Horse Intelligence: What Are We Missing?


I love reading about science like hungry people love over-cooked greenish-gray Brussel sprouts. And that’s the kind of sentence you never come upon while reading scientific research.

I have better luck understanding these behavioral studies if I read them aloud. The words all seem to trip over each other’s feet; science jargon is a language of big words and self-important run-on sentences. In their defense, scientists probably wouldn’t be wild about my oversimplification of the same topic. This week, I’ve been studying social learning theory. I have a passion for evolving my understanding of horses because we could always do a better job of training them. Because after a life with horses, I honestly believe we are close to a breakthrough in understanding this creature who is like no other. Not like a cow or a dog or a cat. Horses are in a category of their own.

Science affirms the mistake of fear-based training, so I love science. At the same time, we have precious little research on brain dysfunction in horses. Is it possible all horses are born physically perfect, in a way that humans are not? Science also has a rich history that includes steel-rod lobotomies, leeches, and electrical impotence cures. We humans are works in progress and that might be the best thing about science. You gotta love all the question-asking.

At some point in school, I learned that Edison invented electricity, but he didn’t. Electricity was always there, he invented the light bulb. It’s one of those small semantic details that make all the difference. What else haven’t we discovered? Are we missing something hard to quantify about horses that will be obvious in hindsight?

At the same time, is there an animal we have more romantic (and less scientific) notions about than horses? We see them as manifestations of freedom but keep them in stalls. We value their strength but work them past soundness. We think they’re magically psychic because they understand some of our emotions. Yet we don’t listen to their emotions as well as we should. We think horses want domination or that horses are hapless creatures who need our micro-managing care, but most of us are between those extremes, trying to find a middle place of understanding. We are looking for something beyond evoking a response. We search for an authentic connection without intimidation or baiting.

Here is my favorite sentence from a recent research paper: “This shows that although horses are quite intelligent, their personalities vary so greatly that we can’t simply use one metric to measure their intelligence. Researchers will continue to modify and conduct this test to really get the answer.”

This wouldn’t be news except for things like the ongoing controversy over gender, race, and economic bias in college entrance exams. Is one group less intelligent, with less potential, or are we asking the wrong questions? Do we ask the right questions in the wrong language? That’s why I savored this sentence, in a study that each horse failed, because it acknowledges the difference between individual horses. It sounds like the researchers could see intelligence but had no way to quantify it. That sounds about right.

Horse owners have something that science doesn’t. Historically, we’ve ridden to battle and traveled great distances. We’ve had their help building homes and planting fields. We put little girls on their backs to be rocked until they climb down, thirty years later, being better for the ride. Our lives have always been intertwined with horses. Even now, we risk life and limb riding, understanding their flight response in visceral ways, and we’re honest to say that horses have stepped up for us, filled in for us, or even saved us. Horses somehow let us know there was something much bigger below the surface. Sometimes we call it heart but it’s a frustratingly flat and trivial word for what our relationship has become. And if we have the opportunity to work with a horse without human language getting in the way, maybe a long trek or a solitary path of training, we learn the depth of meaning in simple words like empathy and trust. Science doesn’t have an explanation for the hook horses have in us but I hope the science evolves. I hope horse people evolve as well.

Longtime horse owners have experience that taints our belief in the studies. If the research requires that horses be taken from their herds, for instance, we know the horses are stressed already. The answers will be colored by separation. We have a lifetime of knowledge that boils down to anecdotal evidence and which science considers the equivalent of old wives tales. But is all anecdotal experience false? We observe our horses just as closely, we know how much horses change from day-to-day and evolve over the course of their lives. No one needs to tell us that quantitative information can be fleeting.

When will we learn to stop making up narratives and actually listen to horses? When we still the noise in our heads, when we let the air rest, horses tell us more than science can define. Perhaps we are on the edge of returning to the language we lost with civilization. Perhaps we will discover something that’s been here all along, and we will become fluent in the equine body-voice or calming signals and get our answers straight from the horse’s mouth.

Do we diminish the intelligence of horses by asking the wrong questions or by not being able to understand their answers? Without dissecting or anthropomorphizing, I am looking for a different relationship with a horse. Can we find a way to elevate the conversation rather than assuming that we know who they are? If we dumb horses down, we are the limited ones. We need to ask better questions, as scientists or horse owners, and then find creative responses, just in case there is a dimension of understanding running just parallel to us that horses are waiting for us to find, lurking for all time like electricity.
What if horses understand Shakespeare but we’re teaching them Dick and Jane primers?

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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30 thoughts on “Horse Intelligence: What Are We Missing?”

  1. What soggy green doth grace our plates today?
    We see the pretty horses prance and neigh.
    Thanks, Anna, for showing us more.

  2. I ask myself those same questions over and over again and often wonder if I will ever be accepted into the “University of Horses” by one of their professors. It’s a good thing that my curiosity beats the repeated frustration of knowing so little- despite the science. Thank you Anna for reminding us to keep asking the questions and eagerly listening for pieces of answers. It takes patience to tune in.

