A study taking place in Japan has found that horses are able to use both visual and tactile clues to their human caretakers in order to help them solve a problem. The researchers also found that the horses could alter their behaviour according to whether their caretaker knew about the situation. The study was published online in Animal Cognition in November, 2016.
Studies of animals have revealed that those who have been domesticated by humans or who live in groups can be very good at understanding others. Some animals such as chimpanzees have been shown to be able to understand whether another individual have seen an event or not (attentional states) and they can also understand whether other individuals know something or not. Their understanding of others is very good and they can learn to communicate with humans. Dogs have recently been shown to be good at understanding human expressions (faces) and gestures. Scientists have suggested that the domestication process has influenced how these animals understand the world.
Horses have lived in close proximity with people for about 6000 years. We use them for transport, for pleasure and for companionship. Riding a horse has been shown to be beneficial for human mental and physical health. Horses have high social cognitive skills which can be used to collaborate with humans, but there have not been many scientific studies into their abilities.
The researchers placed the horses into a problem-solving situation. They hid some carrots in a place that could only be accessed by humans. Eight horses took part at Kobe University, alongside their human caretakers. During the first experiment, the human was unaware of where the carrots where. The horse sent signals to its caretaker, staying near to them, looked at them, touched and pushed them. The horse’s behaviour continued over a significantly longer amount of time than normal. The horse was unable to solve the problem by itself, so it signalled the human using both physical and visual signals.
A second experiment tested whether the horse changed its behaviour if the caretaker knew about the hidden food. The horses gave more signals to their humans if they did not know about the food than if they did. The scientists concluded that the horses were able to change their behaviour according to their assessment of the knowledge of their caretakers.
The scientists observed how the horses used signals to communicate with their caretakers. They concluded that the horses’ high cognitive skills enabled them to alter their behaviour towards their human caregivers according to the humans’ understanding of the situation. The scientists hope to continue to study the social cognitive ability of horses when they communicate with humans. They also hope to compare communication between horses.
Investigating the cognitive abilities of species who are able to form close relationships with humans and comparing these with primates who are close on the evolutionary scale to humans can enable scientists to study the unique communication traits of domesticated animals.
Ringhofer, M., Yamamoto, S., Domestic horses send signals to humans when they face with an unsolvable task, Animal Cognition, November 2016
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