What Big Brown Couldn't Tell You and Mr. Ed Kept to Himself (part 1)

"Nicanor Inspects Cameraman" by Jim Coarse, Jim Coarse Photography

Wilbur had a great question about equine IQ, and it inspired me to touch on that issue. As a rider/trainer myself, I find the bond between horses and humans particularly fascinating. And so, while Nicanor is galloping and eating grass and getting ready for his next big move (and since there’s not much else to tell you at this point), I’ll address this question and maybe talk more about various subjects related to the safe, healthy, and sane training of horses.

Q. Is there an IQ test for horses? Seriously, I often read of a trainer saying a horse is very smart. How do they know? Really? What are some signs that a horse is smart or dumb? Are there standard procedures trainers follow to check the intelligence of a horse? Does their IQ really matter in their racing ability? – Wilbur

A. Heading into the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), jockey Kent Desormeaux and exercise rider Michelle Nevin had turf writers across the country reporting the "intelligence" of Triple Crown contender Big Brown.

With Big Brown, It's Brain that Reigns," wrote the San Diego Union-Tribune
Just Contemplate How Much Big Brown Outran a Bad Field," said the Star-Telegram
(Nevin) has come to appreciate... colt's intelligence," reported Thoroughbed Times
Trainer says Big Brown's the Best Horse," read the Courier-Journal 

The reasoning behind Desormeaux's quotes went something like this - The horse repsponds to everything I ask, he doesn't act stupid, therefore, he must be very intelligent. We tried to reach Mister Desormeaux for an interview on this subject, but he was not adressing the media at the time.

So we went to other qualified sources - from the stables, trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Ian Wilkes; from the jockeys' room, Garrett Gomez and the now-retired Gary Stevens and Jerry Bailey.

Said Lukas, "I don't think there are any dumb horses, but there's a lot of dumb people."

The Hall of Fame trainer went on to build a case for the adaptability of a horse to respond to regimentation - the fact that horses are creatures of habit that thrive on the same techniques, applied over and over.

"In training a horse, if you make what you want pleasant for them and make what you don't want difficult for them, they will eventually come around," he said. "If that equates to intelligence, I don't know. Being intuitive to the approach they need in order to respond in a positive way is key. Horses will telegraph almost every one of their actions before they do it. There have been many, many cases in my career where I've been able to predict a horse would do something, and they'd do it seconds later. You see them do something really serious like rear up and flip over backwards, you can damn near predict that, you can see it ready to happen before it does happen."

Lukas believes that a so-called "intelligent horse" is really a reflection of an intelligent handler.

"Some horses catch on very quickly, but they may have been conditioned to positive response training earlier in their careers," he  said. "It's amazing when we get yearlings or newly-turned 2-year-olds in, because they've come from all different owners so many different people have handled them, and it's amazing how much further along some are than others. Is that because we've got all the smart horses going to one person? I don't think so. Common sense and repetition are key tools in training - and once a horse understands that the requested action brings a positive response, he'll do what you ask for the rest of his life."

We caught up with Iain Wilkes of Street Sense fame when the trainer was stopping off at Darley for a visit with the now-retired “old man.” Wilkes, a former assistant to Carl Nafzger, spent last year hands-on with the 2007 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner. He backed up Lukas' point very well. 

"The horse only learns what you teach from day one," said Wilkes. "It all goes back to when he's a foal. I had a horse that came to me as a 2-year-old; he had been tied up to post and beaten when he was young. You can just imagine how hard that horse was to handle. It wasn't his fault, he'd just lost all confidence in people. It's what you teach them, how you handle their training as you progress. What you teach is what they learn, how they become confident."

Perhaps the common misunderstanding where definition is concerned comes from the difference between personality and intelligence.

"Street Sense, for instance, has a great personality," Wilkes said. "When he was in training, he knew what was going on. He stopped to take things in, to absorb, to notice what was going on around him. Even around the barn he was a very sharp horse; he knew what was up and what we were doing, he understood, he had no hesitation in doing things if he knew what you wanted.

"All of them are different. If you come to my barn and walk down the shedrow I can tell you their personalities. I've got a colt who thinks he's big and tough, showy and macho, but on the racetrack he's a wimp, he's all talk. Then I might get a filly who wants to be tough, shows me she's tough, but when I really get close to her she's very sweet. You probably learn the good horses' mannerisms more because people want to know more about them. Sometimes horse can't run fast and has a fantastic personality, but no one gets to know it."

As far as the jockeys are concerned, Gary Stevens believes his best mounts were more intelligent than their competition. "
They looked after themselves," he said. "And the best horses I ever rode were horses I never got the best out of - I always felt there was something left there. To me, there's no question of a horse's intelligence. Most of the good horses I rode knew from the way they were trained - from two weeks out, even - that things were getting closer to the big race. And then on race day, it was, 'Game is on, I'm playing today.' I absolutely believe in the intelligence of horses. I believe they know when they've won or lost, and I believe intelligence makes a better race horse, absolutely."

