intersects a trail they've been on before, some of them can be pretty insistent they know that's the way home. Packers and horse campers know that you need to make sure the critters won't roam out of camp, otherwise you have to look for them in the morning, sometimes all the way back at the trail head.

Most horses know how to follow the trail back home. The smart ones can go cross-country, but sometimes get hung up at a fence line. The smartest ones know how to navigate to the closest gate, which may or may not be open.

*A mule will calculate the shortest way home, figure out how to navigate to the gate, and some of them do a standing jump to get over if it's closed.

It doesn't take long to figure out which kind you're riding, or if it's the kind of nag that could care less where home is as long as there is enough to eat in the immediate vicinity.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:39 PM on July 24, 2018 [12 favorites]

See also: you fall off your horse in the woods, and it makes its way back to the barn without you. Not that that ever happened to me, of course.
posted by TwoStride at 1:43 PM on July 24, 2018 [8 favorites]

SaltySalticid, did you think what I did when you saw Old Billy's skull? That's an amazing age given that he had never had dental care. What a mouthful of malocclusions he had to work around! Poor fella.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:45 PM on July 24, 2018

Also, experienced horses can also learn basic jumping courses: eg, one of the beginner hunter jumping divisions for children is essentially "twice around the four jumps set along the outside perimeter of the ring" and a good "pushbutton" pony knows exactly how to go twice around ignoring whatever terrible steering input a small child may be giving them.
posted by TwoStride at 1:46 PM on July 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

I mean, cats are much less reliable than horses but even cats know things like "where dinner is" related to their current position in the neighborhood pretty reliably. But I think there's "can horses find their way home or just routinely travel the route they travel routinely" and there's "people who started with only horses would have expected that cars without horses or drivers could eventually do the same thing", because you've got a huge leap there of people thinking that someone was going to invent a machine that could "think" as well as a horse, much less as well as a person.
posted by Sequence at 1:58 PM on July 24, 2018

My husband worked on a ranch in his youth, and in the winter, they would use a horse team to take hay to the cattle in the fields. The team knew the drill, when to turn, how far to make the turn, how fast to go so the bales got pitched off at the right rate, and when they were done. He said it was lovely, in part because there was almost no noise.
posted by dbmcd at 2:04 PM on July 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

My grandfather told me when he was a kid, all they had was a team of horses, and they definitely knew the way home. They would walk slower leaving than when returning, even if it was from a place they weren't accustomed to.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 2:14 PM on July 24, 2018

Life long horse person and yes horses can easily learn their job and do it without input. Horses with a regular route or set of activities will learn it after just a handful of repetitions. It's actually a significant issue in training as if you always do X, then Y and one day you try to do X then Z the horse will not want to and might be surprisingly or violently opposed to Doing It Wrong. They are much better at learning routines than unlearning them and generally do not process commands in isolation like a dog or human may. They are very process oriented.

If you want a horse to regularly carry out similar but varied routines you actually have to train them to respond to varied commands on a daily basis and reassure them it's ok, otherwise you will have a big arguement every time you vary your routine. Once a horse learns something he remembers it for ever, good or bad, and the behavior can resurface at any time when something reminds them "oh hey, this worked once!!"

Everyone leads horses from the left side. Try leading one from the right to understand the degree of consternation a seeemingly simple deviation can cause.
posted by fshgrl at 2:22 PM on July 24, 2018 [11 favorites]

Everyone leads horses from the left side. Try leading one from the right to understand the degree of consternation a seeemingly simple deviation can cause.

Similarly, I had a horse that would get so anxious whenever I tried to mount from the right! Again, it's possible that someone else was bucked off when this happened once.
posted by TwoStride at 3:10 PM on July 24, 2018

Google has failed me, but perhaps you can find a clip from a wildfire documentary about a couple of guys who had trailered out to the back of beyond and were trapped by fire. The soaked every cloth item they had with water and mud, cut the horses loose, and laid down in the creek under their soaked home-made shelter. They survived. A few hours after the fire passed, the horses returned.

It's totally a thing.

Horses who show will often head for the stall they had the last time they were on the show grounds.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:36 PM on July 24, 2018

Isn’t there an old saying, “The horse knows the way”?
posted by elphaba at 7:26 PM on July 24, 2018

Isn’t there an old saying, “The horse knows the way”?
posted by elphaba at 10:26 PM on July 24 [+] [!]

Over the River and Through the Woods
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:29 PM on July 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

In the distant past, I was trail riding near our former barn, in a previously unexplored location, and a cow spooked my steed, and I was dumped off to brave the unassuming cow while the horse went directly to the barn.

I limped home and met my husband on the way - he'd found the fully horse at the barn; said horse enjoying some grass, and figured that I'd been dumped.

Yeah, the critters know the way back to food.
posted by mightshould at 10:24 AM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I swear at horse camp they used the term “Home sour” but google is failing. The horses would want to move faster the closer to the camp we got.
posted by Bacon Bit at 12:25 PM on July 25, 2018

The lineage (choose your preferred number of "greats" and "grands") were millers - flour, timber, and the rest.

So for your mill, you need input and someone has to go and negotiate the supply. It's business, and successful negotiations require a celebration, a con-celebration even, at which alcohol is often/regularly consumed.

The matrilineal (showing as a mis-spelt word {also shown as mis-spelt]) account of the conclusion of successful negotiations was that the horse was neighing and kicking at the front door of the house to be fed, with the recumbent "negotiator" in the cart at the back. (I would say carriage but that has upper class tones - even now)

One of the standard carts/carriages used was referred to as a "Napoleoner" as the width of the wheels had been set to the standard width of roads set by Napoleon.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 12:51 AM on July 30, 2018

My grandfather was a country doctor in northern Vermont in the early 20th c. My Dad told a story of the horse, Babe, bringing his Dad home in a snowstorm, and waking the family because my grandfather was sound asleep in the cart and Babe wanted to go into the barn. It was probably true; when my Dad made up stories they were far more colorful.
posted by theora55 at 5:43 PM on July 31, 2018

The term for a horse that refuses to leave the stable or fights to go back is 'barn sour.' With some miserable critters, it's an unholy attachment to place, with others, it's a refusal to leave their buddies or the herd. They are said to be 'herd bound' or 'buddy sour.'

The horse with the best personal maps aren't necessary barn sour. I had a horse take me home in a blinding winter fog through country we had never been in before. I had never realized area was plagued by that type of weather.

The worst barn sour horse I ever rode that couldn't seem to
ever find his way back home was a TB off the track. I'd practically have to winch him away from home, and he was lost 2 miles out. Not only could he not find his way back, but he was useless cross-country. He didn't last long at my place.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:05 PM on August 2, 2018

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