According to the Washington Post, researchers at the Norwegian Veterinary Institute may have just discovered a new way to communicate with horses. But we’re not talking about a new language, exactly.
The researchers recently published a study in which they determined that horses are able to communicate with humans using visual cues and symbols. In the study, twenty two Norwegian horses were taught to indicate whether or not they were comfortable wearing a blanket. The horses were shown three different boards with painted symbols. One board meant “take the blanket off,” another meant “put the blanket on,” and the third meant “no change.”
Once the horses were familiar with these boards and their cues, they were tested on whether or not they understood what each cue meant. In warm temperatures, trainers and researchers put blankets on the horses, and rewarded them with carrots for choosing the “take my blanket off” board by touching it with their muzzles. The opposite was done in cold temperatures.
Then, the horses were given a free choice in the elements over the course of a year. The researchers discovered that the horses were able to choose the right cue depending on the ambient temperature. When it was warm, the horses signaled “take my blanket off” or “no change” if they weren’t wearing one. When it was cold, they signaled, “put my blanket on” or “no change” if they were already wearing one.
These results suggest the horses understood that their choice would have an immediate effect, and that in order to remain comfortable at all times, they learned how to communicate their needs and preferences via the symbols and tools they were given. While this type of behavioral study is still in its infancy, it could offer a promising opportunity to bridge the communication gap between horses and humans. Ultimately, this could lead to new training techniques that pay special attention to the temperaments of different horses.