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Horses vs. Dogs: Who is Actually Smarter?

Have you ever wondered who is more intelligent, a horse or a dog? Both horses and dogs are intelligent, but we want to know who is the smartest one of the two? Who is ranking number one when it comes to intelligence, the horse or the dog? 

We all know that both the horse and the dog are intelligent sentient beings. Horses perform some amazing feats that require an extraordinarily advanced level of intelligence and memory. On the other hand, dogs lead the blind, detect illness, sniff out explosives and illegal substances, and that’s pretty amazing. 

Measuring intelligence between these two species is far from easy, and there is no simple answer. There is no IQ test to test who is the most intelligent animal. We can only look at each species individually, and deciding who is the smartest will be a matter of opinion. Let’s take a deeper look at each of these species’ linguistic, social, and emotional capabilities to understand their intelligence.

Measuring intelligence

Measuring intelligence between different species is a complex issue; there are so many different kinds of intelligence to consider. There is no simple answer to the question of who is more intelligent, horses or dogs. People often judge the intelligence of an animal by assessing how well they meet human needs.  

What defines animal intelligence?

The interest in animal’s mental abilities and behaviors has always fascinated humans. Speculation about animal intelligence turned into scientific studies and set the direction of animal behavior research. Before we can decide who is more intelligent, a horse or a dog, we need to look at what we consider intelligence in animal species. 

We define animal intelligence as the combination of abilities and skills to adapt and live in their specific environments. 

Intelligence is the capacity to obtain and to use knowledge in an adaptive situation.  

With this clear definition of intelligence, we look at how animals adapt to their environment and how their behavior affects their quality of life. We look at things like social connections, emotional understanding, and memory retention to determine an animal’s intelligence. Only by assessing these capabilities can we begin to compare the two species.

Animal Perception

Animals process information with their eyes, ears, and smell, as well as other sensory organs. Perceptional processes have been studied by scientists in many species of animals through the years. Perception refers to the mental process through which sensory information is processed, organized, interpreted, and stored to represent and understand their environment.

Horses vs. Dogs?

Dogs learn new skills quickly and learned to adapt to life with humans quite well. Dogs can read our cues, show emotional connection and even display jealousy. Studies have shown that dogs can learn more than a thousand words and commands. A dog’s intelligence allows the dog to pay attention to the tone of your voice and the words.

Learning words and commands doesn’t only apply to dogs’ horses can also learn words. The same tone of voice should just be used throughout when giving a vocal command to a horse. On the other hand, horses have an intuition that is hard to match and possess strong emotional intelligence. Both the horse and the dog have exceptional cognitive abilities. 

Horses and dogs both have their strengths and weaknesses. We are still undecided on who is more intelligent but let’s look into the layers of their intelligence a little closer.

Horses vs. Dogs: Cognition

Cognition in animal species refers to their awareness in general and their ability to learn in particular. Cognitive processes such as perception, memory, learning, and decision-making play an essential role in mate selection foraging, and many other behaviors. The way cognition is interpreted includes all the ways in which animals absorb information through their senses, process, retain and decide to act on it.

Animal cognition research tends to focus on which animals are more intelligent than others. However, scientists are more interested in how well an animal has adapted to its environment rather than how smart they are.

The cognitive abilities of dogs have inevitably been shaped through the millennia with the constant close interaction with humans. As a result of this social evolution, dogs have evolved to respond to humans’ cues readily and quickly learn words and commands and exhibit emotions that reflect human emotions.   

Horses vs. Dogs: Instinct

The main difference between horses and dogs is instinct. Dogs are considered predators, while horses are classed as prey animals. Comparing a prey animal to a predator animal adds an even tougher level of comparison to this question. A dog’s body is designed to attack and hunt his prey, and hunting for food takes a certain level of intelligence. Horses are prey animals, and their first instinct is always to flee to protect themselves. 

