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What Actually IS Intelligence?

‘Intelligent’, ‘smart’, ‘clever’, ‘stupid’, ‘dense’ ‘slow’. Some of the many labels which are used when referring to the cognitive ability of equines (and other animals).  If we ask ourselves to define ‘intelligence’ though, it can be quite difficult (have a think!).  In human terms, and in school and university settings, it is often measured by the famous I.Q. tests which on the whole concentrate on academic abilities.  A definition from Merriam-Webster of the word ‘intelligence’ describes it as follows (Merriam Webster, 2021);

in·​tel·​li·​gence | \ in-ˈte-lə-jən(t)s

Definition of intelligence

1a(1) : the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations : reason also : the skilled use of reason

(2) : the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (such as tests)

c : mental acuteness : shrewdness

b Christian Science : the basic eternal quality of divine Mind

2a : information, news

b : information concerning an enemy or possible enemy or an area also : an agency engaged in obtaining such information

3 : the act of understanding : comprehension

4 : the ability to perform computer functions

5a : intelligent minds or mind cosmic intelligence

b : an intelligent entity especially : angel

It’s interesting that this falls in the top 1% of words looked up in Merriam Webster.  A much-used word but one of the most searched for definitions – so are we using the word correctly? Or perhaps its meaning differs depending on highly specific contexts and on the individual to whom it refers?  The definition here, it could be said, encompasses how intelligence might look when it comes to non-human animals as well as humans.  Learning, dealing with new or trying situations, manipulating the environment – species on the planet today have in their niche ways, applied these skills in order to survive and procreate (Cartwright, 2002).


Referring back to the I.Q. test widely used for humans, it could be said that it has huge flaws.  The person who achieves a result way below the average I.Q. may be a racing driver, with exceptional visual-spatial and bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence (and possibly others).  They may be living a happier, more enriching, more successful (however measured) life than the person with the I.Q. way above average.  The driver possesses the cognitive abilities required to drive an F1 car, whereas the mathematics genius may crash at the first corner – so surely, we can argue that neither is most intelligent, they are both intelligent in different ways.  When we look at it like this, perhaps it could be suggested that a much more appropriate name for the test, if we must test in this way, be based around academia, rather than using the word ‘intelligence’ at all. There are thousands of examples. 


There is a comparative issue with the testing of an animal’s ‘IQ’.  There are authors and scientists who are of the opinion that we should measure an organism’s level of intelligence by its cognitive (and somatic) ability to solve problems that are perhaps general to many species, but prominently those which are niche to the particular creature (Cartwright, 2002; Hare and Woods, 2014; Rogers, 1997).  How refreshing.


To ensure survival but also welfare for itself and its descendants through the development and utilisation of particular skills, and the ability to solve problems relevant to this, is surely intelligent behaviour? Just a thought. But there's a more in depth discussion to have.....

These behaviours may involve spatial, intra/interpersonal, bodily, naturalistic or existential intelligences, or others.  To highlight a term used to describe how organisms evolve using very different types of intelligence depending on environment, social situation, biological requirements etc, “adaptive specializations” is a good description for expertise emerging within different niches (Cosmides et al 2010).  As behaviours are trialled, and some individuals are quicker/stronger/more dextrous/quieter etc, the ones who achieve the best results in terms of feeding, reproduction, shelter, danger avoidance and water location should thrive.  As the species evolves, it becomes specialised in the particular behaviours that benefit itself dependant on its physiological make up, environment, breeding and nurturing requirements and survival from predation.  In turn, its physical make up can also change in order to meet these needs more effectively (Coppinger and Coppinger, 2001).

In ‘The Genius of Dogs’ (2014), Hare and Woods point out an excellent way of looking at specialist capabilities and intelligences, or cognitive strengths.  To quote;

“Asking if a dolphin is cleverer than a crow is like asking if a hammer is

 better than a saw.  Which is the better tool depends on the task at hand,

or in the case of animals, which challenges they must regularly confront to survive and reproduce” (page 233)

Multiple Intelligences

In 1983, Howard Gardner, a renowned psychologist who focused on cognition and education, introduced his theory of multiple intelligences, suggesting that intelligence is not a singular capacity within an individual and that abilities function in independent regions of the brain.  The principles he puts forward for this theory are as follows (Gardner, 1984);

“1. Intelligence is not a single, unitary thing but a collection of multiple intelligences, each one a system in its own right (as opposed to merely separate aspects of a larger system, i.e. ‘intelligence’).

