Asking whether a horse is smart is sort of a non-sensical question. However, I believe we each have a slightly different perception of what being intelligent means, so we should probably begin our discussion by agreeing on a basic definition for the word smart.
And so you do not have to read too much farther to find the answer, I’ll reveal the answer to you now- Yes, horses are very smart mammals, and we will look at some of the research and testing on the subject.
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What Is Smart?
Well, if you use Merriam Webster as your leading dictionary, you will find smart defined as being “very good at learning or thinking about things.” It could also mean “showing intelligence or good judgment.”
Simple enough, would you agree? If so, let’s consider a few questions that seem arbitrary; however, if you stop and think about the situation thoroughly, you might not feel so confident about particular abilities that you may be lacking.
It takes being smart to survive in the wild. But why is it that people get so frustrated when the electricity goes out during a storm or when their shower is spitting out frosty cold water mid-winter?
Call me a naturalist, but I believe that being smart intends the human capacity to connect with nature and seek the knowledge to survive and appreciate nature’s power instinctually.
Shows like Naked and Afraid are popular because they provide an extreme view of man’s capabilities when tested against the wild. But why does this reality seem so far-fetched from the comfy corner of our couch?
I think it is because people have become very comfortable with the commodities that life seems to afford us at no cost. I mean, when was the last time you felt thankful for your lights?
The act of flicking a switch and magically having lights seems to be overlooked by most of us, myself included. Yet, according to one OurWorldInData article, 940 million people in the world did not have some access to electricity as of 2019.
And for those with electricity, how many know how it works or understand the interplay between various components?
For most of us, our knowledge of electricity only extends to the simple act of turning the light switch from the ON to the OFF position. I think even a horse could do that!
Break the Mold
Let me reel us back into his article’s focus, trying to answer the question, Are Horses Smart? Before we look at some actual studies, you must accept that it is practically impossible to compare intelligence standards across species since the word ‘smart’ is highly opinionated.
That said, we must look at the horse species itself to better understand how it utilizes its intelligence. I think it’s time that we humans humble ourselves and recognize the cognitive capabilities of animals.
Often, humans believe they are superior beings and that we should only say the word, and whatever we say shall be done. Unfortunately, some people carry this bad attitude into relationships with animals and complain when the quote-on-quote animals misbehave.
We must detach ourselves from this unidirectional mode of relationship at once and accept that for humanity to be ‘smart,’ we have to relearn how to connect with and communicate among different species.
I don’t think you could speak to your significant other and get away with it like some people talk to their animals. But, since at some point (about 6,000 years ago), people decided it would be an excellent idea to domesticate the horse species, it is now our job to try to understand how these animals interact.
Horses should be allowed to explore and develop their cognitive abilities in an open and natural state. Italian-born Francesco De Giorgio, renowned biologist, ethologist, and applied behavioral researcher, has created a short video titled Journey with the Cognitive Horse to illustrate spontaneous behaviors of horses, between horses, and with human companions.
First, by employing a multidirectional communication pathway, the connection between people and the Equus caballus species grows. But most importantly, we learn to read and understand what our horsey companions are trying to tell us.
People worldwide enjoy horseback riding as a favorite pastime, but for others having a loyal horse as a working companion puts food on the table. Horses continue to be an iconic cultural symbol for nations worldwide whose majestic beauty stands for bravery, courage, power, freedom, spirit, and determination.
None of the qualities that a horse has come to represent could become a reality if a horse were not wise or smart. And researchers around the globe have collaborated in studies that will prove just how intelligent horses are.
Study #1- Horses use Various Signals to Communicate
Monamie Ringhofer and Associate Professor Shinya Yamamoto sought to extend the common acceptance that horses may be susceptible to signals and sensitive to a human’s attentional state in their 2016 study.
The study observed multiple horses and their ability to seek human assistance to retrieve a treat. The test sounds like preschool, but the two scientists were exceptionally innovative in their tactics.
The results of their study “suggest[s] that horses alter their communicative behavior towards humans in accordance with humans’ knowledge state.” Suppose that sounds fascinating-then good because it is.
The scientists conducted two tests, which involved a horse, a treat, and a caretaker. First, eight thoroughbred horses witnessed an assistant experimenter put a carrot into a bucket inside their paddock.
In phase one, the caretaker had no idea where the assistant had put the carrots. However, the caretaker witnessed the assistant putting the carrots into the bucket in phase two.
The purpose of the study was to see how the horse would interact with its caretaker, and the results were quite fascinating. For example, the horses exhibited different signals such as light nudging and looking at the caretaker who knew where the assistant hid the treat.
The signals were much more emphatic towards the caretaker that did not know. In other words, the horses’ cognitive skills prompted them to send more vigorous alerts to the human that was out of the know- meaning that these clever beasts have the “flexibly [to] alter their behavior towards humans according to humans knowledge state.”
