These Horses Just Learned to Communicate With Humans

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horse talk

Norwegian researchers taught 23 horses how to express their needs using symbol boards, and the horses loved it.

It’s what we wish of all our pets: If only they could tell us what they want. Of course, we know when the dog wants to go out; and good lord do we know when the cat wants to be fed in the morning – but what about other pets and other needs? Like, what if your horse could run up to you and say, “I’m cold, may I have my blanket?”

That’s exactly what a group of researchers at Norwegian University of Life Sciences and their team of 23 steeds have accomplished in two separate stables in Norway. Anyone who has ever had a relationship with a horse knows how intelligent they are, and that they often understand what the human wants – but now we may have an entry into better understanding what it is a horse may desire.

The team trained the horses for 10 to 15 minutes a day to learn the meaning of three symbols. After just 11 days, all 23 horses were able to recognize the meanings: Blanket on, blanket off, or no change. What’s beautiful is that not only were they so easily able to learn the symbols and then they put that knowledge to work, but the whole thought process involved. “I’m hot, I want this blanket off, I’ll nudge the “blanket off” symbol to have my blanket removed" – which is what participating horse Poltergeist is indicating in the photo above. From the study:

Horses were tested under differing weather conditions. Results show that choices made, i.e. the symbol touched, was not random but dependent on weather. Horses chose to stay without a blanket in nice weather, and they chose to have a blanket on when the weather was wet, windy and cold (χ2 = 36.67, P < 0.005). This indicates that horses both had an understanding of the consequence of their choice on own thermal comfort, and that they successfully had learned to communicate their preference by using the symbols. The method represents a novel tool for studying preferences in horses.

Below is what the test results looked like for 22 of the horses. All of the horses were never tested at the same date, so two test days are used for each weather type. (It’s also a wonderful illustration of Norwegian horse names, if you’re inclined to enjoy that type of thing.)

horse chart

© Applied Animal Behaviour Science

What may be the most heartening aspect of all, however, is that once the horses understood they could express themselves, they seem to have loved it! "When horses realized that they were able to communicate with the trainers, i.e. to signal their wishes regarding blanketing, many became very eager in the training or testing situation," the researchers write. "Some even tried to attract the attention of the trainers prior to the test situation, by vocalizing and running towards the trainers, and follow their movements."

Imagine what a different world we might live in if we could teach all cognizant creatures to express their needs; not very practical, but makes for a good thought experiment. It would certainly be much harder to deny compassion to animals able to tell us what they want and don't want.

For now, we can rely on our closest companion animals to bark and meow with meaning ... and for 23 horses in Norway to happily request a blanket on a cold day.

For more, you can read the study in the journal, Applied Animal Behaviour Science.