Is your horse cleverer than you think? New research suggests we might have been underestimating our horses’ brainpower.

Researchers from the University of Pisa, Italy, have found that horses can read human actions and change the way they respond.

In a study recently published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 24 horses were trained to overturn a bucket to find a carrot hidden under it.

The horses were then split into two groups — those in the first had to find the carrot under one of three buckets after watching a person hide it; those in the second were left to their own devices.

The study was designed to “analyse the ability of horses to understand, remember and use human-given cues in a delayed (10 seconds) three-choice task”.

The first group of horses more frequently found the carrot on a first attempt, although they took more time to do so. When the test was repeated without either group of horses seeing the carrots being hidden, the first group was less accurate at finding the carrot on the first attempt, but found it faster.

They initially returned to the buckets under which they had seen human place the carrot, suggesting they can remember where the food was hidden.

“Our findings indicate that horses are capable of remembering the location of food hidden by the experimenter after a delay,” states the study. “The same horses are also capable of changing their decision-making strategy by shifting from the accuracy inferred from human-given cues, to speed.”

Horses therefore can choose to use human cues or not — depending on time, cost, experience and reward.

H&H vet Karen Coumbe said this was “very interesting work, which merits further investigation”.

“My feeling is that ponies in particular are more intelligent than many larger horses, and are much more knowing than many people would think,” she added.

Ref: H&H 9 April, 2015