Equine Intelligence, Revisited

(The following is one of my early posts.)

Up until very recently, knowledge and appreciation of the equine mind has been noticeably lacking. Sure, we’ve learned rudimentary things about horses through the years, but only enough to breed and maintain pliability. Now, though, scientific curiosity is leading some to dig deeper. Biologist Dr. Evelyn Hanggi, co-founder of the Equine Research Foundation, is among the nation’s leading experts on equine intelligence. From her 2005 paper, “The Thinking Horse: Cognition and Perception Reviewed”:

“A review of the scientific literature, as well as practical experience, shows that horses excel at simpler forms of learning such as classical and operant conditioning…. Furthermore, horses have shown ease in stimulus generalization and discrimination learning. Most recently and unexpected by many, horses have solved advanced cognitive challenges involving categorization learning and some degree of concept formation.” In short, she says, “Horses, both feral and domesticated, are faced with varied conditions that require an assortment of learning and perceptual capabilities.”

The small-brained horse, Dr. Hanggi points out, is an unkind myth: A horse’s brain is not the size of a walnut (400-700 grams compared to 15); in fact, this “complex organ” has many folds and “more folds, more brainpower.” It is equally untrue that their “flight instinct” (“spook-and-bolt”) is a sign of low intelligence. Dr. Hanggi (Horse Illustrated, 2001): “Horses spook not because they are stupid but because they are smart enough to have survived a few million years.”

Although horses do seem to have a propensity to hurt themselves on doors and fences – seen as “dumb” animal behavior by some – it’s because they are supposed to live on wide-open ranges, not “in small, dark enclosures with sharp edges.” This cruel confinement – for most racehorses, over 23 hours a day – causes mental anguish, as evidenced by “cribbing, weaving, head bobbing, pacing, and self-mutilation.”

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Horses can sort geometric shapes into specific classes and have demonstrated an ability to conceptualize. By virtue of an “exceptional memory,” they can “generalize about things they have never seen before.” Oh, and they can count. In short, Dr. Hanggi says, “…horses possess some learning abilities akin to those of the more accepted animal intellectuals, i.e., dolphins, sea lions and chimpanzees – the result being a far cry from simple conditioning.”

But when questioning the morality of horseracing, the relative intelligence of the horse is largely inconsequential. What matters, what should force introspection, is his ability to suffer. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham: “What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

3 Comments

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  1. This study alone, thanks for sharing, is clear evidence of a sentient being, but anybody who has spent time around a horse or has watched a mare and foal interact knows that these horses are feeling, social beings.
    It’s should be a crime what this industry does to them in the form of Felony Animal Cruelty charges.
    Hell, pit bulls, fighting dogs have more protection under the law than racehorses (as they should).
    On many occasions I’ve sounded the alarm bells both as an industry insider and as a person who comments on this blog and many others that address horse racing.
    I’m sending another stern warning that the massive pain and suffering will only exacerbate as the racehorse population is way down.
    There are not enough racehorses being bred (thank goodness for that) to fill races for the ridiculous amount of racetracks in this country that are supported by taxpayers money and/or casino profits.
    The racehorses running now are not getting enough rest (with 3 days turn around times in some cases), are needed to fill races and increase wagering profits.
    This industry is fighting hard to maintain their lack of transparency, mainly the secret doping/vet records, which will probably show just how extensive the doping is IN BETWEEN RACES which isn’t considered when the pro-horse racing entities put out their reports, public wallpaper, while not including key elements in their reports.
    This is all going to fall on the backs, bones, and lives of racehorses.
    It’s so imperative to put pressure on our politicians, show up at racing commission meetings, educate the public – please be a voice for these racehorses.

  2. Thank you for sharing this with all of us Patrick. I’ve instinctively known for decades that horses are way more intelligent than many people give them credit for. I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt because I’ve been around them since I was small. In fact, I find they are much like us in many ways – the GOOD ways. Horse racing will hopefully be part of history soon.

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