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Are Horses Smart? Equine Intelligence Facts and Testing Info

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Recently, a captivating documentary on wild horses piqued my curiosity about their intellectual capabilities. This led me on an intriguing journey to discover the depth of equine intelligence and how it stacks up against other species.

Indeed, horses are smart. Through sophisticated testing, researchers have uncovered their ability to recall intricate sequences, comprehend both verbal and non-verbal cues, and much more. Their inherent intellect often goes unnoticed, yet it is truly remarkable.

“Smartness” can be subjective, hinging upon one’s perspective. In this context, being smart implies the ability to learn and comprehend. Bearing this in mind, let’s embark on an exploration of the fascinating world of equine intelligence.

Understanding Horse Intelligence

In order to truly appreciate and comprehend horse intelligence, we must first define what ‘intelligence’ means in the context of horses. Just like humans, each horse possesses a unique personality and a distinct set of cognitive skills.

Picture of horses competing in a halter show.

Intelligence in horses isn’t merely about their capacity to learn tricks or obey commands; it extends to their ability to solve problems, remember experiences, and even recognize emotions. Horse intelligence, in essence, can be seen as a blend of three key components: memory, adaptation, and emotion.

Their remarkable long-term memory allows them to remember specific places, individuals, and experiences years after they occur. Horses have proven to possess the ability to adapt to changing environments and solve problems, which requires a degree of innovative thinking.

Emotionally, horses are highly sensitive and perceptive creatures. They can sense and respond to the feelings of humans and other animals, displaying a kind of empathy, which is a powerful indicator of intelligence.

But how does horse intelligence stack up when compared to other animals? It’s a fascinating comparison. For instance, horses, much like dogs, are highly trainable and can understand and respond to a vast range of commands.

Horses also share a capacity for long-term memory similar to elephants, a trait that contributes significantly to their survival skills in the wild. In terms of emotional intelligence, horses are often compared to dolphins, another species renowned for their sensitivity and perceptiveness.

However, it’s important to remember that each species, including horses, exhibits intelligence in ways specific to their survival needs and evolutionary history. While horses may not demonstrate intelligence the same way primates or dolphins do, their cognitive skills are undeniably complex and remarkable in their own right.

Unraveling the intricacies of equine intelligence not only enhances our understanding of horses but it also enriches our interaction and bond with them. Whether it’s training a young foal or developing a deeper connection with a long-time equine companion, understanding the depth of their intelligence can lead to a more rewarding and mutually beneficial relationship.

Picture of an Irish Draft horse.

Evidence of Equine Intelligence

When we talk about intelligence, horses are not usually the first creatures that come to mind. However, there are countless examples and scientific studies that clearly demonstrate their remarkable cognitive abilities.

Consider the relationship between horses and their riders. Horses are able to respond to subtle cues and signals, showing not only a keen perceptiveness but also an ability to adapt their behavior based on these cues.

They can recognize and remember specific people and will often adjust their behavior depending on who is handling them. Some horses have even been known to ‘test’ new riders or handlers by behaving differently than they do with familiar people, which shows a degree of strategic thinking.

One of the most famous examples of horse intelligence was a horse named Beautiful Jim Key. Born in 1889, Beautiful Jim Key was trained by his owner, Dr. William Key, to perform various tasks such as spelling out words, doing basic arithmetic, and even sorting mail. It’s a remarkable story that challenges our preconceived notions of equine intelligence.

Beyond anecdotal evidence, there are numerous scientific studies confirming the cognitive capabilities of horses. In a study published by the Animal Cognition journal in 2016, horses were shown to use symbols to communicate their preferences.

They were trained to understand the meaning of three symbols: one for a blanket, one for no blanket, and one for no change. Given the weather conditions, the horses used these symbols to indicate whether they wanted a blanket put on or taken off. This showed not only an understanding of the symbol’s meaning but also a clear ability to make decisions based on their comfort.

Another study by researchers at Kobe University revealed that horses can recognize themselves in a mirror, a test often used to measure self-awareness in animals. This is considered a high level of cognitive ability, as it requires understanding that the image in the mirror is not another horse but their own reflection.

