By Dr. Ken Marlborough, the Horse Professor
Photo by Madeleine Samuelsson, Sweden
Someone recently asked me if horses are “stupid.” I replied with a resounding, “No.” They countered, “Well they are certainly not very intelligent.” to which I said, “Horses are as intelligent as they need to be.” I wasn’t trying to be funny when I said it either. I will say that a horse can outsmart a person, on occasion, however.
In fact if a headstrong horse took advantage of a rider, a natural reaction would be to blame the bad performance on the horse. A rider may act defensively and call the horse “stupid” when they actually feel a little stupid themselves. Perhaps you know someone who calls all horses of a certain breed stupid. For example, I know someone who thinks all Arabian horses and mustangs are feeble minded. The reality may be their reaction to the horses’ high energy, intelligence, or wileyness, not their stupidity.
A horse’s intelligence is the result of its adaptation to the environment. It is functional and is something that is essential for the horse to survive. Horses have many skills and abilities that give them a survival advantage; for example, the ability to run away from danger, to kick at a predator, or to whinny to other horses over long distances.
The horse’s senses are also a part of its adaptation. The ability to smell water or food that is far away is an adaptation, just like detecting a predator with the sense of hearing. Many horseback riders wished that their horse did not have such a finely-tuned sense of hearing when it comes to this. Hearing a rustling in the underbrush has lead to many a frightened runaway horse.
A horse can hear movement in the brush better than we can. They can hear frequencies as high as 30,000 hertz, whereas we can only perceive sounds up to 20,000 hertz. Grass moving in the wind, a predator’s footsteps, or even a plastic bag make high frequency sounds that we can’t hear. No wonder horses want to run away from such sounds and no wonder it is a surprise to us at times.
A horse, it has been said, has the intelligence of a very small child and the reasoning ability superior to that of a German Sheppard. Horses, being herd animals, obviously think differently than we do. So a strict comparison of “cognitive skills” is impossible. Horses also have very highly attuned “social intelligence.” They know who the leader of their herd is. They know who to follow and who they can kick around. The status of an individual and ranking of horses in a group is called the social hierarchy.
A group of horses that live together work out their status amongst themselves. They test each other and may even fight to determine the most dominant horse. The initial stages of determining rank may seem cruel; new horses get bitten, kicked, and otherwise picked on by the older more dominant horses. A new horse in the herd may get beaten up quite a bit initially. The fighting diminishes as they fit into the group. In a mature herd the ones who fight are usually not the very dominant or the very submissive, these horses know where they stand. It’s the horses in the middle that challenge each other the most.
Horses can also identify the leader of a group of people, if they have a chance to observe and interact with them. I have had the opportunity to observe this many times when teaching horseback riding. The lesson horse knows that the rider is in charge and is giving the commands. The horse also knows that the riding instructor is “in charge” of the student and is telling the rider what to do. I have found this to be true even with horses that have never been used as lesson horses before. Horses can judge, by the instructor’s body language, tone of voice, and interaction with horse and riding student that they are at the top of the hierarchy. An experienced lesson horse may know their job so well that they respond to the instructor’s voice commands. When the teacher asks the student rider to “Trot” the horse gets it and goes into a trot before the student gets a chance to cue the horse.
Many times when the new rider is struggling and giving inconsistent signals to their mount, the horse will seek out the instructor and follow their directions, instead of those of the student. The horse may even face-up, walk straight to the instructor, and burry its head in the instructor’s chest, in an act of submission. Actually, doing this is the horse’s way of saying, “Please help me. The person who is riding me is just not very intelligent.”