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Are Horses Smart? A Deep Dive into Equine Intelligence

Last updated: February 28, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Did you know horses can recognize human emotions and even remember people years after their first meeting? As a long-time horse enthusiast, owner of six, and author of two books on horses, I’ve always been fascinated by their intelligence and emotional depth.

This article aims to explore the cognitive abilities of horses, answering the question: Just how smart are these remarkable animals? Join me on this informative and engaging journey to uncover the true intellect of horses.

Picture of a horse looking our his stall window.
Smart looking horse. Source: Annatsach, CC BY-SA 4.0

Are Horses Smart?

Yes, horses are indeed smart. Current research, expert opinions, and personal observations all affirm the intelligence of horses. They possess a remarkable range of cognitive abilities and emotional intelligence that sets them apart.

Key Points on Horse Intelligence:

  • Problem-Solving Skills: Horses can solve complex problems, especially those related to their immediate environment and social interactions.
  • Memory: They have an excellent memory, allowing them to remember individuals, locations, and even specific experiences for years.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Horses are highly sensitive to human emotions and can read subtle cues in body language and tone of voice, responding in ways that suggest a deep understanding.
  • Social Intelligence: Living in herds has equipped horses with sophisticated social intelligence, enabling them to navigate complex social structures and communicate effectively with both humans and other horses.
Picture of a horse performing advanced dreassage.  This helps answer the question, are horses smart.
Captured here, a horse skillfully executes advanced dressage movements.

Do Horses Have Good Memories?

Yes, Horses Remember Well! Horses possess a remarkable memory, crucial for their emotional connections, training, survival, and social interactions. Their long-term memory helps in both practical aspects of care and training and in forming lasting relationships with their caregivers.

  • Emotional Bonds: Horses can remember individuals, including other horses and humans, forming strong emotional bonds over time.
  • Training Recall: Their ability to recall training lessons months or even years later showcases their impressive memory.
  • Survival Instinct: Memory aids in their survival, allowing them to remember locations of food, water, and danger zones.
  • Social Dynamics: They recall social hierarchies within their herds, recognizing friends and foes alike.
Picture of a horse in training.
Working with a smart horse in a training environment.

Horses: Masters of Communication

Horses are not just intelligent; they’re emotionally attuned communicators, capable of engaging in sophisticated interactions with humans and their equine peers.

Horse-Human Interaction: A Dialogue

  • Riding isn’t just a physical activity; it’s an intricate conversation between you and your horse. Training together involves giving and interpreting subtle cues, from leg signals and voice commands to rein tugs.
  • Horses communicate their responses through body language, like ear turns or whinnies, creating a two-way communication stream.
Picture of two horses in a pasture one is grazing and the other is looking back.
The horse attentively observes something in the pasture, a testament to its keen awareness and curiosity.

Understanding Among Equines

  • Horses have their own social language, understanding each other’s signals, facial expressions, and vocal tones. They’re quick learners, not just of routines but also in recognizing individual humans and their emotional states.

Learning and Adaptation

  • Horses quickly learn recognizable sounds, tones, and even daily routines like feeding times. They’re known for their Houdini-like skills in opening stable doors and extricating themselves from tricky situations.

Cognitive Skills Over Human Intelligence

  • While horses don’t possess human intelligence, they excel in cognitive abilities such as memory, problem-solving, and decision-making. Their intelligence shines through their ability to learn swiftly, adapt, and make smart choices.

Communication Skills

  • Horses recognize human emotions and can learn to associate voices with faces, understand short commands, and respond to conditioning. This showcases their complex communication capabilities, bridging the gap between the equine and human worlds.

Understanding Horse Intelligence

Intelligence in horses goes beyond merely following commands or performing tricks. It’s a multifaceted attribute that includes cognitive, social, emotional, spatial, and kinesthetic aspects.

Types of Intelligence in Horses

1. Cognitive Intelligence

  • Example: A horse’s ability to learn how to open a latch for food access showcases its problem-solving skills and environmental manipulation.

2. Social Intelligence

  • Example: Recognizing and remembering the herd’s social structure, horses adjust their behavior based on their relationships, demonstrating complex social awareness.
Picture of a girl feeding a carrot to her horse.
Girl interacting with a horse.

3. Emotional Intelligence

  • Example: A horse sensing and reacting calmly to a rider’s fear or anxiety highlights its capacity for empathy and understanding human emotions.

4. Spatial Intelligence

  • Example: Successfully navigating through intricate terrains or obstacle courses shows a horse’s ability to accurately judge distances and spatial relationships.

5. Kinesthetic Intelligence

  • Example: A horse coordinating its movements with a rider in disciplines like dressage or show jumping illustrates advanced body awareness and movement control.

Scientific Research on Horse Intelligence

Here are two studies that demonstrate just how intelligent horses are. I chose these because they offer insights into horses’ ability to learn and empathize, areas that haven’t been fully explored. This research deepens our understanding of horses and adds valuable perspectives to the study of animal intelligence as a whole.

