Visual Discrimination Test
12 Social Intelligence Tests
Papers About Equine Intelligence

Up Front Warning and Caveat - Horses can learn from performing these tests and may shift the learned material to new contexts.


Mader and Price, 1980. Discrimination Learning in Horses: Effects of Breed, Age and Social Dominance. Journal of Animal Science 50: 962
Here are 15 pairs out of 21 patterns Mader and Price used for the test. The object was to investigate equine ability to discriminate which symbol of a pair was associated with a treat. It should be something that the animal cannot smell (or rub both cards with the treat so they smell the same. The cards I use are the foam core sort the size of an 8 x 10 inch sheet of paper. I can then stick the pattern I wish to the card. Cards may be taped in pairs to form a standup "tent" to angle the surface so the horse can see it.

I found it easy to make some of the cards by printing images from my computer onto letter paper from a basic drawing (object oriented) or painting (pixel oriented) program. Some cards are more easily made by using black electrician's tape on the card. Try to avoid colors, as that complicates the test and gets into the issue of how well horses discriminate colors. Give the test with the image pairs of your choice, then test your horse a week or some months later. This is associated with problem solving capacity.

Some informal entertainment may be had with these cards if your horse is clever like Max. On this page is just a report on some interesting fun for me and my horse. You can invent your own games with these cards. And don't worry about the "science police!" There is a reason to probe for the "growing edges" of what you know...

Meet the Gruesome Brothers of ATTITUDE ALLEY as they reinvent dressage and domesticate humans...a cartoon series for dressage addicts and mavens.

Max (right image) demonstrates the sort of equine intelligence that inspired the cartoon series. For unbelievers, there is a movie on the page linked to the image.

Learning beyond the scope of a training program...the yellow arrow points to the lever on the stall door. Max learned to open this sort of door by watching people. He worked it out in two "pieces": first flipping the lever up, then pushing the door open. Max recognizes latches of this type and will try to open any door (by its handle, even if it is not a lever).

Go to Attitude Alley and meet the Morgan in this test (see images above). He is the junior "Gruesome Brother" at Attitude Alley and a charter member of the CPC (Clean Plate Club - Olympic Appetite Division). My warmblood passed all the qualifier tests for Clean Plate membership. The CPC members let me inflict luxury on them.


Based on 12 tests for canines from
Stanley Coren The Intelligence of Dogs
ISBN 0-553-37452-4

An interesting observation was made by Laurel Dunn in her study of equine intelligence: "From a subjective observation it was noted that the horses which learned quickest had also been the most difficult in training to ride." This has emphatically not been my experience, and may depend on whether or not negative or positive reinforcement is used by a trainer. Dunn's observations of trainers led her to state that most trainers used negative reinforcement where experiments employ positive reinforcement. I use only positive reinforcement in my training for riding: punishment is exceedingly rare and only used where safety concerns are the issue. I also do not attempt to train a horse with whom I am not reasonably familiar. My personal perspective is that negative experiences (consistent firm discipline is not a negative experience) be kept to a minimum in training and handling around the stable.

TEST ONE: Observational Learning
TEST TWO: Problem Solving
TEST THREE: Attention and Environmental Learning
TEST THREE (Alternate): Morgan Attention and Environmental Learning
TEST FOUR: Horse's Head Under Towel (Problem Solving)
TEST FIVE: Social Learning
TEST SIX: Food Under Towel (Problem Solving)
TEST SEVEN: Short Term Memory (follow immediately with test 8)
TEST EIGHT: Long Term Memory

TEST NINE: Retrieving From Under Barrier (Problem Solving)
TEST TEN: Language "Comprehension"
TEST ELEVEN: Process of Learning
TEST TWELVE: Going Around Barrier (Problem Solving)

INTRODUCTION to the social intelligence tests
This document contains the result of adjusting 12 tests written for dogs to the sensory modes and size of horses. Stanley Coren calls the tests "Canine IQ Tests," but also says the tests are probably measurements of "social intelligence." Coren's book also contains the list of dog breeds ranked by score on these tests. The technical, psychological definition of "intelligence" is not relevant to these tests (the usual academic caveats about data and variables). Also, an animal that is very clever and is not interested in interacting with humans will score low on these tests, so if your horse is a low scorer, it may mean that people just are not interesting for him.

