Horse intelligence

Are horses Smart? One question, several answer…


  • #horsemanship
  • #communication

It is about forty years ago now since scientific studies of the behaviour of horses started with a science called ‘Ethology’. The profusion of books and magazine articles on the ethology of the horse over the last several years is enough to show the interest of people in deeply knowing the horse.
It is mainly in the last fifteen years that cognitive ethology has addressed to the horse. This field takes into account the study of the horse’s cognition together with all the specific mental capacities of this animal as built up by evolution.

One of the first question that arises in considering the mental capacities of horses is: Are they intelligent?
This question has provoqued a variety of responses, some contradictory. In the literature there are authors of different background from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, incuded renowned horsemen, who have written about this topic.

Among the authors, Ernest Menault (1869) provides a good starting point. Menault, in his book titled ‘The intelligence of Animal’, writes: “The noblest conquest that man has ever made is, without any doubt, that of the horse. Everything in this animal breathes out vivacity and energy. That need of continual movement, that impatience during repose, that nervous movement of the lips, that stamping of the feet, all indicate a pressing need of activity. The fullness of the skull and the expansion of his forehead show intelligence.
The usual marks of the intelligent horse – one easily understanding his master’s order – are a well developed head, eyes full and deep, jaws short, broad forehead, ears erect and diverging one from the other and both eyes and ears very sensitive…
Not only is his brain developed and provided with circomvolutions but he also posseses exquisite senses…”. These words in favor of equine intelligence are articulated with ‘more poetry than rigor’ but It is also true that they are in keeping with scientific notions of the time. In the recent years equine ethology developed and there are different studies that confirm equine intelligence. The question at the end is not about equine intelligence but what is meant by ‘intelligence’…