Are horses as smart as humans?

Eight-month old ‘Kolt’ listens carefully to Bill as he combs his neck. 
Eight-month old ‘Kolt’ listens carefully to Bill as he combs his neck. © Laura Simpson

The rain fell all morning long at Wildhorse Ranch high in the remote mountains of the Soda Mountain Wilderness on the Oregon-California border. It was early afternoon when the sun broke through the clouds and quickly warmed things up, so Laura and I decided to go outside and see what was happening.

Living in the wilderness has its disadvantages, like the 80-mile round-trip to the nearest town of 7000 people; but there are many advantages. We never know what adventure might unfold when we step outside into our backyard in the mountains. Our neighbors include all kinds of critters; mountain lions, deer, elk, badgers, coyotes, foxes, eagles (bald and golden), hawks, falcons, vultures, and few dozen others. But our favorite critters are the wild horses that roam the privately owned open range here.

For clarity, the herds of wild horses that roam the area in and around the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area in Siskiyou County California and Jackson County Oregon have likely been here for at least millennia as is evidenced by the local fossil record. And certainly for the past 100 years as is documented in local newspaper accounts, where local Medford, Oregon and Yreka, California cowboys would round up a few now and again for use as ranch horses. Today, these horses are considered feral horses (a human construct) by local authorities and agencies, as opposed to the ‘wild horses’ that are under the management and authority of the BLM, which range on publicly owned range-lands. But these ‘feral’ horses are nonetheless truly ‘wild’ and ‘native’ in every sense; they were born free in the wilderness and must survive on their own in the unforgiving wilds where predators such as big cats, bears and coyotes take their toll.

Black leads his family; Shy, Ethel, Socks, Rosie, Lucy, Kolt, Pixie and Blue.
Black leads his family; Shy, Ethel, Socks, Rosie, Lucy, Kolt, Pixie and Blue. © Laura Simpson

As we surveyed the incredible landscape, we spotted a familiar family of horses. We grabbed our gear and headed down to the lower 80-acre pasture.

The mighty stallion ‘Black’ stood watch over his family as we approached. It has taken us seven months to earn Black’s trust. And who can blame him?

The mighty stallion ‘Black’ keeps careful watch over his family. 
The mighty stallion ‘Black’ keeps careful watch over his family. © Laura Simpson

It seems these days, some people are less trustworthy than most wild animals! I have to say that it’s a very special feeling when you finally earn that trust and are accepted into their family circle. Black has a family of four mares, a yearling stallion and three babies, who are about eight months old; two fillies (Pixie and Socks) and a little chestnut colt (‘Kolt’).

These days, the babies are usually the first to greet us. They are energetic and inquisitive, just like any human child. And what caught us by surprise was how much they love to interact with us when we are near their family.

This is ‘Pixie’ who we think looks like a Disney character. 
This is ‘Pixie’ who we think looks like a Disney character. © Laura Simpson

Of course one of the important social rituals in the world of all horses, especially wild horses, is mutual grooming. As some readers know, grooming serves at least two purposes; it’s one way that horses show love and concern for others in their herd, and also serves to remove insects, debris, and gently attend to an injury on occasion. So Laura and I started carrying curry-combs, which we use to groom the babies, and the adults, when they allow it.

Horses are truly ‘individuals’ and are not the mindless clones that some ignorant people assume. The babies now seek out this attention (grooming) without any incentive; they will walk-up and gently nudge us with their nose until we acknowledge them. It’s particularly funny when we are grooming the babies and their try to reciprocate by grooming our jackets.

But of all things, what interested me the most was how attentive the babies were when I was speaking to them. Horses have very powerful senses of hearing and smell that exceed those of any dog. So I make a point of speaking softly, especially when I am close to a horse’s head. And so I usually talk to the babies as I groom them. And it became very clear to Laura and I that they listen to what I say, very intently.

Laura Simpson getting a hug from a mamma-mare and her filly. 
Laura Simpson getting a hug from a mamma-mare and her filly. © Bill Simpson

This piqued my curiosity, so I started doing some research about horses and their level of intelligence. Possibly, like many other people, I just assumed that a horse was about as smart as a dog. I was very surprised by what I learned.

Here is an excerpt from The Equine Behavioral Health Resource Center:

“Many scientists believe there is a correlation between brain weight and intelligence. The adult human brain weighs approximately three pounds. A cat’s brain weighs about a third of a pound. Dog brains weigh about three-fourths of a pound. The brain of the horse is the size of a human child’s and weighs from one and a half pounds to two pounds. Oddly enough, although smaller, the horse’s brain is similar to our own with a few differences. The most important difference is that much of the human brain is used for fine-motor skills and language development, while most of the horse’s brain is used for analyzing information received from the environment.”

Beautiful Jim Key.
Beautiful Jim Key.

Some scientists have said that horses have the intelligence of 12-year old humans. At the turn of the 20th-century, the American horse Beautiful Jim Key could perform basic arithmetic, read, write, and spell. A few years later the famous German horse Clever Hans demonstrated his expertise at reading unconscious human behavior.  Almost monthly, new studies are published confirming the complexity of equine intelligence.

“Besides over-all brain size there are other interesting differences between equine and human brains. The roundish protuberances at the base of all mammalian brains, the cerebellum, is much larger in the horse brain than the human brain.  This is the part of the brain where the integration of sensory perception, coordination and motor control takes place. Horses, as prey animals, must be able to run within an hour after they are born. Coordinating the movement of four legs while sorting out information received from the environment is necessary for the horses’ survival as a species. All gross motor movements are quickly and permanently stored in the large cerebellum. Therefore, once a movement is taught to a horse it won’t be forgotten.

