Let me tell you a story…I first met a horse in my senior year of high school. I joined a club that worked with the horses once a week to ride them, take care of them, or just be with them as they played in the horse riding enclosure.
During our first meeting, we gathered in the enclosure to meet the horses and learn about their personalities. One horse, named Shine, immediately made himself known to us that day.
Are horses smart? According to the Animal Intelligence Hierarchy ranking of animal intelligence horses come in at number seven on the list. The study describes horses as very smart, active, they adapt quickly, and they learn new things rapidly. Their smartness is described as very different from other animals. Horses Are Very Intelligent Creatures.
He paced around the enclosure, eyeing the gate opening and our group. About halfway through our meeting, he walked up to the gate and pushed at the latch holding the door closed.
All at once, the gate was open, and he was soon eating hay at the pile of hay bales at the entrance to the horse area.
Our instructor warned us that day that Shine was a bit of an escape artist. He knew how to open the gate if it wasn’t properly closed and locked. Shine would take every advantage he could to get to the hay bales when people opened his enclosure or pen.
There are many different ways to judge ‘smarts’, and when talking about how creatures are smart in one way or another, it’s important to remember that animals can be smart in more than one way, or in a way you might not consider at first. Also, common sense seems to often be on display from horses!
Are Horses Intelligent?
Horse Intelligence Facts
Horses aren’t often recognized as “intelligent” animals, at least when they’re compared with cats or dogs. You might hear about the amazing mental accomplishments of our furry friends, and horses can seem relatively unimpressive in comparison. Some say horses are dumb.
All that being said, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that not only are horses “smart,” but they can do some of the same things humans can, just at a different level.
You may have heard the comment that a horses intellect is similar to a young human child. This may be true but we all know young children can be very smart and full of intelligence.
There have been horse studies that clearly showed horses communicating with humans in certain situations. They actually sent “signals” to their caretakers in a variety of ways. Is this a sure sign of horse intelligence? I think so!
This is a side note but interesting! Many horses are know to run riders under low-hanging tree branches and to approach a fence at a high speed then stop on a dime. Hmmm, wonder why they would do that?
Well, to throw the rider off their backs that is why! Is that being smart and cunning all at the same time?
Horse Characteristics Personality
- Horses are Observant.
- Horses Learn from their Environment.
- Horses can read Body Language to decipher your Emotions.
- Horses can Communicate with You.
- Horses can Learn Commands.
- Horses can Learn from Training.
- Horses can Consistently Perform Certain Actions when Requested.
Let’s look at each of those topics in more depth.
Horses Can Learn About Their Environment
Shine had learned how to open the gate to the horse enclosure through hours of being in there and a determination to get to the food so tantalizingly close to the entrance.
Horses are very observant and patient, taking time to reason things out and learn from their surroundings to get what they want.
How Do Horses Think?
In a 2015 study on shape distinguishing, in which horses, chimpanzees, and humans participated, research found that “Horses were able to discriminate a difference of 14% in circle size.”
While this was amazing in itself, horses did not perform as well compared to the human and chimp participants in telling the difference between certain shapes.
Still, researchers thought that if they had trained the horses for a longer time before performing the experiment, horses could have performed better in the other areas of the experiment, bringing their responses closer to those of more intelligent species.
Though the horses performed poorly on the size distinction part of the test, they performed better the second time they were tested. And it should be noted the study says it only tested “three ponies” so you could say the results were not conclusive. Interesting!
Horse Field of Vision
Part of the reason horses may struggle when compared to humans is that they have poor vision, or at least significantly worse vision than humans do. This was considered in the above experiment as well.
Horses eyes are on the side of their heads and are very large. This gives them almost 360 degree vision but it also limits their ability to see all that well straight in front of them.
Horses have one of, if not the largest, eyes of all mammals that are land based. It is said that the majority of a horses vision is ‘binocular’ vision.
However, horses still have awesome observational skills, and use them to get things they want, just as Shine learned to get out of the enclosure.