Study #2- Horses can Distinguish Patterns
Remember having to distinguish different patterns when you were in school? Equestrian researchers did similar tests to study a horse’s brainpower further.
Compared to other animals in the species, such as the zebra and donkey, horses ranked the highest in their ability to distinguish patterns. Given up to twenty designs, horses could pick the patterns correctly, often earning a perfect score.
Study #3- Horses Have Good Memory
Equine researcher Evelyn Hanggi commented, “What horses learn, they
remember for a very long time, and what happens during training stays with them long enough to either benefit or hinder the process.”
Though the domesticated horse must meet a different set of expectations when compared to its wild counterparts, the fact is that horses use their memory for survival.
Especially in the wild, a horse must learn all the different kinds of plants to ensure it doesn’t mistakenly eat something poisonous, prickly, or just plain yucky. There are additional studies that even exhibit a horse’s short-term memory.
A horse’s long-term memory is fascinating, but other research by Evelyn Hanggi suggests that a horse may also make good use of short-term memory.
Results indicated that by providing correct responses to specific tests after delayed-release, a horse could remember something in the short term even after exposure to distractions.
Study #4- Facial Expressions and Body Language
The effects of facial expressions and body language during communication can significantly alter an interaction. For example, people tend to associate better with someone who sends a calm and relaxed vibe through their disposition, rather than someone who appears angry or hard-to-approach.
Researchers have conducted similar tests with various animal species for years, attempting to understand the significance of bodily expression better.
In 2016, researchers carefully studied how horses respond to various stimuli in an incredible study funded by the University of Sussex in sunny England (joke there).
When given happy and angry posters to look at, the horses studied exhibited “lateralized responses towards human emotion.” In simpler words, the horses did not like seeing the posters of the angry persons.
Not only did the displeasing posters show a significant increase in the horses’ heart rates, but their biased use of the left eye is connected explicitly to the part of the brain responsible for dealing with negative stimuli.
Is One Breed of Horse Smarter Than the Rest?
Although researchers have laid some incredible groundwork in the research and study of equine intelligence, there is still not much work done on specific breeds.
With that said, people may tend to fluff up the intelligence levels of whatever breeds they particularly own, so there is not yet a science-backed response for this question- so, therefore, it remains pretty opinionated.
Regardless of this, here is a shortlist (in no particular order) of what you may find if you try to search for the smartest horse breed:
- American Quarter
The Mathematical Wiz: Smartest Horse in History
I’m not saying you should try to teach your horse the multiplication tables, but the fact that ole Clever Hans could is remarkable nonetheless. Through its acute recognition of human body responses, Hans the Math Wiz would use hoof taps to signal the correct answer to arithmetic problems.
Not only did Hans excel in math, but this horse demonstrated high cognitive abilities in colors, music, and even spelling.
While the size of one’s brain does not directly relate to how intelligent that person is, an exciting horse fact is that the equine brain is typically agreed to be about the size of a grapefruit, weighing just a couple of pounds.
William E. Simpson, author and horse advocate, notes that some scientists have even said: “horses have the intelligence of 12-year old humans.”
Horses vs. Other Animals
Typically, people refer to dogs in regards to superior animal intelligence- they probably get most of the hype because they are indeed the “most popular pet globally,” according to Steve Dale’s Pet World.
While it is impossible to compare the intelligence across different animals, humans have recognized superior abilities in both the horse and the dog.
Remember that intelligence cannot be limited to a dry and repetitive following of commands. Instead, intelligence more closely refers to the ability to work through various real-world situations by utilizing multiple tools, including:
- sensory awareness and perception
- memory and decision-making skills
- social intelligence
- emotional and empathetic intelligence
- spatial and navigational intelligence
Horse owners should feel incredibly blessed to cohabitate their piece of paradise with their horsey companions. The true gist of any relationship is the opportunity to grow together.
A horse (or any other animal, for that matter) requires love and stimulation and freedom of expression, just like people. But, unfortunately, the ranch and paddock life is a relatively recent occurrence in the evolution of horses.
Even if the Przewalski horse is the only truly wild horse left, horses have been roaming the earth for approximately 55 million years. Watching a horse in the wild is a privilege. If you have one of these majestic creatures at home, take the time to interact with your horse.
The effective use of words and body language can carry on a conversation (so to speak) with your horse. And being able to recognize your horse’s body position, movements, and other individual peculiarities will be a skill you can continue to work on with the proper attention, dedication, and stimulation.
Horses are intelligent- they have incredible emotional and cognitive abilities that shine brightly. These stunning animals loyally trot and canter alongside horse owners worldwide, but we must remember to listen when they speak, and they will listen when you talk.
For the love of all things horse-related, would you mind leaving your questions or concerns in the comment field below?