Through these examples and studies, it becomes clear that horses possess a depth of intelligence that is often overlooked. Recognizing this intelligence allows us to better appreciate these incredible creatures and foster deeper, more meaningful relationships with them.

Picture of a horse and rider.

Evaluating Horse Intelligence: Methods and Challenges

Measuring and evaluating the intelligence of horses is a complex task. Unlike standardized tests for human intelligence, the methods used for horses must take into consideration their unique communication styles, behaviors, and cognitive abilities.

One common method used is observational learning tests. Horses are presented with a problem, such as opening a gate or a box to reach food. Researchers then observe if and how the horse solves the problem. In some cases, a trained horse may demonstrate the solution, and the test horse’s ability to learn from the demonstration is assessed.

Another approach is the detour test, where a horse must navigate around a barrier to reach a visible goal. This measures their spatial awareness and problem-solving skills. Similarly, fear response tests are conducted to evaluate a horse’s ability to assess potential threats and react appropriately.

Moreover, mirror self-recognition (MSR) tests, like the one conducted by Kobe University researchers, evaluate whether an animal recognizes itself in a mirror, a measure often associated with higher cognitive functioning.

While these tests provide valuable insights into equine intelligence, they also come with a set of challenges and limitations. For starters, horses are prey animals with behaviors and instincts that are fundamentally different from humans and other predators. For example, their flight response can sometimes make testing challenging or even potentially unsafe.

Additionally, environmental factors can significantly influence a horse’s performance in intelligence tests. Their upbringing, training, and individual experiences all play a role in how they respond to testing scenarios. Therefore, an intelligence test may not necessarily measure inherent cognitive ability, but rather learned responses.

Further, there’s the challenge of anthropomorphism – attributing human traits and emotions to animals. It’s important to design tests that measure horse intelligence in a way that’s relevant to horses, not simply a reflection of human intelligence standards.

Despite these challenges, continuous research and development of innovative testing methods are aiding our understanding of equine intelligence. As we continue to explore this fascinating field, we are uncovering new ways to communicate and connect with these intelligent creatures.

Factors That Influence Equine Intelligence

The intellect of horses is influenced by numerous elements. Just as the environment and education shape human intelligence, similar factors play a role in shaping a horse’s cognitive abilities.

Role of Training and Environment

Training plays a substantial role in harnessing and showcasing a horse’s intelligence. Horses learn to respond to specific cues and commands, enhancing their mental agility. Moreover, the environment a horse is exposed to also plays a pivotal part. Those in stimulating, diverse environments often show greater problem-solving abilities than those in less engaging surroundings.

Influence of Breed and Age

While different horse breeds may have varying temperaments and traits, there’s no definitive scientific consensus that some breeds are significantly more intelligent than others. However, certain breeds might demonstrate more aptitude for specific tasks due to centuries of selective breeding for those characteristics.

The age of a horse also influences its cognitive abilities. Just like humans, young horses are typically more receptive to learning new things, while older horses might rely more on their extensive repertoire of past experiences. Recognizing these factors is crucial in understanding and nurturing the intellectual potential of these magnificent creatures.

Horse and Human Intelligence Differ.

The problem with all questions about animal intelligence is finding some objective method of measuring it. Each species has its way of showing how clever it is, and it is essential to devise appropriate tests for each species before drawing conclusions.

We will almost certainly miss the point if we judge a species by intelligence tests that suit us. In the wild, prey, and predator species differ slightly in their “types” of intelligence. If a predator makes a mistake and its prey escapes, it can live to prowl again.

But if prey animals such as horses make a mistake, it can mean sudden death, and for this reason, they are particularly sensitive to experiences in which they suffer pain or fear. Click on the link to read how horses communicate with their ears to signal to members of their herd.

One nasty moment in a particular place or with a specific individual and a horse may react violently the next time the situation is encountered. If the pain or panic is intense., the animals may commit the experience to memory for years.

Do Horses Have Good Memories?

Horses have great memories, and their exceptional memory can give rise to some seemingly inexplicable behavior. A mature horse suddenly rears up and bolts when confronted with an unfamiliar apparatus or a particular location.

