Are Horses Smart? Yes, they are!

When it comes to identifying intelligent domestic animals, dogs and cats are the usual picks. However, we have seen horses exhibiting smart behaviors on TV shows and documentaries. These shows can’t be staged, and horses may be smarter than we think. Out of curiosity, we researched and found fascinating information about horses.

Are horses really smart? Yes, they are!

Sean Atkins and Jack Murphy are horse experts at the Department of Life Sciences at the Limerick University of Ireland. They pointed out that “training is enhanced when the training method employed exactly matches the mental ability of the horses.”

The above statement has a strong message, but many horse owners still miss it. You can speed up a horse’s learning by matching training methods with its cognitive ability.

In most cases, horses have more knowledge and capabilities than we give them credit for. According to the Limerick research, we need to know how to nurture them.

Whether a domestic animal is clever or not depends on our perceptions. Attributing intelligence to animals is relative because it varies from one species to another. However, generally, intelligence is about learning and understanding. With this as a benchmark, we assessed simple ways horses show intelligence.

How We Concluded Horses Are Smart

We researched different reports about notable characteristics of horses. In the end, it is apparent that these are smart animals.

How We Concluded Horses Are Smart

Social Awareness and Learning

Horses have displayed social awareness by being communal. At the ranch, you will find horses grazing together. There is hardly a lone horse grazing in the fields, except it is sick. Even though horses have shown their social behavior, people question their ability to learn by mimicking other animals.

New research from the University of Nürtingen in Germany has shown that horses can pick up new social behaviors. However, it only happens in the right environment. Social learning is a sign of intelligence. Before this time, horses failed this test. Fortunately, research has shown that the testing methods used are to blame, not the horses.

For example, horses perform better when they anticipate a reward. Also, the horse must clearly understand how to perform the activity. That is to say, it may take a while, but the horse eventually learns new tricks.

Horses Have Survival Instincts

These animals have been around for centuries. Clearly, they developed behaviors that kept them from going extinct. Well, this isn’t a big deal since humans have contributed to their survival.

Horses Have Survival Instincts

Still, it is incredible to watch horses jump over fires and traps in a bid to escape danger. However, based on human expectations, this isn’t a phenomenal show of intelligence. But it’s worth mentioning since there are other animals who lack such abilities.

Indeed, their history with humans goes back many years, but horses never benefited from the relationship. Their willingness to respond to whips is only the natural herd behavior of horses. Therefore, it shouldn’t be used to measure their intelligence.

Instead, we would like to describe the willingness of horses to obey humans as a display of their social awareness and ability to adapt. After all, using experiences to solve problems is an indication of intelligence.

Horse Intelligence vs. Human Reasoning

Each animal species has a unique way of behaving smartly. Simply because horses don’t behave in the way humans judge smartness doesn’t necessarily mean they are dumb. Unfortunately, even the best of us judge them based on what the five senses reveal, and hence the doubt whether horses are smart.

Horse Intelligence vs. Human Reasoning

To answer this question, we need to create testing methods that suit the uniqueness of the equine species. Doing this any other way will lead to false judgments. However, several tests are still ongoing to determine horses’ cognitive abilities.

Furthermore, if you look at the display of intelligence in the wild, it’s easy to notice the big difference between horses as prey and predators. Using its intelligence and strength to escape a predator leaves the horse with heightened awareness. Just like other prey, it gets better at evading the predators. Horses in the wild also rely on their herd to stay safe.

For this reason, horses, which are potential prey, are extra sensitive to experiences that cause them pain and fear. They can even develop unique responses to avert such dangers by sending signals to their herd.

With humans, one bad experience could lead to the horse reacting violently on the next occasion. If the pain associated with the experience is severe enough, the horse could develop aggression towards humans. On the other hand, humans are driven by more than just a need to survive. Thanks to our complex brain, we process information in different ways. Sometimes we make decisions based on emotions and not on the lessons from past experiences.

Also, we run away from our fears. But our brains are better equipped to help us face our fears if we choose to face them. On the other hand, horses rely on survival instincts. Their brain is designed to do just that. It is the ability to stay alive, using whatever means, which shows that horses are smart.

Horses Have a Good Memory

Contrary to general perception, horses have an excellent memory. Unlike unpredictable humans, horses are loyal. According to recent findings, you can become long-term friends with horses if you can find ways to get into their good books.

Horses Have a Good Memory

Researchers examined the unique ability of horses to understand speech patterns to find proof of their excellent memory. Based on these findings, we now understand how horses can remember human friends after a long time apart.

The bond between horses and their human owners is an example of their behavior in the wild. Horses have high regard for other horses, and herd members are equally committed to protecting every member of the herd. “Horses maintain long-term bonds with other breeds as well if they are all kept in a ranch. However, they may not be too friendly with horses from other herds, especially territorial males. The female horses will fight other females who come near her favorite male.

Additionally, the females know their foals, even amid other foals. As a final argument that horses have an excellent memory, if you lose your way in the wild, your horse could safely help you get back home.

Horses Can Identify Patterns

You should be thrilled to know that horses are masters at identifying patterns.

People did tests to show the ability of horses to identify unique patterns and reported some exciting results. For example, horses can identify pairs like circles and squares or circles and semicircles.

When patterns numbered up to twenty, the horses could still tell them apart. The horses consistently scored above the 50 percent mark and 100% in other cases.

Surprisingly, there was almost no memory loss after twelve months of the training. These horses could still remember the patterns with minimal effort.

The Smartest Horse Breeds

Horses are intelligent, but which breed shows the highest level of intelligence?

There is no direct answer to this question. However, you can expect intelligent behaviors from some breeds of horses. Horse owners tend to brag that their horse breed is the smartest. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to prove that one horse breed is more intelligent than the other. You can pick an intelligent horse from the Arabian, Quarterhorse, Morgan, or Palomino breeds.

Smartest Horse Breeds

With the correct training methods, almost every horse can start learning proper behavior. So, intelligent breeds of horses are not limited to the ones listed above. To this day, Jim Key is one of the smartest horses to ever live. The horse belonged to a former slave named Williams Key.

The elegant Jim Key was a famous performing horse that lived around the twentieth century. Most of its fans claimed it could read and write. They also insinuated that Jim Key could transact with money and do simple arithmetic with numbers less than thirty. In addition, there were claims that it could cite passages in the bible as well.

Every time he was asked, William Key responded that he got through to his horse by being patient and showing kindness. He claims that he never used a whip.

As expected, the horse was a celebrity, and he performed at popular Chicago and Atlantic City venues.

Another horse with excellent abilities, like Jim Key, is Clever Hans. Similarly, Hans was exceptional. The horse could count and do simple calculations and answer by tapping his foot. “What is 2×2?” The owner would ask, and Hans would answer by tapping his foot 4 times. There were performances for the audience in the owner’s absence, and the horse still gave the correct answers. However, answers did begin to go wrong due to the persistence and tension from the crowd. The wrong answers came as a result of the agitated crowd rather than the horse’s capability.

You may also want to read about Lady Wonder (1924 to 1957), another brilliant horse.


Instead of asking the rather vague question, we should be concerned about how we measure their intelligence.

Horses are intelligent in the way they need to be, which is necessary for survival. We’ll never connect with horses if we keep hoping they will start expressing human-like intelligence. This ability may be possible in exceptional cases like Jim Key and Clever Hans. However, it is best to develop effective training methods for socializing our fast and strong domestic animals.

Finally, take a cue from the man who has never used a whip on his horse. You may just become the owner of another smart horse.

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