Video: How Smart Are Horses?

Credit : Raphael Macek/FEI Photos

Friday 28 July - 16h04 | Ian Clayton

Video: How Smart Are Horses?

While it is hard to generalize about any species, including humans, the question of how smart horses are is probably as old as our interaction with them. And even though horse owners will have their own personal opinions about the intelligence of the horses in their lives, there has also been ongoing research into this topic. 

 - Video: How Smart Are Horses?

Credit : Raphael Macek/FEI Photos

For example, earlier this year National Public Radio in the United States reported on a Japanese study called 'Domestic horses send signals to humans when they face an unsolvable task.' At the base of this research is the idea that horses “alter their communicative behaviour towards humans in accordance with humans’ knowledge state.” 

In the study, eight thoroughbred horses were tested to see whether they would behave differently if they sensed that their human companions knew more or less: “The horses watched as a research assistant put a carrot in a food bucket. The bucket wasn't accessible to the horses, only to a human caretaker. In one experimental condition, the human caretaker witnessed the food going into the bucket (knowledge state)." In a second scenario, "the caretaker did not watch as the carrot was placed into the bucket (uninformed state).” The horses’ responses were videotaped and compared. 

What the researchers observed was interesting: “The horses used more visual and tactile signals with the uninformed than the informed caretaker. The horses increased how much they looked at, touched and/or lightly pushed the ignorant caretaker (compared to the caretaker in the know) to get them to realize where food was hidden.”  

This understanding of and adaptation to the apparent knowledge of the humans right beside them could suggest another dimension of intelligence in horses: “Previous studies have indicated that they are sensitive to bodily signals and the attentional state of humans; however, there are few studies that investigate communication with humans and responses to the knowledge state of humans.” Article continues below the break with video. 

Dogs vs. Horses?

As with people, there could therefore be different forms and expressions of intelligence in horses. And one person who has commented on this question is Daniel Walker, in the online discussion ‘Are dogs smarter than horses?’ in 2015. 

“Dogs and horses have very different kinds of intelligence, and so how you rate it depends on how you rate those relative skills,” Walker writes. “As a human dealing with horses, the first thing to recognise is that horses never make the same mistake that dogs do: they never think you're another horse.”

Walker also compares horses to elephants, not only in their herd mentality but also with regard to memorization: “Horses display the kind of intelligence that focuses on memorising things. This allows certain members of the group to specialise in knowing where the water holes are, and crossing points of rivers, in a given region, say - and as such, herd hierarchies are amenable to quick, and temporary, delegation of leadership roles. The overall behaviour of the herd is highly influenced by its membership.”

He adds that horses like elephants are excellent emulators, passive thinkers and “display an almost obsessive love of learning. This is why they are so amenable to human taming: we teach them what to do, and they love us for it. As far as the horse is concerned, by learning what to do, they gain the kind of control over their world that they can appreciate. Horses aren't terribly interested in why. If a horse displays curiosity, it is usually because he or she wants to know what will happen, in a given situation, and learn what he or she should do about it.” 

Walker points to the equestrian show of France’s Lorenzo below as an example of their memorization skills, although there is also the herd instinct to consider. See video below.

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