tweeted @horse_ebooks yesterday, quietly. Punctuation, capitalization and context were not necessary. @horse_ebooks - I refuse to identify it by the man behind the screen - knows how to ask this type of sensitive, potentially loaded question to a list of 52,770 Twitter followers and 4,333 Facebook fans. Despite the Internet popularity of cats and dogs, there is no way a self-absorbed furry meowser or a loving pooch could ask a user, or the entire Internet, this same question."how do you feel"
"The emotional connection between humans and horses is more calm, quiet and non-verbal ideally," says Sujatha Ramakirshna, M.D., a Chicago-based child and adolescent psychiatrist. She runs the website TeachingKidsEmpathy.com, which is devoted to promoting the development of compassion in young people. And as a child growing up outside of Fort Worth, Texas, she rode horses. "Horses will know if you're afraid or confident better than you. You really can't lie to a horse."
A Horse is a Horse, Of Course Of Course
Horses are one of those hidden secrets, it seems. The connection between horse and human is far different from cat and human, or dog and human.
"With horses, it's all about balance and coordination," explains Ramakirshna. "You have to watch their ears - what are they listening to? Are they tense, relaxed or loose? It's something else. It's really hard to explain unless you've ridden. You have to feel the horse's interaction and react. It's like a dance partner, more or less."
Then an idea came to me: What if horse stories on the Internet outnumbered cat and dog stories? I didn't want make a horse's ass of myself, however, so I decided to take a look at some actual data on number of horse stories read on Facebook. I reached out to the folks at Digg to see if they might have some answers about the differences between cat, dog and horse stories. Digg dugg into data from its Social Reader, which it launched at the end of December. They provided ReadWriteWeb with stats from February 2012.
The Cat-Human Relationship: Like Two Humans
Last month, Digg discovered that far more people read stories about dogs than cats or horses combined. It didn't come as a surprise. I wasn't crushed.
Cat story reads numbered 29,339 vs dogs, which gained a whopping 72,586 reads. As for the horse? Only a mere 9,739 reads for the month of February. But the truth serum is in the details, not the big numbers.
The top cat story felt tragic, maliciously targeted at the benign, sensitive cat lover: What If All the Cats in the World Suddenly Died? I do not need to interpret this headline for you. The Internet has an evil sense of humor.
Smithsonian Magazine reported on a study about cat-human relationships done by scientists in Vienna, Austria. "It took 120 hours of observing 40 cat-human pairs for scientists to conclude that the bond between the two cat be similar to other human relationships," writes Sarah Zielinski. The study concluded that "it seems that an important area of negotiation between the owner and the cat is mutual attention and friendly tactile interactions," which resemble human-to-human long-term and complex relationships.
Like most human-to-human relationships too, the cat-human relationship might just drive one insane. A story in The Atlantic (which also made it to the Digg top 10 cat stories) suggested that perhaps cats are actually making their owners crazy. The research and subsequent argument were not only subtly disturbing, but actually made me think twice about deciding to own a cat as an adult. Besides, I've seen the mind manipulation games that cats play with their human owners.
Digg's second most-read cat story implies the super-human nature of kitties: Feline Physics: Why Cats Can Survive Falls From Great Heights. It comes complete with an amazing two-second, Muybridge-esque video dated 1890 of a single white cat gracefully falling and landing.
Cats rarely listen to verbal commands. They are predators, and they are loners. So two loners living together might make for craziness, indeed. Not to mention a lot of fur and hair.
Yet the cat-human relationship is nothing like the horse-human connection, which appears to transcend the feline prowess.
I Want a Puppy: Don't Treat Dogs Like Humans
Dogs, like horses, are social animals and they live in groups. Yet the dog is a predator; the horse is a prey animal.
"You can give a dog a treat to make it sit, but you can't give a horse a carrot to make it go," says Ramakrishna. "It's a completely different set of skills."
An article on DogBreedInfo.com delves into the dog/human relationship - which is, owners should never treat their dogs like humans.
"When dogs live with humans, the humans become the dog's pack. For the relationship to succeed, humans must become the dog's pack leader. The mistake is made when the humans in the pack only give the dog love, and the other factors are overlooked. To a dog, constant affection without rules and limits goes against every grain in a dog's instinct."
There were far more dog story reads on the Digg Social Reader: 72,586 to be exact. There are more dog owners out there than horse owners, surely. Oddly, the top link reveals some truths about what dog owners secretly know about their canines: They are wild, wolf-like predators. The top most-read story is called My Friend Dog Who Has the Creepiest Shadow Ever. The second most-read story is an infographic comparing the costs of dogs versus cats, small mammals, small birds and fish (which is, naturally, the least expensive type of pet, if you can even call it that). The third, sensationalistic tabloid-esque dog story makes the mistake of considering dogs as humans. A Twitter user captures an "attempted dog suicide" in West Hollywood. It's unclear whether or not the dog decided to jump to its death, or if this is just another wrongful personification of an animal. @Potasnik live-tweeted the entire event. Someone called the police. The "suicidal" dog survived.
"A dog is an animal and does not possess the same reasoning skills as humans," writes DogBreedInfo.com. "They do have emotions, but their emotions are different than those of humans. They are simple creatures with instincts, and their emotions lack the complex thought process. They feel joy when they know you are pleased, they feel sad when someone dies. However, they do not premeditate; do not plan ahead and do not dwell in the past or future. They live for whatever is happening at the moment."
A dog is nothing like a horse.
Why Every Little Girl Wants a Pony
In her work, Ramakrishna studies the relationship between children and animals. Her Why Children Need Animals (forthcoming in 2013), looks at the role animals play in the lives of human families, and the physical and cognitive development of children.
Indeed, we can understand a lot by watching how children - and people in general - interact with their four-legged companions. But the human-horse relationship is unique. It encourages empathic understand in a way that relationships with dogs and cats do not.
"You have to understand what type of mood the horse is in, and learn to understand the horse's emotions," she says. "It really does help kids think about the other person's perspective. The other person being the horse."
There were only 9,739 horse story reads on Digg, from a total of 7,500 news stories. Yet each is more fascinating than the next one, and none of them prey on basic emotions, on the personification of one's pet. The top horse stories are about wonderment, the bigger picture. This is evidenced by the top most-read horse story, entitled Ancient Warming Shrunk Horses to Housecat Size, followed by 25 Goats Riding on Horses and a Scientific American slide show, A Visual History of Ancient Miniature Horses, which gives a fascinating overview of this beautiful creature. You really can't say the same of the cat and dog stories.
"Little girls are fascinated with horses," says Ramakrishna. "Every little girl wants a pony, and I think a lot of it is the fact that you're independent. If you're on a horse riding, you can get around pretty well. It's a little bit of freedom that you wouldn't have otherwise, similar to riding a bike or skateboarding."
But it's a horse. A living breathing horse that one must not only ride, but feel.
So @horse_ebooks's question from yesterday makes sense. "how do you feel" it asks.
Because only a horse knows the answer to that.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock and @Potasnik.