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.


He’s Headshy

‘He’s headshy.’ That one simple statement provokes a groan. But even horses that aren’t headshy can be incredibly evasive of the bridle.

So many owners have trouble doing the simple task of bridling their horse. Why can’t he just put his head down and open his mouth?

Even if you’ve never struggled with this, your horse probably does something you don’t like! Read on and see if you can put the principles I show to use with your horse.

Start Simple.

Start without the bridle. Chances are your horse has learned context specific behaviour; in other words, his head goes up when the bridle or your hand comes near, but not otherwise. Start handling his head without the bridle first. Make sure that you wear proper safety gear.

Horses learn what works for them. If he wants to get your hand off his head, whatever behaviour removes your hand fastest is the one he will learn. So be careful to only remove your hand when his head is still.

Progress Slowly.

One short session every two or three days (or every day if that is more convenient) is plenty. Horses learn faster with an interval of a day or two in-between training. Gradually expect your horse to keep his head still for longer. Then teach him to put his head down by removing pressure when he does.

Be Effective.

If you reward your horse randomly, he won’t know what you want. Same if you punish. Wait for the response you want, but also don’t wait too long. Find something that motivates your horse to try answers, and be quick to tell him when he hits the right answer.

Reach the Goal.

When you introduce the bridle again, your horse will go right back to its old behaviour. Don’t worry, that is normal. But now you have the tools to have him relax again while the bridle is on your arm. Go through every step you taught him before until he is relaxed again.

Then bring the bridle closer. As soon as he loses his head posture, stop there and work through it again. You’ll find he relaxed faster with each repetition. With simple steps, patience, and consistency, you’ll have that bridle on his head.

I help people whose horses aren’t behaving the way they want through training like this all the time. I offer lessons and training, but sometimes you just need a little article to set you on the right track.

Check out other helpful articles here.

Respect and Your Horse

How you see respect

So much of the horse training world is built on respect. Your horse has to respect you, because if he doesn’t he will walk all over you, push through you, or not do what you tell him to. That is frustrating and even dangerous.

The concept of respect also puts a lot of pressure on you. How? Well, if your horse doesn’t respect you, it must be because of something you’ve done (or not done), right? That is stressful! Or maybe he’s just a bad horse. That’s even worse—I love horses and can’t stand discounting one as being ‘just bad’.

How your horse sees respect

This is going to sound strange.

Your horse doesn’t look at you and think, ‘I respect this person, I’ll do what she says,’ or even, ‘I don’t respect this person, I won’t do what she says.’

Yet, it is still true that sometimes your horse does what you say and sometimes he doesn’t. So, if this isn’t caused by respect, what causes it?

Your horse is acting on what he has learned. If he is rewarded in some way for performing a behaviour you like, he is going to do it again so he can feel that reward again. That behaviour worked for him, got him something he wanted.

In the same way, if he is rewarded for performing a behaviour you don’t like, he is also going to do it again. The reward is teaching him what he should do.

What this means for your relationship

Just—stand still!

Nothing starts a ride off badly like your horse pinning you against the wall of the tie stall or stepping on your foot—just because he is nervous and can’t seem to stand still and wait for you! This article explores why some horses dance around and how you can teach them to chill out.

What’s the Fuss?

You’ve asked your horse to stop, and you tied him up. What happens when he starts moving his feet again? He has failed the Rhythm level of the shaping scale by not continuing to do what you’ve told him to until you ask for something else. What does that mean? It means this is a training issue, not a respect or impatience issue.

Looking at the problem in these strictly objective terms helps to expose the solution. If he is moving without being asked, he just needs to be taught to not move until asked.

So, what we need to do is ‘shape’ the ‘stop’ response so it includes stopping (which we will assume he already does well) and staying stopped. Shaping is systematically rewarding behaviour that is closer and closer to what you want until the horse reaches the desired behaviour.

So, What do I do?

Check your horse’s stopping. To proceed with training Park, your horse will need to stop in two steps from light pressure on the lead rope.

* If you horse stops in two steps when you stop your feet, it doesn’t count. Why? If your cue for your horse to stop is when you stop your feet, his cue to move is therefore when you move your feet. That means he has permission to move while he is tied up because you are moving. Having a clear cue that shows the horse when it must stand still is necessary. Some cowboys drop the lead rope. I prefer using backwards pressure on the halter. Choose a cue and stick to it.

Ok, he stops well. Grab a dressage whip (it is long enough to be useful but not so long it is cumbersome). Make sure your horse doesn’t fear it. A whip is a cue, not a punishment. If he tries to run away, you will have to get him used to it being around before you can use it. When he is comfortable with you having it, teach him to step backwards when you tap the front of his legs lightly.

