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Equine Einstein: Understanding Horse Intelligence

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Written by Holly N.

Breaking Down Equine Intelligence

Horses can read human body language, respond to cues, moderate their behavior accordingly, and recognize themselves in a mirror. (But is it enough to offset riders’ mistakes? Sometimes we wonder, too!)

These skills categorize them as “intelligent animals” as far as scientists are concerned, but these same smart people have obviously never seen a horse run up and down the wrong side of a fence, completely failing to locate the gate that would allow him into the field he wants access to.

Horses sometimes appear remarkably intelligent, responding to complicated cues and performing a series of actions based on the information they’ve received. At other times, they can appear frustratingly brainless—like when they insist on standing in the pouring rain rather than taking advantage of the shelter available.

Equine brains may not work the same way as a human’s, but that doesn’t mean they lack intelligence.

Understanding just how clever horses are can help owners and riders care for them more effectively.

black and white closeup of horse's eye

Source: Canva

Animal Intelligence: Defined

The Dictionary of Psychology defines animal intelligence as “the various abilities of nonhuman animals to solve problems in their environment through mechanisms of learning and animal cognition.”

Intelligent animals can solve problems using trial-and-error learning and their memory, which enable them to reason about potential solutions.

Animal intelligence also includes the biological ability to adjust to an ever-changing environment and find new solutions to life’s challenges.

How Animal Intelligence is Measured

Scientists have developed several techniques and tests for measuring animal intelligence. The most common of these are:

The Pointing Test

In this test, the handler repeatedly feeds an animal in a specific location. They then change the location of the feed and inform the animal by pointing to it.

This study is designed to assess the animal’s level of self-control and ability to respond to new information.

A recent study published in Scientific Reports (2021), found that horses that sustained high attention levels passed the pointing test with flying colors, suggesting a high level of intelligence.

Mirror-self recognition (MSR) Test

Developed in the sixties by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr., the mirror self-recognition test assesses an animal’s capacity for self-awareness.

Researchers conducted an MSR study of horses (2021), in which they found that the majority exhibit enough self-awareness to recognize themselves in the mirror and adapt their behaviors accordingly.

For instance, if the researchers marked the horse’s cheek with a colored cross, they spent more time rubbing at this spot than they did when no markings were present.

three horses looking at the camera

Source: Canva

Beware of Anthropomorphizing

Anthropomorphizing occurs when we project human feelings, characteristics, or behaviors onto animals.

If, for instance, your friend claims that her horse is angry one morning, she’s attributing a human emotion to the horse rather than attempting to understand the real reason for his behavior. In this way, anthropomorphism can damage our relationship with our horse by undermining or even negating what he’s trying to tell us.

At other times, some experts argue that anthropomorphism is not only justified, but advantageous.

For instance, my older horse recently passed away, and I had no doubt that my remaining horse was grieving. She wasn’t as active or as inquisitive as usual, showing little interest in what had previously been her favorite activities (like chasing goats and generally running amok).

While this may not be entirely accurate, as horses don’t experience human emotions, it’s also not wholly wrong.

According to the horseman and author Don Jessop, “Animals experience grief, fear, pain…” and numerous other emotions but may not experience them in precisely the same way as we do.

Just be careful not to project your emotions onto your horse and assume that he’s feeling the same as you, as this could pose a risk to your horse’s welfare.

For example, research suggests that equine obesity is potentially fueled by the “cultural Western notion that ‘caring for others’ involves feeding them well.”

How the Equine Brain Works

While the horse’s brain is similar to a human’s in shape and function, we have a larger area dedicated to thoughts and emotions, while the horse has a larger cerebellum, which gives it greater control over movement and balance.

A horse has a comparatively small prefrontal cortex, which means it’s unlikely to experience emotions such as jealousy or hatred, as this is the part of the brain responsible for feeling such complex feelings.

While human brains have expanded to enable complex communication, the horse has a reptilian brain that’s responsible for its flight or fight responses.

bay horse ridden Western with cattle

Source: Canva

Measuring Equine Intelligence

Various tests have been used to assess the average horse’s intelligence, and our equine friends excel in many areas.

A test conducted in Norway found that horses can recognize symbols and make choices according to their comfort levels. The test involved presenting a group of horses with three different symbols—one for having a blanket or rug put on, one for having it taken off, and one for no change at all.

The horses quickly learned the meaning of each symbol and could select them according to their needs.

Other studies have discovered that horses can remember people and places, recognize their owners, understand the meaning of human body language and adjust their behavior accordingly, and even ask a human for help—especially if there’s food involved!

As a result of these studies, researchers conclude that horses exhibit a high level of emotional intelligence and can distinguish between different visual cues.

Body Language vs. Verbal Language

Although horses use a range of sounds to communicate with one another, they rely predominantly on body language. They’re certainly not born with an understanding of human language, but they can be taught to understand specific sounds and their meanings.

Horses don’t necessarily understand words, as such, but use tone and pitch to interpret certain human sounds. For instance, I’ve taught my horse a voice cue for “canter” but have to use a consistent tone of voice to get the correct response.

While a horse’s ability to understand verbal language is limited, they are highly attuned to body language, as their success in the aforementioned Pointing Test indicates.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Sussex in 2017 found that horses can read a human’s body language even if they’re not familiar with the person in question.

Horses can tell whether you have a submissive or dominant body position and are more likely to approach you if you adopt a submissive body position.

