Are Horses Smart?

If dogs are man’s best friend, horses are our dutiful colleague. These beautiful creatures have been a companion to humanity since the start of recorded history, and they have aided in our rise and our success.

Without horses, we would not have been able to build awe-inspiring constructs or have great trade routes that stretched across continents.

Are Horses Smart?

They changed the way in which people travel and transport goods, and empires have been built upon their shoulders. It is clear to see that horses are very important to our success, and their abilities are incredible.

However, among those abilities that they have, is intelligence one of them? We can see intellect in many creatures, both great and small, but for horses it can be hard to judge.

This is perhaps because although they are domesticated, it is not in the same way as cats or dogs who live with us in the house.

Instead, their intelligence may be more wild and unrecognizable, but is it even there? Today, we will look closely at a horse’s intellect and discover whether they truly are smart creatures.

So, Are Horses Smart?

This may come as a shock to most people – yet absolutely not to a person who has an extended interaction with a horse – but horses are quite intelligent creatures.

The problem for a lot of humans when we examine an animal’s behavior for intelligence is that most animals we look at are predators.

Predators are going to act differently to prey in given situations and since most of our companions or animals that we recognize as intelligent are predators, it gives us a preconceived bias about what intelligence should look like.

This is especially true for flight or fight responses that animals exhibit, as prey can be spooked easily and will instinctively flee unless trained otherwise.

Another concern is that we look at horses very similarly to dogs when comparing intelligence, which is a mistake. Dogs are medium-sized pack animals that can be motivated easily. Horses are enormous herd animals that are not naturally motivated.

They will follow the herd, but they are also liable to wander off and do their own thing if they see something they like.

Don’t get me wrong, horses can understand what you want if communicated properly, they just don’t really care that much unless you give them a reason to.

Due to dogs always wanting a form of stimulation it is much easier to get them to do what you want, as such horse intelligence should be considered more like a cats, in that their contentment is not beholden to you but that in no way makes them stupid.

With this in mind, let’s have a look at the intellectual abilities that most horses have, and you can decide for yourself whether a horse’s intelligence is high or low.

Intellectual Skills

Are horses smart?

Emotional Recognition

This may come as a shock to some people, but in tests and studies, horse’s have proven unilaterally that they can recognize human emotions.

That’s right, that animal that was just thought of as quite literally a work horse is adept at understanding you, maybe even more than yourself.

This ability is said to be on par with that of a domestic dog and, in much the same way as a dog, they will respond to the emotions of people they like.

In fact, horses become very personable when you are not having a good time and will often force or demand cuddles on those that are upset and avoid angry or people in a mood at all costs, even walking in a wide arc away from them.

However, emotional intelligence in horses may beat out that of dogs, horses have even been shown to recognize the emotions of someone in a photograph and respond in kind. This skill is something that I’m not sure dogs – or even I – could do.

Are horses smart?

Communicative Ability

Horses are able to communicate with us quite well, in fact. After a few repetitions, horses were found to be able to make associations and communicate with their handlers in a way the handlers can understand.

In one case, the horses were taught that touching a coat with their muzzle meant they were cold and that they wanted to wear the coat.

This was done for 23 horses in a stable. For the next year, these horses were monitored and every time it got cold or wet, the horses came up and asked for a coat by touching their muzzle to the material. When it was hot or sunny, not one horse asked for a coat.

This communicative ability may not be on par with dogs, or it may well be but because of a horse’s temperamental nature, they choose to ignore commands.

We may never know, but what we do know is that their ability to understand their riders’ directions is a lot less to do with instinct and more so with intellect.

Are horses smart?

Exceptional Visual And Auditory Recognition Skills

We already spoke about how horses can recognize emotions in people, but their recognition ability goes far beyond that.

There is always the story of horses going up to the same person who always has a carrot, when in actuality horses would probably still go to that person even if they didn’t have a carrot.

This is because horses can recognize us. They know our faces and smells, which means that if you have a horse that likes you, and you are in the vicinity it will probably make its way towards you, just because it enjoys being around you.

The more time you spend with a horse, the more likely it’ll recognize you and this memory of who you are can last years.

However, that is not the most impressive skill that horses have for knowing their favorite people. They actually have a skill that some people struggle with. Horses can identify you, just from your voice.

That’s right, a horse that can’t understand human language or speech patterns knows exactly who you are just from how you sound.

Recent studies have shown that horses are able to match voices to the faces of people they know very quickly, normally only a few seconds.

This skill probably developed because they are herd animals, and it makes it easier to identify your herd over others, but it is still impressive.

Are horses smart?

In Comparison To Other Creature’s Intellect, Where Do Horses Sit?

As stated earlier, we use predators and close companion animals as indicators of animal intelligence most of the time, so this is a little tricky to answer. However, if we do some comparisons using human intellect, it may give a very rough picture of where horses sit.

A cat’s intelligence is roughly the same as that of a 2-year-old child and a dog’s is about that of a 3 to 5-year-old child.

A horse’s intelligence has been compared to a 3-year-old child, making it quite clever among the animals. As such, we can kind of place it squarely in between a cats and a dog’s intelligence with the potential for it to be higher.

I believe with more studies taking place in the future that maybe this could change, but for now it is in the middle.

Final Thoughts

Horses are among the most intelligent animals, to say otherwise would be to give false information. We may not think or understand their intelligence as well as other animals, and they may not care to show us their intellect, but that does not make them stupid.

In the future, we will hopefully examine horse intelligence more closely and come to a more concrete conclusion, but for now we can simply marvel at these wonderful, smart, and beautiful creatures who have remained our companions for thousands of years.

Catherine McDowl
Latest posts by Catherine McDowl (see all)