“Blanket off.”
Signe Dean

23 Sep 2016 - 2:13 PM  UPDATED 23 Sep 2016 - 2:13 PM

It will come as no surprise to you that humans have spent decades trying to invent ways to communicate with animals - or, more specifically, get animals to talk to us, if only by using a few select symbols. In the mid-60s, some chimps became quite proficient at using symbolic language tokens, and there’s also a fancy keyboard that lets dolphins select their favourite toy.

Now it appears that horses are joining the ranks of animals with whom we can have actual two-way communication with the help of symbols. A team of researchers in Norway have managed to get horses to indicate their preference for wearing or not wearing a blanket. The results are being published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

According to the researchers, horses have been tested plenty on their ability to discriminate between visual cues, but they wanted to see whether this ability could be applied to associating a symbol with a specific outcome, thus creating a communication tool. 

The 23 participating horses had to learn to approach a board and distinguish between icons for “blanket on”, “blanket off”, or “no change.” After a 14-day training period, all of them had an understanding of what the symbols meant. This was achieved by showing the horse specific symbols and immediately carrying out the action represented by the symbol (such as removing a blanket). 

Once the horses knew what each symbol would help them achieve, the researchers set upon doing the final test, by giving the horses a blanketing choice in various weather conditions. They found that all horses in the study chose to not wear a blanket when the weather was fine, and preferred to have a blanket put on when it was windy, cold, and rainy.

“The horses used their new insight to communicate their preference regarding blanketing in order to obtain or maintain thermal comfort, based on their individual perception of weather including ambient temperature, wind and precipitation,” write the authors of the paper. “Results strongly indicate that touches represented actual preferences.”

The researchers believe their study advances our knowledge of horse cognition and learning, and they hope that the method they’ve developed could be used to train horses to answer other questions as well. Now, what should we ask horses next? 

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