Horses Can Respond to Your Emotions
Horses are very popular animals for therapy groups, especially for children with autism or mental health problems. What makes them useful in these situations?
Can Horses Sense Human Emotions?
Horses’ principle skill in deciphering emotions is the ability to read body language. A 2016 study showed that horses have different reactions to negative facial expressions than to positive ones.
So horses do read human facial expressions! Amazing!
The study showed that horses’ heart rates increased dramatically while viewing the negative facial expressions. Also, they looked at the face with their left eye, which transmits information to the area in their brain that processes negative objects.
How do Horses Communicate with Humans?
Horses are very reactive towards the body language of people around them. In my horse club, we observed and interacted with the horses in the pasture often.
I noticed that when I felt anxious or upset, the horses acted jumpier, avoidant, and nervous, even if I didn’t feel like I was acting different than normal.
This behavior is part of what makes horses so useful for therapy. As children interact with the horses, they see the emotions they’re feeling reflected in the horses. They can then process the emotions they see in the horses, and by doing so address their own feelings.
When this happens, horses are actually teaching children how to feel and process emotions, and how to communicate their feelings to others.
They can do the same thing for adults who have difficulty with mental health and processing their emotions. Think about that. Horses can teach humans how to deal with their emotions.
Horses Can Talk to You
I chose Shine as the horse I rode–I liked his spirit, and I was intrigued by his ability to escape his confines and his determination to do so.
He was a difficult horse to ride because he was stubborn and liked to do things his own way, but we eventually learned how to communicate and compromise with each other.
Horse riders know better than anyone about the way horses communicate with us. The sport of horse riding is all about the communication between horse and rider, and getting to know the horse better is one of the best ways of improving at riding.
Rachele Malavasi, from the School of Ethical Equitation, Moncigoli di Fivizzano, Italy posted the results of her study into how horses communicate with humans. This report showed that horses do indeed communicate with humans via “referential gestures” to get the desired response from a human.
The study went on to explain that a horse would use a certain gesture to get the attention of the human in order to achieve the desired goal. An example cited was the horse using head nods and shakes to point out a feed bucket that was beyond their reach.
Horse Body Language
Shine would tell me, with his body language, that he was tired by slowing down and resisting when I tried to get him to run again. He’d tense if we got too close to another horse while we were riding, and that would tell me that we needed to get further away from them.
He’d push me with his nose if he wanted me to pet his head, and drag his hoof on the ground when he wanted food.
This behavior is similar to the behavior we see dogs exhibiting when they want the food you’re eating, or when they want to go on a walk.
You may notice these attempts at communication more readily because you spend more time with your dog than you do with horses, but both animals have ways of telling us when they want things.
The only thing lacking here is human comprehension. You need to pay more attention to your equine friends to know when they’re trying to tell you something. It isn’t their intelligence that is lacking, it is your own observation.
Horses communicate mostly with body language. That includes their facial expressions and how they move.
Horse Facial Expressions (list)
- Widening of the eyes. [Often indicates being scared.]
- Raising their eyelids (or inner eyebrow). [Could mean sadness or fear.]
- Eyes closed to just a slit. [Angry.]
- Eyes darting. [Confusion.]
- Eyes half-closed. [Sleepy.]
- Ears, both pinned back. [Anger. Being defensive.] Be Alert!
- Ears, both full forward. [Curious & Inquisitive.]
- Ears turned in different directions. [Trying to be aware of the surrounding environment.]
- Nostrils flared and snorting. [Angry or Fearful.]
- Snorting. Can also mean full of energy. [Happy, playful & excited.]
- Sniffing and Blowing air via the nose. [Curious. Playful. Caring and Affection for you.]
- Hanging lower lip. [Relaxed. Sleepy.]
- Licking. [Hungry.]
- Yawning. [Tired. Stress Relief.]
- Teeth exposed. [Could be anger.]
- Tongue out. [Playing. Didn’t like the taste of something.]
