How smart is your horse?
smart horses


People develop emotional attachments to domesticated animals, and it’s easy to anthropomorphize them. We often lovingly comment on the intelligence of our animals, calling them smart when they act clever, and foolish when they do something silly. Many think of horses as moderately intelligent animals, but how smart are they truly? Here are a few studies and historical stories that suggest what your horse’s mind is capable of:

Can your horse really count?
Equine enthusiasts likely know the story of Clever Hans, a horse from the 1800s that could supposedly count. The act drew crowds in Germany and all across Europe as Hans’ owner, William von Osten, claimed the horse could also read, spell and tell time. Osten knew his horse’s answers by the number of times Hans stomped his foot on the ground. If asked to add two and five, Hans would stomp seven times.

Researchers question if horses can add, but everyone knows they're motivated by apples!

Crowds were amazed as Hans’ actions suggested horses were smarter than anyone thought possible. Some thought it was probably a trick, but Hans answered questions correctly even when von Osten wasn’t present. A group of researchers studied Hans in 1904 and couldn’t find anything proving his intelligence was a hoax. However, one of the researchers wasn’t completely convinced. Eventually, philosophy professor Carl Stumpf and Oskar Pfungst, one of his students, realized Hans usually missed questions when his questioner didn’t know the answer.

“Hans was responding to subconscious cues from von Osten.”

The two did a bit more probing and realized something incredibly significant. Hans wasn’t answering questions on his own – rather, he was responding to cues von Osten didn’t even realize he was emitting. Instead of tapping his foot seven times when asked to add two and five, Hans simply kept going until he got it right. The horse knew he was correct as von Osten or another questioner made some subtle movement once Hans reached the right answer but before he could keep going. For example, von Osten leaned forward after Hans stamped his foot for the seventh time but before the horse could continue on to the eighth. However, if von Osten or anyone else didn’t know the answer, Hans would stomp his foot slowly, carefully watching his observers. When no one subconsciously gave him the answer, he continued to tap.

Clever Hans has fascinated animal psychologists for years, keeping people speculating as to whether or not horses really can count or do math. One study conducted by Dr. Claudia Uller of the University of Essex suggested they can, according to The Telegraph. Dr. Uller believes her findings show horses can differentiate between two small numbers. To begin the study, 13 horses were presented with a basket holding three plastic apples and another basket with two. Eleven of them chose the basket with three apples. Then, 12 horses were given two boxes, one with one large apple and the other with two small apples of the same surface area. Ten of the horses selected the box with more food.

The study didn’t mention whether horses could understand the difference between two numbers – that is, the fact that three is the equivalent of two plus one rather than just bigger than two – but it does indicate that horses understand changes in quantities.

Can your horse recognize you?
Humans have long had emotional relationships with animals, but do animals feel the same way? When you approach your horse, is he truly excited to see you or does he just want the treat in your hand?

“Jessica Lampe wanted to know if horses could distinguish one person from another.”

One student at James Madison University sought to find the answer for herself. Jessica Lampe, a psychology sophomore, wanted to know if horses could distinguish one person from another. 

In 2010, she traveled to Sussex University to meet with researchers studying a horse’s capacity to recognize others it knew and ones it did not. They found horses could differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar horses and that they combined information from multiple senses when doing so.

Working with human perception and sensation specialist Dr. Andre, Lampe conducted a similar study but replaced the familiar and unfamiliar horses with people. She did her best to keep the horse’s environment as normal as possible, studying them at Seventh Heaven Farms as opposed to on campus. She also tested horses under congruent and non-congruent conditions. In the former, the person’s smell, voice, taste, sound and appearance matched each time. When not congruent, one category was different.

The horses paid more attention to people during times of noncongruency. They looked at subjects longer and more frequently than they did the congruent ones. This indicates two things. First, horses apparently use all of their senses when forming images and memories of a particular person. This reflects the findings at Sussex. Second, it indicates that horses can identify their owners from other people. 

Still, none of this research says how smart your horses are in particular. Just like people, some horses are clever and some are silly. No matter what their behavior, however, you can show your equine friends affection with all-natural horse products.



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