The new owner can’t understand what is going on. An ordinarily docile animal is suddenly a nervous wreck. Many errors are made in attempting to interpret such behavior when the hidden explanation is usually that, as a foal, perhaps, the horse suffered a bad experience and never forgets it.

Picture of a Thoroughbred heading to the paddock to be saddled for a race.

A horse’s extreme reaction to some things is often thought of as stupidity, but what is perceived as a lack of intelligence is actually a kind of wisdom. They are intelligent prey species that survived for thousands of years by reacting quickly when faced with something unfamiliar.

After publishing this article, I received an email from a reader who brought up a valid point I missed about horses’ memories and intelligence; here is what he sent me,

“You can ask any who’s gotten lost on a trail ride, no matter what, no matter how far away you might be, a horse always knows where home is. This goes for domesticated horses, i believe its the same for wild horses as well but not entirely sure.

TheOne MothBoi

I couldn’t agree more with his email. I’ve ridden deep in the woods following dogs and wasting the day only to realize I was turned around and not sure which direction to head home, and I relied on my horse to lead the way.  Thanks for the email, TheOne MothBoi.

Horses’ Problem-Solving Skills are Tested in 2016.

In November 2016, two scientists, Monamie Ringhofer and Associate Professor Shinya Yamamoto published an article entitled Domestic horses send signals to humans when they face an unsolvable task.

This is the first study to provide definitive information that horses understand the signals humans transmit, interpret humans’ knowledge, and communicate with them.

A horse has to seek help to get a treat.

The scientist set up two problematic situations for the horses to solve to retrieve a treat. They were creative and constructed the test to require the horse to seek human assistance to succeed. Let look at the trial.

  • 1st scenario– Hey, there is a treat in the paddock with us that I would love to have but can’t reach, and there is a guy in here who can get it for us, but he doesn’t know where it is; what do we do?
  • 2nd scenario– Ok, there is a treat in the paddock with us that I would love to have but can’t reach, but there is a guy in here who saw where it was put and can get it for us; what do we do?

How they set up the test: in the first scenario, a carrot was placed in a bucket and placed of reach of the horse. A caretaker was not present to observe the location of the treat. (uninformed).

A caretaker entered the paddock in the second scenario and placed a carrot in a bucket while the horse watched. (knowledge state). In both cases, the horse could not reach the bucket. The caretaker did this multiple times with eight thoroughbred horses.

What did the horses do? The interactions between the horses and the caretaker were videotaped and revealed some interesting information.

Picture of a girl feeding a carrot to her horse.

The horses asked for help to get the treat.

The horse remained close to the caretaker during the first test, looked at, touched, and pushed him. This action showed that when a horse needs help, it will ask for it as it did by looking and physically touching and pushing.

In the second test, the horses increased the signals to the caretaker in intensity and duration. These actions demonstrated that horses change their behavior in response to the knowledge levels of humans. These tests prove the flexible cognitive ability of a horse is a relatively high-level one.

Horses differentiate patterns.

Tests analyzing the ability of horses to discriminate have produced some remarkable results. When horses are given pairs of patterns (such as a square versus a circle, a circle versus a semicircle, or a triangle versus some dots) and rewarded with a treat for choosing a specified set, horses learn very quickly.

When twenty pairs of patterns were offered, horses learned to tell them apart in every case (compared with thirteen in donkeys and ten in zebras). Their scores were always well above the 50 percent level of chance and, in some cases, were 100 percent correct.

Their lowest score was as high as 73 percent, with one difficult pair. Even more impressive was the fact that there was virtually no memory loss twelve months after the training session, with nineteen out of the twenty pairs of patterns.

The horses outperformed humans in memory tests.

The horse’s results were better than most humans and reflected the fact that in the wild, horses need to learn and memorize many different plants in their environment– those that taste good, those that sting or prick, those that are distasteful, and those that are poisonous.

It is also essential that the learning is retained for a very long period–long enough for the appropriate reaction still to be there when the annual cycle of plant growth repeats itself.

Picture of a thoroughbred stallion.

Which Horse Breed is the Smartest?

A group of us were leaning on a fence when a neighbor rode towards us on an Arabian and quickly expounded the horse breed’s virtues, which included being the smartest. This statement made me do some research on breed intelligence.