The Role of Horses in Human Therapy

The horse’s emotional intelligence, sensitivity to body language, and keen observation skills mean they can respond to, and even mirror, human behavior and the emotions driving that behavior.

In a therapy situation, this mirroring helps the client develop a keener sense of self-awareness and use the horse’s behavior to better understand their own.

Equine-assisted therapy has proved particularly effective in treating mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD.

bay dressage horse and gloved hand holding reins

Source: Canva

Are You Smarter Than…

From what we’ve learned so far, it’s evident that horses are intelligent and intuitive creatures, but how smart are they compared to other animals?

Is a Horse Smarter Than…  
Dogs? Theres some argument about whether horses or dogs are more intelligent. While some argue that horses are smarter, others claim that they demonstrate different types of intelligence, with horses excelling in some areas, like navigational intelligence, and dogs in others (social intelligence).

Experts at Rutgers University say, Horses are the most perceptive of all domestic animals,” largely because theyre prey animals, unlike dogs who are natural predators.

Cats? As cats have smaller brains than dogs and are generally considered less intelligent than our canine companions, it stands to reason that horses are also more intelligent than cats, even though cats show a greater capacity for problem-solving.
Elephants? Elephants are among the most intelligent animals on Earth, displaying cognitive skills on par with chimps and dolphins. Horses aren’t quite up to that standard, so they aren’t as smart as elephants.
Pigs? Pigs are more intelligent and easier to train than almost any other domesticated animal, including both horses and dogs.
Cows? Horses are more responsive to training and have larger brains than cows, suggesting they’re also more intelligent. 
Donkeys? From my experience, donkeys are smarter than horses. Since donkeys are slower than horses, they have more of a “fight” and less of a “flight” drive, which requires more brain power. Donkeys can problem-solve and can think multiple steps ahead.

Horse Intelligence vs. Human Intelligence

Most scientists believe a horse’s intelligence is equivalent to that of a three-year-old child, although some argue it’s closer to that of a 12-year-old.

What horses lack in problem-solving abilities, they more than make up for in their ability to learn and remember new information.

Horses are also excellent communicators due to their skill at reading body language.

Are horses emotionally intelligent?

Horses exhibit high levels of emotional intelligence and are capable of reading a human’s facial expressions, as well as their body language.

They have a stronger sense of social and emotional intelligence than dogs, perhaps due to the natural instincts they’ve developed as prey animals.

Equine Emotions

It makes sense that an emotionally intelligent animal also experiences emotions, although the part of the brain dedicated to feelings is much smaller in a horse than in a human. That means horses experience emotions very differently from us.

Read this article by animal communicator Julie Saillant to find out more about horses’ capacity for feeling emotions.

gray horse with grumpy expression being fed an apple

Source: Canva

Do horses have feelings?

Horses do have feelings, but they don’t necessarily have a human’s ability to rationalize those emotions. Research suggests that they not only feel positive or negative emotions towards specific individuals but also remember these, even if they don’t see that individual for several months.

Do horses have the ability to love?

While we’d all like to believe our horses love us, it may not be true. Horses can develop a strong bond with a human, just as they can another horse, but it’s difficult to ascertain whether that’s the equivalent of love.

Some horses are very affectionate and exhibit this with nuzzles and wanting to be close to their owners.

Others are more aloof, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not experiencing the same feelings of trust, loyalty, and affection.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How smart is a horse compared to a human?

Most scientists agree that a horse has the intelligence of a three-year-old child, although some argue that it could be as smart as a 12-year-old.

Q: Do horses recognize their owners?

Horses recognize their owners and differentiate them from other humans through a combination of visual, olfactory, and auditory cues.

Q: Are horses smarter than humans?

Horses aren’t quite as smart as humans, although they sometimes appear to have enviable levels of emotional intelligence.

Q: Are some horses smarter than others?

While there is no evidence to suggest that some horse breeds are smarter than others, intelligence probably varies from one individual to the next.

I’ve found that some horses are more capable of looking after themselves and solving problems than others, and also suspect the Arabian is somewhat superior in the brain department—but that could just be personal bias!

bay arabian horse with blue sky and clouds in the background

Source: Canva

Parting Thoughts

Horses are intelligent animals that can understand both verbal and visual cues and adapt their behavior accordingly. The structure of their brains means they lack the human capacity to both experience and process complex emotions, as well as reliably find their way through an open gate!

They’re also limited in terms of verbal communication, but can learn a limited number of words if trained to do so. The horse excels in emotional intelligence, and their ability to read and reflect human emotions by observing our body language and facial expressions makes them intuitive companions and highly effective therapists.

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Sources

https://dictionary.apa.org/animal-intelligence
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-95727-8
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-021-01502-7
https://masteryhorsemanship.com/blogs/mastery-horsemanship/anthropomorphism-don-jessop
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159116302192
https://zeenews.india.com/environment/horses-can-read-human-body-language-study-2054477.html
https://esc.rutgers.edu/fact_sheet/the-basics-of-equine-behavior/
https://horsesandfoals.com/are-horses-smart/

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About the author

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Holly started riding as a six years old in the UK and competed regularly in local events, including showjumping, cross country, showing, working hunter, and gymkhana. She now lives and rides in South Africa, working as a trail guide with Wild Coast Horseback Adventures. Her interests are primarily in the areas of DIY horse ownership, trail riding, barefoot horses, endurance, competitive trail riding, and South African breeds.