The Tale of the “Naughty” Horse

Cognitive beings with the innate characteristic of intelligence, tend to manifest a predisposition for self-sustainability in order to endure and thrive. The congenital survival instincts which have been reproduced by myriad generations of “winners” (i.e. survivors), are proven to be hard-encoded into the DNA – the source code – of each entity that is considered to be alive (Darwin, 1859) based on our perception. This endogenous, and philosophically challenged (Ridley, 2016), will for continuance has allowed humans, among others, to persevere throughout eons of known history, managing to reach the level of “modern life” as we know it.

Regardless of our “pre-programmed” nature for animation, however, the human condition has now advanced from a series of basic “fight-or-flight” decisions, to an – occasionally ludicrous – overcomplicated archetype of what is right and wrong, blurring, in this way, the underlying straightforwardness of existence, thus sacrificing low-level simplicity in the name of abstract, generalised, conceptualisation.

Due to the inability of the human genome to propagate our ancestors’ consciousness in full, and since we are mentally unevolved to access an aethereal global pool of wisdom, people – and other beings – adjusted to this deficiency by showing and demonstrating acquired skills to each other – an act that we call teaching. This action has enabled us to further exploit our manifestation on this level of consciousness, by preventing us from having to “reinvent the wheel” every time we wish to externalise the ingenuity we have at our disposal.

The former paragraphs alone can testify to the lengths of unnecessary elaboration – seemingly borderline doublespeak – one can achieve with prevalent tools, whereas the mere synopsis lies within the phrases: “we teach for learning” and “we learn for survival”. The concept of time limits the pragmatic opportunities of our lifetime, unless we accelerate the overall process by mashing and summarising the “acquis communautaire” – the vested knowledge of our community – via teaching. However, this alone cannot be sufficient, unless the student is also willing to study and learn even after the teacher’s lesson has concluded.

We never (have to) cease to learn. Case in point: horses. Ancient Greeks used the word “ippos” for horse, but also the word “alogon” which meant “without reason” (a=without, logon=reason). This was because of the assumption that horses had no logic, based on the observation that they could not understand human communications; hence why riders used physical instructions for interaction. However, we have since learned that this assumption was incorrect. As with other animals, like gorillas (Patterson et al., 1988) and dolphins (Foer, 2015), horses have also proven that they can learn to communicate with us, given an appropriate platform.

In a recent study (Mejdell et al. 2016), 23 horses learned to communicate with their trainers by touching their muzzles on three different visual symbols: one for “blanket on” if they were cold, one for “blanket off” if they were hot, and another one for “no change” if they were content with their current status. Within two weeks, the researchers were able to gather adequate data to prove that the horses were successfully expressing their needs every single time. The horses’ natural instincts to survive, graciously welcomed this new utility which immediately and directly improved their well-being, based on the observations of the study. These results once again confirmed the hypothesis that intelligent beings seek to increase their chances of survival, even if this means adjusting to a new method or system – however more complicated it is, compared to the previous one(s).

A quote, attributed (allegedly) to Albert Einstein, states that “everybody is a genius; but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid“ (Kelly, 2004). In the case of “alogon”, as demonstrated by the researchers above, *we* were the “stupid” ones – not the horses, spending all these centuries assuming they were too illogical to communicate, simply because they required a different learning mechanism to build the intermediate, linking, structure; but now we know better.

The study discusses that positive reinforcement, task repetition and the diminishing of stress assisted the learning of the horses, further unveiling our similarities with them. However convenient the researchers’ data were, though, even managing to achieve 100% knowledge absorption within 14 days, certain supplementary aspects also need to be considered as part of this success. As stated in the paper, all horses were “kept as riding horses for leisure activities, dressage, or show jumping, and some were in addition used as carriage horses”. This shows that, in this scenario, all “students” were already part of a “learning system”, having accepted the status quo of “perform and you shall be rewarded” as their reality, like a soldier who has joined the army and starts moving up the ranks – even if for the horses it was not voluntary.

As a theoretical proposition, imagine the premise of a wild horse joining this group. This “feral” horse will probably not enjoy having to brush its muzzle against a wooden display board; not because it will not like the result, per se, but because it will be contained – restricted – instead of free-roaming. The “system” can keep insisting to focus in the exact same way on this horse (a.k.a. student) because it cares, gradually subsuming (“breaking”) it, until the horse goes along with the defined methods – but will the learning subject benefit from this?

