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Are Horses Stupid? An Inside Look

By Jeffrey Rolo

Here at AlphaHorse we receive all types of equestrian-related questions - everything ranging from important questions regarding horse care or fixing problematic behavior all the way down to seemingly superficial debates such as, "Are horses stupid?" For now, let's take a closer look at the horse intelligence debate, and discover why this seemingly unimportant topic may be more important than we initially realize.

Comparing Horses To Humans

It's almost inevitable that during a horse intelligence debate the "stupid horse" crowd will draw comparisons between horses and humans, pointing out how inferior horses are when compared to our own capacity and behavior. The "horses are intelligent" crowd often takes the bait, and starts outlining reasons why they believe horses are comparable to humans in their own way. Both sides are missing the boat!

Comparing horses to humans on a pure intellectual capacity level is silly, because it should be obvious to anyone that humans rule the roost. Of course horses cannot compete with us. The question isn't, "Are horses as smart as people?" The question is, "Are horses stupid?" Two entirely different questions.

The Brain Debate

Those that believe horses are stupid will often cite brain size as a reason why horses cannot be intelligent. They will point out that scientific studies have proven that brain size directly correlates to how intelligent an animal or human is, and as such horses with their grapefruit-sized brain simply cannot compare.

This is true to an extent. Now I'm not going to jump into the deep end of the science and start talking about topics such as brain to body weight ratios, neuroanatomy, etc., because if I did so I'd probably overload my own mind! But the connection between brain size and intellectual capacity is generally true. Some scientists have raised questions as to whether size is the only indicator, or whether brain efficiency also plays a role. Additionally some have concluded that size comparisons are most accurate within the same species (i.e., one study between men and women showed that men scored slightly higher on tests, perhaps due to the fact the male brain is slightly larger).

The bottom line is that the jury is still out regarding the minute details of the science, but overall brain size is a good indicator of intelligence. Horses have smaller brains, and as such aren't as intellectually capable as humans.

Species Mindsets

Here is where those that believe horses are stupid start stumbling. Often when assessing the intelligence of an animal, we project our own logic upon them and compare their reactions against our perception of how they should react. This is a flawed comparison, because we both reason differently, and as such react differently. Horses are prey animals, and possess the flight instincts of a prey animal. Humans are predators, and as a result we tend to be bolder and stand our ground. We have two different mindsets, and these mindsets will dictate our behavior.

Before being quick to dismiss the importance of mindset, keep in mind that even humanity cannot fully relate with each other. Various cultures around the world vary greatly, and these different cultural mindsets promote different worldviews and reactions. Although different cultures can learn to coexist and understand one another, it does require effort by both parties.

Obviously the same would be true of a horse. Yes, a horse reacts differently than humans would. It's not a mark of stupidity; their reactions are guided by their individual mindset and makeup.

Creatures Of Instinct

Often people that think horses are stupid will tell me that horses are guided by instinct rather than reason. They are incapable of knowing "why" they perform a specific action; it's purely instinctual. Not surprisingly, most people that spit out that theory have not, in fact, worked with horses themselves. Hmmm.

Are horses guided by instinct? Heck yes. When presented with a scenario, their instincts will largely dictate their response. But since when did instinct disprove intelligence or ability to reason?

As much as humans want to think themselves creatures of logic, we too are slaves to instinct. When an unexpected loud noise such as a gunshot rings through the air, most of us will duck or flinch before reason kicks in. Some of us are scared of heights, or of spiders, or of snakes. These are all reactions based on pure instinct, not cold logic.

Reason And Emotion

Can a horse reason or express emotion? There is no room for debate with this question in my opinion: the answer is absolutely. Coming from a breeding background, I know all too well that horses can truly enjoy the companionship of humans just as much as fellow horses, especially those that interact with humans as foals.

Take foal imprinting, for example: although the practice of imprinting is beneficial, one has to be careful that they don't go too far and strip away a horse's natural instincts by imprinting a foal improperly. Foals can actually develop zero fear of humans, and treat humans as their equals while playing and interacting. While cute when they are small, this can become perilous as they grow due to their size advantage.

But does a horse perform an act because they want to or because they are asked to? During the course of training, generally they perform an act because they are asked to, but that doesn't disprove the ability to reason. When a child is assigned a chore by his parent, does he perform the chore because he wants to, or because he's forced to by an authority figure? Yet no one would claim that a child is stupid or unable to reason simply because he yields to his parent's authority.

Horses, like cats or dogs, can show genuine loyalty, emotion and ability to reason.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Ever hear the adage, "If you think you will fail, you will?" Its meaning is self-evident: a pessimistic outlook will produce poor results. This fundamental truth expands to all areas of our life: mindset will typically dictate final results, not only with ourselves, but with others too. A pessimistic individual can drag another person down just as a cheerful individual can brighten another's day.

If you think your horse is stupid and expect it to behave like a horse, chances are it will do just that. This is true for two reasons:

  1. Your eyes will be closed to the nature of a horse, and the underlying intelligence and emotions that guide them. You'll convince yourself that they bear your company only because they have to, not because they may want to. You'll fail to recognize the impish glint in a horse's eye when he's toying with you. You'll fail to appreciate the loyalty and companionship when a horse elects to walk over to you without you even requesting it – clearly the stupid horse is just looking to be bribed with a treat. To put it bluntly, you will fail to see the individuality of horses because you are walking with predefined blinders on.

  2. Due to your lowered expectations, you'll expect - and likely receive - mediocrity. A horse can be trained to become a zombified riding horse that simply heeds the requests of his riders. If that's all you're looking for, that's what you'll get – a horse that is trained to ride.

    But what if you expect more? What if you take the time to understand their mindset, and merge the two foreign mindsets together? What if you go beyond training, and just spend time you’re your horse? That is the point where true relationships are created… where a horse may do silly things just to make you laugh, or find harmless ways get your goat much like a mischievous child might. Horses will never be able to speak our language, but don't underestimate their ability to have fun, express loyalty and contentment, and learn our ways. All it takes is for you to meet them halfway, but unfortunately a closed mind is incapable of accomplishing that.

So are horses stupid? Well, if you judge them against people then I suppose they are. Dogs, horses, parrots, cats… they're all drooling automatons since they're not human, right?

But if you understand that animals are not people and cannot be expected to be, and you carry an open mind while observing and interacting with them over a length of time, you might just come away with a different outlook regarding the intelligence of horses.

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