How intelligent are horses?

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Someone recently asked me if horses are “stupid.”  I replied with a resounding, “No.”  They countered, “Well they are certainly not very intelligent.” to which I said, “Horses are as intelligent as they need to be.”  I wasn’t trying to be funny when I said it either.  I will say that a horse can outsmart a person, on occasion, however.

In fact if a headstrong horse took advantage of a rider, a natural reaction would be to blame the bad performance on the horse.  A rider may act defensively and call the horse “stupid” when they actually feel a little stupid themselves.  Perhaps you know someone who calls all horses of a certain breed stupid.  For example, I know someone who thinks all Arabian horses and mustangs are feeble minded.  The reality may be their reaction to the horses’ high energy, intelligence, or wileyness, not their stupidity.

A horse’s intelligence is the result of its adaptation to the environment.  It is functional and is something that is essential for the horse to survive.  Horses have many skills and abilities that give them a survival advantage; for example, the ability to run away from danger, to kick at a predator, or to whinny to other horses over long distances.

The horse’s senses are also a part of its adaptation.  The ability to smell water or food that is far away is an adaptation, just like detecting a predator with the sense of hearing.  Many horseback riders wished that their horse did not have such a finely-tuned sense of hearing when it comes to this.  Hearing a rustling in the underbrush has lead to many a frightened runaway horse.

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 A horse can hear movement in the brush better than we can.  They can hear frequencies as high as 30,000 hertz, whereas we can only perceive sounds up to 20,000 hertz.  Grass moving in the wind, a predator’s footsteps, or even a plastic bag make high frequency sounds that we can’t hear.  No wonder horses want to run away from such sounds and no wonder it is a surprise to us at times.

A horse, it has been said, has the intelligence of a very small child and the reasoning ability superior to that of a German Sheppard.  Horses, being herd animals, obviously think differently than we do.  So a strict comparison of “cognitive skills” is impossible.  Horses also have very highly attuned “social intelligence.”  They know who the leader of their herd is.  They know who to follow and who they can kick around.  The status of an individual and ranking of horses in a group is called the social hierarchy.

A group of horses that live together work out their status amongst themselves.  They test each other and may even fight to determine the most dominant horse.  The initial stages of determining rank may seem cruel; new horses get bitten, kicked, and otherwise picked on by the older more dominant horses.  A new horse in the herd may get beaten up quite a bit initially. The fighting diminishes as they fit into the group.  In a mature herd the ones who fight are usually not the very dominant or the very submissive, these horses know where they stand.  It’s the horses in the middle that challenge each other the most.

Horses can also identify the leader of a group of people, if they have a chance to observe and interact with them.  I have had the opportunity to observe this many times when teaching horseback riding.  The lesson horse knows that the rider is in charge and is giving the commands.  The horse also knows that the riding instructor is “in charge” of the student and is telling the rider what to do.  I have found this to be true even with horses that have never been used as lesson horses before.  Horses can judge, by the instructor’s body language, tone of voice, and interaction with horse and riding student that they are at the top of the hierarchy.  An experienced lesson horse may know their job so well that they respond to the instructor’s voice commands.  When the teacher asks the student rider to “Trot” the horse gets it and goes into a trot before the student gets a chance to cue the horse.

Many times when the new rider is struggling and giving inconsistent signals to their mount, the horse will seek out the instructor and follow their directions, instead of those of the student.  The horse may even face-up, walk straight to the instructor, and burry its head in the instructor’s chest, in an act of submission.  Actually, doing this is the horse’s way of saying, “Please help me.  The person who is riding me is just not very intelligent.”

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Dr. Ken Marlborough is also known as The Horse Professor. He has taught English and Western riding in Iowa and California since 1995. He also wrote and illustrated the book,Trail Riding. He began his career in the equine industry as a Trail Guide in 1985 and has worked in this capacity since that time. He trains horses using an approach that emphasises learning in the horse while earning their trust and respect. Ken, sometimes called “Doc” by his students, earned his Ph.D. in Education at the University of Iowa, focusing on “learning by doing.” One of the areas he researched was college internships in the equine industry. He earned an A.A.S. degree in Horse Science at Kirkwood College, specialising in colt starting, and received teaching credentials in Equine Science, Education and Psychology, while in Iowa. Ken writes as a columnist for heartofahorse.com; a charity that focuses on maintaining and stimulating the unwavering well-being of horses in America.

  • Colleen ashcom

    Love horses. Neighbor has 10 horses. We feed them apples & carrots. One horse JR is VERY affectionet. He seems to prefer me over my husband. When I tell him to give me some sugar he let’s me kiss that big soft sweet smelling nose. I think he likes me. When he sees me out in the yard he whinees.What do you think? Are we bonded?

    • Colleen ashcom

      I’m very curious for an answer. I don’t ride horses but have had close contact with them for 20 or more years. Anyone can answer me. I love this horse & look for him every day. He comes to me without calling for him. He nuzzles my head & neck & even fell asleep with his head resting on my shoulder.

      • Horse Crazy

        Well, obviously there is a connection between you two. I have connections with horses as well and they are very smart creatures. I think I have a source for you that can help you understand horses better. It’s a book called “Angel Horses”. I’m only thirteen but there are very cool stories in this book. I read it when I got it for my twelve birthday. The stories are very very fascinating! I STRONGLY reccomend it. Find in a book store or online. I hope I helped you, Colleen! Horses are great! :) <3

        • Colleen ashcom

          Thank you so much for your help. I am going to get the book to enlighten my love for these animals. Sadly one of the horses passed away. She was over 30 years old. Sadly the day before she died she kept lying down in the field. Her buddy Sonny Boy whom is blind was lying down beside her. It was so eerie. Sonny Boy KNEW she was I’ll & was comforting her. When I saw that I knew in my heart that something was wrong. I didn’t know if it was my place to call the owner or not. He’s not very receptive, if you know what I mean. They buried her in the field & I can see her grave from my deck. I feel very bad because I suspected she was ill. Well, thank you again for your help. I’ll be calling my bookstore to order the book. Take Care!