I am posting the tests because 1) my riding club thought they were fun when I showed them the video record of the testing protocol and 2) the several horses tested thought they were fun. Of these horses, my two (a German sport horse and a Morgan) became more alert in responding to their human companion (me) after the tests were run.

The sport horse, who scored smack in the middle of the test range, became easier to train and actually began to pay attention to aids from a rider (dressage). Prior to the testing, I had loaned him to a person who competed him to Fourth Level and always had her dressage tests read. The sport horse listened to the reader, did the test pattern and developed an attitude that a rider was an irrelevant decorative object attached to saddle and reins. That this horse should pay attention to a rider after these social intelligence tests was interesting, because all the "IQ" tests are done unmounted. After the tests, I could actually begin his career at Prix St George because that test requires a horse that listens to the aids (readers are not allowed for FEI tests). He also learned to look under cloths for treats (see Test 4), so no coat or pair of gloves is left uninspected (drooled on).

I took care to keep the horse being tested out of sight of the others, because of the possibility of contagious learning. This was particularly important in the case of the Morgan, who consistently watches other horses, especially with humans, very carefully. Horses are, however, variable in their capacity for contagious learning, although it has been observed to have a
"priming effect" on the process.

In the case of the Morgan, who tested out smarter than Border Collies (the top dog in terms of social smarts), the outcome was really scary. He now fetches things (like auto tires, which can also be thrown over fences when boredom is a problem) and buckets up to and including 55 gallon oil drums. After removing all such objects from my property, I entertained him by making a set of flash cards (8"x10") with patterns of big dots on them, which he can tell apart if they are named aloud. I tried to give him the series of tests again (as Coren suggests because of the improved bonding between social animal and handler that he claims will happen), but this Morgan's mind is predisposed to learning frenzies and game playing; he remembered all the tests and picked up or tossed buckets before they could be put over a tidbit. I suspect that a trainer to this horse is merely a Morgan version of M-TV.

The tests need to be given in order, but if you do not have a couple of hours free, they can be split into a few sessions. You will need a stopwatch, three buckets or tubs of which two are identical to sight. All buckets should be rubbed with whatever tidbit you will use so they smell the same. You may also want to have a couple of 4' x 2' strips of light plywood and a couple of old tires (Test 9) plus something with which you can set up a barrier the horse must go around (say some jump poles and standards). A video partner is essential if you wish to record the tests.

TEST ONE: Observational Learning
Select a time of day when you do not ordinarily work with your horse and silently pick up a halter and lead rope. If the animal comes toward you, score 5. If it shows interest or comes part way, score 4. Make a bit of noise with the tack and if it comes to you, score 3. If it looks at you because of the noise, score 2. If it ignores you score 1. If it takes off, score 0.

TEST TWO: Problem Solving
A tidbit that the horse can see and smell (sugar is inadvisable; carrots or apples are suggested) is theatrically placed under a bucket. If the horse knocks over the bucket in five seconds or less, score 5; in 5-15 seconds, score 4; in 15-30 seconds, score 3; in 30-60 seconds, score 2. If it sniffs at the bucket but does not get the treat, score 1. If it turns away or makes no effort to get the treat, score 0.

TEST THREE: Attention and Environmental Learning
Bring something with which the horse is not familiar into the test area while the horse is not looking or is led away. If the horse notices and starts to explore the object (I used different buckets NOT employed in Test 2) in 15 seconds or less, score 5; in 15-30 seconds, score 4; in 30-60 seconds, score 3. If it looks around for a few seconds but does not explore, score 2. If it does not notice the new item, score 1. If it turns away or makes no effort explore, score 0.

TEST THREE (Alternate): Morgan Attention and Environmental Learning
After the second test, the Morgan became fixated on any new object brought into his view (no measurable time between sighting a new bucket and trying to flip it over), so I made the test more elaborate. I used three buckets in a line, two of which were identical and one that was very different (black rubber tub). While the horse is led so he cannot see the buckets, place treats under the 2 identical buckets. Bring the horse back and let him see you fiddle with the treat under ONE of the identical buckets, then let him go inspect them. Score as above, except that if the horse looks under BOTH identical buckets (recognition of a category of objects), score 6. If the horse inspects all objects and gets both tidbits, score 7. Note: The Morgan not only got both tidbits, but when there was no snack under the third bucket, he picked it up and threw it (this is on video, so I have proof). I am undecided as to whether or not to subtract points for "attitude."