Animal behaviorists generally say that predators take preference when it comes to intelligence. However, this is a matter of opinion. If a predator makes a mistake in the wild and his prey escape, it can always hunt another day. However, if a prey animal, in this case, the horse, makes a mistake, it can mean death to the horse. Horses are susceptible to experiences that evoke fear and pain. 

Horses vs. Dogs: Social Intelligence

Horses are highly social animals and emotionally aware which is essential to survive and function in a herd. In the wild, both species live in groups. Dogs or wolves live and travel in packs. Living in a herd gives horses a sense of social and emotional intelligence. Horses do most of their learning through social modeling.

This characteristic is attributed to the sociability of the two species. It gives us an insight into how dogs and horses are aware of their social lifestyles.  Both species understand hierarchy, protecting and nurturing the young, and the importance of keeping the pack or herd safe.

The horse is a prey animal; having to avoid a predator also comes with a unique set of skills that require a heightened level of intelligence.  Horses employ several kinds of tactics to keep themselves safe from predators. One of these tactics is living in a herd with other horses.  Living in a herd with a tight-knit community allows horses to keep themselves safe and protected from harm. 

Horses vs. Dogs: Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is referred to as the ability to manage your own emotions and recognize the same emotions as others.  Emotional intelligence also includes empathy, communication, and the forming of relationships. Due to the herd dynamic, horses have developed a strong sense of emotional intelligence. Horses form relationships with other horses in the herd and exhibit the same connection behavior towards humans.

Even though dogs spend most of their time around humans, horses manage to form relationships while spending far less time with their humans.

Horses can recognize when a person feels sad or happy. Horses are also capable of recognizing their favorite human by distinguishing between different faces. Horses have exceptional emotional intelligence and the ability to process and identify the emotions of others. 

Horses vs. Dogs: Memory Intelligence

Another way to measure animal intelligence is how quickly the animal can learn a new skill and remember it. At first, you would think that dogs are leading the way here.

The commands like sit, stay, fetch, or guard to more complicated behavior and commands taught to dogs show us that dogs have exceptional learning skills. Dogs can remember where they buried a bone months ago.

Dogs have exceptional associative long-term memory and can retain information learned for life, placing their knowledge retention level above average. Although learning tricks are more associated with dogs, you cannot deny that horses can learn and remember what they were taught as well as dogs.

Depending on the equine discipline, horses learn and remember a variety of complex skills.  Studies have shown horses have excellent long-term memory. Horses can remember their human friend for life. Dressage horses, for example, learn complex maneuvers and how to respond to precise commands on cue.  Even horses that are only ridden now and then on outrides pick up and remember specific skills. 

While some people believe training horses have to do with repetition and positive reinforcement, which can’t be denied, we know that one of the most noticeable impacts on a horse’s memory is the emotional response it evokes. The joy of eating a treat or the stress after a vigorous training exercise is all experiences that gradually shape a horse and its ability to retain and process information. 

Horses vs. Dogs: Empathic intelligence

Both horses and dogs are known to be highly empathic towards humans. Throughout history, it has been proven that both horses and dogs were companion animals to humans in ancient civilizations. Humans kept both dogs and horses as working animals as well as pets and companions by our ancestors. 

It has been noted that horses can interpret human emotions through facial expressions. In a recent study, horses could differentiate between negative and positive human emotions.

Dogs also have the ability to interpret human facial expressions and emotions and look us straight in the eye. However, they are more reliant on the hormones humans emit, which they can easily pick up with their extraordinary olfactory senses. Dogs can detect how a person is feeling and immediately know how to act on it.

Horses vs. Dogs: Visual Intelligence

Horses have superior vision and have an impressive visual-spatial ability. A horse’s abilities to judge depth and distance are phenomenal.

Dogs are well known for their extraordinary sense of smell that is followed by their sight and hearing. Compared to horses, dogs have much smaller brains, which means fewer neurons are processing the visual cues from their eyes. A dog’s eyes have more miniature cones than a horse’s eye. However, a dog’s extraordinary sense of smell compensates for its lack of vision.

During the unfortunate event of a horse going blind, it is not capable of working and is no longer of any use. On the other hand, dogs can still function fine, and they can see perfectly well with their noses even if they are blind. 

