Horses vs. Dogs: A Battle of Wits

October 03, 2019

Horses vs. Dogs: A Battle of Wits


Who would win in the battle of wits? Canines or Equines? Take your pick!

Horses spook easily, and it often results in a sideways jump or a change of direction with the intention to flee. Sometimes, it's because of their own flatulence. Meanwhile, there are countless videos of dogs diving headfirst into a bush for no apparent reason or even walking into closed doors. And their reactions aren't nearly as graceful as horses.

First, let's distinguish between intellect and cognition.


Intelligence vs. Cognition

Horses vs. Dogs: A Battle of Wits

Intelligence may be defined as the capacity to obtain and use knowledge in an adaptive situation, while cognition refers to awareness in general and the ability to learn in particular.

Cognitive processes such as perception, learning, memory, and decision making perform an essential role in mate choice, foraging, and many other behaviors. Cognition, broadly interpreted, includes all the ways in which animals take in information through the senses, process, retain and decide to act on it.

Based on this definition alone, you can tell that animals rely more on cognition than they do intellect.


The linear approach to measuring intelligence

The linear approach to measuring intelligence

Intelligence is often seen as linear. However, there are many aspects of the spectrum. A dog who doesn't know how to fetch may be considered to be on the lower end of the spectrum; however, people don't factor in that this dog is excellent at detecting changes in human emotion. The same principle applies to horses. Just because they don't know a particular set of commands, doesn't necessarily mean that they're not intelligent.

Take the example of dogs and horses, learning how to open a latch. People associate the thought of animals learning how to open their cage or pen with as a sign of intelligence. But, there are layers to the process.

Dogs and horses learn how to open a latch through trial and error. After many attempts and days of practice, they'll form an algorithm on how much they have to wiggle, nudge, and push on the latch to unlock it. However, dogs learn how to do things faster if they have an example to learn by. Dogs have the ability to learn through mimicry; they mimic the behavior and learn how to open the latch faster.

Horses do not learn by looking at other horses; they figure things out for themselves, like the latch.


The different types of intelligence

The different types of intelligence

Like we mentioned earlier, you cannot quantify intelligence through a linear model. There are many aspects you must consider when gauging an animal’s intellect.


Empathetic Intelligence

Both dogs and horses are known to be highly empathetic animals. Many historical accounts have proven that both animals were companions to people in ancient civilization; and not just for survival. In fact, much like today, horses and dogs were kept as pets.

Horses can interpret human emotions through facial expressions. In a recent study published in the Journal of Biology, Letters Researchers found that horses can distinguish between different human facial expressions. The study, performed by psychologists at the University of Sussex, found horses have the ability to differentiate between positive and negative human emotions. Researchers showed horses life-size images of humans, either smiling or baring their teeth in anger. As they wrote in their findings in the journal Biology Letters, the horses were able to distinguish between the two, reacting to the angry photos by turning their heads to look at them with the left eye.

In this study, they also studied the internal data of a horse's heart rate. Their heart rate would differ in acceleration when looking at angry or happy faces. Angry faces would result in a higher heart rate, and smiling faces would result in a lower heart rate. Horses were the first animal to show a differential heart rate responses to different facial expressions. 

However, this research does not confirm whether horses evolved to read human emotions or if each individual horse taught itself to understand human emotion.

Dogs too have the ability to interpret human emotion by watching the change in their facial expressions. Although, they are more reliant on empathizing with people through the hormones that humans emit. With their heightened olfactory senses, dogs can detect how a person is feeling and act upon it.

Left gaze' bias.'

Left gaze bias refers to viewing something through the left eye allows it to be interpreted in the right hemisphere of the brain, where threatening stimuli are processed. Researchers from Sussex found that the horse turned their heads to look with their left eye when they were presented with a happy face; they didn't express the same bias. What's so interesting about this is that left gaze bias is also used to study humans.

To directly quote the researcher, "in this context, recognizing angry faces may act as a warning system allowing horses to anticipate negative human behavior such as rough handling."

Multiple studies have been conducted on how dogs empathize with people. A study from Azabu University found that like horses, dogs too can detect human emotion by looking at a person's facial expressions. In Kyoto University, they discovered that dogs have the ability to distinguish smiling faces from blank expressions. And in Lincoln University, they learned that dogs exhibit left gaze bias when looking at negative expressions in people.


