Training horses to choose their own blankets

Norwegian researchers have been able to teach horses to indicate their preference when it comes to blanketing.

Too hot? Too cold? Just right? Sometimes it’s difficult to decide whether your horse needs a blanket. But with a new training technique from Norway you may be able to simply ask him.

Rather than guess if your horse wants a blanket, what if you could just ask him?

Over a two-week period, researchers at the Norwegian Veterinary Institute in Oslo used positive-reinforcement techniques to teach 23 horses to communicate their blanketing preferences using three objects: a plain wooden board, a board painted with a horizontal bar and one painted with a vertical bar. 

Each horse was trained to indicate his blanket needs by touching one of the boards with his muzzle. To signal that he would like to wear a blanket, the horse would touch the board with the horizontal bar. To request removal of a blanket, the horse touched the board with the vertical bar. If he desired no change in his blanketing status, he touched the board with no symbol. 

To confirm that the horses were actually signaling their preferences by touching the various boards, the researchers repeated the experiment under specific conditions: they overblanketed the horses on a warm day, and left them without blankets in cold weather. The horses did not proceed in training until they chose the logical symbol.

All the study horses, representing 10 different breeds and ranging in age from 3 to 23, learned the technique within 14 days. “Because of the variety of horses in this experiment, it is likely that most horses can be taught to do this,” says Knut E. Bøe, CMV, PhD. 

Once the horses knew how to communicate their blanketing preferences, researchers began to keep track of their requests during daily turnout periods. For instance, on a warm, sunny day with temperatures around 73 degrees Fahrenheit, all 10 horses who were blanketed according to their owner’s routine asked to have their blankets removed, and the 12 who were not wearing blankets indicated they didn’t want any change in their status. 

On a rainy, cold day, with temperatures as low as 48 degrees Fahrenheit, the 10 horses already wearing blankets indicated they wanted them left on. Of the 12 horses not wearing blankets on the chilly day, 10 signaled that they would like a blanket and two asked for no change. The latter two did eventually ask for blankets when temperatures dropped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit and it began to sleet. The consistency in this behavior led researchers to conclude that the horses had, indeed, learned to communicate their preferences using symbols. 

The study also suggested that people have a tendency to use blankets more often than their horses would choose. “In general, horses preferred to stay more often without a blanket than the owner would have wanted,” says Bøe. 

He adds that his team recently completed research using the same training technique to determine the effects of specific weather conditions on blanket preferences, and they are planning a study to examine turnout preferences. 

Reference: “Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, November 2016 

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #472

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