2. Each intelligence is independent of all others.

3. The intelligences interact, otherwise nothing can be achieved." (page 717)

Gardner also defines intelligence as;

“…an ability or set of abilities that permits an individual to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting” (Gardner, 1984)

This theory would conflict with the idea that a person’s cognitive abilities can be measured by an I.Q. test, which largely relies on academic and logical abilities or strengths.  Instead, the theory has created large debates in schooling methods, inferring that skills or abilities such as sport, woodwork, art and design (for instance) are each examples of intelligence and therefore the concept of intelligent should not be measured purely on academia.  In fact, Gardner suggests an ‘emotional intelligence’ within intra and interpersonal Intelligences alike, which exists separately from I.Q.


The Multiple Intelligences that he puts forward are as follows; (Cherry, 2018)

Visual-Spatial Intelligence

Linguistic-Verbal Intelligence


Logical-Mathematical Intelligence


Bodily-Kinaesthetic Intelligence


Musical Intelligence


Interpersonal Intelligence



Intrapersonal Intelligence



Naturalistic Intelligence



Strengths in visualising, directions, pictures, charts. Characteristically strong at; drawing, putting puzzles together, reading, writing, visual arts, interpreting patterns

Strengths in writing, speaking, memorising, creating stories, debating, creating humour, explaining things

Strengths in reasoning, analysing patterns, solving mathematical problems, overcoming logical problems, complex computations, abstract ideas, conceptualising numbers and relationships between patterns

Strengths in Motor control, physical abilities, hand-eye coordination, creating things by hand, dance, sports, remembering through performing actions

Strengths in thinking in patterns and sounds, performing, composing, musical appreciation and rhythm, recognition of tones, singing, playing musical instruments

Strengths in understanding and relating to other people.  Assessing emotions, desires, motivations and intentions of others (as such possess good theory of mind), resolving conflicts, able to see perspectives of others, verbal and non-verbal communication

Strengths in self-reflection, self-analysis, awareness of own motivations, emotions, desires and intentions, daydreaming, analysing own strengths and weaknesses, analysing ideas and theories

As the most recent addition to Gardner’s list of intelligences, naturalistic intelligence strengths include the desire to nurture, explore other species and the environment, catagorizing and cataloguing, outdoor activities, biological studies. A disinterest in learning unfamiliar topics unrelated to nature

The ‘M.I Theory’ is still a debated subject today.  It’s a very interesting theory though – and it could be said that whether it is entirely scientifically or neurobiologically correct or not, it provides us with a more ethical framework in which to view an individual’s capabilities.  Certainly, we shouldn’t be measuring the ‘intelligence’ of a non-human animal on human standards.  For example, is a horse unintelligent because he/she doesn’t conform to the ideals that we have in place? Is the horse that walks quietly and calmly beside you more intelligent than the one who pulls, refuses to walk in the desired direction, charges on ahead etc? Perhaps that depends – but we need to look at it from the ethological angle of the horse.  If there’s a tractor headed our way with a full load on a trailer rattling around, perhaps the pulling, shying horse is the most intelligent as he is trying to avoid a potential threat? He is using his visual-spatial, kinetic, sensory and emotional intelligences in order to avoid danger.  Surely that’s ‘smart’ in the evolutionary niche in which he originated?  Hopefully we all agree that the latter horse should not be reprimanded for behaving instinctively. 

Is a cat less intelligent than a bee because she cannot build a hive? Or the snake less intelligent than the dog because he cannot bark at intruders to territory?  Do all these animals work out, or instinctively understand how to behave to avoid danger and ensure sustenance? Yes – they are all intelligent within their niche.  The same may be said about different breeds within a species – especially within domesticated species which have been selected for varying tasks.


So, could equines have multiple intelligences? The theory seems pretty strong when we explore what they might be;

Social Intelligence (Conspecific and interspecific)


  • Capacity to communicate with their own species and certain others, using vocal, visual, chemical, olfactory and auditory skills (which we could call sensory intelligence).

  • Ability to learn and retain information pertaining to the ‘meaning’ of the multi modal communication of others

  • Nurture of young

  • Play skills, including ability to differentiate between styles of play and different partners.

  • Ability to differentiate between those from within own social unit to those extra to it (e.g in utilising different greeting styles, opting for loyalty to particular persons/bonded conspecifics etc.In addition, the ability to recognise others whom they have met before – either with positive or negative (or neutral) associations.

