Earlier this week, the world received this small blessing: Liam Neeson said that on the set of his new Coen Brothers movie, The Ballad of Buster Scurggs, one of the sweet, majestic horses actors remembered him from the set of a previous movie.
“I play a traveling impresario. We filmed in New Mexico. The odd thing is the horse who pulls my wagon knew me,” he told the crowd at the New York Film Festival, according to Cindy Sherman at “Page Six.”
“You won’t believe it. I’m saying this horse knew me. He actually remembered me from another Western we made a while back.”
How did Neeson know the horse, presumably a very good boy, remembered him? “He whinnied when he saw me, and pawed the ground.” Ah.
Shortly after “Page Six” published the story, Russell Crowe chimed in on Twitter, saying that he’s had two horses remember him over the course of his acting career — George and Rusty — whom he describes as “lifelong friends”.
There is some scientific evidence to indicate horses might remember people. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Sussex found that horses can remember people’s facial expressions, and whether they appeared threatening or friendly. The scientists showed horses pictures of people who looked angry or happy, and then, several hours later, introduced them to the same people in person, and found that the horses were noticeably more wary of the people who had looked angry in their pictures, and more relaxed around the people who had looked happy.
To learn more about horse friendship, and to get the answers to important questions like “Would a horse really remember Liam Neeson/me?” and “How can I make a horse friend?” The Cut spoke to Dr. Cassandra Shores, an equine veterinarian at Rhinebeck Equine in Rhinebeck, New York.
First of all, can a horse remember a person?
I would say absolutely. It depends a lot on a couple of factors. One: The horse, and their emotional IQ. There are some horses that don’t bond to anyone. They’re happy to just be fed, and exist with people, and enjoy the attention, but don’t necessarily have a person. That can have a lot to do with how the horse is brought up, what its history is, and many, many different factors.
It also depends on how long a horse has spent with a person. If it’s weeks on end, ever day for years, or even just a prolonged period of time, it can certainly have an opportunity to bond with someone.
But it’s a lot of factors. There are some horses that bond well and really enjoy having a person, and there’s others that are just happy there’s grain in their buckets in the morning.
If a horse did remember someone, and they did bond with this person, how would they show their affection?
Typically, it is recognizing and showing more interest in one particular person than a group of others. So, as that person approaches, or they hear that person’s voice, you may see their ears perk up, they may vocalize, and whinny or nicker to that person. They may come over and rub their head on that person. Sometimes, they’ll actually use their teeth and scratch your shoulder, similar to the way other horses would scratch each other on the withers as a bonding, affection type of gesture. They may watch that person if they’re in a paddock, instead of grazing, or instead of [being] in a stall eating their hay, and just really focus on that person.
What is a horse’s memory like? How long could they remember someone?
I don’t know that there’s anyone that can answer that for a fact. I think their memory is different than ours. There’s no way to ask a horse, “Do you remember this person off the top of your head?” But I think if they were to smell them or hear their voice, then they may go, “Wait a minute, I know that person.” And not so much remember the person, but probably remember the way that they were treated — like, that person treated me very kindly, that person gave me food, and lots of scratches, and I enjoy being with that person, I felt safe with that person.
But I don’t think anybody can answer exactly how long a horse can remember. There have been stories of horses that were raised by a certain individual, and years later have come back to that individual, and that person felt like the horse recognized them. But there’s no scientific data.
How does someone go about bonding with a horse?
Again, that all depends on the horse. A good way to start, with any horse, is to spend time with that animal, showing it kindness, creating an environment where that horse trusts you, and will look to you as a herd leader, essentially.
If you just are nice to the horse and throw food in its bucket but that’s all that it knows of you, yeah, you’re the person that brings it food, but there’s no trust or need, as opposed to being the person that gets the horse through a scary moment or event in their life. When the vet comes and gives shots, if you’re the person saying “It’s okay, you’ll be fine,” and they trust you to know that this is going to be okay, those are the things that create bonds with most horses.
Have you had horses remember you after you’ve been separated from them for a period of time?
I have not, personally, but I also have only ever owned one horse, and she and I have never been apart for more than a week or two. And as long as someone feeds her and lets her out every day and cleans her stall and does pay some attention to her, it doesn’t really matter who it is.
Do you have any favorite horse movies?
I would say Hidalgo is one of my favorites. I actually met one of the horses that played in the movie way back when. One of our local gals is a trainer and she works with horses on movie sets, so I’ve met that horse. I would say that’s probably my favorite, but pretty much anything with a horse is good for me. I like Seabiscuit as well, that was another good one.
This interview has been edited and condensed.