Horses vs. Dogs: Navigational Intelligence

Everyone knows how well both horses and dogs can navigate. Regardless of how far you are from home, horse riders all know, if you drop your horse’s reins and let your horse guide you, your horse will take you home right to your stable’s door. 

This principle also applies to dogs. Dogs can find their way home from miles away. However, we suspect that their sense of smell has more to do with it than their visual navigation skills. Dogs can recognize landmarks as they travel through an area regularly and often use them as a guide to finding their way back home. Dogs also use their olfactory skills to pick up smells along the way and use them as markers to guide their way back. 

One researcher has claimed that dogs can tell the passing of time through the dissipation of smells.

Before the domestication of dogs, dogs were used as working and hunting animals.  Helping nomadic tribes during the ice age navigate to campsites with their navigational skills. Even to this day, dogs are being used for hunting birds and other small animals and then returning to their human with the prey. 

Horses vs. Dogs: No IQ tests

The problem with the question of animal intelligence is finding an objective method to measure it. There are no IQ tests we can perform to determine which species are the most intelligent. 

Direct comparison between species doesn’t work well because there is no standard of what “smart” means across completely different evolved species. Asking the question of who is more intelligent, a horse or a dog, is not entirely fair to the horse nor the dog.

Horses vs. Dogs: Common ground

Despite the differences between horses and dogs, they have found common ground in play. Horses and dogs playing together were observed mimicking each other’s facial expressions, which has never been documented before in two utterly different animal species.

New research suggests horses and dogs playing together where they mimicked each other’s facial expressions were the first so-called rapid facial mimicry occurring between playmates of two different species. This behavior gives us a glimpse into the universal language of play. 

Similarities between Horses and Dogs

  1. Both horses and dogs are social animals that live in packs or herds.
  2. They both have the capability to recognize faces.
  3. Horses, as well as dogs, can recognize emotions in humans.
  4. Both dogs and horses form emotional connections with humans.
  5. Horses and dogs both have exceptional navigational skills.
  6. Horses and dogs are both very empathic towards humans and even towards other species.
  7. They both have exceptional developed long-term memories.
  8. Horses and dogs are both remarkably social towards humans.
  9. The cognition level of both species is above average.
  10. Even though their instincts come from two different places, prey, and predator, they both inherited a strong intuition.
  11. Both species are fiercely protective of their young.
  12. Horses as well as dogs both live-in hierarchical social groups.
  13. Both horses and dogs are used as working animals.
  14. Dogs and horses can both suffer from PTSD.

Differences between Horses and Dogs

  1. Horses are prey animals, while dogs are predators.
  2. Dogs can hunt for their food while horses have to forage.
  3. Horses can see exceptionally well, while dogs have an extraordinary sense of smell.
  4. Horses are herbivores, and dogs are carnivores.
  5. Horses, when stressed, will kick at you; however, a dog tends to bite.
  6. Dogs love unconditionally, where you have to work hard to build a relationship with a horse which is so much more complex than a relationship with a dog.
  7. Dogs are pets where horses are partners.
  8. Dogs have the ability to solve problems while horses learn faster.
  9. Dogs can sense the earth’s magnetic field, while horses can’t.


Have we concluded who is the smartest between horses and dogs? No, these two species are so far apart in differences from each other, and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. To put them in the same box would be an injustice to both their species.

Establishing who is more intelligent is almost an impossible task.  Both horses and dogs excel at different levels of intelligence, and both are exceptionally talented. To say one is more intelligent than the other is not entirely fair to both the horse or the dog. Both of these two species have their own special place in the animal kingdom, and only a human brain will come up with a question like who is the smartest one of the two. 

You can’t base any animal’s intelligence on how well it takes commands or perform tricks and recognize your face.  Horses and dogs live vastly different lives and have such different comprehensive range set of skills to try and class them in the same category. 

In my honest opinion, horses and dogs are each on their own on the same par when it comes to the different levels of intelligence.  

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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