Horses Measuring Intelligence in Humans

It’s my fault for asking for blog topics. She writes, “Can you possibly do a blog post on why your horse isn’t your therapist/best friend/ emotional support, etc etc etc? I am constantly inundated with rubbish “feel good” toxic positivity meme things.” Well, I will take the challenge, but I think I’ll come at it from the back door. Humor me…

The horses are talking. (No, horses don’t talk but since we are exploring the idea of horses in a human construct, like being a therapist or friend, why not?) The gray sees a 3-year-old child in their pen. The child has just noticed them and is coming toward them, but trips on a pile of horse manure and bumps its head in the fall. It screams, startled and hurt. The horses know it’s a small human. A predator, but it smells like sugar. They saw the child long before it came into their pen; they know the child is unpredictable. It just tipped over. Not alert to the environment, a foal would do better. Now it’s being noisy. What’s the point of that?

The bay horse keeps a passive eye and might send a calming signal to let the small human know they are no threat to it. The kid doesn’t acknowledge him, but horses know humans are poor communicators. Their bodies constantly send conflicting messages, and they lose focus, so scattered in their minds. Humans spook at things that aren’t even there. It’s like humans are always talking to imaginary friends. Beware.

Maybe the child comes to them and pokes a finger in a horse’s eye. Not that horses can see what’s on the ground in front of them. They are “seeing” with their muzzle nerve endings. Startled, they shake their poll and roll the child a few feet away. In time, the child cries because it’s hungry and can’t find food. Or it’s scared and can’t find its home. It’s a pasty bug that’s afraid of the dark. Really, is this the king of beasts?

Scientists have stated that horses possess the equivalent intelligence of a 3-year-old child. Meaning most horses can recognize themselves in the mirror, understand some human emotions, and can learn tricks or commands. But out in a horse pen, a 3-year-old is not anywhere near as intelligent as a horse, as any horse will tell you.

Why do we measure other animals against us? It is the ultimate arrogance for a human to judge an animal’s intelligence against our own. We think we are exceptional animals with our fancy frontal lobes. As if we are the be-all in intelligence. Do they see us as clever or lost, fearful or bold? What does human intelligence even look like to a horse? No wonder they constantly look to their own safety. In their view, we seriously lack peace, clarity, and common sense.

Sometimes I’ll read a scientific study about horse intelligence. The research process begins by taking a horse out of its herd so that it can be tested. Horse people understand that separation anxiety will now be part of the answer. Would they take a fish out of the water to test it? Jane Goodall wouldn’t. Animals must be studied in their natural habitat.

Warning: Looking up information about equine intelligence isn’t just diving into a rabbit hole; it’s falling in the dark for a mile or two and passing out after hitting hard at the bottom. Forgive me if I just ask some surface questions and hold this essay to under three hundred pages. Let’s talk about human construct only.

Some of us will want to romanticize the horses into caretakers of that child because they sniff it. Maybe nibble it’s clothing. Maybe a romantic would donate a child for research. But if a dirt devil rolls through the pen, or a wolf is nearby, all bets are off. The horses won’t nudge the child carefully to a protected area. Their survival instinct is involuntary. Hardwired to run and save themselves. The child doesn’t exist, it’s a matter of the horse’s life or death. They step on the child, and pushing off to a run, break bones. Again, they can’t see much on the ground close up. But no one posts a cute selfie of the child after it gets stepped on.

Do you notice I use “it” as a pronoun for the child? Awkward, but if you don’t think horses have intelligence, emotions, and autonomy, then neither do kids. If we demean horses, then we demean children.

We might use horses like childhood teddy bears or see horses as knights riding to our rescue, without the man. In other words, we see them in ways that comfort us in human constructs but don’t respect their intelligence. We are so busy trying to fit them into our emotions, that we ignore their needs. Instead, we’d rather they didn’t pay so much attention to the environment (impossible for a horse) and just hug us. Is that what we want from children? To stay home and hug us?

Science says horses exhibit high levels of emotional intelligence and can read facial expressions and body language. No surprise there, “calming signals” are their birth language. But they don’t read us because they love us. We are predators, but more complex than wolves. We keep them trapped in a pen but care for them. As long as I’m playing devil’s advocate, Stockholm syndrome is defined as “a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands.” Is it a choice when we barter survival needs, like food, for behaviors? Oh my, now I’ve done it.

Back to the original question. There is a simple answer:

If your horse is your therapist, get them to prescribe a med that will help you think more clearly. And therapists don’t work for minimum wage, so find out where they hide the money. They can buy their own hay.

