The Science of Horse Racing: Understanding the Equine Mind

December 15th, 2023

In the world of animal intelligence, few possess the fascinating intellect of the horse. Their ancient partnership with humans and intricate social dynamics within herds have intrigued scientists and equestrians alike with their seemingly profound understanding and emotional depth. Gallant Fox demonstrated an ability to learn and perceive that both surprised and tested his trainer “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who needed to hire a superior jockey like Earl Sande to get the Triple Crown winner to perform as needed on race day. Secretariat would turn toward the click of the camera, remembering what that sound meant and perking his ears up as if posing for the next shot. 

Years of experiments and training have shown us that horses possess an intelligence greater than we have previously understood, and learning how their brains work can help us identify ways to train them to perform at their best. 

The equine brain. The cerebellum is on the right and the cerebrum on the left, with the spinal cord resting underneath.

The Equine vs. the Human

A horse’s brain lies within the cranial cavity of their skull, located around the upper forehead. Like the human brain, a horse’s has both a cerebrum, which connects to the spinal cord at its base, and a cerebellum. Equine cerebrums are larger than ours as this area of the brain combines sensory perception, coordination, and motor control, which are more important functions for prey animals like a horse. 

A greater portion of the equine brain is devoted to sensory input like sight and smell, necessary information for these prey animals. Additionally, as quadrupeds, they must coordinate four limbs to our two, which requires more neurons in that area of the brain. They also must be in tune with their environment to aid their search for food and water and maintain their constant search for predators. As a result, their brains have evolved to put more emphasis on processing that type of information. Conversely, the cerebellum in human brains have more space devoted to fine motor skills and language development, which means senses like smell are far less sensitive than a horse’s. 

The equine brain weighs less than ours, around 1.5 pounds, about half the weight of a human’s. As they have larger bodies than we do, their respective weight-to-brain ratio is lower since a horse’s brain takes up less of their body weight than a human, which implies that humans are more intelligent. However, the equine brain is around the size of a child’s and scientists estimate that a horse’s intelligence can roughly be equated to that of a twelve-year-old’s.

Because the equine brain privileges sensory input, training a horse for any task, whether it is a dressage routine, a series of jumps, or a trip around the racetrack, means understanding how that information influences their behavior and affects their ability to learn. 

What’s Going on Up There?

Horses are highly evolved mammals that are capable of complex behaviors such as learning from experience and communicating through body language. They are also social animals who enjoy spending time around other horses and tend to instinctually operate in a group, with herd dynamics potentially influencing how they might behave when racing in close proximity.

As prey animals, horses are highly attuned to their surroundings, so any environmental factors that trigger their flight or fight instinct can prevent them from learning. To be trained, a horse must ideally be in the right frame of mind to take in the lessons their humans are working on. They also learn best from experience, which influences our approach to training them for any discipline. For example, trainers will acclimate racehorses to a starting gate through drills like standing in the gate with the doors open, with them closed, and with a rider or without before practicing breaking from the gate. This type of learning plus their heightened senses and understanding of social cues means that they can not only remember how to perform certain tasks over their lifetime, but they can recognize human faces and follow commands. 

They can also solve problems and even understand human language. Horses communicate with each other through facial expressions, body language, and sounds like whinnies and snorts, and in turn, can recognize humans through both visual and olfactory stimuli. Because they are so attuned to another horse’s nonverbal cues, they can tell when another is not feeling well and approach them gently, something that their human companions have reported their own horses doing.

Horses are also able to learn and communicate more readily and effectively than dogs. In a Japanese experiment, a research assistant placed a carrot in a bucket only accessible to a human caretaker within sight of both the human and a horse. Next, the parameters changed, with the human not looking at the carrot while the horse observed the carrot going into the bucket. The horse used more cues to clue the uninformed caretaker to the location of the treat than in the other case. They looked at the treat, nudged the human, and even lightly pushed them toward it. The researchers did the same with a dog, who only looked between the caretaker and the treat rather than actively communicating with the human. The dog attempted to direct attention differently, but the horse was more demonstrative, which is in tune with how they interact with other horses and the humans they work with. 

Recognizing a horse’s cognitive abilities fosters a deeper sense of respect and understanding, promoting more meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships between humans and horses.

A Partnership 

Over time, our understanding of equine intelligence has advanced as we have come to see that a horse is smarter than we may have assumed in the past and that communication with a horse is not simply a one-way street. Understanding how they process information and how they connect with humans is key to unlocking their individual physical and mental talents. Horses are as individual as we are, and the more we learn about how their brains work, the better we can prepare them for the tasks we ask of them.