How smart are horses

How intelligent are horses?

For decades, researchers have underestimated horses. There is a historical reason for this. The “clever Hans”, a gelding from Berlin, was said to have achieved intellectual heights at the turn of the century. The horse supposedly could count, calculate and spell. In front of an astonished audience, people knocked their hooves until the correct answer was obtained. However, tests have shown that Hans read the correct answers from the facial expressions of his questioner. If the horse had blinkers on and could not see the questioner, it failed. It was a trauma for research into the cognitive abilities of horses. For almost a hundred years no one dared to tackle this topic.

Feeling the feelings and thoughts of one's counterpart is in itself a considerable intellectual achievement. "Horses perceive people's moods unimaginably fine and quickly," explains Christa Wyss, research assistant from the horse breeding and husbandry research group at the Swiss National Stud in Avenches VD. Horses are evolutionary social animals. "You are extremely talented at learning to interpret the language of other animals and people."

Horses ask for help
For several years the cognitive abilities of horses have been researched again. A recent study from Japan found that horses not only interpret human body signals, but also adapt their own communication to them. In order to get food that was hidden in a bucket out of their reach, they asked their carers for help by running over to them, looking at them and, if necessary, nudging them.

A similar experiment in Vienna showed that horses emphasize their concerns with head movements and try to draw people's attention to the desired object by switching between the bucket and the groom. In both studies, the horses were particularly expressive and persistent when the keeper was unaware of the hidden food.

Wyss knows about the communicative creativity of horses. "Horses try to attract the attention of their caregiver by looking, shaking their heads, scratching or grumbling." Maya Kellenberger from Oberhasli ZH, leadership and motivational trainer for horses, is also familiar with such situations: “When I give epilogue floor work or riding lessons with my experienced mare and a riding student cannot yet correctly implement the task, my mare often looks at me for help. Sometimes she sighs deeply and shows how much patience and tolerance she has. "

According to a Norwegian study, horses also learn the meanings of different signs and use them to express their wishes. So the horses decided by nudging the corresponding symbols of free will against a blanket when the weather is nice, and a blanket on cold, rainy and windy days. Some wanted the blanket to be removed from them without being asked («Tierwelt Online» reported).

Communicative, sensitive and active
“Some horses are fundamentally very communicative when they have the opportunity to express this,” explains Kellenberger. As a rule, horses with a high percentage of whole blood are quicker to carry out tasks. Fast-thinking horses are also sensitive and active. “They demand varied work from people,” warns the expert. If they are mentally underutilized, then they could develop stereotypical vices.

Horses also learn extremely quickly and, according to Kellenberger, can distinguish around 40 words. As with humans, there are different types of learners among horses. “Everyone has to be trained and promoted in a different way,” she says. While one of them needed repetitive tasks to gain confidence, the other would get bored after the second time.

With regard to motivation, Kellenberger compares the learning situation with the attentive company employee: “If suggestions for improvement are viewed, checked and praised, the employee will continue to be motivated to look for solutions. However, if all new ideas are dismissed as void, he will be careful not to come up with any further suggestions. " Horses also need tolerance and praise for new ideas, especially if the horse offers solutions and is creative.

Apparently horses do not forget what they have learned. At a learning event, Wyss had taught a horse she did not know to roll out a red carpet in front of an audience. "When I was allowed to use the same horse again a year later, it went to a black, rolled-up rubber mat without being asked and began to roll it out." The owner of the horse had never done similar exercises with her animal in the meantime.

A German team of scientists has also proven astonishing. The horses had learned to operate a light switch to get to the fodder just by observing humans. “Today we know that horses learn not only through conditioning, but also by imitating another horse or human,” says Christa Wyss. Horses are grateful for intellectual activity. «They love to learn new tasks. But tasks in which horses have to actively find the solution themselves are what really encourage them to think along. Finding hidden food is one of her favorite tasks. "

You can find out more about Maya Kellenberger's work at