  • Ability to adapt survival instincts to accept interspecifics as part of the social unit which may instinctually be recognised as predators

  • Ability to follow gaze and pointing gestures, suggesting a referential capacity (Baba, Kawai, and Takimoto-Inose, 2019)

  • An apparently ‘inherent’ or ‘evolved’ similarity in cognitive ability to humans through psychological convergence, as a result of thousands of years of developing as a species alongside our own.
    Singular and cross-modal perception to human emotions (Nakumara, Takimoto-Inose and Hasegawa, 2018). Whilst conspecifically this can be viewed as an essential survival mechanism, the length of time living and working alongside humans appears to have resulted in the ability to include perception of interspecific emotional states.

  • Social synchronicity, enhancing survivability in open spaces where the danger of predation is always a factor (Rrvang 2018)


Intrapersonal Intelligence


  • Utilisation of learned behavioural strategies in answer to biophysiological cues.

  • Ability to respond to emotions felt by themselves.

  • Identification of which behaviours will or could bring them back to a homeostatic state – temperature, hunger, thirst, tiredness, excitability, emotion in some cases.

  • Recognising own physical limitations e.g if an object is too large to jump, or a target is too high to reach (which often leads back to utilisation of social intellect in seeking assistance)

  • Utilisation of senses for different tasks e.g olfaction in determining communicative information verses in the detection of resources or indeed, the detection of a conditioned odour such as that of a human who is associated with either positive or negative outcomes.



Bodily-Kinaesthetic Intelligence


  • Co-ordination, speed control, proprioceptive gauging, posture control

  • Judgement relating to the result of various manoeuvres e.g jumping an obstacle.

  • Endurance

  • Speed

  • Strength (often paired with movement, such as the case with pulling carriages/ploughs/floats etc)

  • Utilisation of body and movement in communication – again, ability to differentiate between recipients (species, individuals etc) and alter body language accordingly.

  • Intrinsic ability to allocate energy budget in the most appropriate and beneficial way


It could be said that these horses are utliising various available 'intelligences' - spacial, bodily-kinaesthetic, locomotive, intrapersonal, interpersonal, social, adaptive...

Numeric Intelligence


  • Potential capacity to understand quantities, although only small counts of individual items, but also quantitative discrimination in food portion sizes (Uller, In: Lest-Lasserre, 2009).

  • Ability to recognise the size of groups (of people for example) and depending on the motivations and/or experiences of the individual, form a decision on whether approach will be reinforcing/beneficial or not.

  • Ability to recognise a deviation in quantities that have previously been experienced, such as the number of apples varying on subsequent exposures (expectancy violation reaction can be noted) (Uller, In: Lest-Lesserre, 2009)


Sensory integration facilitates processing of endogenous and exogenous environments, important for cognitive appraisal.


Sensory-Spatial Intelligence


  • Capacity for ‘landmark learning’ and latent learning about a location (Lethbridge, 2011)

  • Navigation via various means – sensory aids, latent learning, conditioned learning, and as mentioned, mental mapping ability and compass orientation (via magnetic fields) (Budiansky, 1997) .

  • Recognition of potential danger in certain locations or situations e.g concern over moving backwards, or conversely lack of concern if safety has been positively ascertained. Another example could be concern from cues within the environment, such as wind coming through the yard which historically means doors slamming.

  • Identification of territory and its boundaries (although the understanding of the boundaries may be disturbed by human interference)


Memory and Associative Intelligence


  • Equines, amongst other animals, excel at learning from associations between an action or a stimulus and the subsequent (or contiguous) result, as is the case with classical and operant conditioning. These involve an ability to retain associative memories for future reference, especially when a behaviour or emotion of their own has been involved (as opposed to simply an observed association which has no direct involvement or effect on the animal) (Bradshaw, 2011). From these abilities, in many cases we are sometimes able to use counter-conditioning of a feared stimulus.

  • Use of Episodic memory is also used in everyday situations by horses, telling them what situations are safe, and those which are to be avoided.

  • Long and short-term memory abilities have also been studied, although not as much as in other species, and do appear to exist (Pascoe, 2019).

  • Single-trial aversion learning is seen in horses (Grandin, 2005)


Linguistic Intelligence


This view may be contended by some, however, looking at the definition of ‘Linguistic’, one is referred to ‘Language’ as linguistic is ‘relating to language’.  Language is then defined as;

1.   The method of human communication, whether spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structural or conventional way..

1.1  A non-verbal method of expression or communication” (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Therefore, the term ‘linguistic’ itself, when relating to the method of human communication is not correctly applied to the horse.  However, defining ‘language’ as a non-verbal method of expression or communication (such as in body language) can very much be attributed as a skill that the horse possesses.  As discussed, with social skills, the horse has a very accomplished and wide array of communicative abilities when we look at body language – it is one of their major methods of communication.


