Considering Intelligence

A top open jumper equine is doing amazing calculations at speed as he approaches a jump.
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A top open jumper equine is doing amazing calculations at speed as he approaches a jump.

I am currently reading The Mind of the Horse by Nichel-Antoine Leblanc. This is not a book for the faint of heart or a quick, light read. It is an in-depth look at equine cognition, with historical, anatomical and scientific references all included. Some might laugh and say that it must be a short book but it is actually over 400 pages and includes scholarly footnotes and references.


Naturally when people talk about intelligence, they tend to look at the topic from a human point of view. If humans are good at it, it must be a valuable skill. If dogs were developing a schematic of intelligence they would laugh us out of the park since olfactory skills would be at the top of their list. From the book, “Each animal species has a unique cognitive profile. Rats, for example, possess good spatial intelligence, and birds good musical intelligence.”

Even within a species there are varying degrees of different intellectual skills in individuals. You may be excellent at math but couldn’t write a poem to save your life. And who is to say that a top athlete who has trouble passing his college courses isn’t quite intelligent and gifted in other areas?

A top open jumper equine is doing amazing calculations at speed as he approaches a jump. He has to have a three dimensional concept of the situation – determining when to lift off at his current rate of speed, how much to arch, how much muscle strength to expend. Sort of like an orthopedic surgeon, architect or engineer who has to look at things three dimensionally.

Now lets consider a football tackle. The defensive player has to read his opponents’ moves, predict where the play will go and then physically stop it. What about a cutting horse? Basically both use the same type of both mental and physical calculations.

Looking at those two examples, it is clear that any general conclusions about intelligence and capabilities of horses may need to be modified for an individual.We can make some general statements such as the fact that horses appear to be limited in their counting. A study showed that if you put 2 apples in one bucket and 3 in another bucket while your horse is watching, the average horse would immediately go for the bucket with 3 apples when he is turned loose. If you repeat this with 4 apples in one bucket and 6 in another, he goes for either bucket at random.

Now you may have an individual equine – for some reason I am picturing a pony here! – who would consistently go for the bucket with 6 apples. In general however, horses don’t do well with “higher math.”

Next time I will look at an example of intelligence, or at least cleverness, with my own equines.