Horses Can Use Symbols to Communicate Their Desires

By George Dvorsky on at

By using a message board with three icons, scientists have shown that horses can use symbolic language to convey their preferences. They now join an elite group of animals that exhibit communications once thought exclusive to humans. Others in the group include primates, dolphins, and pigeons.

In a new study published in Applied Animal Behaviour, a research team from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences describe a new technique in which horses are taught to communicate by touching different visual symbols, which they use to inform their handler whether they want to have a blanket placed on their backs or not. It took the scientists less than two weeks to train the horses on the system, and every horse involved in the experiment—all 23 of them—had no trouble figuring it all out.

Literally thousands of years of experience with horses has taught us that these creatures are incredibly smart. We know that they respond to visual and verbal cues, but it’s never been shown that they can use their communication skills to express themselves. The new study, led by Cecilie M. Mejdell and Knut E. Bøeemail, shows they most certainly can.

For the experiment, the researchers used a reward-based system to get the horses accustomed to the board, and to get them to understand the meaning of the three different symbols. It didn’t take much time for the horses to decipher the symbols as meaning, “blanket on,” “blanket off,” and “no change.”

Horses Can Use Symbols to Communicate Their Desires
The three symbols were clean and simple: From left to right: “put blanket on,” “no change,” and “take blanket off.” (Image: Cecilie M. Mejdell et al., 2016)

Once the learning stage was complete, the horses (which belonged to different breeds), were tested under different weather conditions. Results showed that the horses were not making random choices, but were consciously indicating their blanket preferences.

Horses Can Use Symbols to Communicate Their Desires
Three of the 23 horses involved in the experiment. (Image: Cecilie M. Mejdell et al., 2016)

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,” write the authors in their study. “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.”

Yet another experiment showing us that animals are more intelligent than we often give them credit for. [Applied Animal Behaviour]