A nicely captured moment of the use of non verbal language between these two equines

They use it whether towards conspecifics or interspecifics (perhaps especially humans), and just as each word in human spoken language has a meaning which has been learned by individuals within our species, each slight of body language displayed by the horse is universal within their species (although still has to be learned and practiced), and is more and more understood by humans also.  To be able to display (and to understand from another) an emotion, an intention, a belief about status, a need or desire, a location reference, a like or dislike, an invitation or rebuttal and possibly many more, as horses can, could be described as linguistic intelligence.  Of course, vocal ‘language’ of horses is also a factor.  Vocalisations of pain or desperation for a resource are different and perhaps more ‘pained’ than those of arousal during play.  Different sounds have varied meanings, from play excitement or invitation, distress from being separated, those induced by pain, fearful neighs (Browning, 2009) – all of these, it could be said, count as a type of verbal language, even if the sounds made are not shaped by the tongue and lips to form words such as our own, they are, nonetheless, shaped to create specific meaning to others.



Adaptive Intelligence


As mentioned in various points, a horse’s adaptive abilities are strong in that they are able to acknowledge their environment, including others within it, and adapt their behaviours (perhaps by trial and error in some cases) to suit.  Perhaps this has contributed strongly to the convergent evolution of the domestic horse and humans.  It also encompasses problem solving abilities, as well as others linked with other ‘types’ of intelligence

Emotional Intelligence


Another huge one is emotional intelligence. We have discussed that equines have the ability to perceive emotional states of others.  How about the ability to experience emotions themselves?  If one steps away from the caution of anthropomorphising, it is acknowledged that the mammalian brain (so, including equines and humans) is at least in part reliant on the limbic system to create and ‘feel’ or express emotions, as well as store memories of stimuli that have previously triggered certain emotions and emotional responses.  Roxo et al (2011) explored postulations from neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists regarding the structure of the limbic system, its components, how emotions are created and which areas of the brain are involved, including whether there is or has to be interaction between different structures or areas.  This review includes hypotheses as far back as those of Aristotle in 384-322 BC, with further progress made by Galen (130-200 AD), but reports in detail are explored from the early 19th century.  Of course, in the 16th century, Descartes famously postulated that animals were incapable of having experiences, and were basically automata. 







Later, John B. Watson proposed that all behaviour was as a result of the environment around the organism, and a stimulus-response mechanism as a result of conditioning.  This theory is referred to as behaviourism and didn’t take emotional experience into account.  Although the subject is still being researched, the consensus appears to be that the limbic system (encompassing amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, cingulate gyrus and orbitofrontal gyrus) is at least in part responsible for emotional formation, leading to behavioural mechanisms and at least short term, if not long-term potentiation.  With sentience and affective states in mind, it is strange (to put it mildly) that certain human behaviours are still legal when it comes to equines, given that the UK Government passed the Animal Sentience Bill earlier this year, stating that it is recognised that all vertebrates are indeed sentient.  For example, why is it still ok for us to cause physical pain? Emotional distress?


Cross-over of the intelligences suggested above is also very likely as situations often involve multiple aspects. Some horses may have a more enhanced spatial intelligence than another, but a weaker social intelligence.  Perhaps it’s fluid – maybe certain circumstances facilitate particular intelligences more than others. Lots to consider!


More recent studies by a team at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology headed by Wulf Haubensak (2018) have utilised pharmacogenetics, optogenetics and viral tracing to explore brain mapping and observation of responses by intricate systems of the frontal lobes.  They have observed that emotions are mapped by antagonistic circuits of neurons, with each emotion (reward vs fear) effectively having its own set of conditioned neural pathways within the lateral central amygdala (CE1).  These exclusive networks work in a gated fashion, where high fear stimuli close the gate against the reward network and high reward stimuli open the gate for positive response and close against the fear ‘network’.  Haubensak describes this as:


Mechanical, automata, without emotion, void of experiences...

“opposing emotional and behavioural states are encoded in alternate and mutually exclusive network states” (Haubensak, 2018). 

Interestingly, Haubensak and his colleagues have observed behavioural and physiological output to be a response to the electrical activity within the amygdala – the emotional state controls the behavioural state (Paul et al, 2005).  The studies by Haubensak et al (2010) discussed, utilised transgenic mice, however, with a view to understanding the human, mammalian brain.  Therefore, there is argument to suggest that these findings (although far more in-depth than discussed above) at this stage could be used to attribute similar neural behaviour in horses, as rodents are commonly utilised in studies into the brains of mammals in general.


