Horses Learn To Tell Us How They Feel
 By Winniefield Park   •   22nd Oct 2016   •   1,410 views   •   0 comments

Veterinarian James Herriot wrote a book many years ago that’s still in print called “If Only They Could Talk’. That title is a sentiment that many of us have echoed when we are working with our horses. Good horse handlers know how to read their horse’s body language, so they are able to get a sense of what there horse is thinking. And we are able communicate to their horses using what we call aids... our own bodies, and things like bits and whips. But, that makes the communication one way. We tell the horse something, and it responds, but it’s rarely a conversation.

One of the things that impedes an easy flow of conversation between horse and human is that we really don’t understand each other’s languages. Sure, we know when our horse is calling out to another horse but we don’t know exactly what they’re saying. We might hear a mare nicker gently to her foal, but not know if she’s saying something comforting or if it’s a subtle reprimand to to stay near. And while our horses might understand our simple verbal commands such as whoa or get up, they could be reading more into our body language and tone than getting anything from the actual words we use.

Recently, researchers attempted to simplify our conversations by teaching horses to answer a question with clear choices. The horses were taught to recognize three signs. One sign had a large horizontal stripe, another no stripe, and a third had a large vertical stripe. Twenty two horses of different breeds were trained to respond to the question ‘do you want to wear a rug’. The choices were no change, put blanket on and take blanket off.

The horses were trained to indicate their choices using positive reinforcement methods with carrots as rewards. The training took only two weeks. Horses used the signs by touching their choice with their muzzle. Researchers used the weather to determine if the responses to their question was reasonable. If the weather was mild, researchers expected horses to indicate their preference to have the blankets removed. If the weather turned cold, the researchers expected the horses to indicate they wanted their blankets put on, or to be left on if they were already wearing them. The researchers’ expectations were met, with horses consistently indicating they wanted blankets removed in warm weather or put back on in colder weather.

Other things noticed during the study was that cold blood breeds took a bit longer to learn than warm blood breeds. But, once the slow learners caught up, there was no difference in their performance. And, the horses probably aren’t reading their handler's body language and getting clues about the ‘right’ answer from them. Researchers believed that rewarding the horses after they made any choice removed the chances of them reading the body language of their handler for cues about what the handler thought was the correct choice.

Why use blanketing preference in the study? Blanketing is controversial, and many people think that horses dislike blankets and don’t need them. But, this study could indicate that horses understand how blankets affect their comfort and appeared to indicate a preference about when they wanted to wear them. After the initial training, the horses were observed over the course of a year, in all types of weather. The choices the horses made were consistent and researchers were convinced that the horses had learned to communicate via the symbols on the signs.

Researchers were encouraged that all the horses in the study learned and used the symbols readily and hope that it will inspire more research that expands what we know about horse learning and communication.

Ref 1: Applied Animal Behaviour
Ref 2: Horse Learn To Tell Us How They Feel
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