You see, even though we went the extra mile and conjured up a whole new teaching method which we believe will benefit students, and even though a student will be somewhat better – by our standards (e.g. less cold) – after the learning has concluded, this does not necessarily mean this specific approach was appropriate for this student. Not all students wish to learn in the ways we know how to teach them – and this is fine. We must accept that we do not know everything, in order to be able to teach anything to anyone.

This philosophical argument would not be complete, however, if we did not also investigate the other end. This time, imagine a horse which fully embraces the new system – it loves it..! This specific horse has a tendency for overindulgence though. Our “spoiled” horse keeps asking for a blanket all the time because it makes it feels warm and relaxed. As if this was not enough, it starts denying to go outside for hard work; instead, it keeps asking for a blanket, as if it was feeling cold and weak all the time. This new communication methodology is really a tool which can be used, but also abused, at will, depending on the personality of the student.

The edge-case above can be expanded further if we add extra functionalities. For example, offering a button that the horse could press every time it felt hungry, could have excellent or catastrophic results. If the horse is self-contained enough to make sensible lifestyle choices, it would only choose to use the button when it really needed to feed. However, judging from the obesity statistics of “non-alogon” beings (NIDDK, 2012), the probability exists that certain horses would keep pressing the button until they became physically unable to continue eating – instead of when they had consumed a healthy amount of food, thus actually decreasing their chances of survival.

Some students, as “feral horses”, may choose not to go down the guided path – perhaps because they did not appreciate the benefits, or merely due to lack of personal interest. Others, like the “spoiled horses”, could focus too much on the content, becoming unable to see “the forest for the trees”, constantly asking – or demanding – to be spoon-fed whatever is going to be “on the exam”… Our roles as teachers require us to adjust, in order to provide the “feral” ones with alternative viewpoints which could perhaps interest them more, and the “spoiled” ones with the clear-cut realisation that we are not forever going to be there next to them to hold their hand – learning is not passive, but interactive and continuous.

Both of the above “student extremes” are sometimes erroneously considered as “naughty students” by teachers who are adamant that their way is the correct way, that there is no alternative, and that anyone who disagrees is a waste of their time and effort. This attitude has to change. All students should be treated equally and fairly – as peers and future co-workers. We can urge them to actively participate in the teaching by frequently asking them questions which lead the lesson from one sub-topic to the next, thus turning them into stakeholders in their own learning. Modern literature suggests that by focusing on the creation of long-term values via offering a dynamic context, based on “interaction, mutual respect, dialogue and change” (Andriof et al., 2002) instead of a one-sided “expert” manager, stakeholders – in this case, students – will feel more involved and thus personally engaged.

This “Question Based Learning” technique has proven to be really useful, based on personal observations, because it allows students to experience the entire journey: from a mere hypothetical concept, to a full-blown meaningful entity for the knowledge repository of their minds. It also comes in handy when checking for learning, allowing the teacher to receive instant feedback on average absorption. Nonetheless, since utopia by definition does not exist, there will always be some students who are unwilling – due to their own personal circumstances – to participate in this kind of interactive, social, teaching style, opting for a more unidirectional, monolithic, approach instead. Even in these cases, the inherent inclination for survival can be appealed to, by identifying and aligning the learning objectives to meet the specific needs and goals of each student.

It is our duty as teachers to be able to differentiate between all the aforementioned cases, and to provide our students with mechanisms that are appropriate for them – even if this means adjusting our known, well-tested, methods. There are no bad or “naughty” students – only human beings who have not yet found an appropriate way for them to acquire the wisdom of their ancestors and contemporaries. Let us pave the way for truly open learning, for all.

Konstantinos Gkoutzis



Andriof, J., Waddock, S. and Rahman, S.S. eds., 2002. Unfolding stakeholder thinking: theory, responsibility and engagement. Greenleaf Publishing.

Darwin, C., 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Toronto: Broadview.

Foer, J., 2015. Breaking the communication barrier between dolphins and humans. National Geographic, May 2015.

Kelly, M., 2004. The rhythm of life: Living every day with passion and purpose. Simon and Schuster, p. 80.

Mejdell, C.M., Buvik, T., Jørgensen, G.H. and Bøe, K.E., 2016. Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

NIDDK, 2012. Overweight and Obesity Statistics. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Nov. 2016].

Patterson, F., Tanner, J. and Mayer, N., 1988. Pragmatic analysis of gorilla utterances: Early communicative development in the gorilla Koko. Journal of Pragmatics, 12(1), pp.35-54.

Ridley, M., 2016. In retrospect: The selfish gene. Nature, 529(7587), pp.462-463.