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Re: [RC] horses smart? - Heidi Smith

>Over the few years I've had horses, I have come across some folks that think horses aren't smart. I don't accept this.
>Was wondering how you folks feel?
What is smart?  Horses do not have (or care about) the ability to write DOS programs, do differential equations, or write sonnets.  That said--we do not have the ability to smell the fact that a cougar crossed this path last week, and deduct that we might want to be careful going this way as the cougar might return and eat us.
Horses do indeed pass on information to each other and learn from each other.  They are also capable to some extent of figuring out problems that have something to do with what is important in their lives.  (And if you don't believe that, imagine an old pregnant mare who figured out how to get astraddle of a mineral feeder to scratch her belly, and then carefully sidepass back off of it when she was done.  Have seen more than one figure that sort of thing out.) 
And like people, some horses are considerably smarter than other horses.  Just as some kids have the mental ability to rocket through the simple stuff in school and go on to college at 15, and subsequently solve mysteries in quantum physics or cellular physiology, while others struggle to grasp the basics of addition, subtraction, and reading, some horses can watch a thing and then go do it, while others can drill and drill and drill and still never quite get it.  Like people, in addition to differences in intelligence, there are also differences in ambition level, work ethic, and disposition--all of which also play a role in what you can or can't accomplish with a given horse, as well as how well the given horse functions within his social group.
And in terms of communication, horses (and virtually all higher mammals) are miles ahead of humans with regards to non-verbal communication--not having a verbal language, they rely entirely on observation of body language, and hence "read" it very well, whereas people range from being passably reasonable body language readers to not even being aware that body language exists.  We humans are used to dabbling in concepts that are expressed verbally--and sometimes we miss the boat entirely on the other sorts of concepts that are communicated through body language.  Some cultures are worse about this than others, but I don't think any human culture "reads" body language the way and at the level that non-verbal animals do.
So in terms of "smart"--I guess it all depends on whether you want to know what is going on in Iraq, or what is going on over the next hill.  I'll rely on humans for global, scientific, mathematical, and literary talent, but I'll rely on my horse every time for knowing that something is coming over the hill that I can't see.
I have to relate a funny story from hunting season.  I was watching my horses, and all of them were looking with interest up the hill behind my place.  I noticed a herd of elk up near the ridgeline--kind of broken into two smaller groups.  The horses weren't looking at the elk, but rather off in a somewhat different direction.  I noticed all the elk start to look, too.  Gradually, in ones and twos, they started to slip around and over the hill--not in any great hurry, but obviously concerned about something.  About 10 minutes went by--and I heard 7 shots, none of which sounded like they connected with anything.  But both the horses and the elk knew exactly where that hunter was up there on the hill.  (I never did see him.)  Furthermore, the elk knew that he represented something that they should quietly sneak away from.  The horses have no reason to fear a human sneaking around, but they did think his behavior was noteworthy, or they would not have been watching so intently.  Now, if this guy was up to no good, he could have gotten quite a ways closer to the place before I ever would have noticed him.  (And being an old ranch girl, I'm more alert to motion up on my hill than most folks not raised in a rural setting would be.)  So--who's smart here?
I also had an interesting experience this winter when we had some really deep snow for a few weeks, and the hungry elk were down on my place looking for something to eat.  I've always heard that hungry elk will run horses off their feed under such conditions, but I noticed the elk coming into the upper part of the pasture one night, and just thought I'd sneak around and see what happened.  First off, about 5 old mares were marching along the perimeters--reminded me of dogs stiff-legging around an intruder, trying to intimidate him.  When the handful of lead elk (there were about 120 elk altogether, with an "advance force" of about half a dozen) got up to a certain point, all of the mares (just under 30 of them) flung their heads up and went charging up the hill to chase them off.  Looked like a cavalry charge.  The elk departed, and stayed beyond the perimeter line defined by the mares.  The mares were working as a herd to defend their food and their territory, and were able to "hold off" a much larger force of hungry aggressors.  I kept checking for elk tracks out there for several days--and it seemed like pretty consistently the mares only allowed the elk to come within a tantalizing sniffing distance of the hay before running them off.  Again, it seems to me like there are some "smarts" involved in a situation like that.

[RC] horses smart?, Kathie Ford