Are Horses Intelligent?

Before you say, ‘of course!’…


It is important to define words that can mean different things to different people. The word of interest here is ‘intelligence’. What is intelligence?

Jacques Lautrey (2004) has proposed this definition: “Intelligence is… the capacity of an organism—or of an artificial system—to modify itself to adapt its behaviour to the constraints of its environment… But this cognitive ability to adapt does not qualify as intelligence unless it is generalizable to a fairly high degree, that is, if it appears in different situations….”

Comparing Intelligence

While no scientist will agree with another on a definition, there seems to be a general consensus that every species is ‘intelligent’ in a certain way. There are many forms of intelligence. While the number and type of these forms is also debated, one scientist (Howard Gardner, 1985) proposed eight types, and observed that each species of animal had strengths and weaknesses in each of the eight types. Rats are spatially intelligent, for example, and birds are musically intelligent (Leblanc, 2013).

For this reason, comparing levels of intelligence between species (i.e. between horses and humans) is essentially meaningless. Comparing one horse’s strengths to another horse’s, or to the general horse population, is more meaningful than comparing a horse’s strengths with a human’s strengths to determine comparative intelligence (Leblanc, 2013).

Intelligence and Cognition

Now, the way we use the word ‘intelligence’ in everyday life really doesn’t make this matter any simpler. Depending on the context we use it in, it could mean many different things, from the ability to learn to possessing the power of reason. In scientific literature, ‘intelligence’ is typically used of behaviour that is begun by an innate response, such as an instinct, and allows the creature to make specific adaptations in response to specific problems (Vauclair, 1996). In contrast, they may use the word ‘cognition’ to describe the way an animal learns and processes information, allowing a creature to adapt to unpredictable changes in its environment. The distinction is subtle, but fairly important.

So, when an animal is able to adapt a response that it has learned already (as opposed to an instinctive response) to a new situation, and when the newly adapted response can itself be generalized to suit other new situations, the animal has cognitive ability (Leblanc, 2013).

Both intelligent responses and cognitive responses are observed in horses. When we speak of these mental abilities in relation to trained responses, however, cognition is the more accurate ability to measure.

A Helpful Way to Think about Intelligence

We may consider a horse to be intelligent if he learns a new concept easily (and by extension not intelligent if they do not learn quickly). However, training is influenced by at least eight massive variables: learning ability, the human’s knowledge and skill, the horse’s temperament, conformation, history, and health, and the training environment (McGreevy and McLean, 2010). It is more helpful, then, to think of controlling these variables rather than appealing to the horse’s intelligence.

Further, we may consider a horse to be intelligent if he seems able to read our minds. However, this is really a product of the eight variables above, where the horse has learned to recognize subtle cues. This is usually a result of the horse’s adeptness at making associations and generalizing (McGreevy and McLean, 2010).

Finally, a horse may be considered intelligent if he has learned behaviour that thwarts his handler’s wishes. This again, however, if a product of the eight influences on training, and is more an indication of how these factors have affected the horse’s environment than a reflection of the horse’s level of intelligence (McGreevy and McLean, 2010).

What this Means

In our interactions with horses, it is counter-productive to our goal (and our morale) to wonder if the horse is more or less intelligent than we are. What we should be most concerned about, in order to really understand our horses and relate to them better, is comprehending the horse’s cognition, which includes learning processes, mental capacity, and information processing (Leblanc, 2013). Understanding how these processes differ from ours will enable us to treat the horse as a horse—leading to improved welfare for the horse and greater success for us.

Conwy Lloyd Morgan (1894) proposed this principle, known as Morgan’s canon, which makes a great deal of sense even now: “in no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one that stands lower in the psychological scale”.

In other words, if your horse knocked you over with his nose, it is probably more accurate to say that he learned to push in order to receive food than that he is trying to get back at you for forgetting to bring treats.


Gardner, H. (1985) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Lautrey, J. (2004) Hauts potentiels et talents: La position actuelle du problème. Psychologie Française49:219-32

Leblanc, M. (2013) The Mind of the Horse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGreevy, P and McLean, A. (2010) Equitation Science. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Morgan, CL (1894) Introduction to Comparative Psychology. London: Scott.

Vauclair, J. (1996) Animal Cognition: An Introduction to Modern Comparative Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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