More Horse Body Language
- Head hanging down. Could be resting, not feeling so well or bored.
- Head held down in a bulllike charging position. Anger. Watch out!
- Tail Swishing back and forth. Could be annoyed. Swatting flies.
- Tail held up. Excited. Full of energy.
- Turns their hindquarters to you. Defiant. Upset. Be alert.
- Pawing the ground with front hoofs. Not happy. Impatient.
- Stomping the ground with rear legs. Could be due to flies. Boredom.
Horse Sounds and Meanings
Why do Horses Whinny?
Ever wonder why a horse makes a neigh or whinny sound? If you are not a horse person you have probably seen and heard this in a TV show or on a movie with horses in it.
It seems that this high pitched sound a horse makes is some type of greeting or call to another horse or even a human. Almost as if to say “Hi” or “Here I am!” The whinny is usually pretty loud and can be heard from a far distance. The horse is usually excited when it whinnies.
A horse nicker sound is much different than a neigh or whinny. This common sounds is in a low volume that seems to almost ‘rumble’ out of the insides of the whole horse.
You usually hear a horse ‘nicker’ when they are happy or content and in anticipation of something good like feeding time or a treat.
Horses Can Learn Complex Commands
Have you heard of the horse whisperer? An interesting scientific study, called “Horses can communicate with us”, taught horses how to ask for a blanket in cold weather, or ask for it to be taken off in the summer.
According to the report, the scientists teamed up with a horse trainer (horse whisperer) and worked with 23 horses to teach them how to communicate with humans.
In 2016, BBC radio reported on a study in which scientists taught a group of horses to touch their nose to boards with certain symbols on them that meant they either wanted their blanket on, wanted it taken off, or wanted it to stay the way it was.
Then, they were tested on different days to tell the scientists what they wanted for their blanket. On a hot summer day, all of the horses asked for their blanket to be taken off.
Another day, when it was 45 degrees outside, almost all of them asked for a blanket to be put on! Horses display this skill for learning and following commands in simpler environments too.
Basic Horse Riding Commands
For example, you can tell a horse to go faster, slower, or stop. You can lead horses by pulling their reins one way or the other, and certain riders train their horses to jump over hurdles for shows.
Commands like these help humans and horses create a stronger bond, and training is a good way for them to learn to talk to each other.
Horse Riding Commands
- “Whoa” (Ho) means Stop
- “Walk” means Walk
- “Trot” means Trot
- “Cantor” means Run
- “Gallop” means Run Fast
- “Clicking Sound” with your mouth/tongue = Speed up
- “Easy” means Move Slowly
- “Back” means Back up
Scientists are always studying horses’ learning and problem-solving potentials. The blanket study and training results demonstrate that horses are capable of learning new commands that can help us communicate with them better.
Do Horses Like to Be Ridden?
Some people say that horses do not like to be ridden. They suggest that riding a horse causes pain. They point out that riders may confuse a horse behaving badly when ridden as actually a sign from the horse that it is exhibiting pain.
Some horses will rear up and buck wildly trying to throw a rider from their back. But is this because of ‘pain’ or simply because it feels foreign to a horse having a rider on its back?
There is no doubt, based on my personal experience that many horses actually enjoy being ridden. I have seen them get excited when they think you are going to take them for a ride almost in the same way as a dog does when it sees they are going for a walk.
Does Riding a Horse Hurt Them?
So while there may be some small discomfort with a bridle and saddle I don’t think you could say horses feel ‘pain’ when someone is riding them. Of course, if the rider is abusive to the horse yanking on the reins and kicking them then the horse clearly would feel pain in those riding situations.
Are Horses More Intelligent Than Dogs?
Despite all the amazing things horses can do and demonstrate through scientific studies, many still identify dogs as the superior species concerning intelligence.
People often compare horses and dogs to each other; it’s easy because dogs are such a big part of a human’s life and have been extensively studied for their intellectual capacity.
