Intelligence study: horses are no one-trick ponies

A psychology student with an interest in horses has completed research into the intelligence of horses.
A psychology student with an interest in horses has completed research into the intelligence of horses.

Jessica Lampe combined her passion for horses with her academic research to cast new light on the intelligence of horses. Hannah Austin reports.

Have you ever looked at your pet and wondered what it was thinking?

One James Madison University psychology alumni, Jessica “Jessa” Lampe, began horseback riding as a child, and had always been curious about the intelligence of her equines.

The wondering became a constant question during Lampe’s 2009 sophomore year, while she juggled responsibilities on the university equestrian team and a part-time job at Seventh Heaven Farms in Broadway.

Jessica Lampe
Jessica Lampe

Lampe became well acquainted with the horses she was working with every day, and decided to use her upcoming senior thesis project to investigate their intelligence.

Although the project was officially two semesters away, Lampe had no time for procrastination. She had already planned to spend her junior year studying abroad in Oxford, England, and would not be able to begin her honors research at the usual time.

She knew she wanted to focus on rider/horse interaction when she approached Dr Jeffrey Andre about her thesis, but her ideas really developed during her experiences overseas.

The results showed that horses integrate information they receive from all of their senses to recognize individuals.

Lampe traveled to Sussex University during the fall of 2010, where she met researchers working in animal cognition who were conducting a study that measured a horse’s ability to recognize familiar and unfamiliar horses.

Their findings indicated that not only could horses differentiate between known and unknown equines, but that they showed signs of cross-modulation; the ability to integrate information from multiple senses.

Lampe was intrigued, and decided to take their findings a step further by applying the same approach to studying a horse’s recognition of familiar and unfamiliar humans.

Dr Andre, a specialist in human sensation and perception, had never previously completed animal research. Nevertheless, he was confident he could successfully collaborate with Lampe. They could be successful if they combined their unique skills.

“I helped her formulate her equine perception ideas into something we could execute,” said Dr Andre. He explained that professors can sometimes be a sounding board for students, helping them to think through all of the steps necessary to carrying a project to completion.

Lampe wanted to study horses in a typical setting, which made Seventh Heaven Farms an ideal location for the first equine research project in university history.

Although the horses were lodged off campus, the project still had to gain approval from James Madison University’s Institute of Animal Care and Use Committee, not an easy task considering all of the university rules were, to date, intended to be for research conducted on campus.

Once the duo convinced the board that the twelve participating horses would be unharmed and well taken care of, Lampe conducted her study within the farm’s stables and surrounding grounds so that her to tests could be conducted without disrupting the horse’s natural environment.

The university’s equestrian coach, Bobby Jones, served as the familiar human, and various males of the same age as unfamiliar people.

During these tests, Lampe examined differences in horse behavior during “congruent” and “non-congruent conditions”.

When there is congruency, the voice, smell, image, taste, and sound of a person matched, while during non-congruency, one of these senses was not consistent.

Lampe found that horses were more interested in instances of non-congruency, demonstrated by length of time they spent looking at their subject and the total number of times they looked. Like humans, they looked at interesting stimuli longer.

The results showed that horses integrate information they receive from all of their senses to recognize individuals.

The positive outcome inspired Dr Andre and Lampe to submit their findings to scholarly journal, Animal Cognition, in summer 2011, and the journal editors were were immediately interested in publishing their findings.

“These findings illuminate how horses use their brains and identify cues, as well as show that horses can put different modal cues together into one representation of a human,” said Lampe.

The horses at Seventh Heaven Farm were integral to Jessica Lampe's research project.
The horses at Seventh Heaven Farm were integral to Jessica Lampe’s research project.

“It is important that we understand the animals we work with and how they function cognitively. For horse lovers, it indicates that their equine can in fact identify them and aren’t just excited to see them for motivations such as food – although I am sure food helps!”

Although Animal Cognition wanted to publish the study, they asked her to condense her 4500-word manuscript to a “brief report”.

Dr Andre said that it was quite a challenge to explain complex research in a brief report. “You have to assume that journal readers will know some things, but you also need to give them enough information that they can understand your research.

“I edited our original submission, but could not get it under 3800 words, and when Jessa edited my revision, it turned out close to the original. In the end, the journal agreed that it had to be published in its entirety.”

