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How Smart Are Horses?


horse with glassesNo matter which animal you select as a pet, inevitably you ask yourself a deceptively simple question: How smart is my pet? We generally regard dogs as smart because they can be trained, and cats as smart because they usually can’t be. With horses, it doesn’t seem like we can really agree either way. Some view them as inherently intelligent creatures while others marvel at their simplicity. Judging an animal’s intelligence is all relative, but let’s ask that question today: How smart are horses?

The answer isn’t a simple black and white distinction. There is no “smart” or “stupid” when talking about horses as their priorities are vastly different than humans. Equine sensibilities dictate that they favor living in the moment over planning for the future, so while a horse may never be able to learn to speak or communicate in basic terms like that, they are able to do things humans cannot.
For instance, one of a horse’s great strengths is the ability to assess its surroundings and notice changes far faster than a human ever could. A lot of times you’ll be trotting along with your horse and suddenly he’ll turn you around and start galloping away before you even realize that there was a snake up ahead. They’re finely tuned to stay in the moment since in their world, all they have is that immediate spot in time.

This extends to little details, such as emotional states. A horse can actually pick up what someone’s mood is, even if they haven’t made it apparent just yet. For an amazing display of this, you can witness a horse walk up to a lion because it knows it’s not hungry from a quick glance. It’s part of the reasons you have to have such a positive attitude when training your horse since they’ll instantly recognize when you’re slipping or angry.

What a horse isn’t great at is learning how to apply what its already knows to new concepts. You may be familiar with the myth that you always need to mount a horse from the left side, and there’s a reason that it still persists: Because it’s pretty much true. You’d assume that teaching a horse to let you mount it from the left would transition into it letting you mount from the right as well, but horses don’t work that way at all. They simply can’t apply that knowledge forward, so you coming at them from the right is oddly weird and entirely foreign to them, which is why you’ll have to train them about both ways if you want them to let you mount from either side.

However, once trained a horse does great. You can even train to take advantage of its ability to sense the smallest changes, so that when riding you hardly have to move at all to control what you’d like your horse to do. They can sense and understand when you just tense a single leg or something and know to turn accordingly. It just requires the training before they can do it.

Also, horses tend to be pretty good about finding their way back home if they’re ever lost. That’s part of the reasons that TV and movies get away with the near-cliché of a wounded hero arriving back home on his steed. It’s because a horse can tell you’re hurt and knows how to get home. Of course, just like anything else, this depends on each individual horse’s intelligence levels.

So then just how smart are horses? It’s all relative. They’re just as smart as they need to be; no more and no less. Of course, you may have a horse that’s smarter than all the others, or you may sadly have one that isn’t. It all depends on the horse and it all depends on how much you want to try and teach them.


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