Visual Intelligence

Visual intelligence refers to how well animals can detect changes in pictures. This was clearly exemplified in the left gaze bias study conducted on both horses and dogs. They both possessed the ability to determine the differences in the pictures presented to them.

Horses have a particularly impressive visual-spatial ability. Horse and human abilities to judge distance and depth perception may be quite comparable while equine vision is undoubtedly superior to that of human's under scotopic conditions.

Horses will win this round, it's a well-known fact that a dog's strongest suit is its sense of smell, followed by hearing, and sight. Dogs, compared to humans and horses, have smaller brains. Which means there are fewer neurons processing the visual cues interpreted by their eyes. In fact, a dog's eyes have fewer cones than horses. But their olfactory sensors compensate for their limited vision. If a horse goes blind, it no longer has a mechanical use. They can no longer do any work because their size can pose a threat to the people and animals working around them. They're better kept in the stable where they could be treated as pets. Dogs, on the other hand, can still function even if they go blind because they can practically 'see with their noses'.


Social Intelligence

Horses are highly social animals, and emotional awareness is helpful for the functioning and survival of highly social groups — they do most of their learning through social modeling.

In the wild, both dogs and horses (and all their variants) travel in groups. Wolves move in packs, and feral horses travel in bands. A characteristic that can be attributed to the sociability of these two animals as they travel in herds; which gives you an insight into how dogs and horses are socially aware of their lifestyle. They understand hierarchies, nurturing the young, and the importance of keeping their pack safe.

Not all animals have this type of awareness. Bears, for example, only know how to look out for themselves. The only time they learn to care for another bear is when a female's maternal instincts kick in after giving birth. But when her cub is old enough to sustain itself, they part ways and travel their journeys alone once more.


Memory Intelligence

Previous research by Evelyn Hanggi, Ph.D., has already suggested that horses are capable of long-term memory of around ten years. But this "formidable" study only involved three horses, which could have been "exceptionally talented" with extensive training. Although, many other studies have disputed this argument and were able to prove that horses do indeed have excellent long term memory. The most impressive part is that they never forget humans that they've made friends with.

While many people believe that proper horse discipline has to do with repetition and reinforcement, one of the most prominent elements that impact a horse's memory is the emotional responses it evokes. Whether it's stress or the joy of eating a treat after a successful practice session, all of these encounters gradually shape how well a horse is able to retain and process information. Horses have a tendency to form emotional bonds with their trainers if you want to evoke positive emotions from them, train them using a rewards system when they do something good as opposed to punishing them when they do something wrong.

Dogs, on the other hand, have a powerful associative memory. No one knows for sure just how good a dog's long term memory is, but studies have shown that dogs can recall just about anything purely based on association! Again, their sense of smell reigns supreme over all their other senses. We as humans can't detect it, but everything around us has an olfactory identity marker. That's right; what we believe is odorless does not bode true to a dog.

Research on the cognitive process has shown that the olfactory sensors have the strongest capability of transporting to the past and helping us remember things. You know that wave of nostalgia that washes over you when you're at your parent's house, and your mom is baking cookies in the kitchen? That same process happens in a dog, except for them, it's more vivid because of their heightened sense of smell.


Navigational Intelligence

It's common knowledge that both horses and dogs have superior navigational knowledge. A good example of a horse's ability to find its way home is by dropping the reigns after a long ride and letting them guide the way back to the stable. Regardless of how far into the woods you are, a horse will always find its way home. That's why farmers don't worry too much about their horses when they wander off in the fields because they know their horses will be back at the stable when they're tired and it's time to sleep.

The same principle applies to dogs. Before they were domesticated household pets, dogs were working animals. Domestication began during the nomadic days of the ice age when people needed a source of protection when transferring from one campsite to another — hence the term attack dogs. These ancient people would use their dogs to navigate through thick blankets of snow and sniff for a safe place to camp out for the night. Dogs navigate through their sense of smell — which is exhibited in the modern-day counterparts of the dogs we just mentioned, such as police dogs, bomb sniffers, or cadaver diggers.


The verdict? You can't base an animal's intelligence based on the tricks they know and commands they follow. If anything, it's about how well their handler trains them. The answer to the question: horses and dogs are on the same level of intelligence. As long as you handle them in a way that is suitable to their personality, you should yield positive results.







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