Said Gomez, "Every horse is different. They've all got their own quirks. Some trainers are able to put the puzzle together and find out the keys to certain horses. Maybe when you're around them all the time and you see them do things, then you pick up on something like that. For me as a jock, I find that some things work and some don't, and some horses communicate better than others."

Said Bailey, "I'm not sure if a jockey can tell intelligence from the back of a horse. I can tell courage. I can tell will to win. I can tell if one horse is more strong-willed than the other. Desormeaux said Big Brown was intelligent because he was attentive to his needs - now, I think some horses are more teachable than others, and more responsibe to what you want - but whether that means the horse is smarter is another matter.
Some horses just want to please, like some dogs, and some are more headstrong. I don’t know if intelligence is the right word to put hand-in-hand with a horse that’s attentive to your needs."

In part two of this series, I plan to head outside the racing industry to check out a few more theories behind equine IQ. We'll talk with a trick horse trainer and a farm manager, and review the stories of clever horses throughout history like Clever Hans, Beautiful Jim Key, and Mr. Ed. Stay tuned!



Leave a Comment:


Fascinating---thanks for addressing this. And another question: Can horses sense when you walk up to them that you like them? As opposed to another person walking up to them who couldn't care less?

17 Jun 2008 4:05 PM


17 Jun 2008 4:07 PM

I have always maintained that 'blood tells" Some pedigrees are more solid mentally and some are more fractious. Success with a solid mentally able horse is easier (like Big Brown) to race and control daily.  Some pedigrees are predisposed to fractious erratic behavior, more difficult to train and live with.  They will injure and cause physical damage to themselves and all around them.

17 Jun 2008 4:26 PM
Terry in Wisconsin

Loved, Loved, Loved your interviews. This is the stuff that I crave to read about!!! Thanks so much!!!

17 Jun 2008 6:22 PM
Barb From Pa

Loved the pic of our sweet Nicanor. Your article was very enjoyable, and extremely informative, we who ride cannot learn enough horse "psycology. It was especially interesting hearing from the Jockey's point of view.

17 Jun 2008 8:19 PM

I am learning so much about  racehorses on this blog so thank you for writing this.  I was especially interested in the trainers comments about how they teach horses.  I would love to hear how they will teach Nicanor to race.  For example, what type of repetition and positive reinforcement is used?  

17 Jun 2008 8:54 PM

I have worked with many horses and have come across some that I truly believe were just plain dumb.  However, through all species some are smarter than others, in the wild it is known as survival of the fittest.  Smarts, adaptability, etc all come into play.  Furthermore, some of the smartest horses caused the biggest problems because they were always one step ahead of you.

17 Jun 2008 8:58 PM

What a wonderfull article! I agree, the better horses are deffintiley smarter! My one Gone West gelding is very much a clown, he picks up things and throws them at people, he'll chase you and rear up (playfully) at you in the field, he is picky about his bedding and his feed, yet a child could walk him, tho when an adult does, he'll rear up, strike and play, and need a chain, or he'll pin his ears back and try and bite as you go by his stall, and when you turn around and walk in it with him, he perks those ears up and gulps as if to say "It wasn't me who tried to bite, you must be thinking of someone else!", when he jumps, if he knocks a rail he'll try and turn and go after it because he believes the rail hit him, not the other way around. Then I have a giant 17.3 hand Dutch Warmblood gelding who is brawny, bossy and bold, but who is a teddy bear and cuddle bug, tho he can be challenging to ride because he fights restraint, all tho he has virtually no spook in him, he is terrified of paper and plastic bags....unless it has food on it! And then theres all our other wonderfull horses who have their own personalities, they really do have souls and are smart, loving and quirky beings. These guys hit it right on the head, the smarter ones, really are better performance animals!

17 Jun 2008 9:18 PM

Thanks so much.  I can't wait for Part 2.

17 Jun 2008 9:41 PM
Susie Byer-Bowie

I think Kent is referring to that special "sparkle" and the way he responds and interacts. I was literally born on a horse (well almost) and I know EXACTLY what he's talking about!

17 Jun 2008 9:42 PM

Super photo of Nicanor! The others of him on Jim Coarse's website are fun to look at, too. Very good and informative article,as well. Thanks so much! My family and I look forward to this blog. Keep up the good work!

17 Jun 2008 10:12 PM

Very interesting comments by some well respected people in the business. If you get a chance read Monty Roberts book The Man Who Listens To Horses. It mirrors comments made about how a horse is handled from day one.

