Research: Horses exhibit their cognitive skills by asking humans for help with a problem

Japanese study offers evidence of how horses use visual and tactile signals to get humans' attention and action

Has your horse asked you for a favor lately? Scientists in Japan tested horse behavior to document that our equine friends are capable of and often do initiate requests for human assistance when they need a problem solved. The horse that knows its feeding time (and announces it with a banging hoof of the stall wall) is a simple communication, as is trying to extract that mint from deep in your parka pocket.

While it seems obvious that horses are very good communicators with their caretakers, the researchers remind us that this type of horse behavior is not well documented. Their experiments went further, and set up horses to need a human’s help to get what they wanted. Would they ask for it with cues or just exhibit frustration? 

Apparently a horse doesn’t need to Mr. Ed to get its message across.

The study also suggested that horses alter their communicative behavior based on humans’ knowledge of the situation, and that they do use visual and tactile signals to communicate their need. Kobe University shared a summary of the research, which was published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Animal Cognition

Research Fellow Monamie Ringhofer and Associate Professor Shinya Yamamoto of the Kobe University Graduate School of Intercultural Studies published the evidence about horses’ communication with humans.

Communicating with other individuals in order to get information about foraging sites and predators is a valuable survival skill in the wild. Chimpanzees, who are evolutionarily close to humans, are especially skilled at understanding others. Studies suggest that chimpanzees distinguish the attentional states of other individuals (seeing or not seeing), and they are also able to understand others’ knowledge states (knowing or not knowing). 

Some domestic animals are also very good at communicating with humans – recent studies of dogs have revealed that they are excellent at understanding various human gestures and expressions. It is thought that these abilities were influenced by the domestication process.

Since they were domesticated 6000 years ago, horses have contributed to human society in various shapes and forms, from transport to companionship. Horse-riding has recently drawn attention for its positive effects on our physical and mental health. 

The researchers suggest that the high social cognitive skills of horses towards humans might partially explain why humans and horses have a collaborative relationship today. However, the scientific evidence for this ability is still scarce.

The researchers documented eye movement and body actions. In photo A (above), the horse lightly pushes. In photo B (below), the horse looks at the caretaker standing outside the paddock. Food is hidden inside one of the two silver buckets behind them. When horses cannot obtain this food by themselves, they give humans visual and tactile signals. The horses used different signals based on whether they knew the human was aware of the location of the food they desired. You might expect the horse to stay near the food (in the silver buckets) but instead the horse moves to the human to get the problem solved.

In this study, scientists investigated horses’ behavior in a problem-solving situation where food was hidden in a place accessible only to humans. The experiment was carried out in a paddock belonging to the equestrian club at Kobe University, where eight horses from the club participated with the cooperation of their student caretakers.

For the first experiment, an assistant experimenter hid food (carrots) in a bucket that the horse could not reach. The researchers observed whether and how the horse sent signals to the caretaker when the caretaker (unaware of the situation) arrived. The horse stayed near the caretaker and looked at, touched and pushed the caretaker. 

These behaviors occurred over a significantly longer period compared to cases when they carried out the experiment without hiding the food. The results showed that when horses cannot solve problems by themselves, they send signals to humans both visually (looking) and physically (touching and pushing).

Building on these results, a second experiment tested whether the horses’ behavior would change based on the caretakers’ knowledge of the hidden food. If the caretaker hadn’t watched the food being hidden, the horses gave more signals, demonstrating that horses can change their behavior in response to the knowledge levels of humans.

These two experiments revealed some behaviors used by horses to communicate demands to humans. The results also suggest that horses possess high cognitive skills that enable them to flexibly alter their behavior towards humans according to humans’ knowledge state. 

This high social cognitive ability may have been acquired during the domestication process. In order to identify the characteristic that enables horses to form close bonds with humans, the team is planning research studies to compare communication between horses, as well as looking more closely at the social cognitive ability of horses in their communication with humans.

By deepening our understanding of the cognitive abilities held by species who have close relationships with humans, and making comparisons with the cognitive abilities of species such as primates who are evolutionarily close to humans, we can investigate the development of unique communication traits in domesticated animals. This is connected to the influence of domestication on the cognitive ability of animals, and can potentially provide valuable information for realizing stronger bonds between humans and animals.

The next time your horse gives you a nudge (or even a shove), remember that it is important to teach horses to have good manners, but your horse is really just showing off its higher cognitive skills to get your attention…and what it wants.

To find this article online:

Domestic horses send signals to humans when they face with an unsolvable task. Ringhofer M, Yamamoto S Animal cognition, 2016 Nov 24 (Epub ahead of print) doi: 10.1007/s10071-016-1056-4




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