Horses can learn to touch symbols to communicate their preferences

Trained horses can tell people what they want by using symbols


Source: Cecilie M. Mejdell, Turid Buvik, Grete H.M. Jørgensen, Knut E. Bøel
Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2016), doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2016.07.014

Trained horses can tell people what they want by touching symbols. An experiment has involved teaching 23 horses the meaning of three symbols and how to use them by using a ten-step method based on operant conditioning. The horses learnt to go to a symbol board and touch a symbol, as well as the meaning of the three symbols. One symbol represented ‘no change’, a second ‘blanket off’, and a third symbol represented ‘blanket on’. All of the 23 horses had learnt how to do the task by 14 days, with some horses learning faster than others.The experimenters then tested the horses when it was wet and windy, and when it was sunny. The horses usually chose to keep on a blanket, if they were already wearing one, by signaling ‘no change’, or have one put on when the weather was bad. If it was sunny, they chose to have a blanket taken off, or touched the symbol meaning ‘no change’, if they weren’t wearing one. This indicates that the horses knew what consequences their choices would have, and that they could tell a human what they wanted by touching symbols.These were ordinary horses of different breeds and ages, and their ability to learn to use symbols shows that using two-dimensional symbols could be a useful new way to communicate with horses about their preferences.