Have you ever wondered how horses communicate with humans or other horses, if at all they do?
A pioneering research study by two scientists, Rachele Malavasi, PhD, (Italy) and a professor of veterinary medicine, Dr. Ludwig Huber (Austria) has confirmed that domestic horses intentionally communicate with their owners to achieve specific goals. The entire study was published in Animal Cognition's April 2016 issue and revealed ground-breaking progress in understanding horses' behaviors.
Their results showed that horses “talk” through what is termed heterospecific referential communication, which happens when a sender is able to use its gestures to direct the message recipient’s attention to a certain subject and inform clearly of its desired goal. Successful referential communication will then allow both the sender and recipient to simultaneously focus on the target of this relayed message. The findings show that horses communicate in a way similar to dogs, in that they both attract the owner’s attention through referential gestures e.g. pointing or showing to an object, in a way that communicates their “problem” or need.
The two scientists investigated the behavior of 14 horses to determine their communicative abilities with a simple experiment. Malavasi and Huber tested how well the horses could referentially communicate with human observers by placing two buckets of food right out of each horse’s reach. Each of the target buckets was filled with oats, carrots or apples, three popular treats that were likely to attract the horses. Malavasi said they manipulated the human handler’s attentional state in four different testing conditions relative to the horses; frontal orientation, backward orientation, frontal oriental in the presence of other human helpers and moving away from the arena. The handlers were passive and observatory, doing nothing but standing in position. The overall idea was to investigate the six operational criteria of referential communication, and their preliminary findings showed that in both frontally oriented conditions the horses had a higher rate of gaze alternation.
According to Malavasi, when the horses saw altering their gazes between the bucket and human did not successfully attract handler's attention, they would show more employ alternative strategies like nodding, turning their tails or moving their head in a 'pointing' manner.
Their study also revealed conclusive results that establish equine cognition and communication abilities, most handlers never thought possible. Using both indicative or pointing gestures and non-indicative head gestures (nodding and shaking) where appropriate, the domestic horses revealed an ability to carry out fairly elaborate communication. While most human handlers might be used to the style of referential communication that relies somewhat on vocal signals, as with dogs, “talking” to horses was found to be more effective by listening to and observing their visual and tactile signals.
Malavasi claims that the research findings also revealed horses' capability of thoughtful problem-solving strategy, and that they do not just behave without considering the consequences of their actions. When asked whether this means the horse can actually “talk” to humans Malavasi asserted they certainly can. She added that most handlers probably miss this intentional communication by relying more heavily on vocal signals and overlooking the subtle signals from less talkative domestic horses.
To conclude, she proposed all horse owners can effectively communicate with horses through proper observation and that it was necessary for handlers to dedicate time to learning to communicate with their horses.
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