Many horse owners like to claim the breed they own is the smartest horse breed; however, there is no evidence of one kind being any more intelligent than another. Although Shetland ponies, though not horses, are incredibly smart animals.

I have owners mention Arabians, Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, and the list goes on.

What is the Smartest Horse in the World?

The world’s smartest horse was “Clever Hans.” Clever Hans, also known as the “counting horse,” made a series of simple calculations and gave the answers by tapping his foot. What is 2×3? The owner would ask the horse this question, and then Clever Hans would tap his foot six times.

The watching crowd was amazed. How did he do it? At first, investigators believed that the animal’s owner must be giving clues to the horse, so they asked him to withdraw.

The horse still managed to get the right answers. So what was the secret? The next step was to remove the watching audience and put the horse behind a screen.

This did stop him from getting the answers correct and revealed what was taking place, namely that Clever Hans could pick up tiny changes in posture or expression as he approached the correct number of taps.

Clever Hans read the crowd.

All audience members knew the right answer and tensed up as the foot-tapping got closer to the correct number. The horse sensing them, as it were, holding its breath in case he made a mistake, stopped tapping and appeared to have calculated the solution to the mathematical problem.

If he could not see them, he simply went on and on tapping. This occurred even when people knew how it was done.

Human beings appear to be almost incapable of revealing their mood through their body language. The horse is so responsive to slight muscle tone changes or body posture that it can detect even the smallest unconscious change.

The New York Times wrote an article on Clever Hans in 1904. (Click this link to read the original New York Times article. More recently, “Lucas,” a failed racehorse, has been amazing people with his intelligence.

He set the Guinness World Record for “the most numbers correctly identified by a horse in one minute.” He identified 19 numbers.

Below is a YouTube video about the smartest horse that ever lived.

Are Horses Smarter Than Dogs?

Horses seem to be smarter than Dogs. It is hard to measure a species’ intelligence, but making a comparison across species is complex. Comparing dogs to horses and predator animals to prey animals adds an even tougher factor to the equation.

But after looking at the research in standard memory testing, horses seem to be smarter. Some people believe that predatory animals have to be more intelligent because they have to learn to hunt for survival. This just has not proven to be the case.

However, social interaction does seem to have a bearing on intelligence. Chimps, like horses, live in groups together and learn to communicate amongst themselves.

Dogs were similarly tested as the horses with the carrots in the buckets. In that test, the dogs directed the humans as well, just in a different manner. The best answer to who is smarter, a horse or a dog, is no one knows for sure.

It is just too difficult to directly compare intelligence across species because there is no standard for “smart.”

Are Horses Smarter than Camels?

Just as we explained when we tried to compare dogs to horses, it is too difficult to determine the relative level of intelligence between these two species.

However, it is widely accepted that Camels are smart and have great memories. A horse is much more submissive and will forgive a mean owner; a camel, on the other hand, will look for ways to get back at his owner for bad behavior.

Which Animal is the Smartest?

Chimpanzees are the smartest animals. Chimpanzees are believed to be the smartest animal, and they were tested against humans for numerical memory. The test included three female adult chimps and their adolescent offspring.

Picture of a monkey,

The adolescent chimps could not only outperform mothers but also the humans tested. This study was performed in 2007 and can be seen here. https://wwwbiology/full

The testing required a quick recall of numbers. The subjects had less than one second to see numbers and their respective locations. Then they were asked to recall this information and convey it to the examiners.

The adult Chimps’ and humans’ performance was roughly identical. But the young chimps far exceeded the others tested.

Are Goats Smart?

Goats have proven themselves to be quite smart. Australian scientists tested goats to determine their reasoning, power, and memory. The test involved performing a certain number of tasks to retrieve a treat.

The successful goats were tested again ten months later and performed much quicker, displaying their ability to learn and retain information.


Do horses remember you?

Yes, horses have complex social structures and can remember people and events for years. horses also understand words better than most people realize.

Are horses sad when riding them?

There’s a lot of debate on whether horses are unhappy when carrying a rider on their back. Horses are individuals; many enjoy being ridden, while others may be sad. But in general, I believe that horse riding can be a great way to improve the well-being of both horses and riders.

Below is a YouTube video of horses showing off their smarts.