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Exploring Equine Intelligence: They Really Are As Smart As We Think!

three horse heads are better than one

Anyone who’s ever owned a horse will tell you they are the smartest animals in the world. However, skeptics will argue that prey animals like horses do not share the same level of intelligence as predatory animals like dogs, dolphins, and corvids.

So is it our personal bias and love of horses that have us overestimating horse intelligence? Are they really as smart as we think they are? Researchers have found the answer, and we’re right: horses are incredibly intelligent animals.

How Do We Rate Intelligence In Animals?

There are many definitions of intelligence, but scientists generally agree on specific parameters to help measure an animal’s intelligence. These include things like learning and problem-solving, the ability to communicate, and self-awareness. The most popular method scientists use to measure intelligence is called the mirror self-recognition test (MSR). The mirror test has been used since the 1970s to help determine animal intelligence.\

How Does The MSR Work?

horses actually have strong intellect

Basically, the test is conducted by placing an animal in front of a mirror. If the animal recognizes its reflection, it’s considered to have passed the test. There are some variations to the test, such as placing a mark on the animal to see if they will use the mirror to remove it, but overall, it is the standard intelligence test for animals. The most intelligent animals on the planet like chimpanzees, killer whales, and elephants have all successfully passed the mirror test.

Did Horses Pass The Mirror Recognition Test?

We can look to a pilot study conducted in 2017 for the answers to this question. Although the quantitative study is still ongoing, the researchers have had some interesting findings about horse intelligence. The study was conducted on four horses, and by the standard definitions of the MSR, the group as a whole did not pass. However, what researchers discovered was surprising and indicated a highly intelligent animal.

What The Researchers Learned About Horse Intelligence

Though the horses didn’t pass the MSR, every single one of the horses tested interacted with the mirror. They all spent a large amount of time investigating the mirror to understand it as well as the image reflected in the mirror. Some did a series of mouth movements in the mirror, while one of the horses did pass according to standard definitions.

Lukas the Horse is incredibly smart

This shows that although horses are quite intelligent, their personalities vary so greatly that we can’t simply use one metric to measure their intelligence. Researchers will continue to modify and conduct this test to really get the answer.

What About The Other Forms Of Measuring Intelligence?

The MSR is enlightening, but it’s not the only thing scientists have used to learn more about horse intelligence. There is an abundance of research that proves what horse owners already know: horses are incredibly smart. Here are some of the other things scientists know about horse intelligence:

  • Horses Are Great CommunicatorsA research study conducted in Japan with eight domesticated horses found that horses will communicate problems to their humans. In the study, a research assistant placed a tasty carrot in a bucket in front of the horse and then placed the bucket where only the research assistant could access it. The horse then used a combination of visual and tactile communication methods to tell the research assistant they would like them to get the carrot for them.
spending time with your equine friend helps your relationship
  • Horses Have Excellent MemoryAnother study conducted in Japan tested both memory and communication in horses. Researchers presented horses with 42” touch screen televisions. Researchers taught the horses a variety of shapes and their meanings. They incentivized some shapes by showing horses they would get a tasty treat when presented with the shape. Then, they tested the horses to see if they could recognize the shapes, communicate their needs, and remember which shapes allow them to have treats. The horses were quick learners and easily distinguished between the shapes and use the touch screens to get treats.
  • Horses Can Plan Ahead For Their NeedsIn a research study in 2016, famously called the “Blanket/No Blanket Study,” researchers in Norway taught 23 horses a variety of symbols so they could communicate whether they wanted a blanket or did not want a blanket. Researchers found that not only could the horses communicate their blanket needs but they also opted for blankets on cooler days and opted not to have blankets on warmer days.

These are just some of the ways that researchers have explored the depths of horse intelligence. There is currently a lot more research being done as we begin to learn just how smart horses are.

What About Emotional Intelligence?

Beyond just cognitive skills and the ability to plan, communicate, and remember things, there’s another level of horse intelligence any horse owner has experienced, and that is emotional intelligence. We all know that when we have a bad day, our horses can tell and often offer us comfort and support. Researchers found that horses have a high level of emotional intelligence and can even read our emotions.

A study out of the University of Sussex found that horses can read emotion cues from our facial expressions. Not only do they recognize our emotions, but they also deeply emphasize and absorb those feelings.