If your horse is your best friend, why not leave a baby with them to care for? Not while you watch, but overnight. You trust your best friend, right? Why ride with a bridle at all? Come to think of it, who needs a halter? My friends don’t tie themselves to me. And a friendship is reciprocal. If you are their friend, why do you micromanage them? Why not trust their decisions and autonomy?

If your horse is your emotional support, do you expect them to carry your darkest parts? Do you feel good about swearing and throwing temper tantrums? Do you hug them when you cry, dragging them along in the wake of your feelings? Would you share that with a 3-year-old? A child who has emotions of their own, personal challenges, and fears? Or would you keep your problems to yourself and try to encourage the child toward confidence, knowing their nature?

Instead of thinking we know everything, let’s assume horses are smart and we’ve stopped treating horses like 3-year-olds. Let’s say we are researching whether horses mourn a loss. A better question might be how they get over a loss so well.

Or we could stop thinking horses are all about us and let them be horses.

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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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38 thoughts on “Horses Measuring Intelligence in Humans”

  1. Oh my. Hit the nail on the head. May I say brilliant?!!! We gave everyone and everything on us. Judge, jury and executioner. Thank you, Anna. Love this!

  2. As long as we continue to measure intelligence in the more than human world using a human rubric based upon how we use our senses and input information, we will NEVER begin to understand what intelligence even is. Or can be.

    Thanks for this.

  3. I have a mare, my heart horse, a tough old broad that I aspire to be like. From the start she treated me like her foal, protecting me from scary things. But she is also defender of the herd, the one who ran towards the mountain lion, not away (true story, not a metaphor). One day early on I was upset about something (in my head) and went out and laid my head on her back while she was eating, crying and generally being an emotional wreck. She put up with it for about 15 seconds, and then reached over with her front foot and calmly stepped on my foot. Just hard enough to hurt through my rubber clog, not hard enough to do damage. At the same time the words appeared in my head: “if you want something to cry about.” Startled, I sputtered for a second or two, and then just stopped. Everything. She was irrefutably correct. What a gift. A horse that can communicate with humans so we can understand. I do consider her my role model, and my example, and in that way my therapist. When I’m upset, if it’s real, deal with it, and go back to grazing. If it’s in my head, get over it.

    • It’s the good news and bad about my calming signals courses. Of course, they communicate. Truly listening is more complicated. My compliments to your mare. And good job of listening, Ann. Thank you.

  4. Enjoyed this topic. We study horses while sitting under a tree. Watching them eat. Who’s the boss? Well, we do know this one. But all that do on a daily basis is a learning experience for us. thanks.

    • Sounds great. May I recommend learning their language, too? Many don’t agree with the old idea of “boss”. The one with the most anxiety is rarely listened to by the herd… so much to learn. Good for you.

  5. I’m reading a book about Sami reindeer herders, and the main character in the story, a young girl, whispered to her reindeer something to the effect of “I do not own you. You belong to yourself. You are only mine on loan.” Since I read that I’ve added it to my little collection of mantras I take with me to my little herd every day.

    I would never consider my horses to be my therapists, but I will say they have inspired me to get it together and consistently try to do better and be better for them like nothing else could have, and inevitably that leaks out into other parts of life. So I guess that’s some form of therapy?

  6. I wish I’d known of you sixteen years ago when I first got horses. I’m reformed now though; it got much easier to see the forest for the trees when I stopped riding. Your perspective is not one I ever heard from any other rider, clinician, or practitioner when I was desperately seeking knowledge. My horses are happier for my growth I’m sure. I like where we are now, full appreciation for what makes them tick. Also, love your writing and the way your brain works!

    • Thanks, Terri. I didn’t hear this when I was starting out, longer ago than you… but not so long before that, we thought animals didn’t have feelings. We are getting better all the time.

    • Couldn’t have said it better. I’ve had a parallel journey. And Anna’s writing always feels right and validating. So glad to be here.

  7. I LOVE this essay. people who treat their horses as THERAPY ANIMALS miss the whole connection piece. At least with the onset of the new “Listening” format with training the people are starting to see their horses as something other than transportation. But the true communion comes from the horse. When the horse accepts us and wants to be with us then we must be doing something right. It cannot be forced it is something that comes from within both the human and the horse.

  8. Oh I don’t know… I’ve had cat mentors, horse mentors, even a couple of dog mentors who’ve inspired me to an inquiring intellect and engage otherwise with changing environments and weird humans… the ones who think one thing and say quite another… and seldom ever listen.
    To keep J Goodall company… Lucy Rees (Horses in Company) and Susan Fay (Sacred Spaces).

