Horses Use Various Signals to Ask Humans for Help

January 10, 2017
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.

When horses are unable to solve a problem, they will use visual and tactile signals to ask humans for help.

A study recently published in Animal Cognition reported that, when faced with an unsolvable problem, horses will seek human attention and help through visual and tactile signals.

Social communication skills are important in the animal world. Chimpanzees are especially skilled at social communication, demonstrating the ability to discern the knowledge states (knowing vs not knowing) and attention states (seeing vs not seeing) of other individuals. Through domestication, it is thought that some animals, such as dogs and horses, have developed strong social communication skills with humans.

Horses have played important roles in human society, from transportation to companionship, since their domestication 6,000 years ago. Previous studies have reported that horses are aware of a human’s attention state. However, little scientific research has been done to analyze how horses communicate with humans and respond to a human’s knowledge state.

Researchers at the Kobe University Graduate School of Intercultural Studies in Japan conducted a two-part experiment using eight horses and their caretakers. In each part, a research assistant hid carrots in a bucket accessible to the caretaker but not the horse; the bucket’s inaccessibility was the horse’s unsolvable problem. In part one, the caretaker did not know where the carrots were hidden; in part two, the caretaker knew where the carrots were hidden.

In part one of the experiment, researchers observed the horses looking at, touching, and lightly pushing their caretakers. In part two, the horses did not use as many visual or physical cues to seek human help and attention.

Results suggest that horses have high social cognitive skills with humans. In the study, the horses could not only discern whether their caretakers knew where the carrots were hidden, but they also adjusted their communicative behaviors accordingly. These social cognitive skills may have developed when humans domesticated horses.

Future studies will continue to analyze horses’ social cognitive skills with humans. As noted in a press release about the study’s findings, gaining more insight into how horses communicate with humans will also provide insight into “the development of unique communication traits in domesticated animals.”

Dr. Pendergrass received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, LLC.