Horses are Smart; How to Make Them Smarter
Article brought to you by OmegaFields.com
We evaluate a horse from a number of standpoints – breed, personality, conformation, age, training,
among others – and we should include intelligence in the list. His smarts, when properly developed and
exploited, will pay large dividends to us. One might expect a clever horse to be better able than the
average horse to evaluate unusual situations without panicking. We would want him to learn, quickly and
easily, to make good decisions. That certainly would make training easier, as well as help to ensure our own safety.
To illustrate: Gail was riding her horse, Rocky, on a pleasant cross-country outing one warm summer
day. Off in the distance, an interesting rock formation covered with wildflowers attracted Gail, and so
she had Rocky leave the trail and walk through the brush toward it. The brush got thicker and thicker as
Rocky plowed on, until he found himself unable to continue, with his legs tightly tangled in brush and
vines. He was struggling to proceed, unsuccessfully, when Gail stopped him and asked him to stand still.
She dismounted to examine the situation, saw that it was hopeless to plod through, and so she took out
the small garden shears from her riding kit and calmly snipped away the entrapping vines, then led Rocky
away from that patch of brush. Rocky followed her, calmly, and when clear, she remounted, patted his neck to tell him what a good, smart boy he was, and continued her ride.
Many horses, in that situation, might have panicked, thrown Gail, hurt themselves in the process. But
Rocky understood that Gail will help him out of any difficult situation; he kept his cool and allowed her to
do so. He showed far broader comprehension of unusual circumstances than would a herd-raised horse without human experience. But what made Rocky capable of controlling panic so well? Why is he so
A horse’s lifetime is one of continuous learning. The two basic learning environments are his herd and the
geography in which he resides. We’ll examine both, but first, let’s have a look at what happens between
his ears, that makes it all possible -- the controlling factors that set the parameters for how he perceives and copes with those social conditions.
Learning by developing his cognition:
How he develops mentally is strongly influenced by what he views his physical limitations to be, what are
his likes and dislikes, and does he know when he needs help, for example. But -- and this is tricky –
we’re talking about understanding self-awareness in an animal, a challenging subject that’s difficult to
define for humans, about whom we do know something. It must be considered as the foundation on which knowledge is based because everything we see and understand is observed from a totally
personalized standpoint. It seems unlikely that the relationship we humans have with our horses, as with
our dogs, could exist if animals act only out of instinct. As we shall discuss, horses shape their behavior
to fit the herd’s requirements; there seems to be some evidence, perhaps only intuitive, that they would
do likewise in the company of humans. And it works both ways – a positive environment elicits positive attitude, and negative elicits negative.
Learning from the herd:
We know that the group environment is a highly influential factor in developing cognition. How smart a
horse becomes is defined by the circumstances into which he is born and in which he develops – and it is
a continuing process. Every event he experiences contributes to his fund of knowledge, and thus his
intelligence. It follows, as studies confirm, that youngsters develop best in a herd environment, where its
members have established complex interrelationships among themselves. The youngster comes to understand hierarchy, and that he must comport himself accordingly. But herd dynamics is much more
than an unwritten rulebook – it’s also a blueprint for comfortable and safe living within a broad society,
and he must learn it. The importance of the social environment cannot be overstressed. If you and I were
to learn only at our mother’s knee until we were adults, we would be quite ill-prepared to exist in a
society of people who developed within the broad panoply of school, playmates, close friends,
neighbors, society in general. Likewise, a foal, growing up in such a group environment, will be far better
prepared to cope with life’s events than one who knows only his mother and perhaps a few others during his developmental years.
Not only does the foal learn the dynamics of living with his mother, he also learns the relative position of
every member of the herd toward himself, his mother and each other. Processing this data and
understanding it, then living within it, develops his social intelligence so that he can quickly and efficiently
continue the process going forward. Most importantly, this mental development forms the foundation for
his ability to “fit in”, without unwarranted fear or anxiety, in new and different social situations. That
means joining a new herd, for example, when he changes homes; it means handling show environments,
joining strange horses in group rides, training experiences, and especially events with humans – as witness Rocky’s performance when tangled in the vines.
Learning from the environment:
Since a horse is such a physical animal and he lives in a primarily physical world, that physical
environment is a major teaching aid in his mental development. It is the violin from which the music
emanates. The objective is to allow the horse as great a range of experience as possible, with the
understanding that the most threatening thing for many horses is, simply, change. But constant changeless
environments set the horse up to react badly when change does occur. He learns to deal with changes by
experiencing changes. Developing his experiences and thus his intelligence is squarely in our bailiwick.
Keep him bottled up and we can expect him to be frightened of anything unfamiliar. But keep him in a
complex social group and manage his terrain to promote frequent learning, and he will develop the ability to operate intelligently within his environment no matter how dynamic.
Jaime Jackson recognized that a plain vanilla environment is a boring place, for domestic horse as well as
human. He also understood the need for constant movement on the part of horses in order to maintain physical condition. He developed the concept of the Paddock Paradise, a whole new way for the
average person with a bit of land and a drive to practice optimal husbandry, to create a stimulating world
for her horses, for their health and deep contentment. The difference between Jackson's approach and
the usual fenced acreage is like the difference between an animal safari park and a zoo with barred cages
. Creating physical, social, even emotional environments in which animals can believe they're in their primordial setup, yields fascinating results when applied to horses.
Here's how Pasture Paradise works: instead of housing our horses in rectangular fields where they just
stand in one spot and eat, an additional "inside" fence is added to create a "track" system. The track
shape and width can vary - the narrower the track the more the horses will move. The topography can
be changed quickly and easily, rock piles, sandy areas and water locations added. Hay can be piled in
different locations within the track every day. The electric fencing can be moved to change the pathways,
also allowing grazed areas to recover before being grazed again. The more innovative and creative our
management methods become the more likely it is that we can create a real harmony between the needs
of the horse and the space he lives in. It’s easy to change around, and it all can be done quite cheaply
and quickly using electric fencing. It’s well worth the effort when you see how much happier and
healthier he becomes. Horses adapt to such an extent that they look forward to changes in the route,
watching while modifications take place. Once a change is complete they move into it without any need for pressure.
The sum of the parts:
The foal raised within the herd, an environment of diverse and interesting activity, builds a great deal of
knowledge that influences his relationships, personality, decisions and actions into and through his own
adulthood – it makes him a “smarter” horse, very much better prepared for your teaching and training
when he joins you as your equine partner. And when he is your partner, allow his natural intelligence to
continue to develop in an environment of diverse and interesting activity. The more he learns, the greater
his capacity to learn still more, and the greater will be your own pleasure and safety. It’s one of the best investments you can make.
Contact: The Friendly Staff at Omega Fields
P.O. Box 186
Newton, Wisconsin 53063