There is a bit of a problem with comparing horses and dogs when it comes to intelligence. Dogs may seem more intelligent than horses because of their proactivity and resistance to events that may spook horses.
Indeed, horses may spook easily and take a long time to build a resistance to any particular trigger, making them seem like slow learners.
Are Horses Prey Animals?
In reality, the main difference between horses and dogs is their different position on the food chain. Dogs are predators, and don’t scare as easily as horses because they didn’t need to develop the same survival instincts as horses.
Horses are prey animals, and learned to survive based on instincts that warned them of potential danger. These instincts are hardwired into their DNA, so it’s no surprise that it takes horses a long time to unlearn them.
This distinction primarily defines the intelligence of horses and the intelligence of dogs as two different types of intelligence.
Being a predator comes with an instinct for things like hunting for food that prey animals just don’t need. This is what makes dogs so proactive and focused, and an animal with better focus is easier to train.
Being a prey animal has its benefits for intelligence too, though. Horses know that in order to survive, they need to stick with other horses, giving them inherent emotional and social intelligence.
For example, horses have experience forming relationships with others in their herd and can extend this understanding to humans.
In short, each role in the food chain comes with its own benefits for intelligence, and for horses, these benefits manifest in a strong grasp of social and emotional knowledge.
How Smart are Horses?
Horses have demonstrated a great capacity for emotional intelligence and learning, but the research into their potential is limited.
Scientists can learn more about horses by expanding upon the experiments they have already performed, and until that happens we can only speculate about what those studies mean.
Jennifer Meyer, from Horse and Rider, concludes that further research into the cognitive processes of horses could reveal interesting possibilities for communicating with them.
Do Horses Understand Humans
She quotes Evelyn Hanggi, MS, Ph.D., of the Equine Research Foundation in Aptos, California in saying, “Do horses understand us? Of course. Do they communicate with us? Yes. Do we know for sure what’s going on in their minds at these times? Nope.”
Horses are generally trained through a process called operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, a trainer associates a particular behavior with a reward.
For example, if they want to train a horse to neigh (high-pitched sound made by a horse) on command, they might give them a treat every time they make a noise.
If they continue to do this, the horse will start to learn that neighing gets them a treat, so they will do it more often. The trainer can then add a command word to the behavior, and it becomes a trick that the horse does on command.
People are still exploring the limits of this method of training in teaching horses new things, and it will take many more studies to entirely reveal their intelligence. Scientists continue to work with horses, on a daily basis as we learn about and strengthen our bonds with each other.
Humans can and do communicate with horses every day. Maybe that is what matters most when it comes to how smart horses are.
Do Horses Have Good Memory?
If you know horses well you have no doubt that horses have good memories. But is there any scientific research to proof this?
Yes, there is. A lady named, Carol Sankey, is well known for her studies with horses. Her research on animal cognition showed that horses trained with positive reinforcement would remember humans in a positive manner five months later.
While ‘ponies’ who experienced negative reinforcement would tend to shy away from humans even months after the negative experience.
So clearly this study demonstrated that horses (or ponies as they state in the report) could remember experiences from months earlier.
Do Horses Know Their Owners?
Why yes, horses do remember their owners! I have seen it first hand. One time I went with my sister to a small farm where she was hoping to see one of her former horses that she had sold to them years ago.
We walked up to the pasture where the owners of the farm said her old horse was grazing in. On the far end of the pasture, almost out of sight we saw a small group of horses. My sister yelled out the name of her former horse and guess what happened?
One of the five horses far in the distance lifted its head up and looked. Then my sister yelled his name even louder and almost instantly the horse took off in a full gallop heading towards us!
When he got to us the horse was so excited, full of energy, and immediately ran right up to my sister and put his nose on her. He didn’t run up to me! If that is not proof that horses remember their owners I don’t know what is.
Do Horses Know their Names?
Check out the story I just described above if you missed it. Yes! Horses know their names!