So when we’re considering just how smart an individual animal is, there are many factors to take into account; species (what is ethologically important, how have they evolved), breed within species, (what traits and abilities have been selected for either naturally or artificially and in addition, what is their physical conformation and does this inhibit certain behavioural outcomes), individual; who is the horse in front of you, (what are their genetics, what is their life experience, what’s in their environment, what do they value, what’s important to them and how do they feel).  Taking all these elements into account, how likely is it that an individual will behave in a certain way, whatever the particular circumstances are?  If they don’t do as a human would expect them to, does this mean a lack of intellect?














Welfare Implications

One of the key reasons for this discussion is to highlight the fact that human perception of animal behaviour, including the labels we apply to them, can sometimes be detrimental to welfare.  For example, to label a horse as ‘stubborn’ because she won’t load is hugely misguided – an animal who has evolved to thrive in large, open spaces with the ability to flee at any signs of potential danger is very well adapted if they are concerned about going into a closed box. They are prey animals; they need to feel that they can escape.  The horse is responding appropriately for species.  Those who are habituated to loading and travelling and have had positive or at least neutral emotional experiences surrounding it are more likely to calmly ascend the ramp, but these individuals should not necessarily be labelled as cleverer than the other example – the individual’s life experiences may be different, along with many other variables, which have aided a further adaptation to life within a human controlled environment. To use a cliché – one size does not fit all.


Either attributing too much or too little complexity to the cognitive abilities of the equine can have negative results in terms of the pressure we impose on their emotional state.  Blaming them for plotting to disrupt something may result in punishment.  Conversely, keeping them in conditions which are inappropriate for their ethogram conflicts many of their intellectual abilities.


One well known example of attributing a misled perception of imitation behaviour is that of multiple horses performing stereotypical behaviours (such as weaving or circling, for example).  The thought was that one horse weaving is the cause of other horses in the environment performing the same behaviour via an imitation process. There are more likely explanations for this; breed (Thoroughbreds, for example, tend to crib and weave more than some other breeds), environment and situation (if this is such that it’s causing one horse sufficient stress to begin stereotypical behaviours, it may be that it affects other individuals in the same way), physiological causes (gastric disorder, ulcers, pain etc), individual’s experience during weaning (foals fed on grain are more likely to crib than pasture fed foals), influx of endorphins (these feel good).  The important consideration is to look at each horse individually instead of assuming that it’s entirely a social contagion, as one or many of these may be contributory factors.



As a final thought: often humans are very quick to judge – we all do it. We judge each other and we judge animals.  Language and labels are used, often without a negative intention or a flippant remark, but the result can be dangerous for the welfare of animals.  Worryingly, we see such memes on social media often, applying labels to animals which are misguided, but they serve to influence nonetheless. We judge behaviour on a continuum of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ (or ‘naughty’) and that concept is extremely human-centric – perhaps the behaviour is just a horse, being a horse.  Oftentimes in the equestrian world, we hear people say that a horse is “taking the mick” or “being difficult” so we choose to attribute Machiavellian intelligence in those circumstances when actually, the horse will have a very good reason for doing whatever she is doing – and it won’t likely be a calculated attempt to annoy us or get one over on us. There is always a reason for a behaviour or a lack of one, and often this may not fit into what we consider to be ‘right’, ‘appropriate’ or ‘well-behaved’, but whatever it is, it will be important to the animal at the time, therefore, it’s important for us to apply some empathy.


Intelligence, then, is extremely subjective and perhaps each and every one of us is highly intelligent in our individual ways.  *Salute Gardner*!  The animals who have adapted to co-exist with another species perhaps deserve more credit for that…. If every animal (human and non) were honed in the same abilities and cognitive skills, the world would be extremely linear!


For years we have been told not to anthropomorphise – we shouldn’t attribute human emotions to animals. Whilst it is still thought to be unlikely that non-human animals experience emotions such as guilt and shame, they do share many of the affective states that we do, so perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to avoid anthropomorphising. Many of us are already of this mind, and hopefully these musings will provide some pause for thought for your friends, colleagues and clients who are yet to experience a deeper and more honest relationship with the fantastic creatures that we share our lives with.

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Image credits (top to bottom); Monika P, Tante Tati, Thuyha Bich, Rusian Sikunov, Skvie Bidmead, Guv059, Gorkhs, Wix



Kate is an Equine Massage and Manual Therapist, covering Norfolk and surrounding areas.  Her training as encompassed many aspects of equine physiology and psychology, and she has a keen interest in behaviour and affective states in addition to the physiological health of horses.


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