Animal Cognition published their article in May 2012. The date of publication was timely, as the Summer Olympics were drawing attention to equestrian interests, including rider/horse relationships. Once published, the article was quickly reported upon by media sources in the US, France, Austria, and Germany.

“The immediate success surprised even me,” said Dr Andre. “The publication time was fast, and other media reported on it so quickly. It really took off, going to show that people love their horses and are interested in their level of intelligence. We helped demonstrate that they are indeed quite smart.”

Since graduating, Lampe has earned a Master’s degree in Scotland, and recently finished working in China with the Animals Asia Foundation to rescue endangered black bears.

She is currently applying to doctorate programs in the UK. As for Dr Andre, he is always looking to collaborate on new projects with undergraduate students.

“It’s a very rewarding process,” Dr Andre said. “Students have to come up with the idea, but we unpack it together. They bring their own interests and ideas from others classes and I guide them with the knowledge I have. We both learn a lot.”

Lampe added: “Make your project worth it.” Aim high. “If you plan to do research in the future, it is a very valuable experience.”

By following a curiosity she had since childhood, Lampe was able to contribute to science while still an undergraduate. Her work demonstrates that academic research and success often go hand in hand with passion.




This article has been written by a contributor to

2 thoughts on “Intelligence study: horses are no one-trick ponies

  • November 28, 2012 at 12:33 am

    Mancha’s Memory

    While the public should welcome any academic interest in equine behaviour, the results of this study should come as no surprise.

    Experienced horse-humans have long known that equines are capable of retaining long term memories of specific people.

    This fact was demonstrated nearly a century ago by the most famous equestrian explorer of all time.

    In 1925 Swiss Long Rider Aime Tschiffely set off to ride 10,000 miles from Buenos Aires to Washington DC. Accompanying him were two Criollo geldings, Mancha, aged eighteen, and Gato, aged sixteen.

    The gruelling journey lasted two years, during which time the three inseparable companions crossed jungles, deserts, mountains and many countries together.

    When the trip was concluded, Mancha and Gato were retired together on a famous estancia in Argentina. Aime took up residence in London.

    A decade passed before Tschiffely returned to Argentina. He immediately went to the estancia to see his old friends, Mancha and Gato.

    Gauchos brought the Criollos in from the pasture where they had roamed together in Tschiffely’s long absence.

    Though the Swiss Long Rider was confident his horses would remember him, the cynical Argentines were dismissive of a horse’s ability to retain a memory of one person for such a long time.

    Mancha and Gato soon silenced their critics.

    Aime wrote, “After the horses had been put into the corral, I approached the place followed by a number of gaucho friends. Within the circle of stout posts I was overjoyed to see my old pals. Although still some fifty yards away, I shouted, ‘Mancha! Gato!’

    Immediately both turned round and stared at me, their heads held high, ears pricked and nostrils dilated. I slowly approached the corral, and entered through the gate, the men watching with intense interest.

    I spoke to the animals, and they slowly came towards me. When I touched Mancha’s broad forehead, both sniffed me all over.

    To find out if they still remembered one or two simple tricks I had taught them, I stood in front of one and snapped a finger. Immediately a fore-leg was lifted, and I was allowed to inspect the hoof, and when I repeated the noise, this time snapping my finger under the horse, he at once lifted a hind leg.

    These tricks the animals had learnt in the wilds, ten years before, when I tried to make quite sure that no stone or other hard object was lodged in a hoof to lame them.

    There could be no doubt they remembered me, but to make quite sure, I returned to the corral later. On this occasion I did not show myself until one of the men had called the animals several times.

    They made no response, but when I shouted their names, both at once looked up and came towards me. I made several other simple tests, which left me in no doubt that both remembered me clearly.”

    As Tschiffely and his Criollos demonstrate, horses are indeed capable of differentiating between humans.

    Yet what should be questioned is why this fundamental fact has come as a surprise to academia. It would appear to be another example of how the onset of the motorized age brought about the destruction of mankind’s collective equestrian wisdom.

    As a result, in only a few generations lessons such as these have been lost, all the while humanity sinks deeper into a state of massive equestrian amnesia.

    CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS

  • November 28, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    this comes as no surprise to anyone who has horses ,ihey have shown courage underfire, and care to children, they remeber everyone and love unconditionaly, they are the most beautiufl and some of the most fraigle of gods creatures and need and want our care and companionship, why else would a 1200 lb animallet us ride them?vgreat artical but not news to me at all.


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