Horses vs Dogs: Which Animal Is The Smartest? And Why

As somebody who’s owned a number of horses and dogs over the years, I’ve always been struck by just how smart they both are, even though they’re very different animals. This started me wondering about whether horses or dogs were more intelligent.

Are horses smarter than dogs? When it comes to survival horses are much smarter but dogs are better at outwitting their prey. Horses are also better at memorizing things (such as a complex dressage routine) while dogs can learn new skills far quicker and can adapt to a new way of life much faster than horses can.

How do we measure intelligence in animals?

When it comes to humans we’ve devised a series of IQ tests to determine how smart somebody is but there’s no such test when it comes to animals which can make it difficult to define (at least in human terms) how smart an animal is. It’s also difficult to measure intelligence between two totally different species, in part because there are different types of intelligence.

Instead, we judge how smart an animal is by our own needs and standards which obviously isn’t a true reflection of the animal’s real intelligence. With this in mind, it’s difficult to measure just how smart one species really is compared to another.

How smart are horses?

Most horse owners will tell you how smart their horses are when it comes to removing their blankets or when they just don’t want to be caught, but beyond these examples of defiance, horses are a lot smarter than we realize. 

Being prey animals their intelligence is heavily built around their instincts to react to danger as well as to live and survive within the safe environment of the herd. They have very strong emotional intelligence which means they can learn new tasks quickly and are able to work things out for themselves.

You might not realize it but the sheer fact that horses let us ride them in the first place means that they are highly intelligent because they understand that working with us means we’ll keep them safe and protect them from danger.

On top of this horses can also learn to perform a variety of tricks, from giving us a kiss to picking something up from the ground on command. They can also learn and remember complex dressage patterns as well as what your routine is.

It’s worth mentioning that, as a way of gauging their intelligence, scientists have recently discovered that the ‘average’ horse has an intelligence level that is equivalent to that of a 3-year-old child.

How smart are dogs?

Being predatory animals, a dog’s intelligence is based around their need to outsmart their prey (even though they no longer hunt for themselves). This means that they need to rely heavily on their sense of smell as well as their ability to adapt and change their plans very quickly.

While no two dogs are the same and some breeds are much smarter than others (such as Border Collies compared to Afghan Hounds), the average dog (whatever that is) has a level of intelligence that’s comparable to that of a 2-year-old child. [source]

Dogs don’t have the same level of emotional intelligence that horses do but they do have a very strong desire to please us. This means that we can train them to work with (or for) us in tasks such as detecting drugs, explosives, and even illnesses in people. 

Dogs also have a very strong sense of navigation and direction which is why they make such good assistance dogs, whether it’s to help the blind navigate busy streets and heavy traffic or to help the physically disabled lead a normal life.

On top of this dogs also have an incredible understanding of our language and can be taught to learn over a thousand words.

How do horses and dogs compare to each other?

There’s no direct way of judging how smart a horse is compared to a dog (or any other animals for that matter) because they’re both very different animals but what you can do instead is judge them on a variety of ‘human’ intelligence standards. Things such as the ability to understand body language, self-awareness, and the willingness to ask for help.

Reading and reacting to body language

We use body language to read other people’s intentions as well as their integrity but it can also help us to understand other people’s feelings and emotions as well as give us a better understanding of a given situation.

Can horses read our body language?

A study carried out by the University of Sussex in 2017 shows that not only could a horse read a person’s body language, regardless of whether or not they knew the person, but they also understood if they were being dominant or submissive. 

The study asked a number of people, unknown to the horses, to give each of the horses the same number of treats. The next day though the same people were asked to stand still with either a dominant or submissive posture and the horse was allowed to choose who he went to, and more often than not they chose the submissive person. [source]

Can dogs read our body language?

Any dog owner will tell you that their dog understands how they’re feeling and will change their behavior depending on their mood but what they probably don’t realize is just how subtle their body language can be. [source]

We once had a dog that was so sensitive to our moods that he would often know how we were feeling long before we realized it ourselves. If one of us was ill he’d crawl along the floor and then sit up and rest his head in the lap of whoever wasn’t well.  

Are horses or dogs smarter?

Understanding facial expressions

Like body language, the ability to understand facial expressions helps with social interactions, but it can also help to determine somebodies mood.

Can horses understand our facial expressions?

A 2018 joint study, carried out by the Universities of Sussex and Portsmouth, found that not only do horses remember a person’s previous emotional state but that they will change their behavior accordingly.

