Horses may not be able to talk like their TV counterpart Mr. Ed, but they can communicate plenty well with humans using symbols, according to a recent study out of Norway.
Past research has shown that horses understand visual cues. The latest study of equine smarts, which appears in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour, demonstrates they can take that skill further and choose cues based on their preferences.
In this case study, the preference involved whether the animals wanted to be draped in a blanket. Researchers using a reward-based system taught the horses to point to one of three simple symbols indicating "blanket on," "blanket off" or "no change." Then the animals got to test their new trick in varying weather conditions.
The result? They didn't randomly nuzzle the symbols painted on white wooden display boards, but made selections dependent on weather.
"Horses chose to stay without a blanket in nice weather, and they chose to have a blanket on when the weather was wet, windy and cold," reads the paper by researchers from institutions including the Norwegian Veterinary Institute and Norwegian University of Life Sciences. "This indicates that horses both had an understanding of the consequence of their choice on own thermal comfort, and that they successfully had learned to communicate their preference by using the symbols."
The researchers worked with 23 riding horses of different breeds and ages. All learned to distinguish between the symbols and their consequences after two weeks of training sessions lasting 10-15 minutes. "The method represents a novel tool for studying preferences in horses," say the researchers, whose study appeared online in Applied Animal Behaviour in July, but just started trotting around the internet this week.
Choosy horses everywhere are nudging the smiley-face symbol right now.