TEST FOUR: Horse's Head Under Towel (Problem Solving)
A large bath towel is smoothly placed over the horse's head, after the animal has been rubbed with it and has had a chance to smell it. Do not surprise the animal by bringing the towel suddenly into view: let the horse see what you are doing. Cover the head and ears completely. A head-shy horse may not be able to do this test. Do NOT do anything unsafe! If the horse frees itself in 15 seconds or less, score 5; in 15-30 seconds, score 4; in 30-60 seconds, score 3; in 1-2 minutes, score 2. If it still has the towel on its head after 2 minutes, score 1. A head-shy horse will score 0, so you may want to make a proportional adjustment in its final score on the test.

TEST FIVE: Social Learning
Walk about 8 feet away and stare at your horse for 5 seconds, then grin theatrically. (The sport horse, who likes to be next to people, just stayed glued to me and so was a "false positive" on this test: he could not be tested on noticing facial expressions). If the horse hesitates (waits until you grin) and comes to you in 15 seconds or less, score 5; in 15-30 seconds, score 4; in 30-60 seconds, score 3. If it pricks its ears and looks at you, but does not come, score 2. If it stays facing you after a minute, score 1. If it turns away score 0.

TEST SIX: Food Under Towel (Problem Solving)
A small piece of paper or washcloth is theatrically placed over a treat (a quarter of an apple is best because the horse can smell and feel it). Horses have larger heads and different placing of the eyes than dogs, so place the treat where the horse can get it by stretching its head down. It will have to switch sensory modes from visual (eyes are more to the side than a dog's eyes) to smell and touch to get the treat under the washcloth. If the horse retrieves the treat in 15 seconds or less, score 5; in 15-30 seconds, score 4; in 30-60 seconds, in 1-2 minutes, score 3. If it tries but gives up, score 2. If it stands and looks at you, score 1. If it turns away score 0. Use good sense in handling the materials of this test. You may want to tie a string to a corner of the rag or paper in case the horse tries to eat the whole setup.

TEST SEVEN: Short Term Memory (follow immediately with test 8)
A treat with minimal smell is used for this test (a carrot is OK). The horse should watch you place the treat under a bucket with exaggerated motions. Allow the animal to be interested in the bucket for a few seconds, then lead it away at least 40 feet and walk it in a circle for at least 40 seconds. Bring it back to within 8 feet of the bucket and unclip the lead rope (presumably you are doing this in a paddock!). If the horse goes directly to the snack under the bucket and gets it in 5 seconds or less, score 5; in 45 seconds or less with a systematic search, score 4; in less than 45 seconds with a haphazard search, score 3. If it tries but gives up, score 2. If it stands and looks at you, score 1. If it turns away score 0.

TEST EIGHT: Long Term Memory
The setup is identical to Test 7. The treat under the bucket is placed in a different location in the paddock. Allow the animal to be interested in the bucket for a few seconds, then lead it away at least 40 feet and wait 5 minutes. Bring it back to within 8 feet of the bucket and unclip the lead rope (presumably you are doing this in a paddock!). If the horse goes directly to the snack under the bucket and gets it in 5 seconds or less, score 5; if the horse goes to the spot used in Test 7, then goes to the bucket, score 4. If the horse gets the treat with a systematic search in 45 seconds, score 3; in less than 45 seconds with a haphazard search, score 2. If it tries but gives up, score 1. If it turns away score 0.

TEST NINE: Retrieving From Under Barrier (Problem Solving)
Make a ledge that can be used to hide a treat by placing a light piece of plywood (about 3-4' by 1.5-2') on a couple of tires (or other sturdy support about 8 inches high). Allow the horse to see you place half an apple under the ledge close to the edge, then let it sniff the treat. If the horse tries three ways to get the snack (picks up the board with teeth, shoves it with nose, paws it off), score 5; if the horse uses any two of the techniques, score 4. If the horse gets the treat with any one of the techniques, score 3; if it knocks the board onto the treat and can't figure out how to get the snack, score 2. If it tries but gives up, score 1. If it turns away score 0.