The study showed photographs of people either looking angry or happy to a variety of horses. The horses that saw the angry photographs exhibited negative responses (such as faster heart rates) while those that saw happy people remained calm and relaxed. A few hours later the horses were introduced to the same people they’d seen in the photographs but this time the people show neutral expressions, what was amazing though was that every horse reacted in the same way they did before. [source]

Can dogs understand our facial expressions?

There have been plenty of studies that show dogs rely very heavily on a person’s facial expression (and in particular that of their owner’s) there’s nothing to suggest that they remember a person’s expression and alter their behavior to match that. [source]

Asking for help

Nobody (or no animal) can be good at everything but realizing when you’re not able to do something and then asking for help shows a level of intelligence and understanding of our limits.

Do horses ask us for help?

In 2016 Kobe University carried out a series of studies designed to understand what horses do when they’re not able to solve a problem themselves. The study tested the social-cognitive skills of a number of horses by getting assistants to place carrots in buckets that the horses couldn’t reach. They then watched the horses use a variety of different techniques to get the attention of their handlers and then show them what they wanted. [source]

Do dogs ask us for help?

As a rule, dogs don’t tend to ask for help with things but they will often try and communicate to their owners when they’re not well and require medical help.

I say as a general rule because one of our Border Collies (pictured below) was so super smart he’d ask you to get his toy if it had rolled under the couch and he wasn’t able to get it back. At first, he’d try a variety of techniques (such as using his mouth or trying to kick it out with his paw) but when he realized he couldn’t reach it he’d ask you to get it out. He did this by repeatedly looking at you then looking at the toy until you got up and got it for him. I don’t know if it was due to his intelligence or the fact that he’d learned we’d get it for him if he couldn’t but either way it shows a level of understanding that we’ve not seen in any other dog we’ve owned.

Some dogs will ask for help

Self awareness

While being self-aware isn’t a benchmark of an animal’s intelligence it can help to illustrate how that animal’s brain works. If they’re self-aware then potentially they have the capacity to have a higher level of intelligence.

One of the best ways that self-awareness is determined in animals is by using the mirror test. This test involves an animal being marked in an area they can’t normally see and then being shown a mirror. If they try to touch the mark or investigate it in some way, then they’re considered to be self-aware.

Are horses self-aware?

The mirror test has never been carried out on horses in any official capacity so it’s not possible to say for sure whether or not they’re self-aware although some owners will insist their horses do recognize themselves. Personally, I don’t think horses are self-aware because I’ve been using horse safe mirrors for many years and every horse has reacted to it as if it’s a new horse. I’ve also had some horses that will try and ‘fight’ themselves if their food is too close to the mirror. From my point of view, if a horse recognized itself surely it would know its food was safe?

Are dogs self-aware?

There have been many occurrences of the mirror test being performed on dogs and the result is always one of two outcomes. Either the dog will show no interest at all or will act as if it’s another dog so with this in mind I think it’s safe to say dogs are not self-aware. [source]

Having an opinion

Understanding a question and being able to give an opinion-based answer is a sign of intelligence, after all, how can you give your opinion if you can’t interpret the question?

Are horses able to express an opinion?

Dr. Cecilie Mejdell of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute found that if horses were taught simple signals for yes and no they were able to decide whether or not they wanted a blanket. If the weather was cold the horses opted for a blanket but didn’t want one when it was hot. [source]

Are dogs able to express an opinion?

While other animals such as apes and dolphins have been trained to point at things in response to a question dogs haven’t. This doesn’t mean they’re not able to give their opinion (or that they don’t have one) but it simply means it’s not been tested.

I’m sure that if you ask a dog if they want a biscuit they’ll say yes but that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand the question.

A common language  

One area where horses and dogs are the same (or at least pretty similar) is the way they communicate when it comes to playing. Despite being two totally different species, they both use the same facial expressions and behavioral traits, such as bowing with their front legs and opening their mouths (as if they’re laughing). [source]

Conclusion 

The problem with comparing horses and dogs (and trying to find out which one is smarter) is that they’re both very different animals and have different types of intelligence. Horses, after all, are prey animals while dogs are predators, even if they no longer hunt. This means that horses have strong social and emotional capabilities while dogs have the intelligence to be able to outsmart their prey. 

The best thing to say is that both horses and dogs are very smart but that they’re as smart as they need to be in order to get on and survive. Neither is more intelligent than the other, they’re both simply smart in different ways.

Further reading


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Recommended products 

Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
  • Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.

Shopping lists

I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉

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