Unattributed image. Google search result.

Horses can learn to tell us what they need (with signs)

This is not big news to anyone who has lived with horses. They let you know what they want alright, if you tune into them. But this is fun and should wake at least a few humans up how smart horses are. My horses will no doubt be highly amused when I tell them about it. -Ed.


Twenty-two horses in Norway can tell you whether they want to wear a blanket or stick with bare backs, according to a new study.

This is, needless to say, a handy skill for anyone who resides in a northern nation that gets a lot of snow. But its discovery is also an important addition to understanding of horse smarts and learning abilities, according to researchers at the Norwegian Veterinary Institute.

They taught the horses to use symbols to indicate their blanket-wearing preference — and the equines’ easy mastery of the task suggests they understood that the symbols had meanings that led to outcomes.

More than a century ago, a German horse nicknamed Clever Hans became a celebrity in Europe for his whiz-like ability to answer complex math, reading and spelling questions by tapping his hoof. Today, he’s an example of some of the pitfalls of scientific studies involving people and animals: Hans, it turned out, was stumped when his human testers didn’t know the answer to the question — which meant he was actually clever at reading the unconscious cues of people.*

Horse cognition research has come some way since then, and the animals have shown savvy at recognizing shapes and telling objects apart. But this task added another level.

The subjects were 23 ordinary riding horses with charming names including Poltergeist, Virvelvind and Romano (one horse died shortly after the training, leaving 22 in the end). All had previous experience wearing blankets when their owners deemed them necessary.

To help the horses express their own preferences, the researchers created three simple boards: One with a horizontal bar meant “put blanket on”; an unmarked board meant “no change”; and a board with a vertical bar meant “take blanket off.”

Horses learned touched their muzzles to the symbol that expressed their blanket preference. (Mejdell et. al. / Applied Animal Behaviour Science).
Horses learned touched their muzzles to the symbol that expressed their blanket preference. (Mejdell et. al. / Applied Animal Behaviour Science).

Then the horses went through a methodical literacy course of sorts. First, the trainers introduced the symbols one at a time. Horses that touched it with their muzzles would be rewarded with a thin slice of carrot, and then the corresponding action would be carried out — the blanket taken on or off.

Once the horses had that down, they were shown both symbols at the same time, but they only got their treats if they touched the “relevant” one. In other words, if a horse wearing a blanket touched the symbol that meant “put a blanket on,” he’d get nothing. Read the rest, view the video »

*Horses mirror human thoughts and emotions back to humans. Horses have all the intelligence they need. Why on earth would horses need to add and subtract or spell?

Unattributed photo of a blanketed horse standing at the fence of a snowy corral. Google search result.

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