Horses can use symbols to communicate with humans, say scientists.
The team, who used positive reinforcement training to teach horses to point at different boards with symbols on, found that horses were able to communicate whether or not they wanted to wear a rug.
Far from the horses choosing randomly, the Norwegian scientists tested the horses in different conditions and found that the horse’s preferences matched the weather. Horses asked for a rug in adverse weather conditions, but wanted it removed, or left off, when the weather was fine.
23 horses were trained with the symbols for up to 15 minutes each day, for a total of two weeks. They were given a treat each time they made a choice, regardless of what the choice was. This, the team say, means there was effectively ‘no right or wrong answer’ and human influence can be discounted.
How they did it:
- The horse was trained to approach and touch with his muzzle a board that was hanging on a fence
- Horses were then taught to differentiate between three different symbols. A board with a black horizontal line indicated ‘rug on’, a blank board symbolised ‘no change, and a board with a black vertical line indicated ‘rug off’.
- The horse was then taught to associate having rugs on or off with the symbols on the board
- Scientists tested the horses in all weather conditions, with the horses going up to each board to signal their wants.
The scientists say that their research provides evidence that horses are able to communicate their opinions, and are able to base their choices dependent on their own comfort.
The paper, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour concludes: “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. 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.”