How Smart Can a Horse Be?

One of the most interesting developments in recent animal science, for me, has been the ongoing discovery that humans are not the only sentients on this planet, and that animals are much more intelligent than humans used to believe. So many of the traits that used to be cited as uniquely human are turning out be present in animals as well, sometimes on levels that we used to think not possible for any creature but a human. Octopuses, anyone?

Horses are definitely not octopuses—for one thing they don’t have the kind of limbs that can manipulate objects with that much dexterity—but the old view of them as not very bright loses more traction with every study of equine cognition. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been sent variations on the famous horse-blanket study. And that’s a variation itself on the idea that horses can interpret written symbols.

They’re not too inept with words, either, as trainers know; verbal commands get good results, though there’s debate as to how may words a horse can retain. (I cannot find the study that found some horses could retain as many words as a smart dog—like, in the hundreds. Maybe I dreamed it.)

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a film that portrayed horses as truly intelligent. A few books have, though most are either anthropomorphic or just don’t grant horses a lot of smarts. The one significant exception I’ve found is Doranna Durgin’s Changespell Saga, beginning with Dun Lady’s Jess. That’s as close an approximation of how horses think as I’ve seen.

And yet, when horse people get together, there’s a fairly consistent agreement that horses have plenty of smarts. They understand quite a lot, and respond to subtle emotional and physical signals. Many, like dogs, will come to comfort a human who is in distress. They seem to know when a human needs extra support, particularly the young or the disabled.

Are they as smart as humans? That depends on the parameters. By human standards of abstract thought, so far, the answer seems to be no (but then again). Their thought processes appear to be very concrete. You can’t say to your horse as you leave, “See you on the 22nd,” and expect him to understand what you mean, but you can tell her, “If you stand still while I mount, you get a cookie,” and she will stand still for her cookie. You can teach a fair number of verbal commands—Walk, Trot, Canter, Whoa, Back, Over, etc.—and contrary to some studies I’ve seen, horses do learn their names. I can call one and that will be the only one of the group who lifts her head and comes to me; and they all recognize their own tack and will line up when they see it come out, whereas those whose tack is not on the cart will ignore me. That means they have to recognize a particular shape of saddle (whether visually or by the way it sounds or smells) and shape and color of pad (they can see some colors).

Where horses really shine is in social intelligence. Naturally enough, as herd animals, they have to be constantly aware of complex interrelationships, and they’re adept at spatial relations. A horse’s proprioception is keen and so is her awareness of objects around her. This is vital for survival in the wild, for functioning in the herd and for evading predators. Equine spatial sense far outshines the human, as does the ability to interpret subtle physical and emotional signals.

With that I’m finally coming around to a connection with the last SFF Equines post, about domesticating horses. The comments on this post are well worth reading, even the ones that wander off to talk about cats, because this is the internet and of course they do. The internet, as we well know, is made of cats.

In that article I touched on what supposedly happens to a wild species when humans domesticate it. Commenters informed me that there is an actual longterm experiment in this process, with Siberian foxes, which is fascinating, and which has resulted to a degree in the (re)creation of the dog.

With horses, there’s no way to know what the original wild stock was like, because it’s long gone. Every horse we have is the descendant of domesticated stock, and the “wild” Mustangs and Przewalski horses are in fact feral rather than truly wild. So we can’t tell if true wild horses had a higher or lower intelligence than the ones we know, or whether the original stock needed the level of selection that was applied in the fox experiment. Were wild horses truly wild, like zebras, but with a few who were amenable to human contact, or were they more amenable in general?

We can’t tell. Nor do we know if wild horses had larger brains or greater cognitive ability. For all we can know, the opposite may have been true.

What we do know is that horses, like dogs and cats, established a form of symbiosis with humans. The traits humans selected for were those that best served human needs, which means docility, calm temperament, and the ability to retain information—i.e., to be trained.

The fox experiment does not appear to select for trainability; I think that may be the missing element in the foxes’ suitability as pets. It’s evident that zebras lack this trait as well, though as one commenter last time wondered, could they be selected for it over an extended period? And if they were, would they start to develop “domesticated” traits including smaller brains and altered color patterns?

There’s no way to tell short of doing it. In the meantime, I would speculate that the ur-horse was a more cooperative animal than the zebra, with a less aggressive personality. Whether the ability to retain information came before or after domestication, again we have no way of knowing. Maybe humans selected for it—which would mean selecting for animals with better memories and a longer attention span.

Problem-solving, which is often cited as a measure of intelligence, doesn’t get much attention from considerations of horse smarts. Horses are expected to be obedient, to do as they’re told. If they’re bred for sport, notably racing, they need to be fast, but they also have to live within the constraints of human management.

Then again, watch a good cutting horse (often a mare; mares are smart and they take no prisoners) or a great polo pony (also often a mare—the ladies rule, and they know it). There’s a horse who thinks on the fly, and who is doing most of the work (80%, say the polo players). She needs intense focus and the ability to make lightning decisions while moving at speed.

Even dressage horses, for whom obedience is a cardinal virtue, tend to gravitate toward the upper end of the intelligence spectrum. The horses of Spain and Portugal, who have been fighting bulls and dancing in the arena for centuries, and their cousins the Lipizzaner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, perform as partners rather than extensions of their riders. They’re another type of horse that takes no prisoners—and in general the performance stars are stallions. Attention span and retentive memory are crucial, and trainability does not mean unthinking submission. There’s a thinking being on the other end of the rein, with distinct opinions as to how he should be approached.

Ultimately I think domestication has saved the horse from extinction. His usefulness to humans has diminished with the advent of mechanized transport, but he’s still the mount of choice in areas where machines can’t go, or where economics makes him a more practical option. And, like dogs and cats, he retains his emotional connection with humans.

These three, more than any other domesticated species, have functioned as partners and companions, and the nature of their intelligence plays a large part in that. To put it a bit simplistically, horses and humans get each other. They click.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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