Of Course Horses Can Suffer (And They’re Smart Too)

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 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, “[H]orses 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 inconsequential. 18th Century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham:

“The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognised, that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the [tailbone], are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.

“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 the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

“Can they suffer?” A simple, fundamental question with a simple, fundamental answer: Of course they can. And so it falls to us to assuage that suffering – nay, to eradicate it. This is not to suggest that we can end all animal suffering, any more than we can end all human suffering. What I speak of, of course, is ending one specific kind, one that is wholly manmade – the suffering, that is, caused by and inherent to the domestication and commodification of animals – animals like racehorses. And yes, I believe that this is eminently doable. But notwithstanding recent progress and momentum, it is by no means inevitable. For even if it is true that, as Dr. King famously promised so many years ago, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, it only does so through the courage, resolve, and diligence of people who believe we have a moral imperative to leave this world a bit better than we found it. Like the good people, most of you included, fighting to end horseracing in the United States.


  1. Horseracing is a man-made disaster! It is up to human-kind to stop this deliberate act of cruelty to horses! Horseracing itself is inhumane treatment of horses! I know horses are smart in a lot of ways, but the intelligence of a living being should not be the deciding factor of whether or not they get abused or not.
    Abusers are bullies.

  2. There’s no doubt that horses are smart because most animals are and whose destroying our planet?
    The human species, not animals, so who is smarter?
    I grew up with the thoroughbred breed (racehorses) and I’ve observed them at rest on the farm, under stress in the stable area, pre and post race, pre and post racehorse.
    Their forced servitude into this multibillion dollar business goes against everything that is natural to them and the race itself is extremely stressful on a racehorse.
    To say they love to run is like saying they love to die and anybody who believes the lies spewed-out by pro-horse racing entities are only looking for excuses to justify it.
    One stereotypical behavior that often goes unmentioned is “bucket bashing.”
    Although weaving and pacing is seen in lots of racehorses it’s not as common as bucket bashing.
    Bucket bashing is when a racehorse grabs onto either their feed tub or water bucket and repeatedly smashes it against the wall out of boredom.
    The reason why many people don’t know this or many studies don’t observe and report this is because most stable personnel will immediately wrap a bungie cord around the buckets so that the racehorse can’t bash it against the wall anymore.
    An outsider would have to look right into the stall to see the cord wrapped around the bucket.
    Incidentally, although some racehorses hurt their lips and gums doing this it’s not the abrasions they worry about, but the cost of replacing a bucket – typical racehorse mentality.
    The racehorse is a man-made creation just as this business is, but the brutality and cruelty is carried out by both male and female parasites whether they are abusers themselves and/or enablers.
    Although the degenerate gamblers are mainly men there are women who regularly gamble on racehorses too.

      • Nancy, she violated the conditions of her suspension and her license was revoked as you may know. She was a hard core abuser of horses. I wonder if she still has access to horses. Her significant other and father of her children was a jockey, right?

  3. Oh and a well-predicted outcome for reforms just got overturned by horse racing.
    For years now horse racing said they were going to “clean up their act,” and were under tremendous pressure to put in charge OUTSIDE EXTERNAL neutral resources to control their doping process.
    It’s a known fact that most all racing commissioners own racehorses, and control a large portion of doping samples and the results of those tests.
    It’s an ole boys network that has no intention of handing over any power that threatens their gravy train.
    It’s nothing more than a deliberate fraudulent lie that sells a false dream to people while taking their money
    It was going to change when HISA (Horse Racing Integrity Act) in conjunction with the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) were going to be put in charge rendering the ole boys club commissioner network obsolete.
    Well just before the ink was going to get signed HISA (pro-horse racing entities) BACKED-OUT because they don’t want their gravy train taken away, they don’t want transparency, they don’t want an outside neutral agency testing for dope although their statement didn’t allude to this.
    USADA (a neutral agency) ““While we desperately tried to reach an agreement to implement the program, WITHOUT COMPROMISING OUR VALUES, (my capitalization) we have always said the passing of the legislation and the finalization of uniform, robust rules are huge victories for the horses and the equine industry.
    Horse racing has NO interest in safety reforms, transparency or integrity despite their desperate attempts of convincing us otherwise.
    Their empty words and lip service is all a ruse; always has been and that’s why the subsidies need to END and so does this horrific business.
    It can’t come soon enough for the racehorses who are losing their healthy limbs and lives every damn day!

  4. Smart, yes!
    I have to lock stall doors. They can lift latches and step out into the aisle.
    And one can open the door from the outside while in the pasture and access her stall unless I lock that too!!
    And the fact they can suffer, physically and mentally, is unquestionable.
    But humans will abuse and use the powerless, even other humans…

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