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!


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