  9. I greatly enjoy your posts, and learn something new every time to help me to better engage with and understand my horses. But I don’t quite understand what you are trying to say in this post. I almost think you are underestimating what horses are capable of I know you have been involved in EAS activities to some extent, but I wonder if you have experienced at a center that truly understands the human horse connection, the connection that horses make with our veterans and vulnerable humans? It isn’t the smell of sugar that makes a horse soften its eyes and breath in the presence of a young girl with cerebral palsy, or to stand quietly with soft breath in the presence of a traumatized veteran. In the 30 plus years that I have been involved in therapeutic horsemanship programs as a PATH advanced instructor, I’ve seen our horses benefit as much as our participants from this amazing thing called the human horse connection. With all due respect, don’t take away the magic because science says it is so.

    • Thanks, Annie. I’m sure you could tell I wasn’t speaking specifically about EAS, but since you bring it up, after 30 years, you know some programs are better than others and the stress on a horse from people with physical challenges are different than those with emotional challenges. As a horse advocate, I am pleased to know in recent years there has been a movement toward including an equine specialist in the mix, and I hope they have studied Calming Signals because a horse’s emotions are not identical to ours and are often misunderstood.

      Most of my experience is working to rehabbing horses after they have come apart and I have been hired by programs to evaluate with their troubled horses and to help the program be more cognitive of how their horses are coping. I’ve also presented to PATH conferences. I consider this work the most stressful job a horse can have. Many rescues refuse to adopt to programs for that reason. Therapeutic horses tend to be more stoic and are not as easy to read because shutting down is their frequent response to input, and that can be mistaken for what you describe. A shut down horse is easy to handle and tolerant, until they aren’t. We can mistake peace for anxiety in stoic horses. But we use horses for many things that shut them down. I am well aware of what they give us, I am concerned with how this work impacts them. Then the question has to be asked, how do we pay horses for this work, in their currency. And finally, if you have studies on the efficacy of EAS, I would love to see them. I keep a file but it has more junk science than reviewed studies. ([email protected])

      Again, I am happy to say I know some good programs. I am also aware that even with only the best intentions, we can be unwittingly unkind to horses. We need to listen to them, without our agendas in the way, whether they are dressage horses, trail horses, or therapy horses. Thanks, Annie

  10. In a recent webinar by Prof Manessha Deckha of the University of Victoria re: animal rights … in the presentation, Prof Deckha described her work in establishing ‘beingness’ as a legal basis for animal rights … viz.,

    Further, I believe the Capability Approach of Professor Martha Nussbaum may intersect with the work on ‘beingness’, viz.,

    Lastly, this video highlights Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest … here’s her take on ‘Being’…

    I’m curious whether any of these resonate with you and bringing a defined legal basis for animals as legal beings(persons)?

  11. Again I am limping in late to comment. You must surely know how much I appreciate this blog although it will no doubt piss off a great number of folks who are invested in being more romantic or more stubborn about holding onto a unrealistic vision of who their horse actually is in their lives.

    I might want to have a dialogue with you some day about the notion of a horse being a “friend.” That seems reasonable to me. No I wouldn’t leave my children for my horse to tend to but neither would I leave a child with many of my human friends either.

    I do know that working hard at taking care of one’s horse, learning how to have a conversation with them, learning calming signals and all that goes with being the best human you can be for your horse is inherently therapeutic and spiritual, but still doesn’t mean the horse is your therapist or spiritual mentor. I think the necessity of giving up one’s ego-centrism to understand your horse’s language and unique form of intelligence is a tremendous gift from the horse, and might even save the planet if we could all do just that.

    Anyhow, I could and have said a l

  12. Upon further reflection, I will add to above comment that I think I believe I am a good friend to my horse, not so much the horse being a friend to me. It’s challenging to find the words that are appropriate for the relationships we have with them !

    • My horses are my friends, not my slaves. Reiner Klimke said, legendary rider. I truly believe that there is no other relationship like horses and humans. That’s why it’s so hard. Riding as friends is good, on the ground, sometimes I have to be an adult. Then the whole predator/prey thing. When I found the 3 yr old statement, I had a runaway in my head. And you and I talk about human constructs, that’s a whole other thing. There is a Maori word that fits, but I can’t pronounce it. It isn’t like dogs and cats, or any other animal I’ve had. Finding a better self when around horses is the reward of horses, we usually learn humanity from animals… In the end, who hands their body over to a 1200 pound animal that will never quite be tame. What is the word for THAT?

  13. What is the word for turning ourselves over to 1200 lbs of an only partly tame animal you ask….Crazy, insane, unwise, and reckless come to mind !!

    And yet, the ” ride” has been the highlight of my life. Nothing less


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