‘Smart’ horse debate deserves some context

Koki, a horse owned by Wild Ivy Farm, shows some ingenuity. Others might call the horse's actions something else.
Courtesy of Jesse Schwarcz
Koki, a horse owned by Wild Ivy Farm, shows some ingenuity. Others might call the horse's actions something else.
Posted May 04, 2012, at 4:33 p.m.

A recent conversation went slightly off course and detoured into the topic of horse intelligence. The horse is not a creature that immediately comes to mind when one considers “smart” animals.

Dogs, dolphins, chimpanzees and parrots usually top the list. Horses communicate on a different plane and have their own plan of action, and just because a lot of people don’t understand that doesn’t mean that horses lack intelligence.

A lot of people scoff at the practice of anthropomorphism in regards to horses and other animals in companion roles. If we are not to insinuate that horses experience joy, grief or cunning then it should be said that we can not determine their IQ level. Personally, I am a huge culprit of anthropomorphism. Not that I actually believe a horse can be shy or have a sense of humor, but they present behaviors that are easily described using those types of words. So I can say that I have met horses that are very smart, and also some horses that have a screw loose.

Generally, they are intelligent beasts whose agenda just may not mesh with that of the people around them. There are levels of cleverness in the equine world and frequently, it’s the horses that are labeled as “stubborn,” “bad,” “opinionated” and other negatives, that are actually the ones with the highest levels of acuity. A horse that doesn’t do as it is told is the one that realizes it doesn’t have to do what it is told. That’s the one that stands up for itself and realizes there is no good reason for him to jump over a 4-foot set of rails when there is plenty of room to go around.

That’s the horse that refuses to trot around the ring when it has already done so 25 times and the view is still the same. The horse that won’t stand still while someone shaves the hair out of its ears? That’s the smart one.

What is mislabeled as stupidity is most often just a survival instinct. All of those horses mentioned above are the ones that are going to outlast the others should equine civilization go the way of the Hunger Games. Just because something makes sense or seems harmless to us humans doesn’t not mean it is rational for a horse. The other problem with misjudging horse behavior is that the humans involved have not communicated with the horse in a way that is translatable by the equine brain.

Horses that are fearful and nervous may be difficult to work with, but again, the suspicious ones would be the survivors in a world where anything with pointy incisors wants to eat them. The horses that are constantly wrecking stuff, escaping from fenced in paddocks and generally getting into trouble are the problem solvers. Their naughtiness can be frustrating and costly but one has to admire their cleverness. Horses not entertained enough or ones that are not challenged enough in their work will often create ways to entertain themselves. A horse’s idea of entertainment may not mesh with a human’s.

Horses that willingly comply with our every whim are deemed the “good” horses. The horses who regularly hurl themselves off small cliffs and over solid obstacles or repeatedly chase cattle into pens only for the humans to turn around and let them out again, just because some person asked them to, are the ones a lot of people call smart. Being trainable and being smart sometimes clash as qualities we seek in riding partners. Willing does not equal smart.

Horses should be appreciated for their willingness to comply with our ridiculous ideas, not lambasted should they balk.

We should be honored that the horse even accepts our company when it outweighs us by 900 pounds and could cause tremendous bodily harm with one misplaced hoof. Horses have us figured out. They get fed, groomed, housed, manicured and catered to while only working for us for about an hour per day.

Who’s the stupid one now?

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