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The Intelligence Of Horses

By Jeffrey Rolo

Too many people underestimate the intelligence of horses, believing equines to be dependent almost solely on natural instinct rather than actual cognitive ability. The irony behind this untrue perception is that it is generally the result of ignorance or misunderstanding on the part of the human, rather than the horse.

There is no doubt that human intellect has the capability of being unrivaled when compared to animal species, but that intellectual capacity can also be our downfall when we allow ourselves to feel so superior that we immediately dismiss the intelligence of various animals. Such flippant dismissal not only puts our own intelligence (or impartiality, at the very least) in question, but also proves to be a liability when attempting to train or work with our horses.

Let me insert a quick example of people's ironic ability to blame their own intellectual weaknesses upon a horse. When I was a young child my mother owned a horse that was stabled in our backyard. Life was sweet… that is, until a crafty new addition joined our ranks. This filly was surely a safecracker in a previous life, because she had an uncanny knack for conquering any latch or obstruction you put in her way.

Each time my father would place a new latch on the fence, the horse would inevitably devise a way to open it. As all too often happens when people become frustrated with animals, after a few unsuccessful attempts at keeping this "escaped convict" in her paddock my father resorted to mumbling under his breath about how "dumb" the horse was. Why couldn't the stupid horse just behave and stay in her paddock?

My mother's correct retort, of course, was that if he was incapable of building a suitable latch system then perhaps it wasn't the horse's intelligence that should be questioned. Naturally all of the above was done in a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek manner… and we still smile today when we think back to that brilliant escape artist… but putting the humor aside, my mother's statement delved right into the crux of the matter.

Anytime we fail to control or train an animal we are quick to blame the problem on the animal. "Well, if the dumb horse had any intelligence he would know what I want and do it!" But if you look deeper, who's really at fault for these failed confrontations? The "stupid" horse that doesn't understand the request, or the "intellectually superior" human that fails to understand the horse?

In all my years of working with horses I have been constantly impressed with their overall ability to adapt to human environments and work out solutions to problems or challenges presented to them. Sure, sometimes you'll find a horse that comes up short in the intelligence department, but for the most part horses reflect the same qualities that we as humans do: intelligence, adaptability, mischief, playfulness, loyalty, jealousy, stress and many others.

If you take the time to learn a horse's language, you'll see they are anything but "dumb animals." It is unfair to the horse to cast aspersions against his intellectual capacity because we fail to comprehend his language or ways. Doing so is akin to calling a Spaniard stupid because you're an English speaker and simply do not understand the Spanish language! Before you can judge a person or horse's intelligence, you must first understand their language so you can adequately communicate your statements or desires.

Positive training and interaction is reliant on respecting the abilities and strengths (both physical and intellectual) of a horse. As an old belief states - in order to achieve the very best, you must expect the very best. If you don't take the time to honestly assess your horse's intelligence and abilities, you'll probably be unable to help him improve upon them further or overcome weaknesses.

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