The intelligence of the horse

Are horses smart? It’s an important question, given our unique relationship with these animals.


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This question has provoked a variety of response in the literature, some contradictory. People often try to draw comparisons between cats and dogs and horses. It’s difficult because each of the species draws on a totally different set of evolutionary values. Cats and dogs are predatory animals, They have an innate aggressiveness which you can guarantee even the most docile of cats or dogs will produce with the appropriate stimuli. Horses have evolved as prey animals. They are the hunted. Their instinctive flight response and much of their complex interaction within a herd have grown from this basic premise: escape or be eaten. There are some who dismiss horses as being instinctive rather than cognitive in their behaviour. While equines do display a well-tuned and instinctive flight response, the suggestion is clearly ridiculous for anyone who spends time around horses. Horses quickly learn to recognise commands and body language. They understand the sounds of meal time, such as the noise of a quad bike they know will be loaded with hay, or the rumbling of a grain crusher in a feed shed. There is a herd mentality. But this can be seen in every herd species on the planet. The somewhat derogatory phrase also ignores the considerable complexities involved in relationships within a herd. So, it’s very important to explore equine herd dynamics in order to understand the mind of the horse. Ethology is the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour, with a focus on behaviour under natural conditions. Equine ethology ‘s studies started in 1970.

Many authors deal with this important question: “how intelligent are horses?”. Among them, Ernest Menault wrote a book titled “The intelligence of animals’ (1868). In this book he writes: “The noblest conquest that man has ever made is, with no 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 are a 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 possesses exquisite senses’”… So, Manault writes in favour of equine intelligence, not only with scientific basis ma also with poetry… We should always keep in mind that domesticated horses must face great challenges, having to live in largely unsuitable or artificial environments. They must suppress instincts while learning tasks that are not natural behaviours, and must co-exist with humans who sometimes behave bizarrely – at least from an equine standpoint.