I have owned many horses over the years and every one of them knew their names very well.
Maybe they just know the tone of your voice when you call them but clearly they recognize when they are being called by name.
Signs that a Horse Trusts You
There are many ways for a horse to tell you that they trust and like you. Here are some to watch for.
- They come to you when called
- They nudge you with their nose
- They rest their head on you
- They try to play with you
- They blow on you with their nose
Related Horse Questions
Are Horses Smarter than Cows?
Horses seem to be much smarter than cows. Horses perform all types of tasks and often learn to follow human commands without too much trouble.
Horses can be utilized in many ways that are useful and they often seem to enjoy the relationship and activity. The also star in rodeos, work as ranch hands, served in many wars, and bond with humans at a high level.
Horse also can survive well on their own it seems. Check out the Mustangs!
Not trying to say that cows can’t learn things like a horse but you don’t usually see it so perhaps there is a reason. Now, none of my comments are scientific but it seems obvious to me if you put a little thought into the question.
Are Horses Loyal?
Horses appear to be very loyal to their owner if it has been a long term relationship. It is not unusual for a horse to follow its owner around like a dog would. Or to stand there waiting for their owner to come visit them.
Horses are also herd animals and don’t like being alone. Can a human substitute for another horse in the ‘herd”? Sure, I think so!
Is all this a true sign of loyalty or simply the horse hoping for food? Good question and we may never know the answer but my opinion is that horses can be very loyal.
Horse Intelligence Ranking
Where do horses rank compared to other animals on a scientific horse intelligence ranking? Well, the Hierarchy Structure has what they call the Animal Intelligence Hierarchy and it ranks horses seventh when it comes to intelligence! Not bad!
Here is the Animal Intelligence Hierarchy list…
- Great Apes
- New World Monkeys
- Whales & Dolphin
- Octopus (who knew!)
The study states that horses have a “smartness” that is very different from other animals. They learn new things rapidly and are able to take care of themselves if needed.
Over the thousands of years horses and humans have interacted there have been many myths created about horses. Some have even said horses are dumb. Here are some of the popular horse myths.
- Horses are dumb. Not true!
- Horses are colorblind and only see in black and white. Not true!
- Horses don’t like water. Not true! (I used to ride my horse right into the lake and we would swim around!)
- Horses only sleep standing up. Not true!
- Horses only eat hay. Not true! (I used to feed one of my horses bananas and he loved them.)
- Horses will smile or even laugh at you. Not true! What you are probably confusing with a grin, smile or laugh is called the flehmen response.
- Horses have small brains. Not true!
Horse Brain Size
The old myth that horses have small brains is not true at all. While smaller than an adult human brain the horse’s brain size is about one and a half to two pounds according to an article published by The Equine Behavioral Health Resource Center.
Flehmen Response in Horses
Since we just mentioned it…the flehmen response in horses is when a horse raises its head up and then rolls back its upper lip. You will then probably hear the horse inhale as it shows you its teeth!
This is done by the horse basically to breathe in a “scent”. Different scents can cause the horse to react in different ways. A horse’s sense of smell is vastly superior to that of humans. So cool huh!
Do Horses Like to be Hugged?
You bet they do! Just like humans horses show signs of affection all the time. And just like a dog most horses like to be petted.
Some like their ears rubbed or their nose and face scratched lightly. Others prefer rubbing your hand along their neck and shoulder area. In fact, you can often see two horses standing next to each other and using their mouths to rub each other’s shoulders.
Specifically relating to hugging, it is not uncommon for a horse to rest their head on your shoulder when you are putting your arms around them in a big hug. That is your horse hugging you back!
Horses are very complex animals and even though they have been domesticated by humans for thousands of years there is still a lot to learn about them.
One thing we know for certain is that horses are loved and cherished by millions of people around the world.
Knowing and understanding the intelligence of horses is most helpful in our relationships with them. Applying what we know about their intelligence enhances our ability to communicate with them and made for a better relationship.