Are Horses Smart?
It’s common for people to confuse a horse’s kind nature and acceptance of being in captivity for stupidity, but horses are far from dumb. Approach a horse who has not been fed and pampered by people and their response won’t be so friendly. This is because horses, just like humans, learn from their experiences.
Let’s go back a bit. How do we classify smart in the first place? A starting point for describing an intelligent being is the ability to learn, observe, and understand the world around them. Horses are more than capable of doing all of these things. Plus, they have incredible memories and can quickly remember trainers, commands, and situations from 10+ years ago.
Horses & Concept Learning
We rely on our mind’s ability to compartmentalize everything we see, hear, and do into appropriate categories. That way, we can quickly make sense of all of the high volume sensory hitting us each moment. According to horse intelligence research, horses do this very same thing. You might be wondering just how researchers know this– it’s not like a horse can outright tell us. Researchers have several methods to test horse intelligence. One of these ways involves presenting a sample of similar objects (say 1 purple block and 1 purple triangle) to see if the horse can differentiate the two, and fit one object inside of the other. Horses are capable of this task, and they are also equipped with some degree of concept formation, and spatial visualization skills—helping to explain how some horses (aka my naughty boy Stanley) always find a way to unlock their stall door.
Observant as a Horse
If a guest noticed a new lamp or comforter in your home you’d consider this person intelligent, when instead they are simply being observant. You might think your horse isn’t paying that much attention to you and everything you are doing, but in actuality horses are more observant than you or I. Try moving one object at the barn and your horse will notice in an instant, in fact if he’s anything like my horse Stanley, he won’t stop checking it out! Horses depend on their keen observation skills to stay alive in the wild, always listening out for predators so that they are ready to flee before danger can find them.
It’s not just stationary objects horses take note of; you are under hardcore observation as well. Your horse is more aware of you than you are of him, not only your actions but also how you dress, how you sound, your size, and every other detail about you. We know this for sure now thanks to a study by Jessica Lampe; an undergrad from Oxford University at the time, Jessica wanted to know if horses would notice subtle changes in their handlers, such as a change of voice, appearance, or even scent. Horses were quick to recognize all discrepancies, taking more time than usual to check slightly changed persons out, often looking away only to look right back. These documented reactions are much different than when routine stimulus is presented. All in all, this means your horse uses a whole set of indicters to tell people apart—I’d call that a start to intelligence, wouldn’t you?
Ears like a Horse
He who hears the food truck first, gets the first helping of food—it’s not only our brains that help us get around in the world but our other senses do too, like our ability to hear. Horses have the biggest ears in town, which helps them hear just about everything going on around them. If you are riding a horse and their ears crane backwards a little, you know they are listening to you, in fact wherever their big ears are pointing is where they are giving a listen. Using the 180-degree swivel both equine ears come equipped with, horses can hear 360 degrees around them without having to move anything more than the angle of their pointy ear.
Propri—or what? It’s a strange word I know, but it’s important to know what it means because horses are fluent at it. Proprioception is the subconscious ability to know where all limbs are at all times without having to look around or think about it. Not all species are blessed with this trait, although the horse is. It is easily one of the reasons horses make such great mounts—can you imagine if your horse didn’t always know where her legs were without checking? I can picture the tangled, tumbling disaster that would be! On the contrary, horses are highly sensitive and aware of their bodies, they can feel everything at all times, even something as subtle as a small insect landing on the tip of their rump.
How Horses Make Us Smarter
Horses make us smarter too! The University of Kentucky recently underwent a study that found participants who had recently worked with horses scored higher on the same emotional intelligence test compared to those who had not recently spent any time around horses. It makes perfect sense really, when working with horses you have to adopt a whole new language, one largely based off body signals. This develops a new set of skills, even if it’s only subconscious, allowing people who work around horses the ability to better understand the wants and motives of those around them.