Holding your lead rope in one hand and the whip in the other, face your horse so you can see his feet. Step backwards, away from him, just one small step. Did he move? If he follows you, tap the front of the leg that moved until it goes back. Don’t get upset; he just made a small mistake, and you corrected it. Horses don’t learn well from punishment, so calm, quick correction is the best way to teach.

Try stepping away again. As he gets better you can be more creative with how you move. Can you get him to make a mistake? Run away, leap away, jog circles around him, veer off on an unexpected angle. Correct any mistakes and go back to the last level he was successful at to practice.

How Long will it Take?

If you spend 15 minutes on this every time you handle your horse, and if you are consistent and clear, your horse should be standing very nicely most of the time in a few weeks. Keep in mind that when you start going out of sight, you are changing the context of how he learned to stand still (previously you were always in his sight) and he might make more mistakes. If you go to a new area, he may also make more mistakes. Introduce new situations in small steps and give consistent correction. Don’t forget to practice when he is tied as well!

As always, if you’re trying to make headway and it isn’t working, you know who to call! Contact me for help.

5 Horse Principles

There are 5 things best to keep in mind when dealing with any horse, especially one with behaviour problems:

• Horses are large and unpredictable. They use fight, flight, or freeze to cope with stress or perceived danger. Safety of human and horse is paramount when training.

• Horses need social interaction with other equines and require foraging and freedom. We can be seen as a threat by horses.

• Horses’ brains are different from ours. They think, see, and hear differently than we do.

• Horses can feel. They can suffer, and they can be content. They can become attached to us or be afraid of us.

• Horses thrive on consistency. Our end goal should always be that the horse does what we want it to without having to be constantly reminded.

Want to know what each of these means for your relationship with your horse?

When you sign up for lessons, I teach these basic five things to keep in mind, as well as five training tools (see this post) so that you understand why you are doing what you do when you ride.

Or, sign your horse up for training and you can watch as many training sessions as you like as well as receive a lesson when you pick your horse up!

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This information was adapted from the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES) 10 First Principles of Training.

5 Training Tools

Here are 5 principles that show how your horse’s mind works. They are the rules for how he learns things. I use these to retrain every behaviour problem that I get. If you understand them too, you will be able to keep your horse well trained.

Horses have to get used to perceived threats in order to survive. They can’t always be running away, wasting energy. We can systematically use this to get horses used to things they tend to be scared of.

Horses learn by trial and error. When the result of a certain behaviour is something they want, they are likely to repeat it. When the result is something they don’t want, they are less likely to repeat it. Horses don’t learn well from punishment.

Horses easily make associations. When one event predictably happens before another, the horse strings them together in its mind. These can be good or bad associations.

Horses get progressively better with practice. If they practice something we don’t want and it is somehow rewarding, they will get better at that just as much as practicing behaviour that we like.

Horses need clear consistency. They rely on the cues we give them, intentionally or not. They must always be able to tell what we are asking of them.

By knowing these things about horses, I can ‘speak’ in a way they understand. You can, too.

When you take lessons with your horse, I go through how these training tools work. When you register your horse for training, you get access to me during training to learn how I teach him and a lesson to put it into practice!

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This information was adapted from the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES)10 First Principles of Training.

What is Equitation Science?

Equitation Science is the measurement and interpretation of interactions between horses and their riders.

— Equitation Science (2010) Andrew McLean and Paul McGreevy

Equitation science is very exciting because it is bringing the advances of the training of most other animals into the horse world. Dog trainers, dolphin trainers, cat trainers almost without exception use Learning Theory.

Horse trainers are stuck in the world of tradition and trial-and-error.

Tradition is not a bad thing. The best horse trainers and riding coaches are already applying the principles of Learning Theory; that is why their training and teaching works. ‘Horse whisperers’, instructors, and the great modern trainers have made huge advances in the availability of horse knowledge.

But this is better.

What we can measure we can track, and what we track we can understand, and when we understand something we can explain it to others.

Equitation science opens up a conversation about how we can ethically use, train, and keep horses without subjecting them to abuse, accidental or not, so the horse industry does not tarnish its reputation.

Coaches can now teach their students how their horse thinks and learns, because when the student understands how the horse thinks about situations, they are much safer and can train the horse to become safer as well.

Trainers can put the tools into their clients’ hands to continue their horses training so the horse’s confusion is reduced and their welfare improved.

Science improves our ability to understand what we do with our horses and how we do it so we can get the best out of ourselves and our horses in the least invasive way possible.