1. Equine Learning and Memory: Cognition and learning in horses (Equus caballus): What we know and why we should ask more

  • Study Overview: Investigates horses’ abilities to learn and remember using shapes, colors, and patterns.
  • Key Findings: Horses demonstrated the capacity to learn complex sequences and retain information over time, showcasing cognitive abilities on par with higher mammals.

2. Social Cognition and Emotional Intelligence: Horses Categorize Human Emotions Cross-Modally Based on Facial Expression and Non-Verbal Vocalizations

  • Study Overview: Uses heart rate monitoring and behavioral observation to understand horses’ responses to human emotions.
  • Key Findings: Horses can distinguish between positive and negative human emotions, evidencing advanced social intelligence.
Picture of horses and a dog.
Picture of horses and dog

Are Horses Smarter Than Dogs?

Intelligence can be multifaceted, including problem-solving abilities, social intelligence, and emotional empathy. Both horses and dogs have unique strengths that showcase their intelligence in different areas.


  • Social Intelligence: Excel in understanding complex herd dynamics, similar to elephants and dolphins.
  • Emotional Connections: Known for their ability to form deep emotional bonds and understand social cues from both humans and other horses.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: Demonstrated in their interactions with the environment, such as opening gates or finding their way back to familiar locations.


  • Trainability: Highly trainable, able to learn commands, perform tasks, and participate in various activities, from service roles to sports.
  • Human Connection: Exceptional at reading human emotions and responding appropriately, aiding in their role as companions and service animals.
  • Adaptability: Quickly adapt to different environments and situations, making them versatile in work and play.

Dive into the world of equine intelligence with “Amazing Smart Horses,” a YouTube video showcasing the remarkable cognitive abilities of horses.

Explore the fascinating intelligence of horses in this video compilation.

The Smartest Horse in the World.

Clever Hans, often hailed as the smartest horse, gained fame for seemingly performing arithmetic tasks like tapping his hoof six times when asked, “What is 2×3?”.

Legacy and Beyond:

  • The New York Times featured Clever Hans in 1904, highlighting his unique abilities (Read the original article).
  • Lucas: More recently, Lucas, a former racehorse, set a Guinness World Record by identifying 19 numbers in one minute, showcasing another example of equine intelligence.
Picture of an Irish Draft horse we saw when visiting Ireland.  The horse could navigate the entire route without any help from his handler.
Irish Draft horse attached to a wagon. He can navigate the entire island without being guided.

FAQs on Horse Intelligence

Can horses understand human emotions?

Yes, horses are highly sensitive to human emotions. They can read subtle cues in body language and tone of voice, responding in ways that suggest a deep understanding of our emotional states.

What kind of problem-solving abilities do horses have?

Horses demonstrate problem-solving skills in various ways, such as figuring out how to open gates or finding their way back home from unfamiliar locations. They can also learn to perform complex tasks through training.

Are certain horse breeds more intelligent than others?

While some horse owners believe certain breeds are more intelligent, there is no conclusive scientific evidence to support this. Intelligence varies more by individual horses rather than by breed.

How do horses communicate with humans?

Horses communicate with humans through body language, vocalizations, and by responding to human cues and gestures. They are adept at picking up on our intentions and emotions, which guides their responses.

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.

Picture of a thoroughbred stallion.
My three-year-old Thoroughbred, he is very smart.

Conclusion: Are Horses Smart?

In our exploration of “Are Horses Smart?” we’ve delved into various aspects of equine intelligence, uncovering fascinating insights from scientific research, expert opinions, and real-world observations. We’ve seen that horses exhibit a remarkable level of cognitive abilities, from problem-solving and memory retention to emotional intelligence and social communication.

This journey through the world of equine cognition not only highlights the intellectual prowess of horses but also challenges us to appreciate and interact with them in more informed and respectful ways.

Get Involved

We’d love to hear from you! Your experiences and opinions are valuable to us and can enrich our understanding of equine intelligence. Here are a few ways you can get involved:

  1. Answer Our Poll: Do you think horses are intelligent? Cast your vote in our poll and see what others think!
  2. Share Your Stories: Have you had any experiences that showcase the intelligence of horses? Whether it’s a story of a clever horse solving a problem or an instance of a horse displaying emotional intelligence, we invite you to share your stories in the comments section.
  3. Join the Discussion: What are your thoughts on the cognitive abilities of horses compared to other animals? Do you agree with the insights presented in this article? Join the discussion and share your perspective.
  4. Spread the Word: If you found this article enlightening, share it with fellow horse enthusiasts, friends, and family. Let’s spread the knowledge and appreciation for these magnificent creatures!

Your participation can help foster a community of horse lovers and enthusiasts who are keen on understanding and celebrating the intelligence of these amazing animals.

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  • For personalized advice or specific inquiries, feel free to contact me directly. I’m here to help.

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