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Are Horses Smarter than Cows? Let’s Compare

I guess the question “are horses smarter than cows” is very subjective. But I think we can take a look at this topic without intentionally offending any of the bovine or equine community! So are horses smarter than cows?

Horses seem to have a greater advantage of intelligence over cows when comparing the results from a few key metrics on the measurement of intelligence like relative brain size, temperament, ability to learn, and affinity to humans.

So let’s have a look at the comparisons and the key metrics used to attempt to answer this question, hopefully without offending anyone!

Some Background

This ability to measure intelligence has been a headscratcher that scientists have only recently come up with ways to evaluate in humans, notably, the IQ scale. When it comes to evaluating the intelligence of animals, it is a completely different kettle of fish, so to speak!

Studies have proven that some species such as dolphins and whales have much higher intelligence than we first gave them credit for. They may even have an intelligence level that is close to our own!

Traditionally, horses have filled the role of a working animal in service of mankind, and cows more in the arena of food production. Oxen have historically been used to pull wagons and other heavy loads, but that has been about the extent of their use as working animals.

By the very nature of being a working animal, a horse has to have the ability to learn and take instruction from humans. But does that mean that cows don’t have the smarts to do the same?

Maybe the right approach is to examine the characteristics of each animal and compare them to each other to evaluate this question.

Let’s take a look at the characteristics of relative brain size, temperament, ability to learn, affinity to humans, give each animal a score out of 10 and see what the numbers show!

Relative Brain Size

Science has established that brain size when comparing animals of similar size has a bearing on the level of intelligence of the animal. It is termed the encephalization quotient (EQ). The size of the brain, it is thought, often determines the animal’s ability to learn.

The brain weight to body weight ratio is used to determine this factor. Examination shows that the average cow has a bodyweight of 465kg to a brain weight of 423g. We, therefore, give cows a middle of the road 5 out of 10!

Horses, on the other hand, show an average body weight of 521kg to a brain weight of 655g. They, therefore, score an encouraging 8 of 10 for this category!

This gives our equine friends the early lead in the intelligence stakes!


An animal’s temperament may not be an evaluation of their intelligence as such but does give us an indication of their ability to learn.

While some horses may display a high strung temperament, and others a nervous disposition, they seem to display the ability to learn to calm down once they have determined who or what is not a threat. The high strung temperament also seems to be rather a product of breeding rather than an inherent trait in the animal.

Cows do not seem to display as much of an interest in their surroundings, and seem to go through life with an air of indifference! They also more often have a belligerent disposition when compared to the temperament of horses. While it may be true that some cows can be very docile, this is less common in comparison to horses.

Horses also seem to display the ability to learn to be comfortable in a situation, given time. In other words, adjust their temperament according to the situation once they have learned there is no danger. On the other hand, cows definitely show more singlemindedness and use their size to bust out of a situation they don’t like!

When comparing the temperament of cows and horses, the term “bull in a china shop” comes to mind. To say “horse in a china shop” does not quite carry the same connotation!

In this criteria in our quest to answer the question are horses smarter than cows, we are going to score cows a feeble 4 and horses a satisfactory 6!

Ability To Learn

The ability to learn was something that was alluded to in the previous section, but we will expand on it here. Horses seem to display a greater ability to evaluate situations, and change behavior accordingly and seem to be able to retain information longer. For example, if a horse learns where you keep his treats, good luck in keeping him from robbing you of treats day after day!

Cows, on the other hand, seem slower to learn this kind of behavior and seem to retain the memory for shorter periods.

Horses seem to actively seek out comfort and will return to the place where they find comfort time after time. The same cannot be said for cows, who do not seem to seek out comfort, other than the security of the herd.

The ability of horses to learn tasks from humans also appears to be vastly superior to the ability of cows. This is not to say that cows can’t be trained, but horses are definitely the quicker study in this area!

The scoring in this section is that cows get a forlorn 4, while horses score an emphatic 8.

Affinity To Humans

Animals have an innate fear of humans that is part of their natural instinct. This is because humans are at the top of the heap in the animal kingdom! It is even, in certain circumstances for humans to stare down a lion charge, although I would not recommend this as a regular pastime!

Domestic animals show varying levels of affinity to humans, the species that they should instinctively be terrified of! The level of affinity to man shows the animal’s ability to evaluate, and learn and change their behavior!

Horses have demonstrated this ability to a greater degree than their bovine counterparts! Horses have been known to actively seek out the companionship of people and can develop lifelong bonds with their owners. Horses have even shown the ability to not like some people, yet be completely comfortable around others. Does this show ability for horses to be able to instinctively judge human character?

Cows are generally not tolerant of humans and often show the instinctive fear displayed by other animals. Although there have been recorded cases where cows have befriended people and become attached to them, this behavior is more the exception than the rule!

Our scoring for this category is a beefy 5 for the cows and a nifty 9 for horses!

The Results

After our extremely scientific evaluation process, let’s tally up the scores and see what our results show!

Cow Score

Relative Brain Size Criteria5
Ability to Learn4
Affinity to Humans5

This gives our bovine friends a total score of 18!

Horse Score

Relative Brain Size8
Ability to Learn8
Affinity to Humans9

This gives our equine friends a total score of 31!


The results are definitive! Our attempt to answer the question “are horses smarter than cows” shows conclusively that horses are leagues ahead in the brainpower department!

Unfortunately, no appeals will be entertained from the cow community – you can’t argue with science!

Anrie Diedericks

I've been around horses since I was 6 years old and started competing at the age of 9. Horses are my greatest passion and I am thrilled to be able to share my 23 (and counting) years of experience and knowledge with you.

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