TEST TEN: Language "Comprehension"
In the tone of voice you use to call your horse to come (or if you don't do this, use the tone of voice for an affectionate nickname), say an unfamiliar word. I used "refrigerator." If the horse comes within a minute, score 4. If the horse shows responsiveness but does not come, score 3. If the horse comes when its name/nickname is called, score 2. If it is responsive to its name but does not come, score 1. If the horse come whether or not you call it, score 0 (this is a test for words, not whether or not your critter likes you!).

TEST ELEVEN: Process of Learning
This test has two stages and may take the longest time to give. The first stage is a set of training trials for a skill not usually taught to horses (or dogs). The second stage is the performance of the skill. Scoring takes into account how fast the animal learns, whether in the training or performance segments of the test. Be alert for novel behaviors. My Morgan had it all figured out by the second training trial, the third he was annoyed because he already understood what was wanted. My sport horse (a master at conservation of energy), stretched his head and neck around to the new position after seven trials, neatly summarizing a way to do the test without having to move his body. I have tried to write the test and scoring to allow you to make the appropriate observations with your particular horse.

Phase 1: Use the voice command "front" as you lead the horse forward a few steps and turn it to face you while patting your thigh. Reward with a small tidbit after each trial (use good sense about the reward if your horse is inclined to nip). You may have up to 15 trials.

Phase 2: After the first three trials, wait a few seconds to allow the horse to see if the animal begins to comply. This may take 10-12 minutes, depending on the horse.

Scoring: If the animal begins to perform the skill (goes several steps, turns and faces you, even if messily), score 5. If the horse completes the movements after 15 trials, score 4. If the horse responds by moving its head toward your pocket with tthe tidbits, score 3. If it shows any response, such as shifting its feet, score 2. If it keeps its attention on you, score 1. If it ignores you, score 0.

TEST TWELVE: Going Around Barrier (Problem Solving)
This test (see diagram below) requires that the animal move away from a treat it wants. Set up a jump or use a convenient fence with a gate to bar the horse from its snack (half apple or chunks of carrot in a shallow bucket). Give the horse time to sniff the treats in the bucket, then theatrically place the bucket across the barrier just out of reach and well away from the gate or barrier end point. If the animal goes around the barrier in 15 seconds or less and gets the snack, score 5; if it gets the snack in 15-30 seconds, score 4. If the horse tries to take the barrier apart (one of the test horses - another sport horse - did just that), score 3. If it leans over the barrier and looks longingly at the bucket, then gives up, score 2. If it wanders around the barrier and forgets to go to the bucket, score 1. If it ignores the test, score 0.

Evaluation of Scores (Maximum for dogs: 58. Maximum for horses: 62.)

54 or higher
This horse could be called brilliant (or hard to live with). Fewer than 5 percent of dogs score this high. Don't leave your credit card or cell phone loose near his stall.

Superior animal with a high potential for learning. Check security measures at your barn and feed room.

High average ability to learn tasks: capable of creative mischief so pay attention to the design of stall doors and locks anywhere.

Represents average learning capacity for a dog (horses are not supposed to be as smart as dogs, but there are no comparative extensive studies).

Low average for dogs, but the test horse may not be average, just uninterested in people.

Borderline for dogs. If your horse scores here, reflect on whether or not it adapts to your more complex training requests. The animal may be clever in other ways, but possibly lacks the ability to concentrate on a trainer. Some Thoroughbreds may score here (they are bred to race), but I had one that was really good at dinking around with stall doors and had an excellent sense of where to get food, but was not particularly interested in being trained. I had another that liked to work, provided it was not too complex. You have make your own assessments of low scores because you know your animal in more detail than others do.

17 or less
This is also "hard to live with" or unconnected to people. May not do well at adaptive learning. This is not equivalent to "stupid."

TOP of page | BEGIN list of tests |

If you video your results, they can be checked by others to provide a sense of how different people look at test results. My consultants (human psychologists) were fascinated by what they saw on the tapes I made. However, the paradigm they have for interpreting data does not generally take into account things like "bonding" between animal and handler. They felt that if several people scored a video record for each horse, a reasonable data set with error bars could be accumulated (eventually).

Last edited 24 July 2004