Horses Learn To Communicate With Humans In Study

Horses continue to surprise researchers with their cognitive abilities. Rita Kochmarjova/Shutterstock

Ben Taub 23 Sep 2016, 15:01

A group of Norwegian horses have learned to communicate in “horse code”, using their newly-acquired talkativeness to tell their human carers whether they are too hot or too cold.

This latest breakthrough in interspecies relations is reported in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, with the study authors revealing that all 23 of the horses involved in the study were able to master the art of communication following less than two weeks of training.

While the animals may not yet be able to participate in deep philosophical conversations with their human counterparts, they are now experts at indicating whether they want to be draped in a blanket or have their blanket taken off, depending on how warm they are feeling. To achieve this, the horses use their noses to select one of three different boards with specific symbols on them: a horizontal line means they want to have their blanket put on, a vertical line represents a desire to have their blanket taken off, and a blank board means they are perfectly happy as they are and don’t want a change of any sort.

To train the horses, the researchers placed them in either very warm conditions with a blanket on or outside in the cold without a blanket, and rewarded them with carrots when they selected the board that made the most sense. For instance, horses that were sweating were rewarded when they indicated that they wished to have their clothing removed, while naked horses that were shivering were given a carrot when requesting to have their blanket put on.

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Horses selected the horizontal bar when they wanted their blankets to be put on, the vertical bar when they wanted their blankets removed, and the blank board when they wanted no change. C.M. Mejdell et al. / Applied Animal Behaviour Science

When horses made errors, such as when a nude horse asked to have his blanket removed, they received nothing. With just 10-15 minutes of training per day over the course of two weeks, the animals quickly learned to communicate using this system, with a 100 percent success rate

Amazingly, once the horses realized that they could talk to their humans, they became increasingly eager to do so, and often tried to gain their attention in order to convey their feelings even when not taking part in the training exercise. For example, hot horses regularly touched the board that indicated that they wished to have their jacket removed when they saw the researchers walking nearby. Whenever this happened, the horses were found to be sweating underneath their clothes, suggesting that they weren’t doing this just for a carrot, but genuinely understood the meaning of the symbols and the consequences of their own choices.

Over the next few months, the researchers observed as the horses used their new skills to talk to their owners whenever they became too hot or too cold as weather conditions changed.

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