18 Jun 2008 12:34 AM

they really don't forget me cause i blow in their nose first time & every there after & they do know who i am...they also have voice reconition big time with me...wonderful piece...thanks

18 Jun 2008 4:03 AM

I agree with all of this, but I'm still waiting for Part 2.

Sure its positive training, intelligence etc. How the horse is molded...the outcome.

All the people surrounding him are being chased for their opinion, which has merit, but its not getting to the crux of the matter. To understand what really happened at that moment in the backstretch, you'd have to ask Big Brown himself. Your title is wrong. Big Brown CAN talk and would talk if somebody would just ask HIM and LISTEN to what he had to say. Then you'd get the real truth and I'd bet that it has nothing to with training or intelligence. I'll bet his answer would completely surprise you and make perfect sense at the same time.  

18 Jun 2008 11:22 AM

Hi Claire, great article and most interesting. It seems to me that when you talk to people about an animal being smart, the answer you get depends on the person. Take Jerry Bailey, he has admitted that most of his career, he had very little reguard for the horse, until he rode Cigar. Gary Stevens is passionate about his experience with horses and I think his answers reflected that. A few years ago, in the vets waiting room, I read an article in Cat Fancy magazine that experts said there was no evidence that cats are smart like dogs. I was there with my mothers cat that I played catch and hide and go seek with every morning. She would respond to well over a hundred words, something that article said didn't happen with Cats. But they never had to listen to her cry and go to the car once or twice a week because she wanted Chicken strips either. Now days its an excepted fact but that wasn't the case less than ten years ago. Yesterday, yahoo had an article about Chimps may have the ability to plan for the future, no kidding.  

18 Jun 2008 7:04 PM

Terrific article.  After years of training show dogs and working with horses, I have no doubt animals know exactly what you're saying.  

One of my jobs at one racing stable (a spectacularly beautiful CA facility) was to conduct tours for local groups, usually older people.  During one tour, an elderly lady wanted to pet all the nice horsies.  She led the group straight for the stall of a huge chestnut 2-year-old who was a biter.  (He'd already taken a chunk out of everyone except me.)  Little old lady reached out and I stopped her, saying he was a biter.  She proceeded to tell me off, saying she'd been around horses for nearly 60 years and didn't need me to tell her what to do.

The chestnut listened attentively until she'd finished.  Then he reached out, fastened his teeth firmly on my shoulder, and held on--without ever bruising or breaking the skin--and rolled his eyes at her.  When he thought the point was made, he let go.  I just smiled at the lady and said "See what I mean?"  I had no more problem with anyone trying to "pet the horsies."

18 Jun 2008 10:32 PM

Dear Nicky, you appear to have a very inquisitive nature judging by your interest in the camera. Maybe your groom has read you a bedtime story about Thomas A. Edison. He was a really bright and inquisitive guy in the late 1800's and early 1900's. You also seem to be a very bright horse as you graduated from the Stephen's Thoroughbred School and judging by the picture you took with the headmaster, he thought you were pretty cool too. In truth, most everyone learns by repetition. And the smarter, sweeter and kinder the teacher is, the easier it is for the pupil to learn.

19 Jun 2008 6:05 PM

I have a Morgan gelding, an elder statesman now, who "conversed" with his trainers.  He was a clown and mischevious with a twinkle in his eye.  He definitely had sparkle and loved his humans.  He was very intelligent.  Re: cat training--I have trained my cats in agility, they understand quite a number of words, they bring their leashes to me when they ask to go out for a walk, they sit on command--cats are just as smart or smarter than dogs.  But they're not pack animals, they're colony animals.  This means that they'll cooperate if they have a bond with you.

20 Jun 2008 5:14 PM

This is really interesting. By any chance could you tell me how I could talk to a couple of trainers myself? I'm doing a project for one of my classes at college about the racing industry, and I'm trying to find out some more information about how racehorses are trained. If anyone could help, I'd appreciate it - StarlightStables@gmail.com. Thanks.

20 Jun 2008 6:03 PM

I believe in the intelligence of horses. I have an Arabian mare that is more attentive to me than my other horses. She calls to me from the pasture to let her out and graze on our lawn. She is jealous of any attention that is not directed towards her. She herds away other horses away from me. Its probably true that she reacts to positive reinforcement but the fact remains that she is capable of learning, is very trusting and continues to improve in her training. I think the more time you spend with different horses, the more one is able to distinguish between their personalities and abilities.

21 Jun 2008 1:37 AM

I have several horses I keep on my property, a variety of quarter horses, appaloosas, ponies, paints etc..Out of all of them, my appendix bred is the most intelligent. On his thoroughbred side he's by a grandson of Bold Rular, out of a principal Investment mare (AQHA) and he is by far the most intelligent wonderful horse I've ever had. If you ever want a nice riding & show horse buy an appendix bred. The dumbest horses I've ever met are Appaloosas.  I don't know what it is about them but after 35 years of showing and being around horses I haven't met an intelligent App. yet.  I own one also, and they are gentle & loving,  but the Dumbest.

