Tack n' Talk

Online Equestrian Resource

Horses Do Understand Humans…Sort Of

With the exception of Mr. Ed, horses can’t talk but they are able to pick up on our subtle eye and body movements.  Horses are very sensitive to our communications, but suffer mental blocks when it comes to understanding certain cues.

Some visual or auditory cues are more easily deciphered by horses than others.  Dogs do better than horses and all other animals on related studies, but horses may have the potential to catch up with mans best friend.

Horses inherently understand people better than most other animals do, displaying tremendous sensitivity to even the most subtle eye and body movements, new research suggests.  According to this study which was published in the latest issue of Animal Behaviour, horses are able to decipher certain types of human given visual and auditory cues.  Dogs, however, appear to be far more adept than any other species at figuring out what we are trying to communicate especially when we are attempting to direct an animal’s attention to an external object.

The reverse “Dr. Doolittle” phenomenon – how well animals understand us – seems to be tied to two factors:  domestication and an animal’s predisposition to how we communicate.  Dogs rule on other counts as dogs do tend to have a much closer relationship with man and have probably been bred for their ability to pick up on our cues more so than horses.

A researcher in the Psychology Department at the University of Sussex tried five different ways of getting horses to investigate an empty bucket.  If the horse got it right, a piece of carrot was dropped into the bucket.  The five ways included placing a striped wooden marker in front of the bucket; pointing at the bucket’ tapping on the side of the bucket; gazing at it, and having a person face in the direction of the bucket.  The 34 horses that participated in the study understood the pointing and markers, but flunked all the rest!

The overall pattern of responding suggested that horses may use cues that provide stimulus enhancement at the time of choice and do not have an understanding of the communicative nature of the cues given.  The researchers theorize that the way we’ve domesticated horses has affected how they respond to us now.

In the past, horses were valued for their size, beauty, strength and other qualities not always associated with behaviour. Depending on how horses are domesticated and trained in the future, they may  have the potential to catch up with dogs as  being man’s best understanding friend!

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