Are Horses Smart?

Written by Beulah Martin
A horse wearing a fly mask in the morning sunrise

Many people have different opinions if a horse is smart or not. I did some research on this topic and found lots of information to share with you.

So are horses smart? Horses have proven to be very intelligent. Their ability to be trained and to learn new skills has made them a much loved companion to their owners and trainers. Horses have fantastic memories and a great sense of smell.

These characteristics of the horse has helped them become a much loved and appreciated member of our modern world.

The horse is King and here are so many ways he benefits us as humans.

But are horses really smart

A lot of the old time Cowboys would have said NO to this question. Their training programs many times was pure brute force.

They devised ways that they could have the upper hand to force the horse to do what they wanted, like throwing them to the ground and showing the horse that man was the Boss. This was meant to break the horse’s spirit, which was desired.

The first saddling and riding lessons were harsh and expected to be accomplished by the cowboy outlasting the horse. This is where the rodeo event of bronc riding began.

The bits that were placed in the Horse’s mouth were cruel and meant to hurt the Horse to soften up his mouth so he would do as asked. In fact it did the opposite, it made them hard mouthed and hard headed.  The horse was a tool at the cowboys command, he was forced to do his will. They rode them hard and made them tough. After all, it was just a dumb animal.

Thank goodness we know better today.

Nowadays the way of breaking and training a horse is a lot gentler method. Our new popular, successful horse trainers have proven methods to show the horse is smarter than we ever thought possible. Their training has been designed with the intelligence of the horse in mind.

Horses are willing to learn and execute maneuvers that were never thought possible. Even ones that go against a horses natural ability to move.

The horse is not a tool, but a trusted partner. One that brings joy and pleasure to millions of horse owners throughout the world.

How smart are they

Some people say that a horse could be compared to the smartness of about a 10 or 12 year old human. There is no test that could confirm this. I actually think that they are smarter than that. After all I do have grandsons that I can compare them to.

There was an American horse I have heard of by the name of “Jim Key” who could actually perform some type of math & spelling. There have been lots of studies done by scientists to discover how horses learn and how their brains work.

A lot has to do with the size of the horse’s brain. A horse’s brain is said to be about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 lbs. Which is larger than a lot of the other animals.

But considering the size of the horse, the brain is small relative to their body size.

Dogs and cats, for example, are predators and the size of their brain is smaller. A dog’s brain weighs about ¾ of a pound.  

A horse being a prey animal, which means they often had to flee for their life; behaves differently. Their instincts to know when they must fight or flight is very well developed. It was the key to their survival. They have very strong powers of smell and instincts. It seems they can smell danger.

In fact a horse has been so well developed that within an hour of birth a foal has the ability to run in case there is a need.

The horse, you must remember, is a domesticated prey animal. That is why they sometimes act spooky in unknown situations. Owners who become frustrated because of the horses freaking out would call them dumb animals. But they are wrong, because a horse is a very intelligent and magnificent animal.

Knowing these facts can help you train your horse

Horses are easy to train because they have great memories. A great memory is one of the measures of your horses intelligence.

They make good associations with experiences that have been repeated often. You need to make sure their experiences are positive, because they also remember negative experiences just as easy.

Horses have a great sense of direction. If a trail rider falls off of his horse, and the horse gets away, the horse is very apt to run back home no matter how far away it is.

Also, that works out well if the rider finds himself lost and does not know which direction to go. All he has to do is give his horse his head (by loosening the reins) and the horse will find his way home. That has come in very handy in my life because I have gotten turned around and did not know which way to go more than once when I was out on the trail.

Horse owners have always wanted to give their animals human characteristics. Like they want to believe a horse can think and understand what is being said.

It’s true horses can learn the meaning of a lot of words.

They easily  learn what their name is.

They understand things like “whoa“, “giddy-up” and other phrases used in their training.

For the horses pulling wagons “gee” and “haw” told them whether to turn right or left. Not much more than those few other often repeated words is about as much as we can expect horses to comprehend.

However, I believe they have an uncanny ability to recognize emotions in humans. There are many great stories told around the campfire of horses almost being able to read people’s minds.

Of horses rescuing their owners who are in a dangerous situations and the horse miraculously drags them to safety.

I have heard friends brag that their horse is the smartest because it can unlock the stable door or untie a knot or get into the hay barn. It’s not like the horse really knew what he was doing, but being the mischievous and curious animal he is, his efforts to play around and fiddle with the lock rewarded him with the ability to get freedom. He will remember that reward, and be quick to repeat the action.

Just like I said, they are smart little buggers. Not human smart, but horse smart.  The saying “horse sense” just means plain old common sense.

Standing horse tied to a horse trailer

How can you know if a horse is smart

When you get ready to buy or lease a horse it would be helpful if you could assess how smart the horse was that you were looking at, right. I wish I could give you a magic formula, but if I had one it would be worth a fortune.

You can tell a lot about a horses smartness by looking at his face. If he has an alert expression and he is observing you and what you are doing that is good. His eyes tell you a lot about him. Does he have a good head with a flat forehead? His eyes should be large, expressive and low set.

The best way to determine the smartness of your horse is based on the horses ability to solve problems. The rate he can learn new skills and abilities. How easy he is to learn commands and how to perform them, through a process of positive and negative reinforcement with lots of repetition.

Good luck and happy trails.

Related Questions

Are Donkeys smarter than Horses? There are many people who have Donkeys and Mules and Horses as well.  It is their humble opinion that the Donkeys are more intelligent than horses. They even go far enough to say that the mule, which is a cross between a donkey and a mare, is the smartest of all.


Is it Possible to have a Horse that is too smart for its rider? I am sorry to say that happens quite a lot. When a new rider buys or leases a horse that has more training and experience than he has, it could prove to be somewhat of a problem. It could also lead to the horse developing some bad habits due to the fact that the rider does not understand all the cues and aids that the horse is used to. It’s best to take some lessons and try out different horses that might be at the same level that the rider is.