Are horses smart? Maybe. I think sometimes clever.
Horses clearly think before they act. Here is a recent example:
It is summer now on the Ranch, and we have a bumper crop of rattlesnakes this year. I was riding a young red roan quarter horse, Dancer, through the long dry grass of our meadow at a peaceful walk, just the other day. Suddenly, both he and I heard the faint but unmistakable rainstick sound of a rattlesnake. It didn’t sound close, but rather a few dozen feet up the trail and off to the right. I am not sure that the snake was even rattling at us. It didn’t sound aggressive. The sound came and went, as if the snake’s tail was simply rattling with its movement as it slithered along. Nonetheless, Dancer’s head shot up and he stopped about as abruptly as a horse can plant its feet on the ground. His ears zinged toward the rattling sound in the grass up ahead. I couldn’t see the snake; it wasn’t on the trail itself. I asked Dancer to walk forward, thinking that we could maybe walk along the trail and pass quietly by it, but his horse smarts warned him against moving anywhere near that rattling. I then asked Dancer to turn off of the trail to the left, to walk around. He nixed that idea too. I sat on him, unable to move either forward or off to the left, listening to the on-again off-again rattle, and wondering just what I should do. Finally, I thought to myself, “Dang-it Dancer, I don’t want to put MY feet on the ground, but I guess now I’ve got too!” I swung my leg over, and stepped down onto the trail next to my horse. Slowly, carefully I stepped off the trail and into the grass away from the direction of the snake. Tall grass. Thick grass. Ooooh, it was nerve wracking. Are horses smart? Hmmm. Step by step, I started walking, making a big semi-circle around the rattling sound. Each footfall was as carefully placed as you can imagine. As soon as I stepped off of the trail, I felt something that made me smile, in spite of the tall grass and the hidden rattler. A little warm breathe wafted onto my lower back, and I somehow felt the feather light presence of Dancer’s head. It was so close behind me that sunlight probably couldn’t have sqeaked through. He didn’t bump me at all, but as I took each wary step forward, he took a step right behind me. I think that he was walking right in my footsteps. He carefully shadowed me all through the long grass, until we re-connected with the dirt path, about a hundred feet up the trail. Back on the path, and now downtrail from the rattler in the grass, I stopped and patted him on his neck for trusting me enough to walk through the grass behind me, and got back on.
Did Dancer think about the rattler in the grass, and where he should put his feet? I don”t know, but I do know that his reaction endeared him to me even more. I will remember his warm presence at my back for a long time. Are horses smart? Oh what a smart and endearing horse!