Equine Intelligence

Up until very recently, knowledge and appreciation of the equine mind has been noticeably lacking. Sure, we’ve learned rudimentary things about horses through the years, but only enough to breed and maintain pliability. Now, though, scientific curiosity is leading some to dig deeper. Biologist Dr. Evelyn Hanggi, co-founder of the Equine Research Foundation, is among the nation’s leading experts on equine intelligence. From her 2005 paper, “The Thinking Horse: Cognition and Perception Reviewed”:

“A review of the scientific literature, as well as practical experience, shows that horses excel at simpler forms of learning such as classical and operant conditioning…. Furthermore, horses have shown ease in stimulus generalization and discrimination learning. Most recently and unexpected by many, horses have solved advanced cognitive challenges involving categorization learning and some degree of concept formation.” In short, she says, “Horses, both feral and domesticated, are faced with varied conditions that require an assortment of learning and perceptual capabilities.”

The small-brained horse, Dr. Hanggi points out, is an unkind myth: A horse’s brain is not the size of a walnut (400-700 grams compared to 15); in fact, this “complex organ” has many folds and “more folds, more brainpower.” It is equally untrue that their “flight instinct” (“spook-and-bolt”) is a sign of low intelligence. Dr. Hanggi (Horse Illustrated, 2001): “Horses spook not because they are stupid but because they are smart enough to have survived a few million years.”

Although horses do seem to have a propensity to hurt themselves on doors and fences – seen as “dumb” animal behavior by some – it’s because they are supposed to live on wide-open ranges, not “in small, dark enclosures with sharp edges.” This cruel confinement (for most racehorses, over 23 hours a day) causes mental anguish, as evidenced by “cribbing, weaving, head bobbing, pacing, and self-mutilation.”


Horses can sort geometric shapes into specific classes and have demonstrated an ability to conceptualize. By virtue of an “exceptional memory,” they can “generalize about things they have never seen before.” Oh, and they can count. In short, Dr. Hanggi says, “…horses possess some learning abilities akin to those of the more accepted animal intellectuals, i.e., dolphins, sea lions and chimpanzees – the result being a far cry from simple conditioning.”

But when questioning the morality of horseracing, the relative intelligence of the horse is largely inconsequential. What matters, what should force introspection, is his ability to suffer. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham: “What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

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  1. Actually, Homo Sapiens are the “stupid” species, when it comes to assessing animal “intelligence”. Animals have an “intelligence” that serves them well, yet we “measure” that “intelligence” based on our uniqueness. As we well know, animals have many capabilities superior to ours.
    These are some small examples small example: Horses used to patrol along the Canadian border in rough terrain alert riders to situations that are totally missed by them. Also, studies show dogs “know” when the owner is starting for home, even when the time frames are switched, they place themselves at the window in anticipation. A study concluded elephants could not use a tool or “problem solve”. However, when the right tool was made available, in this case a sturdy box, the elephant moved it in position and used to reach the fruit.

  2. Man has so long dismissed the sentient and intelligence quotient of animals without entering into research to corroborate the notion that now we have widely accepted our misnomers. and consider them scientific. Hopefully it will not take as long to dispel these false generalizations as it did to foster and ingrain them.
    The fight or flight instinct is primary for survival in an herbivore. Horses are supreme in this adaptation. We have learned to exploit it to such an extent that we have turned the aptitude into a detriment for the horses themselves.
    Thank you for the article.

  3. Why compare horses’ intelligence to that of other species including humans? I think that is where we go wrong, we have to realize that every species is intelligent in their own, unique way.
    Horses are not as obviously clever to us like, for instance, dogs. A lot of people think horses are completely brainless but they are the sort of people who do not know horses. Horses could not be ridden or live in the totally unnatural environment that we provide for them if they were not intelligent.
    I have learned over the years that the more time I spend with horses the more obvious their intelligence becomes, and the more respect and admiration I have for them. Horses tought me much.

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