“Additionally, while humans rely in large part upon their sight and hearing to understand and participate in the world around them, horses rely on their sense of smell. The equine sense of smell is thousands of times more sensitive than the human counterpart. The smell of a rose or a good meal compliments the human world of sights and sounds. However, with their two different olfactory organs the world they perceive through their noses is one that we can only imagine. 

“The differences in the two types of brain mean that people are experts at oral and written language development and using their hands for creating and using tools. On the other hand, horses are experts at reading and understanding the environment and body language and learning large movements. In fact, they learn many times faster than humans and preserve what they learned for the rest of their lives, while humans only retain information for a short time unless the information is regularly reviewed.  If horse handlers keep the differences in the horse and human brain in mind they can make better use of the horse’s potential.” 

Black and his lead mare Lucy. 
Black and his lead mare Lucy. © Laura Simpson

We feel bad when others treat us badly … imagine now for moment, how these highly intelligent beings feel as they are run ragged by helicopters, beyond their physical endurance, separating babies from families, where many end-up being slaughtered for cheap meat.  Remember, they are as smart as a human child. This is what the BLM and their contractors are doing, using our tax dollars. This draconian treatment by the BLM and their contractors must be stopped.

Recently, a range area in Modoc County Oregon that just hosted about 1400 cattle was subsequently said to be unable to support the 50 resident wild horses, which were claimed to be ‘starving’ by the BLM! Did the BLM allow over-grazing of that dedicated range by cattle? Sure looks like it! And what about the deer, antelope and other animals? If the wild horses are now starving after the cattle ate everything, how can the other game animals survive? Here are links to that debacle:

The excrement being propagandized by the BLM and their benefactors, the Industrial Cattle Producers, about there being too many horses on public range-lands is an insult to anyone’s intelligence who can do simple math. There are more than  10-million+ head of cattle on the public range managed by the BLM … if that range can graze 10 million of those 1000 pound animals – which it does,  plus their calves – it’s just plum stupid for the BLM, or anyone to claim that same range can’t handle a tiny, fractional share, of horses.

Think about that … there’s more than 350 head of cattle for each single horse on the public range-lands. Some people ignorantly claim that somehow, magically, those relatively few horses are responsible for tearing-up all the open-range … huh? Do these people and the range-scientists that are in their hip pockets think everyone is brain-dead?

We sure don’t need any range-scientist to figure this one out.

Any Rodeo Clown knows that it’s far, far better to be trampled by one horse, than by 350 steers that each weigh in the neighborhood of a 1000 pounds each! In the minds of the greedy industrial cattle producers, they just assume have only cattle on the range, and if they can replace 28,000 horses with cattle, all the better. Unbridled greed and a lack of morality is the disease that is killing America today!  It’s wrong any way you look at it, all day long.

Cattle grazing in South Dakota.
Cattle grazing in South Dakota. © BLM

The pernicious myths that swirl around America today about wild horses are many and have in some cases become dogma that affects wild horse management. The BLM is plagued by the fact that it has so little access to accurate information about the behavioral ecology of wild horses. Making matters much worse is the horses are suffering from their lack of knowledge through obtuse management policies which are further complicated by the range-war that has been undertaken by some parties within the cattle industry using the BLM as their instrument of destruction.

We do have options to remove America’s legendary and treasured wild horses from the area that are for all intents and purposes war zones for the wild horses, where they are often surrounded by livestock operators who are present a hostile force. This is no place to be keeping such sentient beings. They need expanses of remote wilderness where they can be free and beyond the negativity projected by those hostile forces.

The Natural Wildfire Abatement And Forest Protection Plan offers a viable cost option to both the BLM and the USFS for the redisposition of America’s wild horses into carefully selected and remote wilderness areas, where there are no livestock operations.

William E. Simpson

William Simpson is the author of Dark Stallions - Legend of the Centaurians, proceeds from which go towards supporting wild and domestic horse rescue and sanctuary. » Read Bill's profile

5 thoughts on “Are horses as smart as humans?

  • December 29, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    Excellent points! People must learn to respect these highly evolved beings, not continue to merely take them for granted and deny them their rightful place and role, which is a benign one for all of us! Happy New Year!

  • December 30, 2017 at 1:42 am

    Maybe the best math lies in plant based protein education. There is no need for all the cattle. Not for daily dairy or beef intake by humans. Americans have been handed false information about their dietary needs for decades. Time to displel the myth and let the ponies run free…

  • July 20, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    Beautiful Jim Key. Out of Lauretta Queen of Horses, and by Kentucky Volunteer. Incredible true story. Paradoxical, that it was the horse who started the whole Humane Society, yet because horses are classified as livestock, share no protection under law. Sad and ignorant is the human race.

  • January 17, 2020 at 5:52 pm

    I heartily agree about horses’ intelligence and sensitivity. I also agree that the American people need to learn about eating plant-based diets instead of depending on dairy cattle and beef cattle for the mainstay of their diets. The cattle industry is destroying our land. Plus the caretakers of cattle do not even treat their animals properly. Their cattle per square ft of the property used for grazing and care exceeds proper amounts of animals per sq ft. The cattle industry cannot make a living from horses so they push the horses off the land they want to use for grazing cattle. All kinds of pollution result from the cattle industry. The American people need to wake up. The BLM too. Their greed is rampant.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.