21 Jun 2008 2:44 PM

a year or so ago rick lamb did a story on a horse called jim key, now was that horse smart or did he just learn from repitions, i think he was smart.. ws6.

21 Jun 2008 6:58 PM

I found it interesting - the variety of answers to whether some horses are smarter than others.  I think that like people, there are personality clashes between certain horses and people and there are instances of a good fit between horse and trainer, owner,etc.  I had a horse with a good sense of humor and I considered him to be very intelligent, maybe because I enjoyed his company so much and we had a pretty good understanding of each other.  I do think that horses are the most intuitive animals I have been around.

22 Jun 2008 2:44 AM

Like humans, there are stupid horses and there are smart ones.  We tend to rate intelligence on a horses ability to do what we want them to.  However, I have seen horse do things which would seem to indicate that intelligent reasoning went in to their actions, pertaining to certain situations.  The first Thorouhbred I ever bred was very special to me just for being born, but he is still the most intelligent, other-than-human creature I have ever known. He consistantly amazed me by seeming to think through problems and then solving them.  The most memorable was also the most frightening.  I was cleaning stalls out in a barn that was an arena with stalls around the perimeter.  I'd put him outside with the doors left open.  He kept coming back in and pestering me so, I finally put him out, closed the door and shooed him away.  Well, he ran 3 times around the small field and fourth time around must have cut the corner too sharply, fell and slid into the wire fence, where all four legs went right through.  I nearly had a heart attack.  I could just see him struggling and killing himself one way or another.  I talked soothingly to him, as much as I could in my state, and slowly walked toward him.  It dawned on me that he had not moved and inch or made a sound, and I was now sure he must have broken his back.  I was now fairly close to him when, all of a sudden, he pulled all four legs straight back toward his body and out of the fence, rolled over, jumped up, and ran twice more around the field.  He then walked up to me like, "Hi, what's up?"  I don't think anyone could ever convince me that he wasn't thinking about how to get out of his predicament.  Just my two cents worth.    

22 Jun 2008 3:45 PM

Thanks, that is a great article...I hope one day I am lucky enough to know a horse so well.

23 Jun 2008 11:43 AM

I understand Nicanor had another published work at 4 fur.  Can you tell us about it and what everyone thinks of it?  I wonder what the Jacksons think of him.

23 Jun 2008 8:19 PM
racy robyn

Horses ARE inteligent. Some are defenetly smarter than others and I agree that apendix quarters are the smartest. I had one named Neo Royal Hemp who was an Ex-racer. He was injured as a two year old and was retired. He had gone through 5 different homes and was going to be sold to the dog food industry for lameness before I found him. The sad thing was was that he was not lame. He had learned that when he limped, that he would be brought back to the stable and pampered and massaged. Well, he was fully checked out by the vet and was found perfectly sound. He stayed with me for 13 years until his old injury finally did catch up to him and caused arthritis in his front leg. But I swear that horse was the best horse I ever had. He would always try to fake is injury if we were going out but a quick pat on his shoulder and a "your fine big boy" would cheer him up and away we would go without so much as a hesitation in stride. He always took care of his rider and knew if you could ride or not. He was competitive with a good rider and sweet as a lamb with a child or green rider. He would take on any challenge and never hesitated to protect his people and stable mates. He knew if your intentions were good or bad and also knew if someone was scared of him. He was defenetly the best horse and the most inteligent one that I have ever had! So, yes. Horses are alot smarter than most people think.  

27 Jun 2008 11:01 PM

Anyone that has ever worked a day around horse knows they have distinct identities.

28 Jun 2008 12:48 PM

The smartest horse of all time was Seattle Slew.

29 Jun 2008 9:33 PM

One way of looking at it would be to compare intelligence in people.  If a person is easily trained and can concentrate, and doesn't make problems for himself, doesn't that indicate intelligence?  Would that be similar in horses?  As far as a horse thinks, if he cooperates, does what he's told (like Desormeaux says) the quickest way to get the pressure off is to follow directions.  That may be a simplified way of looking at it, but it works for me.  Aren't "clever" and "foxy" people as smart in their own way as "intelligent" people?  Also, I read in some study that the average horse has a fixed attention span of about 11 to 19 seconds...somewhat like a toddler...any opinions?  Thanks

30 Jun 2008 10:48 AM

After further thought on intelligence of horses,  I have come to the conclusion that ponies are smarter. They are,  but I still prefer a big tall Appendix bred, they are almost as smart as a clever little pony.

30 Jun 2008 2:16 PM
a not smart 2 dollar better

A great artical hurry with number 2 cant wait.

15 Jul 2008 8:18 PM

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