In the film “Doctor Doolittle,” the main character talked to the animals. A recent study conducted in Norway shows how to communicate with horses. This is not like Mr. Ed the talking horse on vintage television. This communication involves the use of symbols.

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Television's Mr. Ed, a talking horse, of course.

The study found that horses can communicate by pointing out appropriate symbols with their muzzles. This is the preference of a few other animals, including dolphins, apes and pigeons.

Dr. Cecilie Mejdell of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute wanted to find a way to ask a horse whether or not it liked wearing a blanket and she became the lead author of the study. She and her team of scientists worked with a horse trainer to teach 22 riding horses of various breeds how to communicate with humans using symbols.

Dr. Mejdell says,

I think our study adds to the knowledge on horse cognition – about what horses are able to learn and how they think. Horses are often considered not to be very intelligent but this shows that using the right methods they can actually communicate and express their opinions and they can take choices that seem sensible to us even.

The study used “reward-based operant conditioning.” First, the horse was trained to approach two boards with symbols that were hung on a fence. When the horse touched the board with its muzzle it was rewarded with a carrot treat. Then the horse only received a treat when they touched the board indicating their current status, blanketed or not. The horse was then taught to tell the difference between symbols. A horizontal bar indicated, “blanket on.” A vertical bar indicted, “blanket off” and a blank board indicated, “no change.”

The Norwegian Study

Each horse learned to use the symbols in relevant situations. The horses were tested when it was wet and they appeared cold and when they were over-blanketed and appeared to be hot. Once they selected the right symbol 12 times, they were shown the blank board indicating “no change.”

The training process took place during a two-week span with 10-15 minutes of training each day. It took the horses an average of 10 days to understand the symbols and to muzzle them. All of the horses learned within 14 days.

The boards were then used in differing combination and locations with a carrot treat given for correct choices. The system was tested in “real world” weather conditions over the course of several months.

The horses understood how to communicate with symbols by knowing when they wanted or did not want to be blanketed. Previously, their owners made the decision for them.

The study states,

The fact that 22 of 22 horses signaled that they preferred to be without a blanket on summer days without rain and that 20 of the 22 horses signaled that they wanted a blanket on when it was continuous rain, windy and chilly, strongly supports our prediction that if the horses understood the symbols, their choices would vary with weather.

Karen McComb, professor of animal behavior and cognition at the University of Sussex says,

This is a really interesting and innovative study that was conceived in a very novel way of getting at what is going on in the mind of a horse.

Horses have been long neglected in research studies, with cats and dogs being a primary focus. Perhaps times are changing. Earlier this year in the UK, a study showed that horses can discriminate between happy and angry facial expressions. Now, it is shown that horses understand the consequences of their choices.

Nancy Loyan Schuemann

Nancy Loyan Schuemann is a writer specializing in architecture, safes, profiles, histories and a multi-published fiction and non-fiction author and is Nailah, Middle Eastern dancer.

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