The Intelligence of Horses

Most humans think that the horse is a stupid species.  [Of course, they also assume that the human is an intelligent species.]

Intelligence expresses itself in a variety of ways:

  1. Reason – Actually, scientific studies have shown that many species display some ability to reason, however slight. For example, the cetaceans (sea mammals, such as the dolphin), the Great Apes (chimps, etc.), the dog, and even the horse have proven the ability to reason and make decisions based upon that quality.
  2. Perception – The ability to perceive through the five senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) are all brain related. Technically those five senses are known as the visual, the auditory, the olfactory, the gustatory and the tactile senses.
  3. Response Time – The interval possible between the perception (above) of a stimulus, and the response to it is known as the response time. It is determined by the brain.
  4. Speed of Learning – This varies considerably between species and between individuals within a given species.
  5. Memory – An important quality. Some species have relatively short memories, whereas other species have remarkably long memories.
  6. Desensitization – The ability to overcome previously learned behaviors (but not to forget them), IF new information is properly Also, the ability to desensitize to alarming new stimuli (habituation is the technical term) providing that they are correctly presented.

Based upon these six qualities, the horse is an intelligent creative animal. Except for the first, the power of reason, which is extremely weak in the horse, the horse rates very high in the other five.  The reason for this is Natural Selection.  The horse evolved on grassy plains which were also the habitat for hungry predators, especially of the dog and cat family.  Not possessing the defensive weaponry of so many other prey species, such as the horns of buffalo, the nasal spike of rhinoceros, the tusks of elephants or swine, or the armor of a porcupine, a hedgehog, an armadillo, or the scent glands of a skunk, the horse had to depend upon flight to stay alive.

The horse is a flight animal.  Its behavior, its anatomy, and its physiology all are the result of the flight defense, and, in order to understand horses, we humans must understand and respect that fact.  The flightiness of the horse is why we humans values horses for long distance travel, for hunting, for warfare, for recreation, and for agriculture, but it is also the reason why horses can be difficult at times, and even dangerous to us.

Accepting that the horse has little reasoning power, let’s look at the other five qualities of equine intelligence.

Perception: The horse is the most perceptive of all domestic animals.  Why?  Because, in the wild, the least perceptive did not survive to reproduce and perpetuate the species.

That’s why horses see the vaguest movement, a rustling piece of plastic in the wind, movement in a field of tall grass, and why they see well in the dark.

It is why they have such a sensitive tactile sense even able to feel an insect landing on their hair (not the skin) and respond to it.

The extreme perceptivity of the horse is often not understood by the human.  It is difficult, for us, a much less perceptive predatory species, to realize that the horse sees things, smells things, hears things and feels things that we are unaware of.  The incredible perceptivity of the horse enables it to feel, even when changes in our position, our weight, our tenseness, or our relaxation.

Response Time: No matter how young we are, how athletic we may be, how coordinated, we are no match for the horse’s response time.  That’s one reason some people are kicked, or struck, or bitten, or bucked off.  I have heard so many times “For no reason at all”, the horse did this or that.  There is always a reason.

Speed of Learning: No other domestic animal, and certainly no human, can learn as fast as does an equine.  Why?  Because the slower learners, in the wild, did not survive.   Moreover, the horse is a precocial species.  All of its senses are functioning at birth, unlike non-precocial species such as puppies, kittens, and helpless human infants.  Its imprinting period is right after it is born, and not delayed as in non-precocial (ALTRICIAL) SPECIES.  It is able to be on its feet and run with the herd and follow its mother shortly after birth.  Its learning ability is at its peak in its lifetime during the minutes, the hours, and the days immediately after birth.  That’s why, if we ignore training the newborn foal, we are missing the best time for it to learn in its entire lifetime.

Why is this so?  Because the slow learners did not survive in the wild.  They were eaten.

Memory:  The horse has one of the best memories in the animal kingdom.  Why?  Because those that had poor memories in the wild did not survive to reproduce.  It is Natural Selection.  That’s why most mustang herds are led by an old mare.  She’s not the strongest, or the most powerful leader, but she has survived longer than the rest of the herd, and she remembers when to run, which way to run, and how far to run.

Thus horses remember each new experience.  They remember them as a good experience, or as a bad experience.  They never forget.  That’s why some gifted people have been able, throughout history, to train horses so fast and so effectively.  They do each thing correctly.  The horse doesn’t have to cope with, or overcome, many bad experiences.

Desensitization:  The horse, this flighty, swift, timid, grazing prey creature, can be more quickly desensitized to a new, potentially frightening stimulus than any other domestic animal.

How come?  If they are so flighty, so sensitive to perceived stimuli, so aware, so reactive, why can they be so quickly desensitized to a new frightening stimulus such as being touched anywhere on the body, to loud noises like electric clippers, drums, gunshots, and horns.

It is because a flight creature, once it realizes that the frightening stimulus is not harmful, must henceforth not fear it, or it would be forever running away.  There would be no time to eat, or drink, or rest, or reproduce.

This is one of the secrets of proper horsemanship.  Just as we can teach this sensitive, perceptive, flighty animal to move or not to move to a very light stimuli (turning, backing, stopping, tying, jumping, loading, etc., etc.), we can similarly teach it to react badly to improper stimuli such as leading, tying, bridling, farriery, spraying, etc., etc.

I must confess that, although I loved horses when I was very young, I did think they were stupid.  Why else would a horse fear a spray can, or run through a barbed wire fence.  Why were primitive tribes able to stampede horses off of cliffs in order to obtain the carcasses for food?  Why would a horse, tangled in a harness, freak out damaging itself, the harness, and the wagon?  Must be stupid right?

No it wasn’t stupidity.  It was nature’s survival behavior in a completely unnatural situation.  Nor was I stupid, I was just uninformed.  So are many horse owners and other people who work with horses.

Finally, in my twenties, I began to understand.  Now, that I am in my nineties, I am still learning.  There is so much to learn.  How I wish the opportunities to learn today were available to everyone.

Video clinics by competent horsemen, books, the internet, TV programs that are on RFD-TV, expos, and the horse magazines make the necessary knowledge available to everyone.

So, finally, I realized that the horse is not a stupid animal.  Like most humans, most horses no longer live in the environment that the early habitat equipped them to survive, via Natural Selection.

The horse is still important to many of us, even in this modern hi-tech age.  Like us, the horse is somewhat handicapped to survive the modern world but is capable of doing so.  However, because we have the first of the six qualities of intelligence (reason), developed to a unique degree, it is up to us to learn how to get along with horses properly.  This requires education and experience, because the way we humans communicate with each other is not automatically comprehensible to the horse.  Moreover, because the horse is a physically large, powerful and fast moving animal, they are capable of seriously injuring us if we do not do things correctly.