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?
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.
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 Communicators – A 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.
- Horses Have Excellent Memory – Another 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 Needs – In 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!