Researchers have found that domestic horses are capable of learning the meaning of symbols. The horses in the study were able to use boards with symbols to express whether or not they wanted a blanket. The findings are in a paper that was just published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.
Domesticated horses are well-known for their trainability and utility. They pick up on their handlers’ cues quickly and can be trained to perform a variety of different tasks. There has been little research on their ability to communicate to people, however, and that was the focus of this new study.
A team of researchers trained 23 horses to read and understand symbols on boards. There were three sign types, one was solid white, one was white with a horizontal black bar, and the third was white with a vertical black bar. The symbols represented “no change”, “blanket on”, and “blanket off”. The horses could touch the proper board to communicate whether or not they wanted a blanket placed on their back. All of the horses passed the training tests within two weeks. The horses were then allowed to choose freely and researchers observed to see if the choices were random.
The horses consistently made nonrandom decisions. For example, if the weather was cold or wet, the horses would touch the sign for “blanket on”. If the weather was warm, the horses touched the “blanket off” sign. This shows that the animals had an understanding of what the symbols meant and could use them to communicate desires.
The findings show that horses can learn and understand novel communication methods. The animals adapted their choices based on the weather and their current comfort levels. The research team notes that their method can be used to study other preferences and learning behaviors in domestic horses.
Cecilie M. Mejdell et al. Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2016).