  3. I’m not convinced that humans are the teachers…. that idea in itself suggests that we are somehow superior. I do believe that people have much to learn from the horse. They can fill us with knowledge not only about horses, but about ourselves and the connectivity of all living things. We expect horses to listen, but how often do we do that? Not only to them but to ourselves? We expect them to have endless patience for our insufficiencies, but do we offer them the same courtesy? I sometimes look at a photo of a young filly I once had, and I apologize to her for the task she had been saddled with – me as her student :)))
    We are just humans – being. Maybe it would do us good to learn the art of forgiveness, to others and our own selves. The people who are here at this connecting point are already taking steps forward to self expansion. We will share our glorious moments and not-so-glorious with each other, and hopefully we can sprinkle some little crumbs for those still walking in the dark. Helping each other may be the very best way to help horses (and other species too).

  4. Which sentence are you finding irresponsible please? I’m a little confused and I’m sure some clarification would help me understand what you’re saying.

  5. This recent era of flagrant science denial (that directly resulted in the deaths of at least tens of thousands imho) has found me reluctantly defending science, mostly because so many folks keep confusing the scientific method with a belief system. (which I always thought was on the list of topics not discussed in polite company lol) On the other hand – science, or scientists rather, have a pesky habit of declaring a “discovery” absolute, when once our minds have expanded to comprehend the new information, additional data emerges, and we look at the topic with an altered perspective, the whole picture looks completely different, and we are back to square one.

    As time goes on, I put more faith into the anecdotal data base my horse and I have created over the years. Wondering if you have come across this article in your wanderings – thought of you and Affirmative Training when I read it.

    • I love science, I’m thrilled to have gotten my second shot this week. Science brings about great progress, even if reading the research is a challenge. I do appreciate this article. Natural Horsemanship was a “discovery” that science disproved. I hope we are on the brink of something better. Yay for horses. Thanks Christian

  6. Not quite on topic, Anna, but sorta goes to what I think most horses think about the most: Some years ago I participated in a clinic where the exercise involved several people acting as “predators.” We predators wandered around the horse and his human calling and flailing our arms about, and otherwise acted in “uncalming” ways. The horse was free to flee wherever he chose. But he realized quickly that the safest place for him to be was next to his human. To get away from us, he followed her whichever way she went. We predators were tuckered out by the end of the clinic but the horse/human team did very well!

    • It sounds like the horse would have gone with anyone who wasn’t “uncalming” and I agree. You got the hard job!

  7. “What if horses understand Shakespeare but we’re teaching them Dick and Jane primers?” Interestingly, I had a similar thought just last night. On Wednesday, I took my senior gelding for a handwalk in the local forest, which we do often. We explored some new trails, and he seemed animated, engaged and like he was enjoying it. Last night I made a quick trip to the barn to put a blanket on for a cold night before warmer temperatures today. On the spur of the moment I took him into the arena for a short walk, put the lead rope over his neck and we did some ‘walk-halt-walk-circle’ etc at liberty. We have been doing well with this the last few months, and I really enjoy it. But last night he was quite compliant, although low-energy which is his standard, I was left with a feeling like “I already KNOW this. WHY are we doing it again?!?”

    • I get that feeling every now & then from my dog AND cat! And the look to go with it! Why would horses be any different? There is NEVER an end to what they teach us – one way or another, right?

    • Hi Henny. I think anything that we do the same way for a few months… so maybe still go there but switch things up. Maybe start to work on something you don’t quite know how to train. Thanks for the comment.

  8. I couldn’t love this essay any more than I do. Horses’ intelligence and our inability to ever quite grasp or measure it ( quantitatively and qualitatively) is of unending fascination to me. I was trained as a “scientist” ( that’s what a PhD is after all) but seems like every equine study I read is so wrong headed in its design that I can’t imagine what the researchers were thinking !!

    I adore the idea of an understanding running parallel… Our friend Will Taegel wrote a book called The Mother Tongue, and it proposes that at one time we could indeed understand more perfectly the language of horses, and all animals.

    I am thinking so much of an exhibition at the Smithsonian that I have not actually seen in person but heard about from a horse person here. She said the exhibition depicts the thousands of ways horses have helped humans evolve and have contributed to our welfare, and also shows WE have not impacted THEIR development in any significant way. Or at least that was her impression I think about that now in light of your essay. THANK YOU ANNA !!!

    • Sarah, that’s it exactly. Each study started with a bad premise. Thank you. And the reason I’m so excited about Calming Signals is that it feels like a lost language coming back, so I would use slightly different words, but I do agree with Will. Don’t you wish we lived closer to the Smithsonian??
      Thanks, Sarah

  9. I wonder how you feel about clicker training, then. That has been developed pretty scientifically, it seems. I also want to thank you for teaching me to at least try to understand horse body language, although now I watch other trainers and see where I think the horse is trying to tell them something and they don’t hear it. One of the wonderful things about horses is you never stop learning. If you keep an open mind, anyway. But it can get confusing. I guess my goal will be to train my horses in as kind, patient, non confrontational way as possible. And I like it when they seem to enjoy being with me. Keep writing, Anna.

    • Isn’t that the thing with Calming Signals? You can’t unsee them, you recognize the horse’s anxiety. And in clicker training as well as other training methods. I prefer Peaceful Persistence- what I’d call an approach like yours. Thanks Beth.

  10. Scientists and teachers have come to understand that as humans we have many different modalities of learning. Some of us learn better when we hear something, others when we see it written down. Some of us relate better to numbers and spatial relationships, others to words and written language. I know I’m one who learns better when I both hear and see something. Why should animals be any different?


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