As horse owners, we already know from experience that our horses are incredibly intelligent. However, it’s nice to know that science supports the truth behind what we believe. We are excited to see what researchers learn next about the way horses think and interact with the world because we can use that information to better communicate with them. The more we communicate with them, the more we learn about how to care for them and how the natural ingredients in Equi-Spa products can help them. Do you have a great story about a time your horse’s intelligence blew you away? Share it with us in the comments for all of our readers to enjoy!

12 thoughts on “Exploring Equine Intelligence: They Really Are As Smart As We Think!

  1. In 2001 my husband died, it was beginning of Feb, I learnt of his death at 12 noon. That afternoon I went to feed my horses, both horses were given their usual buckets spaced apart, I was obviously very upset, I started walking the fence line checking it was safe, my younger horse left his feed and followed me around nudging me, the other horse just watched, normally they would eat quickly so the other wouldn’t eat theirs. On return with my younger horse behind me neither bucket had been touched! Why was that, it had never happened before or after, I rescued my younger horse at 4 months old and he is now 30, my husband asked me once who would you chose me or the horses, I replied don’t ask, I still have one horse. Yes I do agree horses are very intelligent and receptive!!🐴❤️

    1. I just saw this. so sorry for the late reply. I am sorry you lost your husband.
      I think the horses could tell you were grieving, dont you?

  2. Their intelligence goes way beyond what we can measure. I have experienced some remarkable things over the years. Horses who know when a friend is in trouble (even when they are out of sight and hearing) and warning us that something is amiss; incredible memory feats (my horse told us we were on the wrong path on a ride, even though we had only ridden that ride twice before – each a year apart); picking up on my heartbreak after losing my horse, even though I was not showing any outward signs of grief. Two horses (neither were mine, and the one had not had any connection with me before) took it upon themselves to kiss and lick both sides of my neck simultaneously. When they finished, they had just sucked all the pain out of me, leaving me with an incredible sense of joy, love and peace. Reiki healing maybe? There is more to horses than we will ever know or understand.

  3. I have been an equine assisted life coach for a few years now. I can tell you, without any doubt, that horses are intuitive, communicative, sensitive and intelligent beyond my wildest dreams!

  4. Realizing now that my 60 year relationship with horses could have gone much deeper.
    They always knew I loved them. By 1994 I recognized the telepathic relationship I had with my new 3 year old gelding. I thought it, and he did it, in training. What a gift that was!

  5. Just when you think you are alone in what you have learned with horses, POOF someome else gets it.
    I have been training horses for well over 40 years. For over 20 years I showed and rodeoed. Thats 20 years wasted. Titles and awards mean nothing any more. I work with really bad abuse cases for Rescues and I train Mustangs. I am considered an oddity but still held in high regard. Trainers evolve from culture. Good ones evolve out. Perception and communication are the keys. Thats why thinking outside of the box is dated. You should not be in a box. Instead of thinking what the hell do I do now? I learned to wonder, what if?

    1. good for you. I love that…”what if”.

  6. I watch a Canadian show called Heartland. I am addicted. I must have watched the whole thing about 4 times
    I learnt to ride when I was 15 for two years but then did no more. I love their smell.

    Is Heartland’s use of horses accurate and good?

    1. I love that series! Actually for those who subscribe to that form of training, it is pretty accurate. Alot of people use the “natural horsemanship” method (that is what I call it…may have a new name for it).And I find it credible. There is a lot of crossover in training horses no matter what discipline you ride. I think the show is valuable for alot of reasons. I enjoy watching it and the story lines and of course the horses. It also sheds light on some common abuse some horses endure and how notify people or authorities who can help.

  7. This is a fairly old page….. perhaps it could be updated?
    The original findings took place with a pilot study in 2017.
    The main study was in 2021, and it was found that 11 of 14 horses did pass the MSR test:

    1. Thank you so much Jeff for your feed back. I LOVE It. Please, if you want to write an update i would be happy to add it to the article. Awesome information!

  8. What an engaging read! Your exploration of equine intelligence truly highlights the remarkable cognitive abilities of our beloved horses. It’s incredible to see how they navigate complex tasks and form deep connections with humans. After delving into your post, I couldn’t help but ponder how incorporating calming supplement horses could further support their mental well-being and cognitive function. Providing these intelligent creatures with the right supplements could potentially enhance their ability to stay focused, reduce stress, and optimize their performance in various activities. Thank you for shedding light on the fascinating world of equine intelligence—it’s a testament to the extraordinary bond we share with these magnificent animals!

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